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Designing the Future

Designing the Future

As part of RISD’s Shared Voices presidential speaker series, Metropolis magazine publisher and longtime editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy came to campus on Monday to engage in an animated discussion about the future of design and design education. Interim President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID and interim Provost Pradeep Sharma hosted the conversation, with students, faculty and staff joining them in the Fleet Library at RISD. In welcoming and introducing her, Somerson noted that Szenasy is well respected for her commitment to ethical, human-centered design that offers meaningful solutions to global problems – a value that’s also at the heart of a RISD education.

Reflecting on her tour of studios during the day, Szenasy noted that RISD is “a magical place” and encouraged students to share their thoughts and questions about how to imbue design with meaning and shift the balance of our impact on the planet. Brazilian student Patchi Porvir 15 ID – a Maharam STEAM fellow who worked for an NGO in São Paulo over the summer compiling online educational resources in Portuguese – asked for Szenasy’s take on the relationship between design and social justice.

“Studying the Bauhaus school as a student woke me up to the idea that design has a larger mission,” Szenasy responded – “that designers are responsible for improving people’s well being and effecting positive change. We were on the right track until the 1980s, when Reaganomics came along and designers started focusing on ‘market constructs’ rather than people.”

Szenasy emphasized that the key is working with communities to learn exactly what’s needed and encouraged students to focus on a specific area in which to effect change – “otherwise the world’s problems can seem so overwhelming that you become paralyzed,” she warned.

Sharma added that “design is all about people so it cannot be divorced from politics.” He cited Architecture of the Everyday (Princeton Architectural Press), a book co-edited by RISD alumna Deborah Berke BArch 77 that cautions architects to “park their egos at the door,” but suggested that designers do need to have some ego in order to do good work. They just need to be inclusive in their approach.

Szenasy also pointed out a notion the RISD community is totally comfortable with – that “iterative design is the new norm.” Today’s top designers don’t complete a project, take a photo and move on to the next thing. Instead, they watch how people use the thing they’ve created and then adjust the design to meet the users’ needs.

That shift in perception is one that Szenasy finds encouraging. “What we’re paying attention to as designers is definitely changing,” she says. “The new generation wants to do things differently.” They’re struggling against a “layer of middle-aged white men” who run corporate design firms and are “protecting something that is no longer valuable.”

Just as the nature of the industry is changing, so, too, is the nature of the type of education RISD offers. “Design education is experiential,” Somerson pointed out, “and less prescribed than it once was.” Szenasy agreed and said she has high hopes for what technology and connectivity can add to the pedagogical mix. “The role of the teacher is to act as a facilitator who knows the facts and can identify reliable resources for students,” she added.

Szenasy closed by encouraging students and graduates to get out into the design community and network. “It’s up to you,” she said, “to design your life and your profession.”

Simone Solondz

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