Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and awesome career?

It seems inevitable that Jon Paul White’s future profession would trend in a creative direction. His father’s career was in advertising and his mother is a hair stylist. His brother does web design while his two sisters work in fashion and dance. White, a Lego enthusiast from childhood, considered adding architecture to his family’s occupational portfolio. But his dad suggested that he investigate the field of industrial design instead. What’s that? he asked him, unaware that he already was getting his feet wet in the field when he and a friend in high school started a small business making custom longboards.

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What did you study? Tell us about your work

Looking back some four years later, White, now a senior in industrial design at ASU (Arizona State University), observes that his choice of academic study was a good fit for his own brand of creativity, one that he describes as “very hands on.” In a shoe-design project during his junior year, for example, White wasn’t content to simply tinker with surface styling. He cut an athletic shoe in half in order to fully understand how it was constructed. “I was interested in learning about more than just the aesthetics,” he says. “I wanted to know why the sole had a certain grip, what it was made of, why some parts used stitching instead of glue, why one material was used over another. I discovered all these different layers that nobody usually sees.”

In another project, he created a versatile 70-liter backpack that could accommodate long wilderness excursions as well as break down into smaller units for carrying lighter loads on short treks. To create a prototype, White bought a sewing machine. His mother then made a special trip to Arizona to teach him to sew. “I never thought I would pick up a sewing machine. But that’s one of the great things about industrial design. You learn so many things that you probably wouldn’t learn any other way. Now when something rips around my house, I can just sew it,” White says, laughing.

How does design benefit the society?

But it was his passion for socially responsible design–not just this kind of roll-up-your-sleeves ingenuity–that helped White win the 2014 Paul Rothstein Scholarship which is awarded annually in the Design School to an outstanding industrial design student with a commitment to creating design solutions that have a positive impact on society. “I’ve always liked traveling and learning about other cultures,” White observes. “I like understanding where other people are coming from.” During the summer between his junior and senior years, he came a little closer to realizing his dream of working as a designer for products in emerging markets when he interned at BioLite. This Brooklyn, New York-based, company is renowned for producing a clean-burning stove that cooks food efficiently as well as captures waste heat to generate household electricity in such developing markets as Africa and India.

In this year’s InnovationSpace program, the desire to improve daily life for people who currently are not well-served by design prompted White to sign up for a team that is focused on creating product concepts that increase access and well-being for wheelchair users. White is not only interested in improving wheelchair functions, but he also wants to upgrade their look–which is no superficial matter. The wheelchair users he and his teammates interviewed consistently complained about the fact that wheelchair design is intrusive, clunky and offputting, often creating physical and social barriers between occupants and the people around them. Wheelchairs are expensive, White points out, and “if you’re paying that much they should have a lot more style like bikes, which are considered a cool accessory. I’d like people to see wheelchairs in the same way.”

Why Industrial design?

White understands the importance of the aesthetics of devices firsthand. As a child, he suffered two bouts of leukemia. “When I was in the hospital going through treatments, all the instruments looked big and weird. They can be traumatizing. You’re already going through a hard-enough thing,” he observes.

“I want to give back, which is why I’m doing industrial design,” White adds. “I don’t just want to create another product and have it go into the garbage in six months. I want to impact society.”