Rosanne Somerson on the challenges of design education

Rhode Island

3 January 2014

On January 1 Rosanne Somerson was appointed the interim president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the USA's leading arts and design school. Here, she discusses the challenges facing design schools worldwide.

Somerson, a furniture designer and educator, assumed the presidency following the departure of RISD's former president John Maeda. Maeda, a graphic designer and scholar, announced his resignation late last year as he left the school to become a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm that specialises in digital, green technology and life sciences startups. Maeda is also the chair of eBay’s newly created design advisory board.

In the interview that follows, Somerson discusses Maeda's legacy at RISD and the future of the school under her leadership, as well as arguing for the importance of making in any design education.

You’re filling the shoes of John Maeda, who was president of RISD for five years. What do you see John’s legacy at the school as being?

John is leaving RISD in a good and strong position. He was, and remains, a very strong advocate for art and design in the world, looking at a broader understanding of how art and design influence industries, organisations and governments that previously weren’t closely connected to the work of artists and designers. But John also placed an emphasis on scholarship and worked to make a RISD education available to a more diverse population.

His work with industry seems particularly relevant given that he’s moving to join a venture capital firm. What do you make of that move?

John’s always looked at how design can influence new markets and that’s exactly what his new role will entail. We’re very proud of that and see it as a wonderful opportunity and a terrific example of RISD’s influence in the world - that someone can come from a position as a college president at RISD and then go on to have that sort of influence and view in the venture capital world. It’s a wonderful link.

How will you interpret the presidency?

I’m not seeing myself as a placeholder. I think one aspect that I will be building in addition to that role of art and design in business and technology is the role that they can play in humanitarian and cultural concerns, and the ways in which art and design influence lives in other ways.

What does that mean to engage with cultural and humanitarian issues? How will you be do that?

A lot of our faculty are engaged with global work that has to do with taking the practice of design and using it to improve lives. Bringing new knowledge to different regions and also learning from new regions and letting thriving cultures come back into our practice. It’s a very collaborative engagement. I’m thinking of projects around architectural design, site design and challenges such as ensuring access to clean water, technology and electricity. We have a lot of faculty designing with those challenges in mind and I think that’s something that can’t be lost in the importance of art and design globally. I want to build on things that are already ongoing and try to articulate them more broadly to the outside.

Will that be your predominant focus?

I also want to look at education itself. It’s in a really challenged position right now and I firmly believe that the kind of immersive, hands-on-based, conceptual education that we do at RISD is something that will prepare the next generation for the 21st-century competencies that are now needed. I want to develop and articulate why this form of education is so significant at this point in history.

Why is a hands-on approach important? And what is your concern with other forms of education like MOOCs?

I can speak for hours about this. In a very brief way, RISD’s education is based on immersive, studio-based learning with real materials, centred around what we call critical making – the notion of critical thinking and making coming together. We firmly believe that the kind of learning that happens with physical, embodied engagement develops a high intellectual mind. That association is not always clear but we know it’s true from watching our alumni and the development of our students while they’re here. That’s one part of it, the notion that there’s a physicality to intellectualism that we can see and nurture.

But why does physical experience lead to greater intellectualism? That link isn’t necessarily obvious.

Often the hands-on is associated with a kind of fabrication methodology. You can see the strength of the maker movement around the world and I think that what is happening around that movement is that if you use making as a critical process and are experimenting with real materials, then there’s something that happens that just can’t happen any other way. Often the materials or processes speak back to the designer in a way where there is a mutual discovery. You get outcomes that are unexpected. If you match that with the kind of contextual learning that is happening at RISD, there is a depth of inquiry that just cannot happen any other way. I think physical investment also makes a stronger personal investment in developing an idea. I have seen that over and over as an educator. It changes individuals’ expectations of what they can achieve; it raises the bar.

What are the challenges facing that form of education?

There is a notion that it’s a very expensive form of education – classes have to be small, there has to be technical support. It’s expensive to do well and that is a challenge for all quality institutions. There are also levels of regulation that are well intentioned, but doesn’t always produce the results that are intended. You also need to think about the cost of tuition relative to the tough job markets out there. But RISD has an extremely successful placement rate [96 per cent of alumni are employed one year after graduation]. We want to maintain that and reassure families who invest in RISD that it’s a good choice. Education isn't just about jobs, but it is one of the challenges we face in justifying the expense for young people.

The design industry also adapts and changes very quickly, with new technologies constantly being introduced. How difficult is to remain abreast of that?

It’s the challenge of pedagogy. Disciplines are no longer tidied into the neat boxes of the past. There is so much crossover and there are constantly new technologies and materials that are really informing practices. One of our core values is the notion of deep disciplinary education. We believe in the silo verticals of a sequential curriculum, but we also hope that we’re building a rich horizontal level above those vertical platforms where integration and crossover can be developed and nurtured. But it is a constant challenge getting the right people here. The educational system is not one that people move in and out of freely. There are a lot of very longterm faculty here who have wonderful contributions to make to the school, but who may not be aware of the new developments. It’s balancing out junior faculty with the senior faculty who have set the core of our educational model.