Each semester, seniors in the Industrial Design department at the Rhode Island School of Design enter a lottery system to select their top choices for entry into an advanced studio course. The topics range from the popular NASA studio, to shoe design, wearable technology, UI/UX and beyond. Just days before classes begin, the department coordinator emails individual faculty members to let them know how many students enrolled. In what can sometimes be a hit to the ego, they tell you how many students picked your studio first. This year, I was mildly shocked to discover that 13 of my 15 students selected my studio called Trust and Verify as their number one pick.
The discipline of industrial design is often associated with the mass production of consumer goods. The sneakers you wear or the phone you can’t stop looking at were designed by teams that certainly included industrial designers. They may or may not have used colored sticky notes and sharpies to generate some early ideas. They may have drawn some renderings with fancy colored markers or CAD software. Chances are, a multitude of ideas and prototypes were tossed aside before they landed on something ready for production. The design process isn’t always linear, nor does it always lead to success. We’ve all used products that were counterintuitive or difficult to negotiate. Generally speaking, designers learn from their mistakes and build upon the successes and failures of other efforts.
It is this ability to try something new or to humanize a complex topic that might contribute to a breakthrough in an otherwise calcified field.
Most design students today are still interested in learning the processes and skills that will help them land the jobs (or create the new ones) that allow them to be creative and financially secure. But they are also interested in the systems that their designs will live in and how they will impact the world. As we enter the third week in our semester, students are driving conversations around gun violence, inclusion and social justice. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that they’d want to unpack the theme of trust in the world we live in today.
To be clear, when we explore the topic of “Trust and Verification,” we are not reading transcripts of discussions between Reagan and Gorbachev. In an early assignment, students were asked to create small books that communicated their own perspective on the theme. One Asian-American student created a book that helps others determine how one might trust what is or is not an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. Another student illustrated a story (using actual cut-up credit cards) about a data breach that compromised his credit card and the tension between security and convenience. These personal stories allow us to share our connections and concerns as they relate to corporations, government, media, and other global issues.
It is this ability to try something new or to humanize a complex topic that might contribute to a breakthrough in an otherwise calcified field. Can design contribute to new thinking around foreign policy or even global security? A former student once suggested we change the classic improvisational tip, say “yes, and…” to instead say “yes but…” In his spirit, I would say:
Yes, design can contribute to new thinking around foreign policy and global security… but, designers can’t do it alone. In fact, we can’t even come close to having an impact until we understand the constraints and culture of the disciplines that have devoted their careers to these issues.
What brings me hope is the interest I’ve seen from branches of the government, think tanks and even the US military, who have been eager to collaborate with young designers to explore new approaches to really hard problems. In several weeks my students will undergo a joint exercise with cadets from West Point. This will be the second year that we’ve collaborated in cross-disciplinary projects. Two cultures will collide, but the energy and insight that will be created is a force that may resonate with these young leaders for years to come. Design alone won’t save the world; but given a seat at the table, it just might contribute in ways we’ve yet to imagine.
Tom Weis is an Assistant Professor with the Rhode Island School of Design and co-founder of the design firms, Hello, we are ___ and the Steel House.
This piece is part of a special series, in honor of Inkstick’s one-year anniversary, which looks to the future of US foreign policy under President Donald J. Trump and beyond. To read the rest of the series, click here.