Put Your Designs to the Test: An Interview with Alumna Julia Duvall

April 1, 2021

Breathe99 started making face masks before it was popular. Founded in 2018, the company’s original mask, the B1 Mask, was designed to protect users from air pollution. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in early 2020, the team, including alumna Julia Duvall, put their experience to good use and redesigned the B1 Mask to create a higher protection face covering. With that, the B2 Mask was born and soon became one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions of 2020.

In the following interview, Julia Duvall (BS ‘15; MS ‘17, Apparel Studies) discusses her work with the B2 Mask and how her experiences at the College of Design’s Wearable Technology Lab helped with the development of the B2 Mask.

Julia Duvall wears the Breathe99 B2 Mask

What was your role in the B2 Mask’s design and production?

My focus has been the development of the various overlays (the outer coverings) for the B2 Mask. This portion of the design secures the molded facepiece (which creates the airtight seal) to the wearer’s head. We have a modular design, meaning that the outer cover can be changed for different functions and aesthetics. My work ranges from user research, sample making, product testing, and working with our manufacturing partners to get the overlays into production.

The B2 Mask was in production long before the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the original intent behind this product? How did things change once the pandemic hit?

The B1, the original design, was intended to protect individuals from air pollution. This also requires a high level of protection, not found in the products that were available at the time. Many existing masks don’t have air-tight seals, which allow particles to flow around the edges of the mask, rather than through the filtering material itself. As a company, we believe that breathable air is a human right. This includes all particulates, whether it is a viral substance, air pollution, smoke, or allergens. We removed the exhalation valve when creating the B2 so that the mask would provide source control (protecting others) as well as wearer protection.

What is on the horizon for breathe99?

As a team our focus is twofold, we hope to address the lack of clear understanding around masking and provide access to highly protective reusable masks. Gaps in general understanding include knowing respiratory health risks, when to wear a mask, and what type of mask provides adequate protection. Our product excels in filtration efficiency, fit/face seal, and breathability, three critical aspects of a protective mask. We are also addressing the very human aspects that arise when wearing something on your face, including ergonomics and personal style. The Breathe99 blog was created in order to raise awareness around masking. We’ve connected with like-minded thought leaders and other domestic mask manufacturers as part of AMMA (American Mask Manufacturers Association) to reach these common goals. Through this joint effort we’ve seen the creation of a new mask standard, ASTM F3502, which was just released in order to provide a benchmark to gauge the quality of non-medical masks on the market. We are in process of our third-party testing for this certification. We are also working to provide additional sizes to meet the needs of a wide range of face shapes and sizes.

How did your experiences at the College of Design and, specifically, within the Wearable Technology Lab, prepare you for working on the B2 Mask?

I am extremely grateful for the time I spent at the College of Design working with my advisors, Dr. Brad Holschuh and Dr. Lucy E. Dunne and my Wearable Technology Lab (WTL) cohort. The lab gave me the skills to view the entire system when solving problems. This way we’ve been able to create a product at breathe99 that doesn’t just work in a vacuum. It can be integrated into daily life by addressing the need for high-level protection, but also be easy to use and provide customizable style for the wearer. I’ve also learned how to work with a diverse team, switching from the “language” of researcher, to engineer to marketeer. This has strengthened my ability to view something through many lenses and solve problems that take every stakeholders’ needs into account. This is so helpful when working at breathe99. It enables us to solve multifaceted problems as a team.

What advice do you have for current design students and recent alumni?

I have two pieces of advice that I wish I had taken into practice earlier. I’m sure you’ve heard them before. First, take care of yourself. You need to put your oxygen mask on before you can help anyone else. This can mean nourishing yourself by building a healthy routine, moving your body, eating well, taking the time you need to recharge, and spending time with people who enliven you. When I was in school it felt as though there wasn’t time for this, but I promise you’ll get things done faster if you do. It helps you have a clearer mind for decisions, big thinking, and creating change in the world. Second, don’t be afraid of putting your designs to the test, in other words, don’t get too attached to them. Seek out the feedback, even if it feels harsh. You aren’t your product. If it fails, good. Now you know what doesn’t work and what can be improved. You’ll be a better designer if you do this. I still have to remind myself to rest and face failure in the eye, but I keep practicing!

Sarah Klecker (BS ’17, Apparel Design) is putting her design degree to work creating functional apparel for athletes of all kinds.

Wearable Technology Lab graduate research assistant Julia Duvall (Apparel Design ‘15) and undergraduate research assistant Nicholas Schleif (Electrical Engineering & Product Design) won the student design competition at the 2016 Augmented Human conference in Geneva, Switzerland with their deep pressure vest that “hugs” children with sensory processing disorder.

Driven by the acute need for N95 masks in hospitals, faculty from the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, College of Science of Engineering, and medical school worked together to create two face mask designs that could be assembled using available materials.