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IND Online Student Designs Innovative Truck Topper

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Like many great inventions, Brian Johnson’s innovative truck topper stemmed from a problem. As a truck owner and outdoor enthusiast for 25 years, he was familiar with the challenges of attaching, removing and storing toppers—also known as camper shells—that already existed. Johnson developed Aegis, a modular truck cover system, for his thesis project while earning his M.F.A. in industrial design through Academy of Art University’s online program.

“The thought of coming up with a better solution was already in my mind when I started at the Academy, but not in the same configuration,” said Johnson, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and graduated in December 2017. “My thesis gave me the opportunity to explore and develop the idea further.”

Johnson already had two degrees and a career in landscape architecture and design when he enrolled at the Academy. But when the economy tanked in 2008, job opportunities in the field dried up. He gravitated to industrial design and formed a small company called Obstructures with some friends.

“We make everything from titanium wallets to guitars,” Johnson said. “I built a passion for industrial design and wanted to pursue a degree in it. I chose the Academy’s online program because I didn’t want to uproot my family and there aren’t any industrial design programs in Tennessee.”

While he didn’t have access to the School of Industrial Design’s (IND) state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, Johnson still flourished in his online classes. He found the entire faculty helpful but singled out two instructors—Mike Mathe and John Guenther—for going “above and beyond” to support his efforts. Mathe praised Johnson’s strong work ethic and ability to persevere when things got challenging. Guenther was equally impressed with his creativity and tenacity.

“Brian’s work discipline enabled him to meet tight deadlines and submit deliverables for his classes while maintaining his business obligations at home,” Guenther stated. “His final thesis project went beyond the finished model and prototype results required of M.F.A. students. It was truly a proof of concept, and showed Brian’s quest to make sure his idea was valid.”

According to Johnson, the biggest benefit he gained from the Academy was confidence in his ability as a designer. He also valued IND’s philosophy of immersing students in all aspects of the design process, including coming up with initial ideas, research, design development and implementation.

“Making students go through all of that was extremely helpful,” he said. “If you stick with your process, something will come out at the end that you can be proud of.”

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Academy of Art University School of Industrial Design alumnus Brian Johnson. Photo courtesy of Brian Johnson.

That was definitely true for Johnson. His instructors and advisers were also proud of what he’d accomplished and encouraged him to fly out to San Francisco and present Aegis at the IND Winter Show.

“We saw it as an opportunity for Brian to get a wider audience than he would have with a standard online presentation,” explained Mark Bolick, graduate director of the Academy’s IND department. “We had a variety of industry professionals on hand who were looking at projects and critiquing them. It was a chance for Brian to shake hands with these people, exchange business cards and start relationships. He put together a phenomenal presentation.”

During his presentation, Johnson shared facts and statistics he’d gleaned about the truck topper market—it’s growing at a healthy clip. He also learned that his product concept really was original. It is currently in the patent-pending stage of review at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

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ohnson’s proposed modular cover system, Aegis. Image courtesy of Brian Johnson.

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Images of prototyping, modeling and development drawing for Aegis. Image courtesy of Brian Johnson.

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Johnson’s modular cover system, Aegis, on display at IND’s Winter Show this past December. Photo courtesy of Brian Johnson.

“There was nothing like it on the market,” said Johnson. “When you have an idea and find out that you’re the first one to discover this nugget that can be patented, it’s very exciting.”

In addition, Johnson’s presentation explained his design process and how his concept evolved through sketch models, developmental drawings and prototypes. By the time he got to his third prototype, he solidified the design for the topper he had on display at the Winter Show.

“At that stage, I wanted to make a working prototype that I could test at highway speeds,” he said. “That’s where the idea of not taking any shapes from an existing truck’s profile or lines really crystallized, due to the material I used and my experience with that material.”

The resulting topper—which he’s already sold—consisted of lightweight but durable corrugated plastic panels that attach to a set of curved, foldable aluminum beams. Users can configure the Aegis to fit most truck beds, and a single person can easily install and dismantle it.

Johnson closed his presentation with an ambitious five-year business plan. Based on feedback he received at the Winter Show, he tweaked the design of the Aegis to include a panel on the bottom that will make it even more secure. The latest version is at his manufacturer and will soon be available for purchase. A number of vendors have already expressed interest in the topper. Johnson hopes to connect with other companies and investors when he exhibits Aegis at next fall’s Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show, a major automotive event.