Recommending without Borders
Wintersession offers an opportunity to step out of the usual swing of grad work and take a course in a different department. This year I wound up in Industrial Design, constructing a tiny house out of scavenged cardboard at one-to-one scale. Don’t ask me why, but I figured the experience would add to my practice as a graphic designer.
In the sketching stage of the project, between calculating curves and working out how to make wood pulp bear the weight of a human, we received an unexpected writing prompt: Hypothesize an extreme or exaggerated situation, then respond with a new piece of industrial design. I rolled my eyes for a moment at the idea of being asked to write fiction in a design class. Then I put pen to paper and surprised myself with a sketch—in writing—of a new design for a medieval crop-rotation-inspired composting toilet. Scribbling what was essentially free-form sci-fi was not how imagined I would be spending my Wintersession, but it paid off.
“Design Fiction” is apparently a fairly typical Industrial Design sketching exercise, but I had never come across it in Graphic Design. I used it a few more times during my tiny house course, and every time it made me wonder: How could I adapt it into a Graphic Design tool, and what other tools are out there, in frequent use in other departments, but unknown to me? On every floor of CIT and Fletcher, in BEB and TLAD, there are huge pools of knowledge, but the locked doors inhibit the free flow of information, and there is a tendency towards siloing into separate departments.
With fresh eyes I looked at my own practice: Every day I use techniques that I take for granted. Is there anything worth sharing? What might I get back if I encouraged other RISD grads to do the same?
I issued a call for a response: What are the names, processes, techniques, and objects that every RISD grad—irrespective of department—might find useful? What knowledge should be shared across disciplines? What if a technique from Textiles could be adapted for a graphic designer’s uses? What can an architect learn from a landmark piece of ceramics? I asked for the names of admired artists or designers; for useful techniques; for enlightening texts; for objects that represent the very best of a given discipline. The ancient and the contemporary, the obvious and obscure, the personal and the archetypal—all were fair game.
Recommendations came back. You can take Drew’s advice right now: Pick something up off your desk, drop it on a scanner, and hit go. This 3D to 2D conversion has a slight graphic design flavor to it (and it is not an uncommon tool in our department) but see it as a tool for defamiliarization and looking anew, and it could be useful in any medium.
Common themes cropped up across departments, for example an interest in the creation, manipulation, and description of negative space, which manifested in: a) a figure-ground map of the public space in Rome (courtesy of an Architecture student); b) vacuum forming as a quick way of creating a void (via Industrial Design); and c) a method for determining the relationship between white space and text space on a printed page (thank you, Graphic Design).
Reading recommendations showed a clear interest in looking outward, both by developing language to communicate art and design work beyond the boundaries of our institution and by gathering influence from as far afield as physics, math, philosophy, and music. Suggested texts also marked an interest in social and civic design, irrespective of medium—another sign that we already face outwards when we work.
The conversation about collaborative, cross-departmental work—or lack thereof—is one that I heard often this year. Work that rejects disciplinary boundaries has yielded notable results, both in education (Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus, for two landmark examples) and in professional studios (Heatherwick Studio leaps from art to architecture to industrial design, and tellingly was suggested as one that every grad should know).
If we look up to these expansive models, then how can we foster a similar ethic at RISD? For me this line of inquiry started in Wintersession, which is in many ways the perfect time for experimenting. I would like to propose a Wintersession class in which techniques and exercises from each department are somehow adapted for the whole school, shared, and put into practice. The first step though is just to find out more about what goes on behind the closed doors in our building. To that end I invite you all to submit your recommendations.
You can find the link to my survey here.