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Krzysztof Lenk

conversations with re tiring facult y at

Maria Tulokas

rhode isl and school of design, 2010


Brian Kernaghan

conversations with re tiring facult y at rhode isl and school of design, 2010

willem van l ancker

introduc tion

As my time at risd comes to a close and I continue both my personal work on my degree project and my involvement with risd’s strategic plan I began to consider the place of the faculty perspective in my process. Knowing that Krzysztof Lenk (Graphic Design) was retiring, I became interested in offering retiring faculty the opportunity to speak with me about their philosophies, experiences, and pedagogies as a sort of exit interview. The importance of such an exercise cannot be downplayed and I was justifiably surprised to hear that RISD had no organization for such an activity. Working under my own direction and motivation, I took the opportunity with three of risd’s retiring faculty members, Krzysztof Lenk (Graphic Design), Maria Tulokas (Textiles), and Brian Kernaghan (Interior Architecture) to hold a meaningful reflective conversation as we each “graduate” from risd. The results were both surprising and exciting. Hearing from these three individuals who have dedicated much of their careers in service to risd gave me a new perspective of not only risd’s institutional structure but also insight into the leadership and organization of creative individuals. Throughout the separate one-on-one conversations I became increasingly aware of the overlap and commonality of their ideas and views. Repeatedly they turned over in their minds risd’s greatest threats and challenges, each weaving in the richness of their personal philosophies and experiences. While I could discuss several quotes that stood out to me personally from the conversations, I would rather examine the body of conversations as a complete narrative reflection of these individuals on their time helping to build risd. By organizing the three conversations in concert, I am inviting the reader to see the connections I have worked to cull from their words. The work was an amazing exercise in discovering the subtext of our conversations and generating a list of themes (seen in the gutter throughout this book) that provide the foundation for their pedagogy and practice. Though I have only been here for a fraction of the time they have, and in a much different role, lately I have found myself taking more and more time to reexamine and “unpack” my experiences from a broader view -allowing me to slowly form a more cohesive narrative of my time here. By no means am I claiming to have anything close to a complete understanding of risd or any design institution but the combination of their perspectives and my other research has enabled me to undergo the most meaningful self-reflection of my life. By listening to their thoughts and stories I have found strength in the development of my own ideas. This experience is something I someday hope to pass on. 1

maria tulokas :


I started in ’76, I became department head in ’80, and I left that position about five years ago in 2005. I was department head for a long time. I continually felt that in terms of the curriculum, it was so much up to me. Of course there would be these particular structures that would cover all of the departments but beyond that we could determine our own direction. We could lead the department and choose the faculty accordingly. There was a great amount of freedom. I don’t know whether it is going to change, it is too early to know now.


brian kernaghan : I was appointed as a department head in 1996 and that was at a time that the department of interior architecture was lacking in some identity. It has been my task all these years to give it the identity it now has, and I am very proud of that, very happy about that. But it is relatively unusual for someone to be appointed as a department head when entering the school and I have been a department head all this time apart from two occasions when I’ve been on sabbatical. Because the department now has four full-time faculty members, I am handing it onto someone else. So that’s the brief background...

But I came from a similar position in London and I think I was appointed because I had a perspective that the school thought would be useful. willem van lancker : Did you find that there was any kind of challenge from RISD, at a division level, to press you on what that voice might be or to address some larger pedagogical directions? Did you see a unified RISD way of doing things?


brian : I think I have the benefit of seeing many different schools in operation throughout my career but I saw RISD as a particular challenge because I could see the department couldn’t be developed. It was too closely identified with Architecture and lacked an independent identity. The department had just lost its accreditation by FIDER. Suddenly people thought this was a disaster. The whole thing had to be reinvented anyway. But traditionally within the division of Architecture & Design, the three architectures were thought to be close and should continue to be close. I took the view that that wasn’t necessarily the case and developed the curriculum in a particular way to give us more identity and autonomy. That resulted in the move over here in fact. At the time this building was thought of as a graduate center and we are still the only undergraduate department here.


So there were many complications. That was not an easy transition, to detach yourself, from that family of the three architectures. Though there are many things that were valuable, and remain valuable about that, as an idea; it wasn’t necessarily working the favor of the department of interior architecture.

maria :

I agree with Krzysztof here; it is again up to the departments to keep a connection to the outside world and help students to learn about their field outside RISD, along with the larger field of art and design. In general, RISD as an institution is not very good at communication within the school or with the outside world. Sometimes I think of it as an isolated island. willem :

What make RISD special in my mind is the opportunity to pursue your passion for art and design surrounded by some of the most talented people, students and faculty, in the world. And what I think is challenging that is that RISD doesn’t provide the network or organization to allow students to pursue anything beyond set media or disciplines often and that if you were a textiles major that wanted to integrate biology into your work, it is really hard. And I think that a lot of that type of education is emerging and I think that that flexibility is something that students seek.

maria :

The tremendous demand for the Brown-RISD program is exactly about that, search for flexibility. It allows students to investigate another area in depth. I still believe a lot in expertise and in an in-depth study. And I believe that this Brown program is wonderful, but it only accepts the top people, and perhaps it should be kept as a program for top people only as it requires great focus and an agile mind. We had one student in the first group, it was almost a test group actually, and it really worked for her. Her studio work was very successful and enriched by her study of history at Brown.

communic ation

krzysztof lenk : I don’t remember any cooperation. risd is a federation of 21 independent departments. There was never any attempt or pressure from academic administration to coordinate things. Within the Architecture & Design Division many topics are common to all specialized departments, like history of 20/21th cen. modern design, or design methodology. But even taking a studio class in ID by our Junior or Senior students is practically impossible.

maria :

