NC State students designed a vibrant, colorful interior for the new UL University in Research Triangle Park. Photo by Eric Schneider of Optixa.

Passing the Test

July 26, 2010

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Who better to design a learning space than students?

That was the thinking of executives at Underwriters Laboratories, who worked with four NC State students to imagine the interiors of the company’s new education and training facility – called UL University – in Research Triangle Park.

The jazzy setting with its giant, colorful graphic panels, free-flowing glass and historical narrative is where UL experts will conduct safety training for workers from client organizations across several industries. UL is a leading product testing company whose mark appears on more than 20 billion products worldwide.

A Youthful Approach

Beginning in March, four students from the College of Design began applying their expertise to the project, which includes classrooms, seminar rooms, dining areas and entry space.

“They were creative, and more than anything they were excited about what they could do with this type of facility,” said Brad Smock, UL University’s general manager. “We want our students to be captivated not only by the content, but also by the learning environment.

“So we decided to go for more of a youthful approach.”

UL opened the facility to fanfare at a ribbon cutting event in mid-July. Graphic design senior Toni Chester had a hand in dressing up normally obtrusive structural columns with bold graphics touting the company’s achievements.

She also helped organize the images and information that comprise the “Book Wall,” an informative sculpture that literally pops out of the wall to greet visitors.

Her challenge: “Being creative while still trying to follow the identity of the company.” (Things were made more challenging when UL rolled out new branding guidelines six weeks into the project.)

Melissa Church, a graduate student in art and design, said the most rewarding part of the project was traveling to the company’s Illinois headquarters to examine old photographs. The result was a history wall that explains the company’s origins from the turn of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, industrial design senior Steven Valenziano and art and design sophomore Lidia Churakova created “exploded views” of a toaster’s and a computer’s inner workings, embedded in glass, to showcase the myriad parts that UL tests.

Giving students real-world experience is what programs like this are all about, said Amanda Robertson, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Design. She was delighted with how much responsibility the students were given by UL.

“At some point I realized, ‘My God! They’re doing the whole space!’ It was very exciting,” she said. “This shows other corporations and businesses what NC State students can do; that they can really get wonderful design solutions by providing these collaborative experiences.”