Designing Woman

Kelly Nicolaisen

Jessica Zarin Kessin is passionate about making cool products. She also has a varied volunteer career working with people with disabilities. She is adept in American Sign Language and has done volunteer work at the California School for the Blind. For her senior project at Stanford, the product design and developmental psychology double major made a toy for children who are blind and have multiple disabilities, teaching them concepts like up and down, and cause and effect.

But after she graduated into a soft economy, she ended up designing products for Pottery Barn. Good experience, Kessin says, but “I don't want to be designing martini glasses for the rest of my life.”

She remembered how she would watch the kids at the School for the Blind play with her toy, moving a stylus across squares and listening to the resulting music, and she could practically see “the light bulb go on over their heads.” For many kids, this experience isn't frequent. “Their parents go into Toys “R” Us and walk down every aisle—there is nothing that works for their kid,” Kessin says.

So Kessin, who will teach Mechanical Engineering 101: Visual Thinking winter quarter, set about to make something that would work by founding San Francisco-based Development by Design. DbD now has eight products. They include blocks with nonstandard shapes (to help avoid repetitive behavior) and a unique foam texture to help them stick together, and weighted snap-together beanbags that might calm a child with sensory issues in addition to teaching catching, throwing and other skills. The toys are making their way into mainstream stores, as well as specialty vendors. Though designed with special-needs kids in mind, the toys also work for typically developing children.

For the special-needs market, details really matter. Kessin chose to avoid age-specific details, such as primary colors (adults with special needs might enjoy the toys, too). And she carefully picked fabrics like corduroy; it isn't too soft for use by kids who, say, are easily overwhelmed by touch sensations.

Other companies provide products for children with special needs, but most offer adaptations of traditional toys. DbD stands out precisely because of Kessin's product-design approach. Instead of taking an existing toy and tweaking, Kessin and her team, which includes a pediatric occupational therapist, want to dream fresh ideas into life to enrich the lives of kids with special needs. That, Kessin says, is better than martini glasses any day.