Jan. 4, 2023

The story behind a bold UCalgary collaboration to create un-useless objects

Final project in an engineering course and a communications capstone was a mash-up ‘begging to happen’
An example of chindogu, an un-useless object, designed by students for their final project
An example of chindogu, an un-useless object, designed by students for their final project. Photos supplied

Sometimes it’s being in the right place, at the right time. Paths cross, ideas form and magic happens. For two UCalgary instructors, that occurred this fall as they taught in neighbouring rooms at the same time. They went from crossing paths to bringing two completely different classes together for their final projects. As Dr. Maria Victoria Guglietti says, “The collaboration was begging to happen.”

Maria Victoria Guglietti

Maria Victoria Guglietti

Guglietti, PhD, is an assistant professor in communication, media and film in the Faculty of Arts, teaching a capstone seminar in communication and media. Dr. Marjan Eggermont, PhD, a professor (teaching) in mechanical and manufacturing engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering, was teaching Art and Engineering, which shows engineering students principles of art and how it can improve engineering design.

After running into each other outside their rooms a few times, they decided to bring their classes together on a final project, joining communications students with engineering students to create chindōgu, Japanese inventions that are meant to be unusual, un-useless objects.

There are 10 tenets of chindōgu: they can’t be for a real use, they must exist, have a spirit of anarchy, be used in everyday life, not be a tradeable commodity, result from an exercise of humour, not propaganda, not taboo, not patented, and be without prejudice. As you might imagine, it wasn’t an easy task.

Marjan Eggermont

Marjan Eggermont

“I am really impressed with how they have handled this. We’re seeing some great connections where students are running off to do something together,” says Eggermont. “It helps that the project is as strange for my students as it is for Victoria’s. So, it’s not obvious for either of them.”

“Communal discomfort makes for a bonding experience – even if you’re different, you have the same experience,” Guglietti agrees. “Some of the collaborations became more mature, because they were going through experiences that put them in a vulnerable position.”

Students came up with an idea for their chindōgu and then built it as a team. They tested their creations during the course, sometimes running across campus and filming their experiences with things like kayak paddles with nets on the ends to catch fish while paddling which resulted in neither being able to paddle nor catch fish or ear bud catchers to ensure you don’t lose an AirPod on your walk.


“For my students, I started to see it allowed them to clarify what engineering actually is by working in the surrounding space. If engineering is the space of useful objects, then chindōgu is counter to that,” says Eggermont.

“It made it clearer about functionality and efficiency, creating processes and systems.

“I think by exploring the things in the background, in art called the ‘negative space,’ it brings to the foreground the things they have to think about in their future careers. It was a fun experience, and they made several physical prototypes which was great.”

For Guglietti, the unexpected has defined the course for her and her students, the idea that failure is a game. 

earpod catcher

“Even if it fails as a chindōgu, they had to do their best. On the communications side, projects sometimes fail,” she says.

“I find with my students, because of the requirements of the degree, they don’t take risks because it can be punished — it can mean they deviated from instruction. Here, they have to let go and learn from the unexpected.”

For the instructors, it’s been just as much of a new process as for their students. “I like collaboration, but in my discipline sometimes it’s tough,” says Guglietti. “I had to adapt a class that had a very clear objective around a chindōgu — it took me out of my comfort zone. It’s challenging, fun, refreshing and I would love to continue doing it.”

If you’re curious about chindōgu and what the students created, stop by the Taylor Institute Gallery space on the main floor from Jan 9 to 27 for a video exhibition of the experience.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.