Vision Fitness goes to school to tap into students' minds for fresh ideas

Since 2005, seniors at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) in Milwaukee, Wis., have worked with Vision Fitness to come up with design concepts for treadmills, exercise bikes and other fitness equipment and even retail store concepts. The class projects have been a great success as the students have gotten a taste of what it's like to work in the corporate world, while Vision has benefited from the outside-the-box thinking that thrives in the classroom but often gets stifled in the boardroom.
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College kids have dreamed up some of the world's greatest inventions -- many not rated for a family publication like SNEWS®. Think "Girls Gone Wild" or "Animal House." Some college students, however, are inventing some seriously clever things, thanks to companies that go to the classroom to mine their ideas and help them think in real-world terms without losing their student creativity. That opportunity hasn't bypassed some in the fitness industry.

Since 2005, seniors at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) in Milwaukee, Wis., have worked with Vision Fitness to come up with design concepts for treadmills, exercise bikes and other fitness equipment and even retail store concepts. The class projects have been a great success as the students have gotten a taste of what it's like to work in the corporate world, while Vision has benefited from the outside-the-box thinking that thrives in the classroom but often gets stifled in the boardroom.

"I wanted to set up a program with students because they are a great way to bring in a lot of creativity," said Chris Cox, director of product and marketing for Vision Fitness. "They aren't tied to your day-in, day-out business challenges and problems. Our internal designers have time restrictions and budget restrictions that can limit creativity." He said that when the students are coming up with ideas they are encouraged to dream big, and think beyond barriers, such as production costs.

The program, which typically takes place in the fall, involves a class of about 24 students who work in teams of four. The class professor, Pascal Malassigne, works with Vision to come up with several design challenges, which he assigns to the student teams.

"We give the students 'opportunity statements,'" said Cox, referring to what they call the design noodges. "For example, we'll point out the seat on a certain machine and ask how they can make it more comfortable."

Over the course of two months, the students develop design solutions by doing market research, creating sketches and even building a prototype. During that time, the students get feedback by meeting several times with Vision personnel at the school and at Vision's headquarters in Lake Mills, Wis., which is about an hour's drive from MIAD (www.miad.edu), considered one of the top 10 industrial design schools in the country. When the students present their ideas at the end of the term, they not only receive a grade, but the team with the best design receives $4,000 from Vision.

"It was good to have the kind of project where you have a real client, there are deadlines and you have money involved," said Eric Peterson, whose team won the top prize last year for designing the treadmill of the future. He said the program not only gave him a glimpse of his future professional life, but it had an atmosphere where it felt like something was really at stake.

Tasked with the challenge of improving modern treadmill consoles, Peterson proposed to his team that they inject the latest video technology into their design. "We basically turned our treadmill into a video game," said Peterson.

"It was interesting because the students looked at how you fully engage somebody," said Cox, describing the winning treadmill. "With exercise, how do you kill boredom? Well, these guys built an environment that you step into. There was a screen that surrounded the front quarter of the treadmill. And it had a (video) projector that projected 115 degrees. And since it's an art and design school, they shot a video of somebody running on a beach and someone running through a forest, and you were fully engulfed in it while working out. That would be very expensive (to produce) right now, but in three to four years it could be very doable. They won because they took a concept and made an actual sample people could use, which is a challenge when making something that far-out."

Cox added that this design exemplifies how young people are educating Vision's in-house team. "We're learning that kids now expect all types of technology to be incorporated into all of their products," said Cox. "They expect when they get onto a fitness machine for their MP3 players, phones, whatever, to sync up to the console. And that's where the future is going."

Peterson's video concept made such an impression that it actually helped him get a job with Vision Fitness, and he started working there this summer. We can only guess that the folks at Vision were impressed that 23-year-old Peterson (who played four sports in high school) designed a dumbbell system during his junior year of college. And they probably liked his senior thesis project, which incorporated the movements of swimming into a machine.

While the MIAD program is educating Vision on the mindset of youth, it's also generating ideas for other target markets. MIAD teams also worked to produce treadmill consoles for women as well as kids and their parents. "The women's console was done by four women students, and it was pretty insightful," said Cox. The students not only increased the size of the screen, but also streamlined how exercise programs were organized and presented, and upgraded certain symbols to be more intuitive. And they added another woman's touch as well, he said, changing the color of the treadmill to an attractive off-white, rather than typical dull gray or black.

The winning product in 2005 served people with physical challenges. The students created a cylindrical support device (similar to an exercise ball) for abdominal and back exercises. Malassigne thought the idea was clever because it benefited those who might have problems with their balance or equilibrium.



"Another one of my favorite ideas from 2005 was that the students came up with an easy way to tighten and loosen the foot strap on an exercise bike, and there is something that is often not simple enough," said Malassigne. And, according to the professor, Vision may actually incorporate the strap idea into a future product.

Cox said that the next class project would focus on merchandising and point-of-purchase objects. He wants to see fresh ideas on how to present products in specialty retail stores, and also new ways to design concept shops within stores. "We're not getting into retail, but since we sell through retail we wanted to get POP ideas," he said. "Our dealers are far more expert on retail than we are, but sometimes what you get from these kids is just a little nugget of a creative element."

SNEWS® View: We think this is a superior partnership that gives both parties involved -- Vision and the design school's students -- some real benefits. For Vision, it is providing a real-world opportunity for students as well as getting to see creativity that hasn't been stymied by managers who say, "Oh, you can't do that." You gotta push the envelope to find out where the boundaries are. Vision also gets to see a possible candidate pool too. For students, it gives them contact with a real company that is in the real business world and a chance to see if they have some interest in fitness. Oh, and the industry in general gets rewards since now college design students have been exposed to the fitness industry. Who knows where they will end up or how the industry could in fact benefit. We think more companies should tap into local student pools at different levels.

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