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Remembering the 'father' of systems design engineering

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Retired systems design engineering professor George Soulis died on January 19, 2018 at the age of 92.

A furniture designer and factory manager for the Snyder's Limited Furniture Company, Soulis joined theGeorge Soulis University of Waterloo in March 1961 as an assistant professor at the invitation of Douglas Wright, dean of engineering. To burnish his academic credentials (he had graduated with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Toronto in 1950), Soulis received a grant to study at the prestigious German design school, the Hochschule für Gestaltung.

Returning to the Waterloo campus nine months later, Soulis taught early classes of engineering students, some of them in the campus maintenance building, next to the snowplows and tractors.

“He was largely responsible for bringing the discipline of design into the curriculum for engineering, not just at Waterloo, but across Canada,” writes retired professor Ed Jernigan. Together, with Professors Peter Roe and Vir Handa, Soulis wrote The Discipline of Design, the first engineering design textbook in Canada.

Soulis was also an integral part of the committee that designed the University's coat of arms.

In 1964, Soulis founded the Institute of Design at Waterloo with support from the National Research Council, “to undertake fundamental research related to design and to carry out individual design projects.” An early interdisciplinary effort, the Institute was a collaboration between the Faculty of Engineering and the Doon School of Fine Arts.

Soulis went on to establish, alongside Roe and H.K. Kesvan, the Department of Design within Engineering. In 1965, Soulis was named Associate Professor and chair of that department, and in 1966 he was promoted to full professor.

The department of design initially focused on architecture and industrial design from an engineering perspective. The department added an undergraduate program in architecture in 1967. A year later the architecture program was moved to the newly created Faculty of Environmental Studies. A result of this move was the creation of the systems design engineering department with Soulis, Roe, and Kesavan as its founding members.

The financial foundation for the creation of this new department was partly from money earned by a team of Waterloo engineering faculty members for design work done for Expo ’67 in Montreal. Soulis was an integral part of the University’s design team which did the main design work for three pavilions at the event including Kaleidoscope, which was one of the most popular exhibits at the world’s fair.

A visionary for systems design

George Soulis in 1975.The vision for systems design engineering involved “building an education for engineers that would balance systems thinking as a way of knowing our complex, interdisciplinary world and design practice as a way of doing – finding solutions to those complex problems that transcend disciplines,” writes Jernigan.

In addition to teaching, Soulis held many administrative appointments, including a long stint as the Faculty of Engineering’s associate dean (undergraduate studies) and served on the University’s Senate and Board of Governors.

In 1981 he was one of the first Waterloo faculty members recruited into the SHAD Valley summer enrichment program for outstanding high school students, many of whom find their way into the systems design engineering program.

In 1984 Soulis transferred to management sciences, with a continued cross appointment to systems design engineering.

Soulis retired from the University in February 1991, though he stayed on as an adjunct professor for many years. He would later lead the University of Waterloo’s Retiree Association. In 1998 he was named an Honorary Member of the University.

George Soulis in a recent photograph.Soulis held dozens of patents, on everything from artificial paintbrush bristles and the paint roller to solutions on how to prevent users from seeing the edges between floors, walls and ceilings within virtual reality environments.

Fully three generations of the Soulis family have been deeply involved with the University of Waterloo as students, faculty and staff, as further detailed in a 2007 Waterloo magazine article on the Alumni website.

Originally published in the Daily Bulletin on February 1, 2018

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