Industrial Design Student Spotlight: Kai Mulligan

While many students spend their time working on class projects in studio, Kai Mulligan, a third year industrial design student, balances studio work with company work. Kai gained an interest in entrepreneurship since attending Virginia Tech and is working to learn business skills. With his partner, Kurt, Kai co-founded a custom signage company, Old Mill Steel, to help develop this personal interest.

Working with clients is Kai’s favorite part of the design process. One of his favorite projects was working with his uncle to create a sign for his summer camp in upstate New York. The sign was so large that Kai drove it from North Carolina up to the site strapped to the roof of his own car in order to avoid expensive shipping fees. After two days of driving, the sign arrived with one corner bent. Kai was disappointed to deliver an imperfect product after spending so much time and effort designing and producing the piece. However, Kai recalls his uncle “just went and got a mallet and banged it right back into place.” The sign was then hung on the side of a barn, and the next day when camp begun, his uncle was “so proud showing off the sign to all these kids.”

The initial business idea came from Kurt, who has access to his uncle’s rarely used industrial laser cutter. Kai applies his knowledge of laser cutting and design to help Kurt create a marketable product. At Old Mill Steel, Kai added to his skills and expectations as a student by practicing and learning in a real work environment.

Some of the skills he developed include designing in Illustrator, building a custom website, marketing online, and working with clients one-on-one. Currently, the company spends a surprising amount of time focused on areas other than design. According to Kai, marketing is the most time-consuming part.

Kai works to tailor his education to benefit his professional career and personal interests. This semester Kai works in the MaD Lab in order to learn about the process of CNCing as well as learning to use the new laser cutter. Last winter, Kai learned how to design VR video games, and this winter, he hopes to learn how to code in Grasshopper.

Through his industrial design education, Kai acquired the skills needed to design and produce the products themselves. To better run Old Mill Steel, Kai is minoring in entrepreneurship. However, managing all parts of the business is a challenge. Kai uses an app called Evernote to help keep his thoughts and tasks organized. Being mindful and patient helps Kai mange stress. When he gets overwhelmed, he applies skills learned in Martha Sullivan’s Mindful Designer course. Kai hopes to leave school with a better understanding of how basic business principles can merge with product design.

For students thinking of starting their own business, Kai recommends finding a partner to help balance the workload and broaden perspectives. Soon, the Old Mill Steel team wants to participate in APEX Center competitions and hopes to expand the team to accommodate more sales. It is great seeing what students are doing with their skills learned through studio – if you or a friend have any personal projects you’re working on, please contact Sophie Dukes.