VCD and Architecture Students Partner to Reimagine Downtown Akron

A Kent State Visual Communication Design (VCD) class is stepping outside the box this semester. VCD students from Assistant Professor Jessica Barness’ Interaction Design class have teamed up with a group of students from the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) to reimagine the Akron Innerbelt.


Barness was approached by CAED Assistant Professor Brett Tippey, Ph.D., about bringing their students together to work on this project. Tippey’s Architectural Studies class had already committed to work with CAED Assistant Professor Charles Frederick’s Landscape Architecture graduate students and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) regarding the construction and design of the space formerly known as the Akron Innerbelt.


“This opportunity came up, and I thought it would be a great chance to really take the plunge and put our classes together on this project,” Barness said.




Over the course of the next few years, the City of Akron will begin the process of closing the innerbelt highway, also known as state route 59. The closing of this highway will free up 30 acres of land in the middle of downtown Akron. Barness’ class will be looking at the project from a perspective of connecting people with place. Students are divided into teams of three and are conceptualizing and designing interfaces and systems that could bring people to this new space in downtown Akron.


The collaboration aspect of the class comes in the form of critiques. VCD and CAED students are critiquing each other’s work regularly, and CAED students are engaged with user-testing VCD projects.


“You can really start to see the connections forming among the students through this project,” Barness said. “They are starting to become invested in each other’s work."


On Monday, February 20, VCD students conducted user testing with CAED students. One of the projects VCD students presented was an interactive sidewalk that could be installed on the Towpath in downtown Akron. The Towpath is a trail running through downtown Akron, extending through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In their Akron site visit, the students learned the Towpath lacked vibrancy, and members of the community felt disconnected and unsafe in the trail's various tunnels. The group came up with the idea to create a sidewalk that could function like a digital interface.


“This kind of technology may not even exist yet, but we wanted to think beyond the confines for this project,” said Will Scharlott, senior VCD major about the work he is doing with VCD majors Joseph Young and Alyssa Fejko.


On their initial visit to the Towpath bridge at the Innerbelt site, students noticed it was slippery. It inspired Scharlott’s group to think outside the box and imagine the sidewalk displaying messages such as “slippery when wet.” Scharlott, Young and Fejko also aim to improve the Towpath by focusing on safety, fitness, culture and vibrancy. The team asked a CAED student to test their sidewalk and presented different scenarios to gauge their reactions.


Another VCD team went a different route and decided to focus on transportation. On their visit to downtown Akron, VCD students Cory Sutter, Dorothy Ly and Nicholas Hollis discovered a lack of public transportation. They decided to create their interface around an interactive transportation system. They aim to create a system of screens within bus stops in downtown Akron and a mobile app that will show all route and arrival times, Sutter said. 


“If you’re running late from a distance, how will you know when the bus will arrive?” Sutter said. “That’s how we came up with the idea to also include a mobile app.”


Barness said there has been a lot of mutual excitement throughout the course of this project.


“The students are excited to be collaborating with people outside VCD and getting to work with different perspectives on a location so close to us,” Barness said. “It hasn’t always been easy, but we are learning more about each other as we go.”

POSTED: Monday, April 17, 2017 - 1:43pm
UPDATED: Monday, April 17, 2017 - 2:27pm
Maggie Wachtel