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Cardboard Standing Desk / Sitting Desk (The H Desk)

The H Desk is a standing desk made of industrial strength cardboard that can be flipped into a private sitting desk, drawn on, and recycled.

Photo of Mitchell Stevens

Written by

I am a.....

  • Student

Tell us about your idea

During COVID, too many students are camped at the kitchen table or plopped on the couch trying to learn from home. The H Desk is a no-screw/no-glue industrial strength cardboard standing desk that students get to build themselves. It can serve as a standing desk for 2, a private cubicle desk for 1, or a living room loveseat. You can draw on it, pin up ideas and inspirations, and rotate it whenever you need to change up your environment. 

Post-COVID, what if students could design their own classrooms, schools, and learning environments, using their desks like giant LEGOs? The wood version of The H Desk is my proposed solution for a modular, customizable learning furniture.

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

COVID has forced us to learn remotely, and to redefine what a learning space is. Traditional classrooms are a thing of the past. Post-COVID is the perfect time to redefine what our learning spaces look like, and how they function. David Kelley and Scott Doorley at the d.school have shown me that design thinking needs flexible space that doesn't feel precious. But this kind of learning needs the stage to be set. It's time we redesign the classroom to be as dynamic as the young minds who inhabit that space.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

What if students could design their own learning environments? I'm a graduate student in Stanford's Learning Design + Technology program. We identify learning problems and design solutions to those problems. My research has shown me that K12 students need to learn design thinking in order to become the creative problem solvers our world needs. Scott Doorley and David Kelley at the d.school helped me realize the stage must be set for design thinking. So I thought, how I might design learning furniture to set the stage for schools. The H Desk was originally designed to be made out of birch plywood with a laminate finish. During COVID however, I made the H Desk out of cardboard in the hopes that others could repeat the concept for themselves. 

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

I currently live in the Bay Area with my parents in a 55+ community next to the Stanford campus. We're from Utah and plan to move back there when I finish graduate school. I grew up in the public school system in Utah. Fortunately, my mom helped me understand that learning was not just something that happened at school. Learning was the ever-present potential of being surprised by life at any moment. I think that's why I love design work so much. It carries that inevitable element of surprise.

11 comments

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Photo of Dawn M
Team

I love this concept! As a teacher, I struggle with trying to make a classroom with traditional desk/chair combinations work for different students and activities. There is no money in our school's budget for new furniture for the foreseeable future. I have been able to accumulate a few podiums and a table to accommodate students who need to stand or work in groups, but this is not ideal. It would be great to have affordable furniture choices for schools that are not in well-funded school districts. Flexible furniture could go along with flexible schools, including taking learning to students, as it appears it would be portable as well. Plus, what a great learning experience for students to create their own. Do you know what the cost for an average classroom (30 students) would be? How many can fit into a classroom that holds about 25 traditional desk/chair combinations comfortably?

Spam
Photo of Mitchell Stevens
Team

Hi Dawn! Glad the idea resonates with you as a teacher, as you are the pivotal stakeholder in implementing something like this.
This version cost me $50 for the cardboard to build one H Desk. The cardboard was previously-used, triple-corrugated (industrial thickness) from Amazon's warehouse. It usually comes in 4x8 foot sheets. And if you order it in bulk from some places the cost can go down a bit (e.g. ULINE). This desk took a few hours to cut and assemble myself, but that was the fun part. If students are too young to use a utility knife or razor blade, I think the next best option would be to collaborate with a local CNC shop or fabrication shop who could cut (or laser cut) the cardboard into the right shapes. Then students could just assemble them. I've tested similar cardboard designs with 3rd graders and they loved the assembly part. I didn't tell them what they were supposed to build out of the pieces, but just left it up to them. It was amazing to see them collaborate and figure it out!
I haven't built a bunch of these in one space yet, but they are pretty large. I imagine you could get 10-12 in a classroom, more if you stacked them on top of each other. They pull apart too, so you could stash the pieces away in a corner or something. And if it's for a younger grade, the design could be scaled down for shorter heights, possibly allowing for more desks in one space.
Ideally I want to make a bunch out of sustainable wood so that desks could be stacked and pushed together structurally. I would love to see a classroom that functions more like a playground, with students climbing up on desks as stages to present their findings, or forming nooks to do private work, etc.

Spam
Photo of Anya Smith-Roman
Team

I love the idea of adaptable furniture that's also simple and low cost to build! I wonder, why did you choose those particular dimensions; was this for the sake of being structurally sound, or could variations be made for younger/smaller users?

