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Designing “happiness and empowerment”: Akshay Sharma takes over as industrial design chair

October 16, 2017

After working in the software design industry, Akshay Sharma is resuming a 14-year career at Virginia Tech as chair of the industrial design program because he missed working with students.

Akshay Sharma
After working in the software design industry, Akshay Sharma is resuming a 14-year career at Virginia Tech as chair of the industrial design program because he missed working with students.

As Akshay Sharma takes the reins of Virginia Tech’s industrial design program, he has a clear vision: “I want to focus on making the program the best industrial design program in the whole world,” he said. “We have all the ingredients for that. The industrial design program is the place where we do things that people only talk about. My ambition is to talk as little as possible and to show what we are capable of.”

Those aren’t empty words for the associate professor, who taught in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban StudiesSchool of Architecture + Design for 14 years before taking a position in the design software industry as “senior design education evangelist” at Autodesk, where he formed partnerships between universities and the multinational corporation.

Though he loved Autodesk, Sharma found something heartbreakingly absent: the students.

“Each one of us is born for a purpose and mine is education and being with the students,” he said. “I didn’t realize it until I left. I was really glad to be part of this amazing school.”

Sharma’s opportunity to return presented itself when associate professor emeritus Ed Dorsa retired this year as chair of the program.

"We’re delighted Akshay has returned to Virginia Tech to lead the industrial design program,” said Hunter Pittman, director of the  School of Architecture + Design. “Akshay’s passion for teaching design as a way of doing good in the world has left a profound impact on our students and Virginia Tech. He partners across disciplines and industries to solve problems in a way that deeply reflects our university’s mission to serve.”

Originally from India, Sharma earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. He came to the U.S. in 1999 to earn a master’s degree in design from Arizona State University.

Sharma found his way into teaching unexpectedly. After designing ATM-related products and a short stint with Yamaha in Long Beach designing motorcycles, he moved to Southwest Virginia so his wife could attend Virginia Tech’s creative writing master of fine arts program. Upon learning he’d landed in the backyard of a top-ranked national architecture and design school, he applied and found work as an adjunct instructor that led to a tenure-track position.

At Virginia Tech, Sharma’s research and outreach focused on empowering people around the world who exist on $2 or less a day. Partnering with students, Virginia Tech colleagues, and global organizations, he led award-winning, grant-funded interdisciplinary projects, including a microfinancing and financial literacy program for illiterate women in India; a smartphone system to track children’s vaccination records in developing nations; and a foot measurement system to help underprivileged amputees order free prosthetics.

His efforts earned him teaching awards, including the Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, the University Excellence in International Outreach Award, and multiple national and global design awards for student projects he led.

Sharma uses his design skills to empower the less fortunate – and pushes students in studios and research to do the same.

“No matter how rich or poor you are, your aspirations are identical,” he said. “I teach students about the process of design based on mindset, empathy, and identifying a question worth answering, not mass production. We challenge our students to design something for social impact that is so excellent they’d want to use it themselves.”

For the first project in his fall fourth-year studio, for example, Sharma tasked students with designing a lamp that illuminated a social issue. The resulting student work included a lamp depicting the depletion of Earth’s natural resources in a map. Another dispensed feminine hygiene products to illuminate inequities in U.S. health-care coverage for women.

Virginia Tech’s industrial design program is well-known for equipping students with a complex creative and analytical skillset – and a problem-solving mindset to improve user experiences with products, technologies, and other human challenges. The university’s industrial design faculty, students, and alumni regularly win prestigious awards and secure patents and commercial success for their work. Last year, students won international awards from the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), International Housewares Association, CORE 77, and the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge for inventions ranging from a hydroponic chandelier and ergonomic walker to a website that connects isolated senior citizens who need help around the house with young travelers eager to serve.

Now, just a month into his return to Blacksburg, Sharma is eagerly forging collaborative projects with campus, industry, and international partners – including his former employer, Autodesk – to solve the next big problem.

He’s teamed up with Ben Knapp, director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and professor of computer science, to lead students on a project to improve cybersecurity for senior citizens, who are most vulnerable to attacks.

“Akshay is the embodiment of Ut Prosim,” Knapp said. “His goal is using design to make the world a better place, and he involves industry and works across science, art, engineering, and design to find creative ways to make that happen. I’m really looking forward to expanding the relationship between industrial design and ICAT.”

Even in his personal time, Sharma focuses on using design for good. He recently collaborated with fellow industrial designers to publish the “apifni SKETCH Charles Han edition” with Virginia Tech 2013 industrial design alumnus Charles Han, a Nike footwear designer. The sketch book is the first in an eight-part series featuring sketches from professional designers as a means of inspiring student designers to add their own work to the book’s blank pages. Profits from the book will fund a sketching scholarship for design students.

“Industrial design isn’t about designing products,” Sharma said. “We design happiness and empowerment.”

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