What Art School Taught Me (not what I expected)

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No one expected me to go to art school. Not even I did. I was a bit of a conformist back in high school, taking tons of math and science classes so that I could please my parents and impress my peers. Painting was fun, but art school?

Now that I think about it, it’s probably because I had no clue what art school was actually about. People mostly see and hear about RISD through the media, which means they only get to know it as a place where kids with purple hair draw naked people (albeit, you do see plenty of that as a freshman).

What they probably don’t know about RISD is that it does the most amazing job of taking away fear – the fear of starting, the fear of trying something new, the fear of fear

Art and design push boundaries like nothing else, which is why RISD actually ended up being perfect for me. It made me do a lot of things that I was really uncomfortable with, which in hindsight ended up the best thing I could have ever done.

During my first semester as a freshman at RISD, I was given the assignment to build a violin from cardboard (FYI it didn’t have to work). I immediately started making calculations and measuring angles. The girl beside me simply traced an actual violin on cardboard, building each side as she progressed. Guess who finished first? Not me.

While high school taught me to be methodical about decisions, RISD taught me to hack things together until they worked.

RISD taught me to just start. Make something rough. Make it imperfect. Just make it, because it’ll get you further ahead than the person who’s still “measuring” the perfect way to do it.

I had never worked like this before in my life. Grade school never taught me how to make, so it was my first experience of getting my hands dirty and toying with creation.

During my time in the industrial design (ID) department, I learned how to use a vacuum-form machine, a metal lathe and a blowtorch. If you had asked me high school whether I wanted to play with these machines, I would have probably backed away pretty quickly.

But the courses I took in ID required me to use them again and again, and as a result, they broke my fear of them. I practiced and practiced, until I realized nothing bad was going to happen to me while I used them.

By the end, I had hand-machined slider cranks, built foot pedals for sinks and soldered hollow-construction rings together.

RISD made me comfortable with fear. I became adjusted to trying new things on a regular basis; instead of being risk-averse, I became very risk-tolerant.

When you do this enough, it becomes more than a habit; it turns into an attitude, a mentality that you carry with you whenever you approach obstacles at work or in life. Instead of hesitating and worrying about whether the outcome is going to be perfect, you just dive in and see what it’s about.

While I’m not saying that art school does this for everyone, I am saying that sometimes, you just have to let go. Go and jump into something you’re afraid to do. You’ll look back and wonder why you ever feared it in the first place.

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Note to design students.

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Image by Mark Skrobola

Professor Eppinger, one of the instructors of the Product Design and Development course I took at MIT asked us one day during my final semester of college to sketch a new concept that would bring new technologies and existing products together (we were given specific options, which were written on the board). Everyone – engineering, business and design students – took about five minutes to come up with something. He then asked us to show the class what we had just sketched via overhead projector.

Nearly everyone who ran up to the projector was an engineering or business student. The sketches were (from a designer’s point-of-view) poor and the ideas were vague, but they were confident about their concepts.

Very few of the design students went up to the projector. Why?

Most likely, it was because many of them didn’t feel like their ideas were presentable (along with the additional fear of public speaking). Design students spend an awful lot of time perfecting their work. The director of RISD’s Career Center even mentioned to me once that he sees lots of students perfecting their portfolio, but never really finishing it or taking a ridiculous amount of time to finally put it online. Designers prefer to show their work when it’s reached a certain stage, and five minutes isn’t that stage when there are seventy-five other people looking at it.

Therein lies a problem.

If you don’t present your idea because you don’t think it’s presentable enough, your AMAZING idea will be bypassed for someone else’s so-so idea, because they spoke first.

In school, you’re often given an assignment in school where you can thrash out ideas by yourself first before you discuss them with anyone. You then form a way to visualize your idea and you “present” it in the sense that you already know what ideas you’re offering before you speak. You make sure everything looks perfect. Sketches and models, are they stunning? Good.

Real life involves coming up with ideas on the spot and communicating your concepts effectively to people who might not understand exactly what you do. You can’t wait until midnight when everything starts clicking. You don’t have a lot of time to digest everything.

So what do you do? You have to practice thrashing your ideas out around other people, with other people. You have to accept that not everyone is a visual person. Some people are primarily verbal and understand through words alone, which is why they feel that powerful words alone can do the trick. You have to put yourself in situations that you might fear at first but will grow accustomed to with time. You’ve GOT TO SHIP YOUR IDEA, because everyone deserves to see what awesome things you have to offer.

I say this, because it’s true. Show your work. Show it loud. The real world is at your feet.

MIT/RISD Product Design and Development

We made the front page of MIT news yesterday. The product design and development class at MIT held its final presentations last Saturday. I was a part of the tablet computer backpack group the writer mentions at the beginning of the article.

