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Art + Business Meet at Harvard xDesign

Art + Business Meet at Harvard xDesign

RISD alum Jonathan Arena 09 GD is a right brain/left brain kind of guy.

RISD alum Jonathan Arena 09 GD is a right brain/left brain kind of guy. The graphic designer and Harvard MBA candidate is now about to launch the first-ever Harvard xDesign conference, a two-day event on January 25 and 26 highlighting the ways in which creative design can advance and enhance academic study across disciplines.

“Business is a platform for idea exchange in the real world,” notes Arena. “And xDesign will demonstrate that design can be a lens for that exchange.” Believing in a “whole brain” approach to education and social progress, Arena has gathered together a group of xDesign panelists and speakers to participate in an opening day of talks and a second day of action – in which presenters will collaborate with Harvard students and faculty on a design-based solution to a complex problem revealed on the opening day of the conference.

Taking place at the newly constructed Harvard Innovation Lab, Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Graduate School of Design, Harvard xDesign will feature three RISD speakers: RISD Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Spalter (filling in for President John Maeda, who can’t be there since he’s at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland), alum and New York-based designer Jessica Walsh 08 GD and ID faculty member William Foulkes, a graduate of HBS.

Arena cites Foulkes’ popular RISD Wintersession course Design and Entrepreneurial Thinking as a profound intellectual and professional springboard. “I think Bill is a luminary. He’s my mentor. The biggest turning point for me in his class was realizing there was no glory or pride in being ignorant about business. Artists and designers have this unbelievable ability to create things in the world, but that’s only one half of the equation. You need wheels to execute and communicate your vision.”

At xDesign, Foulkes will address why he loves teaching business at RISD. “Artists and designers have a natural set of abilities that make them outstanding at business,” he says. “Curiosity, empathy, openness to new ideas, integrative thinking – these are qualities that business leaders spend a lifetime learning.”

They are also qualities that define his former student. “I grew up as an artist at RISD, and transitioned to being a designer,” Arena says. “Nicole Juen 90 GD was my first professor in graphic design and and she made a huge impression on me, always nurturing my entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging me to take risks.” Right out of RISD, Arena was admitted at HBS as a member of its first 2+2 class, a deferred admissions process in which a student works for two years, followed by two years of study in the MBA program. Now, he’s both a first-year student at HBS and a partner at Cloud Co, a design studio based in Seoul, Korea that does creative work for Muji, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Microsoft, among other clients.

Foulkes notes that this kind of exceptional achievement is characteristic of many RISD students, who he describes as smart, hard working and passionate about affecting change in the world around them. “Jonathan was probably a little more inclined to start ventures and jump into businesses with little fear of failure,” he says. Of course, “HBS Admissions called me after his interview,” he adds, “because they had never had anyone show up in ripped jeans before. Like my other students, he is relentlessly himself.” —Kirsten Andersen