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Target + RISD: Space for Design Thinking

An interdisciplinary group of graduate students got a fresh perspective on design research thanks to a recent partnership between RISD and Target Corporation. Over the course of a year, six students worked closely with Target’s Innovation Team to define and address consumer-oriented design challenges while also asking broader questions – about working collaboratively, the value of professional trust and achieving a balance between structure and autonomy.

The format of the studio was itself experimental, explains Provost Jessie Shefrin. “How do you create the conditions necessary for truly interdisciplinary, self-directed, team-based work in art and design?” Studio instructor Lane Myer RISD 80 GD and project coordinator Enrique Martinez RISD MID 98 began by assembling a team of graduate students based on diversity of interests and professional backgrounds. Drawn from the departments of Graphic Design, Furniture Design, Industrial Design and Digital + Media, the team traveled to Target Corporation headquarters in Minneapolis several times during the course of the year, meeting designers from all areas of the company and working in a focused way with the interdepartmental Innovation Team.

Back in Providence, the group spent its first semester engaged in research and brainstorming, developing a database of ideas for an initial proposal to Target. The students quickly came to appreciate their independence and the Innovation Team’s confidence in their abilities; the flip side of this professional trust was the challenge of developing new ways of working together. As Martinez explains, “The lesson was to understand collaboration as something that needs to be redefined constantly, depending on both internal and external circumstances.”

The specific design components that emerged from the studio are confidential, and the future of the team’s proposal is uncertain—the evolution of their ideas may not literally emerge on Target’s shelves. To the designers, though, that’s almost beside the point. What matters is that the students succeeded in “clearing a space for reciprocal thinking and joint exploration,” says Shefrin. “This is the space of design thinking.”