Designing On-Line

By Ashdown, Susan | Human Ecology Forum, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Designing On-Line


Ashdown, Susan, Human Ecology Forum


The World Wide Web and other technologies promise to bring rapid changes to the apparel and textile industry. Professor Susan Ashdown's apparel design students are collaborating with students from two other colleges to learn the benefits - and limitations - of working together on-line.

Nate Demarest was having a problem. As his project partner, Jennifer Stern, watched, the human ecology senior repeatedly clicked the mouse of his computer to change the length and contours of the skirt that appeared on the monitor in front of him. After a bit of fine-tuning, and with some comments from Jennifer, he finally got it adjusted to their satisfaction.

Normally, this wouldn't be a remarkable occurrence. Students collaborate on projects all the time. What made it different was that Nate was in a design lab in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and Jennifer was 150 miles away in a lab at Buffalo State University. As he adjusted the skirt design on his computer, his changes appeared on Jennifer's monitor. With her own mouse, she could make changes as well. As they worked, they could see each other on their monitors and hear each other over their computer speakers.

The students were experimenting with technologies that may soon revolutionize the way the apparel industry goes about the complex process of designing and manufacturing textiles and clothing. They were two of 26 students from Cornell, Buffalo State, and the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science enrolled in a course last fall that's looking at how professionals in the industry can communicate using new electronic technologies.

"The apparel industry has been using computers for years for design, but there hasn't been much of a move toward a computer-integrated technology, in which images and information are shared electronically," says textiles and apparel assistant professor Susan Ashdown. "Although a few companies like Woolrich design and manufacture both textiles and apparel, most of the industry is made up of small companies that focus on one particular part of the process. These small companies need efficient ways to communicate with one another as they design and produce clothing."

In recent years the advent of the World Wide Web and the availability of a wide variety of design software programs have created enormous potential for on-line collaboration between firms. Ashdown says this will certainly enhance creativity. It also might cut costs.

"I felt that electronic collaboration needed to be investigated by both the apparel industry and by our students," she says. "The technology is moving so fast today. I don't want to teach students things that are going to be obsolete as soon as they begin their first jobs."

Armed with a $158,000 USDA Teaching Challenge Grant, Ashdown developed a three-year project to experiment with electronic collaboration. She enlisted the help of William Wolfgang, a mathematician turned textile designer and professor in Philadelphia, and Elaine Polvinen, a fashion technology professor and computer-aided design (CAD) specialist at Buffalo State. Ashdown's students in her course Apparel Design: Product Development and Presentation create the garment designs, and the students in Philadelphia and Buffalo create the fabric designs.

The first problem the three groups had to tackle was software. Without the same systems in place, electronic communication would be difficult. Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Cornell have the same textile design software, and the three schools each spent around $1,500 to purchase PictureTel LiveWare, a desktop videoconferencing software made by PictureTel Corporation in Massachusetts. The system uses small, inexpensive videocameras and microphones that mount on the user's monitor and transmit voice and image. Unlike CU-SeeMe, a popular system developed at Cornell that sends data over regular phone lines, PictureTel uses the much faster Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines. …

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