Ideas often come late at night to Manuel Saez. So the 27-year-old college senior brings a pad to bed with him.
The half-hour commute between his New Haven apartment and classes at the University of Bridgeport is time spent problem-solving.
How to make an air purifier consumers will want to buy and show off. Create a side-view mirror that lets drivers see behind them and in their blind spot simultaneously. Develop a folding stool -- his favorite invention thus far -- that is aesthetically pleasing.
"It's like a 24-hour-a-day thing," said Saez, a prize-winning industrial design student who is driven to create.
It's a creative streak that's attracting national recognition.
Last week, Saez and classmate Hunchul Kim won two of three prizes in a camera design contest sponsored by Samsung. Saez's camera design allows photographers to look through the lens, rather than the viewfinder, without using a prism. It was worth a $5,000 prize.
Two weeks earlier, Saez placed first, winning $3,00 in the National Housewares Competition in Chicago for Daisy, a chic-looking air purifier -- besting 209 other entries from 27 design schools around the country. He won an honorable mention in the same competition for a lightweight razor with a long looped handle, something designed in collaboration with Schick Wilkinson Sword of Milford.
Last April, it was a $4,000 grand prize in the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association's Safety Design Competition for the side-view mirror. Before that, he won a prize for furniture design in a competition sponsored by the University of Kentucky.
"I don't know," shrugs a modest Saez about his mounting success. "I just like to make things."
He's still waiting to hear whether he's won any honors for the foldable stool.
Winning, said James Lesko, chairman of UB's industrial design department, is far from a given in these competitions. But it's practically a necessity for Saez, an Argentina native who counts on victory to build his resume and pays bills with the prize money.
"Any penny that comes in. I view it like working," Saez said. "It goes straight to tuition."
One of only a handful of seniors in the UB industrial design department, " Saez said the small size of the department helps.
"You get a lot of attention," he said. And the structure of 14-week semesters lends a measure of time management and discipline to his designing.
When you design, you start off with a problem," he said. "You're not trying to invent something new, but a better way to do something."
For Daisy, a flower pot-shaped air purifier, the task was to create a housewares product consumers would want to show off, not hide. Mot air purifiers on the market are large, square contraptions destined to be hidden behind furniture or in dark corners. Saez has a provisional patent on his design.
"I've taken Daisy about as far as I can get it in school. I need an engineer to make sure it needs seven stems. Not 10. That it's all accurate before I can go any further with it," said Saez, doubtful the idea will make him rich.
No matter. Saez has plenty of other ideas cooking. Always has.
Back home in Tucuman, Argentina, Saez's first invention was a non-electronic pinball machine made of clothespins, tubes and rubber bands.
"Kids at school used to line up to play it," recalled Saez, the youngest of four children.
Next, he made his own bicycle.
After high school, Saez spent three years studying architecture and city planning before taking off to Europe. There, he met his future wife, Anne Marie, an American, whom he followed back to her Greenwich home.
For the past 2½ years, he's been studying full time at UB and will graduate in May. He likes industrial design better than architecture because it deals more with objects than space.
Charles Meehan, an industrial designer from Strategic Design Corp. in Fairfield, calls the profession a combination of inventor, engineer, artist and psychologist.
"It's an interesting career and you really need a complex set of talents to do it. Manuel does have the talent," said Meehan, who was a speaker at the Housewares Design Competition, which Saez won.
"You also have to be able to sell ideas," said Lesko. "New ideas are hard to get across. A lot of people don't like change."
Saez adds juggler to the list. He usually works on at least three projects at any time. His current class assignment is to develop a bathroom accessory.
"I don't know what ... it will be. I have to identify a problem first," he said.
"We want to be better than all the other schools," said Lesko, noting Saez isn't the only UB student to win recognition. At last year's Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association's Safety Design Competition, UB received seven out of eight of the awards. That prompted competition organizers to limit entries by any one school to thee this year.
"It really fires the kids up," Lesko said.
Twice a week, Saez works at Anderson Design, an industrial design consulting firm in Plainville. His boss there, Dave Kaiser, said Saez is eager and quick to pick up on things.
"Students today aren't much different from when I went to school," Kaiser said. The tools are.
"Today, students like Saez do some quick sketches to get ideas down, but do most of it with computers," Kaiser said.
At Anderson, Saez gets to help a design team work on such projects as shingles, sneakers and small kitchen appliances.
"It's cool stuff," Saez said. "You're in a room ... and everyone's bouncing ideas off each other .. and great things come out. That's the fun part."
Someday, Saez would like to run his own design business.
"For today anyway," he said.
His goals, like his ideas, are always a work in progress.