Design in Mind — and Body

Two College of Human Sciences researchers are positively impacting lives through user-centered apparel and interior design

Choosing to purchase an item of clothing or a piece of furniture for its style sounds familiar, right? For instance, when buying a trendy dress or a sectional sofa, the average person wants something that’s both tasteful and a focal point. But what if that piece of clothing or furniture also had the ability to physically or mentally improve lives through its unique functionality?

Assistant Professors Dr. Dawn Michaelson and Dr. Georges Fares are researching just that. Within Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences Consumer & Design Sciences Department, both researchers are helping change or improve lives through their ongoing study of user-centered apparel design or interior design to aid individuals with physical and mental challenges.

Dawn Michaelson

Dr. Dawn Michaelson

Innovative Approach to Apparel Design Tackles Diverse Challenges

Michaelson’s main research focuses on individuals with health conditions, as she works to design apparel to assist patients following surgery or those who may be disabled. In addition, she has worked with recreational and sports apparel and apparel for those engaged in hazardous occupational or recreational activities. Overall, Michaelson aims to find solutions to apparel problems in various ways.

In addition to conducting research, Michaelson teachesa number of undergraduate classes, such as intermediate and advanced pattern making and construction, both conducted in studio. She also offers courses in apparel product management and aesthetics for fashion. These classes aim to guide students in creating functional apparel and preparing them for careers in the apparel or merchandising industry after graduation.

“I love to see that clothing in some way can impact someone’s life positively, even if it’s something as simple as psychological, but if we can actually aid or help someone on a physical or physiological level, it’s very rewarding to see that,” Michaelson said. “Then on the other side, being able to take that back to the classroom and discuss it with your students and get them thinking about it. I really want to see them take that forward and have that same desire to be able to help people in the future. It might be as simple as when the tagless tag was developed so we don’t feel discomfort anymore. We love that, and sometimes little things like that are very rewarding.”

Dawn Michaelson working

Michaelson is taking her research knowledge and helping those in need by creating post-surgical mastectomy recovery bras for women. Her project is aimed to design a new bra worn during the mastectomy recovery period to address the surgical oncologist and patient needs. To facilitate drainage tubes and ease pain during the recovery period, Michaelson’s recovery bra could feature a larger band/cup size, secured tubing and bulb storage, better chest wall adherence, compression, thermal comfort, seam comfort, adjustable shoulder straps, adjustable band, easy closures and more.

“We really hope that the garment developed will in some way improve their lives, so patients are less self-conscious,” Michaelson said. “We’re hoping eventually it might even improve the recovery time by a couple of days. That may not seem like much, but if you could recover in 10 days instead of two weeks to get back out there, especially emotionally, after everything you’ve gone through with the mastectomy, if we can get them recovering and feeling better, that motivates me and keeps me going doing    what I do.”

While Michaelson focuses on improving garments and apparel, Fares’ main focus is on how to best take advantage of a space to address physical and mental disorders by combining architecture and technology to impact human perception and behavior.

Georges Fares

Dr. Georges Fares

Pioneering Neurodivergent Design and Inclusive Education

Fares uses interior design and emerging research to focus on neurodivergent design, technology’s transformative role and innovative design education to foster more inclusive and empowering environments.

Fares said he became fascinated with space and interior design as a child.

“Since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by how space can affect you and your mood and your relationship with people,” Fares said. “When I was a kid, I found going to a museum, for example, calmed me down. I found that going to places like an airport stressed me out. So, there’s something about space that I was really curious about, and I wanted to learn and understand more about how space can affect human beings.”

While Fares focuses on a range of design innovations for neurodivergent challenges, one area of research is designing spaces to aid children with autism spectrum disorders. Fares said it depends on each case, but there are multiple ways to improve children’s mental and physical well-being based on their space. The first goal is to determine what sensations might overwhelm an autistic child, such as light, sounds or touch.

“One of the projects I’m working on is an installation piece that looks like different hair particles that will reflect different lights around it,” Fares said. “But at the same time, it creates a nice tactile feeling when you touch it. That goes back to why I enjoy interior design and why I got into it. As individuals engage with the installation, whether through movement or proximity, they participate in a unique experience shaped by their positioning, interplay of light, perspective and actions. Each movement generates a fresh and distinct effect, offering viewers an experience that is truly one of a kind and impossible to replicate or convey.”

Georges Fares working with a student

What started out as curiosity about space and how it evokes emotion has turned into an award-winning career for Fares. Moving forward, he plans to use technology in his neurodivergent research and teaching in the classroom.

“I’m using a lot of technology such as virtual reality, laser cutting and 3-D printing to create different prototypes and modular pieces that can help me with creating different environments and experiences that supports my research and creates different tools for students to better be engaged with their design,” Fares said. “I brought in virtual reality headsets to the studio where we’re hoping to help students better visualize space in one of the projects that they’re working on.”

The innovations that Michaelson and Fares are both using underscore why Auburn University prioritizes research and why it’s so important moving forward. More specifically, the College of Human Sciences’ mission is to create a better future through the science of quality of life. Improving lives through design research continues to make the world better for those with physical or mental challenges.