AMES, Iowa — Three-dimensional printing has become common in multiple design fields, from architecture to industrial design. Now, graphic design students at Iowa State University have a chance to experiment with the technology in an advanced studio taught by assistant professor Taekyeom Lee.

Lee, who joined the ISU Department of Graphic Design in August, is a multidisciplinary designer and educator who explores unconventional methods of creating multidimensional type, graphics and designed objects with materials and techniques unique to typography and graphic design. One of his latest research projects, “Tangible Type,” translates digital type into a tangible typographic form using three-dimensional printing.

“This materialized type amplifies visual and physical interactions by providing engaging tactile experiences,” Lee said.

He began experimenting with 3D-printing alternative materials, such as soap and candle wax, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring as a way to make something positive out of a world turned upside-down, he said.

He found that soap was easy and fun to work with. After making prototypes at home for a few weeks and posting the process to his Instagram and YouTube channel, Lee was invited to lead a workshop as part of the Construct3D Summer Symposium, which helped K-12 and college educators explore ways to teach digital fabrication in an online environment. Lee then decided to integrate 3D-printing and soap production into his own teaching.

Translating 2D to 3D

Lee began fall semester by asking students to read “Why Fonts Matter” by Sarah Hyndman, about how type design can visually represent a mood. They were then asked to think of a theme or mood for a bar of soap and develop 15 different 2D letterform designs to represent that theme/mood. Then they redesigned at least five of their letterforms using a free online 3D modeling software.

“I encouraged students to incorporate the third dimension by reinterpreting shapes,” Lee said. “The easiest way to add a third dimension is extruding the letterform to add thickness, but I asked them to go further with various forms. For example, a circle in 2D space could be a cylinder, a cone sphere, a truncated cone, a half-sphere or a paraboloid in three-dimensional space.”

After narrowing down and refining just two of their 3D designs, students ultimately chose one letterform design to print using PLA, a bioplastic widely used in 3D printing.

“Not all designs are what I like to call ‘3D-printing-friendly,’ because 3D printing does not do well with thin lines, and too-fine details on soap will fade quickly. Sizing is also challenging, because 3D-printing software reads files in millimeters, but most students are used to using inches. I advised them on altering and improving the success of their designs, including how to prepare files for printing,” Lee said.

Printing and casting

Lee ran one of his own 3D printers (he has seven) at home on and off for a week to produce the 17 students’ work. Then he made silicone molds of the 3D-printed plastic pieces to cast the soap in those forms. With the safety protocols in place during the pandemic, it wasn’t feasible to make the molds in person in the classroom, so Lee recorded the process to share with students online and brought the molds to the studio for a live soap-making demo.

Casting the soap involved melting the soap base, filling the mold, cooling and unmolding the final soap. The process was livestreamed through Zoom for students participating remotely in the hybrid studio (offered partially in person and partially online to accommodate reduced density and physical distancing in the classroom).

“Soap-making was the second-most-exciting demo I’ve done for a class. The first was a live demo of 3D-printing peanut butter and chocolate-hazelnut spread on bread beds a few years ago,” Lee said. “I hope to have a project using 3D design, 3D printing, typography and edible material in the near future.”

Roughly 70 soaps were produced, and each student received four soaps. Students also received their original 3D printed letterforms. One created a refrigerator magnet with it, Lee said, and another made a silicone mold with her original piece and cast extra soaps at home.

Comprehensive experience

Once students had their completed soaps, they designed unique packaging to store and display them. While packaging design is part of more traditional graphic design practice, much of what students create in other courses is two-dimensional. Working with interactive and tangible products offers broader design experiences.

“Architecture and industrial design students use 3D printers all the time, but not so much graphic design students. I wanted them to have comprehensive experience, from 2D drawings to 3D printing to packaging,” Lee said.

Expanded interest

Junior Sayler Rivas, from Des Moines, enjoyed learning about both the product and packaging design processes. And her interest in 3D modeling and printing now extends beyond the classroom, she said.

“This project inspired me to possibly explore mold making for chocolates with my design on them. I want to be more experimental and push how far I can go with 3D design. Working with soap made me realize that you can apply graphic design to so much more,” Rivas said.

The combination of 2D typography, 3D modeling and printing, soapmaking and packaging design gave junior Kira Bliss the chance to acquire new skills while delving into her curiosity about the soap-making process, she said. Bliss, from Sergeant Bluff, envisions making interactive soap with additional texture and scents to activate the senses.

“We weren’t just creating soap for this project; we created an experience. My soap design included braille along the sides. As a commonly held object, it made sense to include those with disabilities in the experience,” she said. “This is what graphic design is all about, using design to create an experience and convey your message.”


Taekyeom Lee, Graphic Design, taekyeom@iastate.edu
Kira Bliss, Graphic Design junior, kbliss@iastate.edu
Sayler Rivas, Graphic Design junior, skrivas@iastate.edu
Meg Grice, Design Communications, mgrice@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, hsauer@iastate.edu