University of Delaware
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Unleashing Invention

"Our education system isn't really set up to nurture invention — to be a little weird and wacky and play around with materials and processes — so I try to help my students go back to that space," notes art professor Abby Donovan of her work at UD's Delaware Design Institute. "My first priority is to get my students to feel comfortable and confident in their curiosity."

A talented inventor, Donovan has designed several toys, including a wand that creates interesting light patterns when waved around, in partnership with her husband, Tom Hughes, an electronics engineer. The UD art professor also stokes her creativity regularly as a member of the artist performance group "the 181," which was featured at the 2011 Stockholm Fringe Festival. And in July, her "Model T" debuted as the first in a series of artworks of the New York Times logo, commissioned (and blogged about) by New York Times Magazine.

Donovan notes that it's important to cultivate the individual senses of a group involved in a design task. "What will be of interest is their idiosyncracies," she says, "not figuring out how to all walk together."

Then she encourages her students to investigate their ideas through the material (physical) world.

"It's important to be unsettled in your assumptions," she says. "Don't try to force a material to do something, but see what it does naturally."

And don't be afraid of failure as you experiment. Embrace it, she notes.

Thomas Edison, one of the world's greatest inventors, refused to consider any of his work a "failure."

"Every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward," the uber-inventor once said. At his death in 1931, Edison had 1,093 patents — a record that remains unbroken today.