Spam
Photo of Mitchell Stevens
Team

Hi Anya! Thanks for your question!
I work mostly with university students and high schoolers, so I made the dimensions to fit average adult heights. That being said, the design is such that it can be scaled to any size. So yeah, youngsters could certainly have custom sized H desks. Maybe I'll make a mini version this weekend. One mom I know mentioned this, saying that her little ones draw with markers on her furniture anyway, so cardboard furniture would help her not get so stressed about that while giving the kids a run canvas. Do you teach young kids?

Spam
Photo of Anya Smith-Roman
Team

I am an undergrad student still, so I don’t teach in the traditional sense, but I’m a gymnastics coach as well where I work with kids 4-14 which is what made me think about this question of size. The idea of coloring on the cardboard was also something that made me think of younger kids. I also wonder if there’s an opportunity for potential collaboration between you and @jasonweeby who made “a quiet place for schoolwork” also out of cardboard.

Spam
Photo of Sarah Nethan
Team

Hi Mitchell Stevens 
I'm Sarah, one of the Community Coaches. Thanks for signing up to this challenge and inspiring us with your idea!

I love how simple, cost-effective and fun your idea is, with a great potential for adaptation to diverse contexts. I remember seeing similar adaptable furnitures made out of industrial cardboard during my visit to the d.school last year. I was wondering if that's also what inspired this concept? Also, did you happen to make one of those cardboard furniture at the d.school?

Thanks! :)

Spam
Photo of Mitchell Stevens
Team

Hi Sarah, great to hear from you! Thank you for the kind words.
The cardboard furniture at the d.school did inspire this concept, in part. I've gotten to know Zach Rotholz at the d.school, who has done a lot of the cardboard stuff there. I was working on wood furniture designs at the d.school when the COVID crisis hit, so I pivoted to think of ways that my designs would be more immediately useful. I even have one of Zach's cardboard chairs in my apartment, so I'm sure it was subconsciously or consciously motivating me. I think my main innovation though was to allow it to be more than one thing, not just a desk or just a chair.

Spam
Photo of Sarah Nethan
Team

That sounds awesome!!
Thanks for sharing Mitchell Stevens - Additionally, I'm curious to learn about the design process for your concept. Would you mind sharing a bit?

Thanks!

Spam
Photo of Mitchell Stevens
Team

For sure! I guess I should really take you all the way back to 2014 and a project I did called The Dreamathon ( https://vimeo.com/117650087 ). It was a sort of artistic attempt to imagine what schools could look like if they were truly designed for and with students. Ever since then I've been fascinated with designing for learning. Fast forward to being in grad school 6 years later studying how people learn best. Unfortunately most classrooms still operate with butts in chairs the whole time, even at the almighty Stanford. Humans are not meant to learn sitting down looking forward, though. We learn by getting into, onto and around things. So I set out to design a piece of furniture that would afford that kind of learning, a sort of giant LEGO desk that would allow teachers and learners to shapeshift the very spaces they call classrooms. I started by sketching a lot of things in my notebooks. I would show them to people and see if they understood the concept without me explaining it. I tried to get a lot of opinions on school furniture, from classmates, and professors. I started working with an all-girls high school in Palo Alto. They are rebuilding their school and asked me to help them design the interim learning environment. This got me plugged into some other local K12 classrooms. I was able to talk to administration and some teachers about classroom designs. Eventually I moved into modeling with balsa wood and some small wooden blocks. I started talking to more schools in the Bay Area and asking them what sorts of desks and chairs they used. Then I built a full size prototype, first out of 2" x 2" wood strips. It's still sitting in my apartment as a reminder of scale. Then I ordered some scrap pieces of industrial cardboard from Amazon's factory. Sometime they have leftover pieces you can get for cheaper. I got five 4' x 4' pieces and made another full-scale prototype without screws or glue. The cardboard just slots together. After a bunch of other tests with users, I started to think the cardboard could be a sort of final product for students stuck at home during COVID. I'm sure I'm leaving out some steps / details. But that's basic process log to date. Does that help?

Spam
Photo of Darry Strickland
Team

Thanks Mitchell for contributing to the Challenge. This idea has me giddy with excitement because it meets the needs of sooo many students, it's adaptable, cost effective and cool! I wonder what it would look to have global a design challenge for students to build/prototype different versions of the H desk?

Spam
Photo of Mitchell Stevens
Team

Thanks for your question Darry! Your mind is in the same place as mine! That would be so cool. They could share their ideas and inspire each other. I've already started thinking of how kids might accessorize the desk too. For example, you could build your own clip on lamps or bookshelves. I also first designed it out of wood so they could stack together like LEGOs. I wonder how something similar might work with cardboard. Any ideas?