Q & A: Horace T. Morse Award Recipient Karen LaBat

Su Sokolowski visit group photo_FBSize.jpg

Professor Karen Labat (pictured far right) along with members of the Nike Innovation team and College of Design students and faculty in the Human Dimensioning © Laboratory (HDL).

Since 1965, the University has recognized a select group of teachers for their outstanding contribution to undergraduate education with the Horace T. Morse – U of M Alumni Association Award. This year, the honor was given to Professor Karen LaBat (Apparel Design). Labat has spent 30 years teaching in the field of design, including the past 20 years at the University of Minnesota where she has worked with approximately 1,745 students in her Textile Analysis course. She served as the Apparel Design Program Director for 12 years and is currently the director of the Human Dimensions © Laboratory (HDL), which aids in the design of products to improve human health and well-being.

We spoke with Karen about her teaching experiences and what inspires her work.

Q. What led you into teaching?

My first college teaching experience was as a graduate student. I was older than the average student and had industry experience, so I taught the courses fairly independently. I liked working with students and watching as light bulbs “popped” on.

Q. How do you define “apparel design”?
I think apparel design at the University is much different than many other programs around the country. I introduced the “integrated studio” for apparel design over 15 years ago, so that problem solving and research-based design are the foundation of all of the studio courses, while skills are integrated appropriately at each level. The approach prepares students to solve problems and adapt easily to new technologies.

Like the research we do in the Human Dimensioning© Lab where projects vary from fit and sizing of everyday clothing, to assessing human bodies to better design of specialized products like lymphedema sleeves, to working with physical therapists in assessing success of posture restoration therapy, our work encompasses apparel design, but goes way beyond that field.

Q. What is your most memorable class or class project?
I really enjoy the semester-long product development project in ADES 4215 Product Development: Softlines. Students are apparel design and retail merchandising majors. I’ve partnered with Target for about 8 years now on the project. I first approached Michael Alexin, VP for Product Design and Development at Target, to see what kind of collaboration we could work out. He has been terrific. Every year he gets volunteers from his team to work with me and the students.

Target develops a301826_10150866500156113_208627735_n.jpg “challenge” that is presented to students at the beginning of the semester. Then students work in teams on a very comprehensive product plan, from in-depth research, to ideation, testing, and presentation of final product lines with visual displays and a detailed report that documents all phases of the process.

This year we’ve had about 25 Target designers, visual merchandisers, costing specialists, and more come to campus to work with students on various stages of the project. This semester 6 teams will present their projects at Target HQ.

Q. How did the Human Dimensioning © Laboratory (HDL) get started?

Missy Bye (Apparel Design) and I worked a very long time on fit and sizing of ready-to-wear and had interests in solving “fit” issues for many products (initially, women complaining about not finding pants that fit).

We were very aware of new technologies like body scanning and motion capture systems that could get us beyond the very slow and not very accurate “tape measure” methods. We knew we needed this technology to advance our research. So, we decided to write a proposal for a National Science Foundation major research instrumentation grant. We partnered with Marilyn DeLong (Apparel Design), Will Durfee (Mechanical Engineering), and Tom Stoffregen (Kinesiology) to write the grant and received funding in 2006.

We’ve gone beyond “pants fit” to studies in so many areas: NASA liquid cooling garments, pregnancy changes, body image studies, breast cancer survivor wearable products, amputee studies, and more.

In March 2013, Labat was interviewed by Channel 5 (KSTP-TV) about her  work with the HDL and how the technology can translate into 3D Printing.

Q. Who do you admire in your field?

I admire my colleagues in the College of Design who are so dedicated to teaching, research, and outreach. I admire my students who are so talented and make this “job” fun!

Q. What is one thing you want every student who graduates from the apparel design program to know?

They graduated from the  Apparel Design Program so they are prepared to take on the challenges of a changing industry and world.

Q. Any advice for future designers?
Develop your listening skills, be empathetic towards your co-workers and people who will use/wear your designs. Explore experiences and opportunities in other design fields and beyond design. Enjoy each moment!
More stories from the
College of Design: