The Poetry of Design
Josh Shiau 15 ID makes a rubbing of Sinhala script during a Wintersession travel study course in Sri Lanka.
Industrial Design major Josh Shiau 15 ID describes his discipline as an exercise in empathy. “Yes, it’s about making beautiful, functional objects,” he says, “but people are at the core of design. A designer needs to understand their needs at a fundamental level.”
While his interactions at RISD have immeasurably elevated his core understanding of the human condition, Shiau credits his Literary Arts + Studies (LAS) concentration in poetry with taking that understanding to the next level. “Studying literature has helped me to be more reflective about myself and about everyday human experiences,” he says, noting that professors such as Mairéad Byrne and Rick Benjamin have introduced him to poems that have proven to be especially impactful at particular moments. “Poems and stories allow you to see how people think and act in all sorts of environments. They can be a tool or a source of knowledge like any other artifact we might use,” he explains.
Shiau has developed the habit of writing for 10 minutes every morning when he first gets up. He also tries to jot down three ideas worth remembering before he goes to bed. “It’s really important to my thinking and my creativity,” he says. “It’s more about the act than any artifacts I’m creating.”
So, how do literature and Shiau’s own writing play into his studio work? “Critical thinking—the type of thinking I’ve learned at RISD—is really important,” he says. “I’ve seen some amazing designs by people from other schools, but it’s this intangible, unexpected way of thinking that matters. Industrial design is about dissecting a single moment and being able to empathize in the extreme in that moment.”
Shiau also sees a clear connection between the notion of metaphor in literature and in the design process. “A system has a certain character,” he explains. “An app, for example, might be like water in the way it helps the user move from one task to the next without effort. Metaphors help people make those abstract connections.”
For Shiau, industrial design is a way of thinking. And through poetry, literature and design, he finds ways of “understanding all the contradictory elements in what people say, do, feel and want” so that as a designer he can “give them what they need.”
Shiau doesn’t yet know what he’ll end up doing after graduation this spring, but he expects he’ll be ready. “The opportunities for learning continue out there in the real world,” he says. “There’s value in living a rich life, and my LAS concentration has made me into a fuller, more empathetic person.”
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