A Candid Conversation with Lawrence Neeley

Lawrence Neeley has been teaching at Olin for four years. He grew up in Oakland, California before crossing the country to go to the honors college in Maryland, where he decided to be a mechanical engineer. He earned his master’s and PhD at Stanford, and then came to MIT for postdoctoral mechanical design work.

The MechE side of him was clear stepping into his office; he had various small metal parts lined up neatly on his desk, and elegant, magnetized carabiners hanging from his shelf. His bookshelf was full of rapid prototyping and design theory, and a vinyl cutter in a case rested under his clean desk.

He’s one of the professors in my design studio for UOCD [User Oriented Collaborative Design], and he’s as plainspoken and to the point in interview as he is giving feedback. He’s clear and very directed when he speaks; he’s a thoughtful man with strong opinions. I wish I could transcribe the passion in his voice when he talks about Olin, design, and his six-month-old son.

FRANKLY: Can you describe your Product Design and Development class?

NEELEY: That’s a course that’s jointly taught between Olin, Babson, and the Rhode Island School of Design. There are various versions of it. This is one of the few that I know of at the undergraduate level. The idea is that you pull students from different domains: the engineer, the designer, and the businessperson. You put them on teams. In that class, you start with a need or an opportunity space, and you end up with a prototype- and also at least an argument that indicates your business strategy. You end up with an awesome starting point for a business, for a project.

Real Products, Real Markets is similar, but my motivation for teaching the class is that as engineers, we’re really good at getting to the prototype. We can make something that works. Maybe it doesn’t work all the time; we haven’t necessarily thought about cost and what it takes to get it out into the world. So I wanted to look at what it means to go from prototype all the way to product.

You can look at it a couple of ways. You can say engineering and entrepreneurship are intertwined, but one case I’m putting forward is that in some ways, design and entrepreneurship are the same thing.

FRANKLY: Do the teams in Product Design and Development interact well as students from very different backgrounds?

NEELEY: You want people to bring different perspectives into class and try to wrestle with them. All the students come to it wanting to understand the other perspectives. In particular, the Olin students come, saying, this is my domain of expertise, but I want to touch and understand these other pieces. But I know that it can be frustrating, because you can’t go into that setting and become a master of these other two. That’s less realistic.

FRANKLY: Are you going to keep the structure of Real Products, Real Markets class now that you’ve had your test run?

NEELEY: I think that this class will always be different. The class intentionally lacks a lot of traditional structure. The premise of the class is, Olin students in particular have had a lot of experience in design. By the time you’re a junior or senior, my presumption is that you have enough pieces to put them together. That’s what happens in this class. You go all the way from need to something on the shelf, purchased by someone who’s not your cousin or your mom; you’ve convinced someone that there’s value in this object. This class is shaped very much by whatever students bring to it, and my intention is also to be really flexible in terms of what individual learning objectives are. So with every group, it’s going to be very different.

The class is a design as well. I’m trying to design the class to best serve the purpose of exposing students to and teaching them along this path [from need to sales]. So I’m open to trying other stuff, and it may be that completely different manifestations of this class could be more effective.

FRANKLY: You have all your degrees in Mechanical Engineering, but your thesis and your teaching are design oriented. Can you explain that?

NEELEY: One way of thinking about it is, I want to make stuff. That’s what drew me to engineering. Before I was in engineering, I was a physics/pre-med major. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon- but that’s another story. I made the switch from physics to mechanical engineering because I wanted to touch stuff. I wanted to poke stuff. I needed to see it and touch it.

That was true through the duration of my undergraduate and my masters. Doing my PhD work, I ended up in a more theoretical space more closely coupled to design theory because I as started to ask questions about how do we design better, and how do we end up with awesome things down here at the physical, tangible level, and the more I questioned, the more I started backing away and saying, I need to understand these more theoretical components. But my intention is always to take this design theory and apply it back to making cool stuff.

I also have this working theory that you can probably trace the origins of design theory, or at least the questions about this theoretical space around more and more abstract dealings with process and dealing with rationale, and even just planning. The first start, when you say you’re going to design something, you’re saying, “I’m going to consider the creation of this object, apart from the object itself.” I think you have to do that more, the more tangible things are. I step back and say design has been under consideration as a field unto itself in architecture problems longer than mechanical engineering. And why? Because the things that architects create are bigger, are more substantial. They require planning, because once that building is there, you can’t patch it, necessarily. You can put some stucco or whatever, but at the other end of the spectrum, you can look at what’s possible in CS. Once you have the base code, even if you hack it together, you can manipulate it up to a limit. You have to recall the car that’s busted. You can’t send out a patch. You can’t say, “Just tack this little car on the side and you’re good.” So I think that the more tangible, the more resource intensive, the longer the timeline, the less mutable something is, the more you need to be thoughtful about that. Design thinking, in the most pure way of thinking about that work, is more required, at least at inception, in these things where the actual mechanism isn’t tolerant of failures. That’s another reason why I think that design is fundamentally coupled to the creation of tangible stuff.