Here’s the link.

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Dr. Lisa Randall @ RISD

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Dr. Lisa Randall gave a talk at RISD a few days ago as part of the Presidential Shared Voices Lecture Series. Dr. Randall is a theoretical physicist and also one of the most brilliant scientists alive. She’s been listed in TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People of 2007 and received her doctorate at Harvard University. Her work? Dark matter, string theory and other crazy fascinating subjects. I don’t understand quantum mechanics per se, but I still love the ideas proposed in this field.

I just wanted to talk about one idea that Dr. Randall mentioned in the lecture, which is how the context of an object is affected by scale. She used the example of the Eiffel Tower. From street-level, we see metal beams and arches. From another building that’s quite a bit further away, we might be able to see the whole tower and it’s iconic shape. From a satellite in space, we don’t see anything. Without being close to ground-level, we would never even see the Effiel tower or know that it existed. We only discovered the atom when we had the available technology to view it. The same with quarks. We are now using the Large Hadron Collider to try and find the Higgs Particle.

We don’t know what the smallest particle is unless we have the technology to see it. What is small? What is large? We don’t really know, because we are judging the scale of everything based on its relation to us. It extends in both directions. The observable universe is 46.6 billion light years in diameter, because that as far as we can calculate. Dr. Randall remarked that she saw no reason why there wouldn’t be multiple universes, each expanding at different rates.

Nature created limitations for what our eyes could see, but it didn’t on what our brains could imagine. For all we know, there could be ever smaller particles existing within the universe that we will never be able to get to the bottom of. There may be an infinite number of universes, each with different forces governing it.

Everything is essentially relative to us. But imagine if we could see beyond this and think more often beyond it. How large/small are we in the scale of everything? We’ll never really know.

Some Retrospection

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My parents invited some people over for dinner yesterday, and I found myself talking to a girl who was a junior in high school. The conversation leaned towards colleges – which schools would be good, what kind of schools to look for, etc – and as I was talking to her about which colleges I applied to, I started thinking about what made them stand out for me when I was in her place.

I realized that I definitely applied to a lot of colleges, because they had beautiful campuses and good academics. The campuses were really pretty. I thought about how college brochures always tried to entice you by projecting this vision that you would be sitting among a group of ethically-diverse friends sitting underneath a splendid display of fall foliage. It was all so picturesque.

I remember visiting RISD and thinking “This place doesn’t have a real campus. I don’t know.”

Then in the spring, the acceptance letters came. I recall being extremely excited about getting one from Middlebury College. I had worked hard on the essays for that school and wanted to take International Studies there. I visited both Middlebury and RISD again, and again I kept thinking about landscapes – about the view of the Vermont mountains from the top of the Middlebury library. I was trying to convince myself that the mountains would make the experience worthwhile. And If I didn’t love art and design, I would have absolutely gone.

But I did, and I’m glad I decided over the subject matter rather than the campus, because four years have passed, and I see how little a beautiful campus has to do with the advancement of your skills and knowledge.

Sure, it’s nice to be surrounded by perfectly tamed lawns and shiny buildings, but it’s not everything. So many colleges try to glorify their environment, you’d think that’s all we’d go for. It almost makes you forget about what’s going on inside the campus.

When my parents visited my school for the first time during parents’ weekend, my mom mistook an office building on South Main Street for the industrial design building. It’s because RISD isn’t pretty. RISD is messy and chaotic and utterly beautiful on the inside because of it.

A campus won’t tell you about a school’s academics, instructors or the tenacity and enthusiasm of its students. You have to understand the people, the process, the day-to-day ongoings of a school to really get it. RISD allows me to break things, hack things, make things better. You can’t do that in a pristine environment. You wouldn’t want to. It’s people are dedicated and passionate about their work. They are the creatives who strive every day to break boundary and not hold still. It’s not always picturesque, but I love it all the same. I’m glad I saw past the lack of campus to what the school I go to really is, because it’s made me see the world differently.

I really hope that when future college-goers see the campus, they also ponder the inner-workings of the school and how that school will make their lives richer. If you removed the scenery and the statues, is it still the same?

HOLSTEE visits RISD!

[11/23/10]

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You have got to check out HOLSTEE! They design and curate with a conscience! Products from their online store include The Recycled Wallet, which is made of newspapers and plastic bags collected from the streets of India, and the People Pendant, which is made from acrylics scraps from a Chicago sign factory. 10% of Holstee’s proceeds go Kiva, a micro-lending service that helps entrepreneurs in developing countries start their own venture. They visited RISD today to share their story of how they created a business that’s about doing good and inspiring other people to follow their dreams as well as what sustainable design means to them. 

Their post on this:http://www.blog.holstee.com/excited-to-be-sharing-the-holstee-story-with