Faculty: Thomas Ockerse


Tom Ockerse educates (a word from the Latin root educare, meaning “to draw out”) — as teacher, designer, artist, poet, theorist, writer, publisher, (past) administrator, consultant, lecturer, collaborator, parent, grandfather and other roles played so far in this life. That’s all you need to know — but if you must, then please read on . . .

Tom, as professor of graphic design, has taught at RISD since 1971. Born Dutch (in Bandung, Indonesia) he and some of his family moved from the Netherlands to the USA in 1957 (he was happy about that since he was about to fail in school). With art and sports as two favorite interests he went to Ohio State University via a full athletic scholarship (recruited by the swim coach Mike Peppe) to study “commercial art.” After receiving his BFA (1963) he continued studies in “graphic design” at Yale University receiving his MFA in 1965. His design career began at Fogelman Associates (Morristown, NJ) where he worked under the direction of famed Jim Fogelman (considered by Philip B. Meggs the originator of “corporate identity design” in America) on design accounts for Ciba, Hoffman LaRoche, Interchem, Syntex and others. Although Tom made a career shift into teaching in 1967, he has continued his design practice (providing communication and design strategies) ever since for clients like Houghton Mifflin, Indiana University, RISD, RIHT Financial, Apple Computer, Aperture Magazine and World Magazine. Since 1990 Tom chose to work primarily for non-profit organizations, such as the design direction for Visible Language, and his partnership with Tony Balis in The Humanity Initiative whose mission is “to encourage people to understand this planet as our common home.”

Tom’s involvement in graphic design education began at Indiana University (1967-71) where he was involved as assistant professor with undergraduate and graduate level students. This proved a transformative period for him, especially due to his students who provoked him to radically rethink education, the practice of design and the world of art. He became thoroughly involved in the growing 1960s activities of concrete poetry, Fluxus, mail art, happenings, book arts and other “intermedia” (cf Dick Higgins) arts, all seeking to merge the arts and erase conventional boundaries. This made him realize the importance of the human factor at the very heart of design and that all design is truly a matter of human “interface design” (a term the computing industry hijacked), which means to design for the user experience as something worth experiencing for both practical and inspirational needs.

In 1971 Tom came to RISD. There he instrumentally reshaped the graphic design program as Head of the Graphic Design Department for twenty years (1973-1993), counting among his accomplishments: a department growth from 70 students to over 200 students in the 1970s; defining and teaching, since the 1970s, core courses and subjects like Visible Language (now called Making Meaning), Visual Systems, Strategic Design (no longer offered) and electives Concrete Books (establishing bookwork interests), Semiotics in Design; he initiated the Graduate Program of Graphic Design in 1976, led a recent growth from 14 students to about 40 currently, was its Program Head until 2004, taught primarily the introductory Graduate Studio I (Unfolding Meaning) and was a principle thesis adviser; in 1986 he pioneered and directed for many years SIGDS (the RISD Summer Institute for Graphic Design Studies) to reflect the department’s curriculum for courses offered via Continuing Education. From  1978-1989 he also served as Chair (now called Dean) of the Division of Design. He now continues the pleasure of teaching full-time without any distractions of administrative duties in courses like Concrete Books, Open Re/Search, TexTperiment/TexTperience, and Design as Contemplative Practice. The latter course reflects his evolving pedagogical and practical directions (to quote his 2006 lecture at Hong Ik University, Korea):
“I view design not merely as ‘making’— rather, as ‘making appear.’ My interests are in attending to a process that can generate visual design required to help bring about relationships. This embraces the growing paradigm shift from the reductive to the holistic. In this shift relationships are contextually sensitive and able to integrate the dynamic networks of mind, form, sensibility and spirit with life and nature’s energies. Similarly, my quest in education seeks to offer what will truly sustain students in life: processes to help cultivate their intelligence so as to become truly integrated individuals in order to deal with life as a whole. For design/art education this means a shift from technical, skill-oriented, analytical (intellectual) tendencies toward ways that deepen awareness for how user experiences can serve practical needs but also draw out the poetry of life we are all so intimately part of.”

Tom is known for bringing to light methods for perceiving the mechanisms of meaning in visual communication design. This interest was first stimulated by his experiments in concrete poetry with what he called “word and image equations.” Then he was drawn into semiotics as an intellectual theory that deals with questions concerning meaning, cognition, reference, truth and reality, which he developed into a tool based on the principles developed by logician C. S. Peirce. Eventually these connected his interests with other fields for knowing which helped him delve deeper into the subtle qualities reflected by mind and being — keynotes to discovering the essential nature of objects and what lies beneath the unfolding/enfolding experience of the design process. He lectured on these interests and wrote articles such as Semiotics and Design Education, (Visible Language, XIII, No.4), De-Sign/Super-Sign (Semiotica, 52-3/4), and The Semiosis of Design (Zed 4, 1997), Developing Design Educators (HearSay: 10 conversations on design, 2002), Visualogue (Icograda, Nagoya, 2003), Design as Contemplative Practice, United Designs, Hanyang University, 2005).

He lectured extensively on his work and on design education at many institutions in the US, Europe and Asia. Recently Tom (with his wife Susan) presented papers on this at the 2007 SVA Liberal Arts Conference: Making in the Light of Being, and Understanding Being in the Light of Making. He has also directed and taught many workshops on semiotics of the visual and “Unfolding and Enfolding Meaning” for professional designers and educators, at the RISD summer institute SIGDS, in Europe and Asia (Musashino Art University, Japan; Hong Ik University, Seoul national University). From 1993-1997 he was a regular adjunct faculty member at the Jan van Eyck Akademie (Holland) for post-graduate studies in Fine Arts, Design and Theory.

His theories are also present in his work with concrete poetry, bookworks and other “experiments” that explore visual and visible language systems. These art objects have won awards and international recognition and were represented in numerous exhibitions and anthologies (such as: Expo de Novisma Poesia, Buenos Aires; ?Konkrete Poesie, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh; This Book is a Movie, Dell Publishers; Breakthrough Fictioneers, Something Else Press; American Typography Today, Reinhold); Experiment Design, ABC Press Zurich). Published bookworks include: The A–Z Book, Time, TV Documentracings, T.O.P., Space Window, and Chance/Choice. He directed, partly designed and edited, and wrote for SPIRALS, a book published by RISD’s Graphic Design Department to present the department’s pedagogy and practice. A more recent project lives on the web at http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org/maps.htm#RISD or http://www.gaidula.com/fetzer/archis_frame.html, a collaborative project for the Fetzer Foundation and The Collective Wisdom Initiative to help them map out and simulate the collective wisdom field.

He has served as educational consultant to UCLA, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of the Arts, Universidad de las Americas (Mexico), Hull College and Sheffield Polytechnic (England), University of Texas, and for Jan van Eyck’s graduate design program. In 1986 he was the United Nations’ UNIDO consultant to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, to “acquaint visual communication faculty and students with contemporary trends and technology in the field of graphic design and to help the Institute in the planning of its program.” From 1981-1985 he served as a Vice President of the AIGA Board of Directors, and was responsible for establishing the AIGA Education Committee as a standing committee, and for initiating the AIGA publication Graphic Design Education that describes what a graphic design education should encompass. He also served on the Board of the Graphic Design Education Association. The American Center for Design presented Ockerse with their 1991 Education Award. 


Thomas Ockerse

Thomas Ockerse


  • BFA, Ohio State University, Columbus
  • MFA, Yale University

  • GRAPH-3255
  • GRAPH-3298
  • GRAPH-320G
  • GRAPH-3280
  • GRAPH-3265
  • GRAPH-3117
  • GRAPH-3216

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