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News . Feature Stories . Renaissance Man: Jason Tilk


May 23, 2013

Renaissance Man: Jason Tilk

1997 grad lives a very creative life, balancing stellar design career with music and merriment.

Renaissance Man: Jason Tilk

By Ann McGuire

Jason Tilk’s wildly imaginative BFA thesis project foreshadowed the multi-disciplinary artist and designer he would become. He constructed an installation of giant mechanical insectile sculptures made of hand blown glass, aluminum, and stainless steel. The wasp had a motion sensor to signal its legs to open and close when visitors approached. He blew the glass by hand and designed the other components using 3D computer modeling.

Today, the 1997 graduate is still passionately creative, multi-talented, and pursuing several creative outlets. By day he’s an award-winning designer named on 13 patents and counting. By night he’s a vaudeville performer of songs, jokes and magic tricks, and the organizer of a recurring burlesque life drawing event.

Always Thinking, Always Creating

With his mother a painter and father a man who could fix and build just about anything, Tilk grew up surrounded by people who made things. “I was given a crayon as a kid and I pretty much never put down a drawing implement,” he recalled. By the time he reached Medina High School, he was taking all the art courses on offer and coming to CIA for summer courses and life drawing. He also played saxophone and was in every drama performance. Tilk went to Ohio University so he could do it all: theater set design, sculpture and jazz saxophone.

At some point freshman year, though, he decided to focus strictly on visual art... a resolution he would keep for some 15 years. Tilk transferred to CIA where he was “completely in love with everything (he) was learning,” especially glass. “I knew I wouldn’t do anything cool with glass unless I focused on it and that’s what made me pick glass as a major. But my focus only lasts so long until I want to learn something else too.”

He took an Industrial Design elective in 3D computer modeling software and loved that so much he took three semesters of Industrial Design, in addition to the Glass Department requirements, and four semesters of Jewelry + Metals (he loved that too). “The liberal arts credits that transferred from OU allowed me to basically overload my schedule with studios,” Tilk explained.

Looking back, he realizes he squeezed the most he possibly could out of his college education. “I loved CIA. If there was something that I wanted to learn, I knocked on that department’s door and I tried to learn it. I even hung out with (Ceramics Professor) Bill Brouillard who taught me how to make a clay form that I could use to slump glass over. The school offers so much, the crafts, the design. I realize that you could focus completely on one thing, but at the same time, CIA is great for people like me who want to learn it all.” Upon graduation, Tilk was awarded the top presidential scholarship, the First Agnes Gund Traveling Award.

Design Career By Design

After graduation, Tilk taught 3D computer modeling at CIA for three years, showing students the craftsmanship of digital modeling, rendering, and lighting. From there, he spent four years designing cars for General Motors.

“It was amazing. There was history and lineage there of the highest design that had ever rolled out on four wheels.” Tilk worked on the interior of a GM-branded fuel-cell vehicle. “It was a pretty fantastic project to be part of, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me. It was always about what cars could become and what transportation might be. I was more about how something works and how users interact with it.”

For those reasons, Tilk found an ideal fit at Nottingham Spirk, the Cleveland-based business innovation firm founded by 1972 graduates John Nottingham and John Spirk. He started there in 2004 and has tackled increasingly complex projects ever since.

“NS was an amazing opportunity and I’ve been pretty challenged here, especially of late,” he said in a recent visit to the company’s headquarters, a renovated church with a soaring domed ceiling. “I’ve really enjoyed the medical work. The consumer product work is pretty fantastic too, even down to the ergonomics of handles I’ve designed. That’s an awful lot of fun because it’s basics of design. The objective to me is making life better for people.”

Tilk said he especially enjoys conducting user research. “The best part is that you get to talk to somebody about their work and their job or even their home and their life and try to pick apart ideas for a product or a project that is specific to somebody or something that you’re not accustomed to.”

Medical Products Offer New Challenges

Tilk was lead designer of two of Nottingham Spirk’s most successful recent medical innovations: the CardioInsight ECVue™ Sensor Vest for mapping the heart’s electrical signals; and HealthSpot Station, a “telehealth kiosk” that has captured national press and was named a 2013 Product of the Future by popular Science.

In March, Tilk accepted a 2013 Innovation Award for the ECVue vest on behalf of Nottingham Spirk. The award was from Nortech, the technology-based eco- nomic development organization. ECVue replaces an inconvenient and unwieldy system of 25 to 30 heart monitoring strips that take more than 45 minutes to apply. Tilk, who devoted two years to the project along with co-worker Lindsey Tufts ’91, designed the vest to be applied to a wide range of body types, comfortably and conveniently, in less than five minutes. The system has won several patents and more are pending.

HealthSpot – which is already showing up in pharmacies across the country – will be to healthcare what ATMs are to banking, according to Nottingham Spirk. Patients will use these self-contained booths to remotely visit a doctor via a Skype-like connection.

As lead designer, Tilk tackled challenges including taking up a minimum amount of floor space but still comfortably accommodating an adult on foot and an adult in a wheelchair; making the small space seem inviting, bright and airy; building in all the necessary tools from thermometer and blood pressure cuff to swipe card reader for insurance information; insulating the kiosk for patient privacy, while keeping components light enough for ease of installation; and incorporating systems for ventilating and sanitizing the unit.

“It was a pretty massive undertaking. We started out with giant cardboard models,” said Tilk, who collaborated on HealthSpot with co-worker Jeffrey Kalman ’71, now retired from the company. “Designing in the small spots, within the criteria, is where a lot of the creativity happened. We tried to design for a clean, pleasant user experience. You want people to be relaxed when they’re in here, especially because they might be in here under duress.”

On a roll after these two major successes, Tilk is currently working on another medical product. “It’s just so exciting to work on things that make life better for people; I think that’s one of the most exciting things about my job at this point in time. The medical work is so rewarding,” he said.

Cleveland Rocks

After a long day of creating at Nottingham Spirk, Tilk finds he’s disinclined to sit and draw or work on 3D modeling as a hobby in the evening. “I’m a very creative person. So it was easy for me to pick music back up again as a hobby.”

His wife, musician and performer Danielle Tilk, gave him an accordion for Christmas four years ago and he taught himself toplay. “It went from me and my wife playing music and learning songs at home, to all of a sudden we’re on stage and being funny.”

They call themselves Pinch and Squeal. “It’s turned into a lot of fun. We bill ourselves as ‘an awful lot of vaudeville.’ I think people want some live entertainment that’s not just live music.” The act incorporates songs, jokes and “bad magic,” Tilk said.

He and a friend also started a local franchise of the national Dr. Sketchy phenomenon, which he calls “life drawing meets burlesque.” Paid models wear costumes with themes like videogame characters or punk rock idols. “It’s about supplying a fun, creative event for artists to get out, draw from a live model, and socialize.”

Tilk finds Clevelanders very approachable when he proposes new ideas. In addition to the performing and life drawing, he has organized events including the Cleveland Urban Iditarod, a mid-winter shopping-cart race and food drive that raised more than a ton of food and $1,300 cash for the Cleveland Foodbank.

Paying It Forward On Cia’s Alumni Council

When he’s not designing award-winning products or performing or organizing a community activity, or teaching his two little girls how to draw or do magic tricks, Tilk is also involved in CIA’s Alumni Council. “I’m passionate about the school and the Alumni Council is a group of people who are trying to connect alumni with each other and network students to alumni. I’m glad to be involved.”

Ann McGuire is the Senior Writer at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

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