Interview: Rosanne Somerson becomes president of RISD


23 February 2015

Last week, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) announced the appointment of its new president.

The school announced that Rosanne Somerson – who had acted as interim president since the previous incumbent John Maeda stepped down in 2013 – would take up the position on a permanent basis. Somerson is a furniture designer who, prior to being appointed interim president, had previously served as the school's provost as well as being a long-serving member of RISD's faculty.

Disegno first spoke to Somerson in January 2014 when she took up the presidency on a short-term basis, and she spoke about the challenges facing design education. Now, we are delighted to return to the conversation in an interview that sees Somerson discuss her ambitions for RISD moving forward, the notion of designing leadership, and the place of research in an academic institution.

Congratulations on the new role! But how did the move from interim president to the permanent position work? What was the process?

There was quite an extensive search; probably the most extensive one that RISD has ever gone through. There were a number of advisory committees set up to help define the position description and then it was about a 12-month process that started just after I became interim.

Did you always want to take on the position permanently?

It evolved. It was a very quick transition from when I was provost to becoming interim president, but I was very committed to that and felt that I could lead. In that process of being interim president I could test the position out for myself to see if I decided I wanted to be an applicant. But I entered into the role initially as interim president. I didn’t make any assumptions because I knew a school like RISD would make a full-fledged search. I have to say I’m very honoured and delighted to find the search led my way.

You got to try out the role: were there areas of it that surprised you?

In the role of president, you get a chance to look across the whole structure of an institution. My background is as a designer and artist and I’m very fascinated by the ideas of structures and systems, and really thinking about how to design leadership in an institution. I was able to look at my own education and apply that very readily to the task at hand. One of the factors for any college president is that higher education is faced by a lot of really interesting challenges and in my view art and design education is perfectly poised to lead in this area because that what we do is more important and has more impact than at any other time. The world needs creative, nimble thinkers who can face unexpected consequences and thrive. And that’s exactly what we teach.

But any president has to focus on things like fundraising and bringing new resources to an institution: trying to find ways to keep tuition costs low while attracting and being able to enrol the very best students who should be here. That is a challenge. Our form of education is expensive, so I’ve been trying to raise scholarship funds and raise awareness for students who might not have considered an arts and design education to see the richness that can offer. Then you try to find ways to actually get those students to try and attend.

It sounds like you treat the presidency as a design problem.

I do. In addition to teaching at RISD I ran my own design practice for years. I had a robust studio with a lot of employees and complex commissions, which was helpful experience. Leadership is really about enabling a team. There are wonderful people who work at RISD who bring their expertise to this problem and the design background comes in figuring out how to lead that team and ask the right questions and think about the assumptions we have in running the institution and making sure they’re still relevant and tweaking them when they’re not. We’ve aligned a lot of our planning processes over the last year in ways that are making the work we do much more connected. That’s a designer’s way of thinking and that wouldn’t work if we didn’t have the expertise here to support that.

You’ve spoken a lot previously about hands-on learning. How does that fit with the rise of design research that we’re seeing in a lot of schools. Are schools the right place for that kind of research to be taking place?

We are committed to hands-on, immersive learning at RISD and that’s one of our distinguishing characteristics. We believe that the students really learn to think through the hands-on iterative work they do in the studio. The idea of taking an idea and making it real through making and through the process of reframing questions and finding physical form to express those questions is something that sets our designers apart from other designers. And we consider that a form of research.

What about more theory-based research?

We’re committed to it, so I think it’s very valuable. We have a very strong liberal arts division at RISD and think it’s important that artists and designers understand the context they’re working in. We have students studying history and philosophy, the social sciences, the literary arts, art history, and they’re making connections. One of the things separating artists and designers from other kinds of learners is that they can make really interesting connections and see patterns differently from people schooled in a more traditional form of education. It’s why our liberal arts faculty, all of whom are PhDs, choose to work in an art and design school: the creativity of advancing work they’re teaching in classrooms into really ambitious and imaginative arenas.

So that emphasis on being able to transform something by making it into a physical reality returns again?

We don’t expect everyone who graduates from here to become a maker, but they will know how to manifest ideas into real outcomes. That kind of knowledge is transferable into other forms of work. But we have in the last year we’ve built up our research division at RISD and appointed new staff and new support for faculty research, which has been a priority. We’ve done a lot partnerships in the last year with Cessna, Lego and NASA for instance. Part of the reason companies come here is that they are fascinated by the capacity our students have to manifest ideas in tangible ways. That’s very much from the core of this emphasis on critical making, this idea of making and critical thinking developing together. That’s why the outcomes of our research are successful in the world.

What can of profile do you look for in industrial partners?

We have to be selective because we get a lot of requests and are careful to separate them so they’re not work for hire. If someone wants to hire us to design a specific thing, we have a very robust career centre and alumni office. We’re interested in the institution in academic inquiries that look at very broad and abstract problems. Sometimes a company will approach us with a problem in mind and we reframe it so we’re asking a much more abstract question about research of an academic nature. We’ve done work with Toshiba and Samsung and Target and in those instances they had kind of an idea in mind when they approached us, but then through a series of conversations we ended up focusing the research onto something they hadn’t considered before. They were excited about the way we framed the question. So we guide them towards the really rigorous and deep enquiries that artists and designers excel at.