Design Mind: Christina Kazakia's Stick-lets

Posted: June 14, 2014

Growing up in northern New Jersey, Christina Kazakia, 29, explored the woods behind her house with her best friend. "I remember climbing trees and being scared at times, and that it was always thrilling," she says. When her graduate thesis adviser at the Rhode Island School of Design told her to pick something she's passionate about, she immediately thought of play and nature. "Everyone's so plugged in now, including me," she says. The industrial designer wanted to create a product that incites kids to appreciate nature's beauty and utility.

JUST SCREAM IT: She could think of about a million nature-related toys but couldn't decide on one direction, so her adviser told her to stop thinking and just scream something. Out came, "Something to build forts with!"

TARGETING AN AUDIENCE: Recognizing the trend of repopulating urban areas, she zoomed in on city kids. She also wanted to show the city wasn't devoid of nature. "If you look for it, you'll find it," Kazakia says. "You'll collect 50 sticks in no time."

LESS, BUT BETTER: She originally conceived an all-in-one kit, but handing kids everything in a bag didn't satisfy her goal of getting them outside, exploring nature. She started to think about a system that requires kids to scavenge natural elements - and then refined the idea to a single prompt. "If they have to go out and get the material," she says, "if they have to do the work, they're going to be prouder of it." (This fits with the design philosophy tacked up prominently in Kazakia's tangerine-colored home office: Dieter Rams' "Less, but better.")

USER RESEARCH: The designer went to after-school arts programs, at-risk programs, and nature camps, persuading teachers to let her observe kids at play and get their feedback on silicone prototypes. The Stick-let evolved from squarer, stiffer pieces to ones with elongated "necks" for easier flexing and twisting. She also added more shapes, going from three to six. The kids demanded bright colors, which Kazakia also wanted for contrast with the earthy tones of sticks. She went with a more sophisticated palette than primary.

EARLY SUCCESS: Stick-lets debuted at the RISD senior show in June 2011, where people bought the handmade ones directly from her. She started selling a trial version of the product in October 2012. After two years of listening to stakeholders, including kids, parents, retailers, and distributors, and making tweaks, she invested in a mold to make 30,000 kits. A Kickstarter campaign to make at least 70,000 more, as well as fund more product development, will run until Tuesday.

NOT JUST FOR KIDS: One of the reasons for the Kickstarter effort is to develop Stick-lets for new audiences. She found while testing the product that 6-year-olds aren't the only ones interested. "I had a woman buy a kit for her 90-year-old dad to use in the garden," she says. "I've got to think about his dexterity, too."


Caroline Tiger is a design writer and content strategist at Philadelphia design and innovation firm Bresslergroup. @Bresslergroup.

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