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Creative energy at Commencement 2011

Creative energy at Commencement 2011

The first sign that RISD Commencement might be a little different was the group of Landscape Architecture graduates covered head to toe in a shaggy mass of unkempt fiber.

The first sign that RISD Commencement might be a little different was the group of Landscape Architecture graduates covered head to toe in a shaggy mass of unkempt fiber. The second was when keynote speaker Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, encouraged graduates to “embrace failure.” And the third was when the senior class speaker gave a moving and entertaining talk about finding total acceptance at RISD and quoted “the prophet Lady Gaga” by belting out a rousing rendition ofBorn This Way.

The crowd that gathered for RISD’s June 4 Commencement ceremony at the Rhode Island Convention Center was more colorful than most at that venue, with students decked out in all sorts of interesting outfits, including ones that represented Robin (from Batman), Cleopatra and a team of construction workers. Even students who chose to wear the usual caps and gowns were anything but traditional – many festooned their caps with sequins, feathers, flowers and even orange traffic cones. But at RISD, the distinctive garb was just one aspect of a culture that celebrates uniqueness, creativity and individuality.

This was highlighted best in the speech by senior class speaker Affandi Setiawan 11 PH, who centered his talk around gratitude – the gratitude he felt in coming to RISD from his native Indonesia and feeling immediately accepted by his professors and peers. Though he’d known from a young age that he was homosexual, at home he’d been afraid to come out to family and friends. “When I came to RISD, for the very first time in my life, I felt accepted, liberated and celebrated for being who I am,” he said. “This school doesn’t judge anybody; RISD accepts the uniqueness of all of us.” In addition to his RISD classmates, Setiawan cited Oprah and Lady Gaga as people from whom he draws courage and inspiration, and encouraged his fellow students to “follow their passion and make beautiful meaning out of their lives.” He then smiled and broke into song: “As our prophet Lady Gaga says, ‘I’m on the right track baby. I was born this way.’”

Keynote speaker Bill Moggridge, on the other hand, admits he didn’t always know he was on the right track. When he first arrived in the US from England in 1965, he landed in New York with no money and took a position answering phones for an oil company before finding jobs as an illustrator and medical device designer.

From these modest beginnings, Moggridge has become a leading design thinker, recognized with a lifetime achievement award at the White House in 2009. In addition to his design of the first laptop computer in 1981 and cofounding the product design and innovation firm IDEO, he is best known for helping to establish the fields of interaction design and user-centered design by bringing human factors into the design process.

But Moggridge’s talk didn’t center on his successes. Instead, he talked about his failures with charm and dry wit. He encouraged students to keep things simple and to find their place in the world, noting that, “We can always learn by doing and by making, prototyping, building and trying things out. The creative skills are future proof.”

Moggridge was awarded an honorary doctorate from RISD, along with philosopher, writer and aesthetics scholar Arnold Berleant and public, performance and installation artis tMierle Ukeles, who spoke at the graduate hooding ceremony about her work celebrating “maintenance art,” transforming mundane tasks like public sanitation into radical art statements.

Other awards given out to RISD students, faculty and alumni included the Alumni Association Art and Education Award presented to Katie Salen MFA 92 GD for founding Quest2Learn; the Mendelson Award for Community Service, which went to Kara Dziobek BArch 11; the Herbert and Claiborne Pell Award for excellence in art history, to Adam Hyman 11 FD; and the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching to FAV Professor Amy Kravitz and to adjunct faculty member Douglass Scott, a 31-year veteran of the Graphic Design department.

President John Maeda’s remarks lauded students’ entrepreneurial spirit and leadership qualities. As the pace of change continues to accelerate in the world, Maeda predicted there will be opportunities for new kinds of leaders and innovators who can thrive amidst chaos.

Artists and designers, he said, will provide a new, needed approach that can transform volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Bob Johansen’s VUCA) into vision, understanding, clarity and agility. The “maker instinct” RISD students bring will allow them to try and fail and try again, turning a problem inside out in order to see the solution.

“Class of 2011,” Maeda said, “you are the ones to take on this mantle as a new kind of leader… bring back the humanity and innovation our world needs.”