Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Telling of Two Cities, #1 (Studio Culture and Designer as Author)

Telling of Two Cities, #1 (Studio Culture and Designer as Author)

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January 11, 2017

It feels good to get the band back together! The challenges of grad school have been different than I expected so far, and reinventing our weekly catch-ups is like putting on a comfy sweater. How was your first semester, broadly?

Same. I miss our lunches as well. We’ve got a great, diverse group of first-year students here at MICA, but there are only so many who are older and into their careers and can connect on the kinds of things we did over our lunch sessions. I am learning to manage the workload and late nights and have the satisfaction of authoring my own projects and take on subject matter that I'm super passionate about. It’s kind of what I imagined.

It sounds like your expectations were pleasantly met. 

Well school-wise yes. Socially, I haven’t managed to find that balance and a life (which was a goal coming from Syracuse and solitary confinement).

Totally. Well, I would say that the RISD studio I’ve joined is very welcoming, and my colleagues are incredibly talented and passionate about sharing their creative energy together.

That’s awesome. So does everyone work a lot in the studio and create a good vibe? Sometimes it seems that only a fraction of my classmates work in the studio. Many work from home. 

Oh, wow! No, people are always working in the studio here. I worry that I’m the one who’s never around. I am married and it's important to me to make sure I'm also invested in that relationship. I have a FOMO kinda thing that when I’m away my colleagues are having deep, fascinating conversations about our design prompt! But more to the point, yeah, I think there’s a sentiment that working in the studio is going to yield better results, and also fosters a stronger group. There are different factions though. I’ve dubbed myself and a few others the “morning crew” (I’m very lazily trying to make #morningcrew happen), and others work until 5 am, which I try to avoid at all costs. Doesn’t MICA, like, provide computers??? I would think that’s a big enough draw, to have a larger screen, plus there’s those great big windows and the downtown Baltimore view.

Haha, one would think. But damn, maybe I should have paid more attention to the studios when touring. 

Huh. I suppose every cohort is different. I remember on my MICA tour there was a faction that bragged about being there until all hours! I remember thinking maybe I was too old for that crowd, lol. 

Haha. You and me both. Yes! There was a wall of “MIDNIGHT SELFIES.” But I’m not in that late-night crew either. 

Oh, ok. So they are using the studio, just only between 6 pm and 6 am! I really admired your ambition (and success, I think) in improving the studio culture at Syracuse as a new faculty member. It takes a gentle touch. Like when a parent forcefully says “WE NEED TO SPEND TIME TOGETHER” versus making it happen with love—it just doesn't work that way.

Love that example. Like the scene in Boyhood with Ethan Hawke and the kids in the car … and them reminding him to just ease up on the parenting and let it happen. But yes, I’m taking even a gentler hand as a student / among my peers. I’m the old guy and have been in leadership roles so I am super careful to try to be one of the team. So def not dictating anything in the studio. But I am going to make a better effort to go to the studio all the time this semester and see if it improves for me.

Anyway, back to you. What was different than you expected this first semester?

Ah, yes. So the culture, studio, faculty were all are pretty much what I expected. I thought my biggest struggles would be adjusting to the schedule or that the RISD standards of excellence would be so high—but so far I’ve found the hardest thing (for me) is the conceptual process. After a pretty prescriptive start the design prompts get more and more abstract, and it’s up to you to “make meaning.” (There’s an actual RISD course called “Making Meaning.”) So far we’ve hardly talked about form at all, which is interesting, as one of the main draws to RISD for me from the start was the work, formally. The effort is mainly around finding and crystallizing an idea. 

You once told me about a Syracuse student who was frustrated by the upper level classes that prioritized creating products, and she told you, “I’m not an inventor!” I feel kind of like that, except it’s “I’m not a fine artist!” I’m used to parameters from clients that help give me a starting place. So far we’ve been encouraged to tell our own stories, and I was frustrated to find I didn’t know what I wanted to say. 

So can you give an example of a prompt, struggle, and what you decided to say?

How to put this as short as possible … given a choice of objects in the Special Collections Library of the Providence Public Library, you reflect on the object based on ten classic categories from Aristotle’s Organon—things like Substance, Quantity, Relation, Quality, and so on. Those ten reflections become ten double-sided “plates.” The result can be very removed from any kind of commercial deliverable. Mine took the form of a modular poster—the plates tiled together to make a larger composition, as well as working separately. You then “depart” from those plates in any direction you want, which was tough. I suddenly realized my task here is to be both designer and author, a concept that came up a lot this semester. 

What has been most challenging for you so far? 

Sounds like a valuable process of stretching yourself. I guess we wouldn’t want grad school to be easy. I found the biggest challenges in my (undergrad!) web class learning HTML and CSS for the first time. Totally unfamiliar and frustrating but in the end very satisfying. 

Interestingly enough I came to love the freedom of being the designer as author. (Though our prompts were likely less vague!) I got a sense of this teaching at Syracuse and even doing my blog—that to my surprise, as a pretty quiet introvert, I have things to say! Haha. 

So after being an editorial designer for many years, where we are given the content and have no hand in it, being able to build my projects around content I am passionate about has been an epiphany of sorts. It has made me think about pursuing my own organization where I am creating the projects and content for myself.

Of course, do work about stuff you care about! Lots to think about for next time. I think we got right to the meaty differences between our experiences.

Totally. Super excited to add to this each week.

Me too! Until then, happy author-ing.

Haha, you too. 

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