FRANKLY: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

NEELEY: My teaching philosophy is really simple. I really just want to help students be better thinkers. Ultimately, that’s what design is about; taken to its most abstract form, we can design anything: we can design our lives; we can design our experiences; we can design our interactions with others. In saying I want to make better designers, I’m saying I want to make better thinkers. That, for me, is not a high-level statement. It’s not abstract. It’s very practical, very ground level. We have the capacity to be thoughtful and impactful in even the smallest things we do, and the extent to which we do that can have a huge effect, not just on how we experience the world ourselves, but how we impact others. I just want to make people better designers of everything. In that, my definition also includes design is making things better- whether it’s making better decisions, asking better questions, making better products, making better choices, making better experiences, I think we can do all those things.

FRANKLY: What are your current projects?

NEELEY: Right now, my life is such a blur, between the classes here, and I have a six-month-old little boy who just last night put himself down to sleep for the first time.

I’m still figuring out all of the little baby boy in the world stuff.

Real Products, Real Markets is a class, but it’s also a product that I’m working on. I’m treating it as such, trying to understand the need, trying to understand the value proposition, and how best to deliver that. I think it’s easy to not do that, to not be thoughtful about the classes you create, which is why I think Olin is particularly impressive and exciting, because folks here are so thoughtful about the design of their classes.
There’s a handful of other things. I have an ongoing research project with a lab at MIT, which I started during my postdoc there, trying to look at how to enable the rapid realization of physical products. It bears directly on Design and Entrepreneurship and Real Products, Real Markets.

If you want to create an application for the iPhone, or you want to create a piece of software, you can largely do that as one person or a small team of people with limited resources, and get that product out to the world. At some point, there are questions of scale, but you can definitely get your full-fledged product out into the world. The same is not true for people trying to create physical objects. It’s increasingly true, but I think we can do much better. So the guiding premise of the research is, what does the process look like, what do the methods look like, what do all the pieces look like that enable people to rapidly realize true products in the world.

FRANKLY: Why did you come to Olin?

NEELEY: I started helping teach UOCD four years ago, concurrent with my postdoc at MIT, and that was really because Ozgur was here, and we had the same advisor in grad school. He said, “I’m teaching this cool class,” and I came out and saw it once or twice, and then he said “we’re looking for some adjuncts, this seems like it’s right up your alley; would you be interested?” and I said “sure, absolutely!” and that was kind of it. I became a visiting professor just this academic year.

FRANKLY: What’s the biggest challenge of being an Olin professor?

Trying to come up with a video rebuttal to all of the videos that were put up in response to UOCD reflections. [laughs]

You know what? I’m really trying to make something up, because I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it that way. I’m viewing it as a bunch of opportunities. Oftentimes, opportunity looks like hard work, but that’s fine. I’m just pushing through, trying to see what comes of it.

FRANKLY: What’s the best part of being at Olin?

NEELEY: I think everyone who’s here is here. I feel like the community is small enough, it’s new enough, it’s engaged enough, that people who are here are really invested in being here. There are very few people who are just hanging out. Whether it’s faculty, whether it’s students, you can have wildly different opinions, you can disagree, you can agree, but everyone who’s here that I’ve encountered, is present. That’s really cool. Everyone is engaged. That, I think, is an amazing thing. I think that Olin, as a concept is still very much right in front of us. Students who come to Olin buy into all of this. It’s not just some name that you loosely associate with something good. It’s not a place that’s just been around forever and we just know it to be good, and we’re just happy to be here and pass through and do our thing. It’s fresh enough, it’s new enough; it’s bare. There’s still stuff changing. People are excited about that, and want to keep that going. People want this to always be fresh, and are willing to structure the university such that that’s the case, and have conversations to keep it that way. That’s huge. If I call myself a designer and I always want to push the boundaries, and always want to think of ways to make things better, to have an institution that is foundationally of the same mind is incredible. And I can say foundationally because I’ve read the founding precepts, and they say, “No, we will always be innovative, we will always be looking for ways to fundamentally contribute to the evolution of engineering education.” That’s cool. That’s super exciting.