There is a lot of talk a lot about inter-disciplinary studies, but I also see it often as so much lip-service. Even if it is desirable, there are many departments, the Textiles Department among them, that have so many students that there is no room for non-majors in the classes, and there are no teaching units available for non-major courses. In earlier times there were a handful of non-major students who advanced to senior level in textiles. willem :


It is almost a disservice when these type of “interdisciplinary” courses aren’t offered in a way students can continue to go deeper. Here you can scratch the surface and then there is nowhere else to go with it. I feel that that (practice) is almost more dangerous than doing nothing at all because if you give a student the language to talk about it but not really the full understanding you have not developed the maturity of thought just a set of vocabulary. What I’d like to see is a way that these ideas can be built into the core of your studio practice so there isn’t a clean separate break, but rather let everything converge in a common space. Its becomes less about the disciplines and more about what you need to do to become a complete artists. You look at the most successful artists and designers today and they’re people who can think both ways and have an appreciation for and understanding of perspectives beyond their practice.



Is it RISD Graphic Design a special place? It’s very difficult to make this assessment from the inside.

krzysztof :

When I came here in 1982, it was the best undergraduate program in graphic design in the world. No question. The question is now, why? The answer is: because it used to be a very dynamic combination of two elements, like philosophical principles of semiotics applied to visual communication by Tom Ockerse, and fascinated and charismatic sense of visual form, represented by Malcolm Grear. When I came to this department, it had two pillars. A pillar of materials, forms, vibrations, contrasts, all these things of visual appearance, and a second pillar of analytical analysis of meaning of things. I think that we still have a good program. It is a program which brings together two things: knowledge and practice. Students are learning about history of visual communication, about visual form and about pragmatic issues of the profession. It is simpler to do it now because everything is in digital form. In the past it used to be more trade oriented process of using right plaka, brushes and glue, spending hours in darkrooms and developing hand craft of design. For many years we had this good practice here. Then computers invaded our place, our well organized program. I’m not sure how well digital changes in discipline of communication are reflected in our present pedagogical practice. For a long time we are comfortable in teaching quite well the same fundamental thinks, but we are not addressing issues of interactivity or hypertext. Our very homogenous combination of theoretical and practical things in a program responding to modern communication needs doesn’t exist anymore. Would you say that is because of the computer?

willem :

Yes, I think the computer created new narrations and new challenges. You have iPod, everybody have it. We use it for many purposes. Now you are recording our conversation... We are also texting, taking pictures or video clips. One has permanent access to internet. Dave Hockney is even painting on his iPhone.

krzysztof :

But how is that any different than any other technological advance?

willem :

Technology is alway serving communication purposes. It is helping us to do things. Opens new possibilities. Now we have very democratic access to typography. All tools of typography are here, in computers, scanners, color laser printers, and we use them for our advantage. Designing a book used to be very difficult, labor intensive, and expensive process. Many things were simply impossible; like to produce a make up of a book in color for class. Technology creates new possibilities to explore.

krzysztof :


Many years ago I tried to develop some type of interactive assignments for students, but very soon I realized that it is impossible in our program. All new media are content oriented and students have to find right content to develop a hypertext structure. In Graphic Design we don’t have a useful database for our students. They have to go outside to find it. Which is relatively easy but takes significant amount of time. I’m not able to spend ten weeks on developing content and mapping it, then creating network of hypertext connections, to have only two weeks to build a working prototype on a computer screen. So I put my interactive attempts on hold and sent to faculty and school administration a memo, suggesting active cooperation between graphic design and faculty in liberal arts and museum. Because they are owners of content, each of the liberal arts faculty has its own knowledge of his/her own discipline. Why not cooperate? A liberal arts faculty will come with curatorial knowledge, texts and slides. We will design an interactive, hypertext program on CD or on Web, which a teacher can use for their next year classes. maria :

There is a lot of new technology, machines and materials, which, if accessible to RISD, could spur new kinds of aesthetics and help RISD to keep up with the rest of the world. It is always a matter of how to incorporate the learning of new skills that are needed into the curriculum. And it is a matter of there being teachers who will be interested in tackling the new options.


willem :

RISD is the melding of artistic pursuits with a meaningful pause for intellectual exploration.

maria :

How do you think the liberal arts factor into this; or do they at all? willem :

I’ve been frustrated in the opportunity to find an arc of learning that is contextually relevant to me. I feel that most people graduate from risd and they have this amazing transformation in their visual practice but I don’t see the same within the liberal arts and I think that if you are in college for four years, you should develop in all aspects of your education. And I don’t think I have every taken a studio course where I haven’t brought in the liberal arts in someway.

coll abor ation

brian : I’d like to see the subject area that I am quite interested in, the idea of narrative environments become more focused. I think we can do that because we can collaborate with Brown, the RISD Museum of Art, and with other departments within the school as well. I really think that can happen but I have the impression certainly that after this last exercise in curriculum development that the force of bureaucracy is huge. It is almost an obstruction. At best is a rigor that has to be observed. If you go about reinventing the curriculum with the appropriate amount of rigor, ultimately it will become right, but it seems like there is a huge wall of obstacles that we have to navigate. I would like there to be less bureaucracy frankly. And I don’t see that happening, I see there being more bureaucracy frankly if anything. It is a contractual requirement for RISD faculty to serve on committees. There a far too many committees at RISD. So what do they all do? Is it resulting in progressive change? I don’t think so. So you can see how the faculty contracts are somehow woven into this. Somehow these things are inextricably connected and must be disconnected in order for things to flow more smoothly.

multiple intelligences

willem :

How have you found your students develop beyond the studio education? RISD always likes to talk about the strength of its liberal arts but do you see parallel development of educations? I have not found that to be true.

brian : I agree, I have not been able to easily build bridges with the liberal arts division, but that doesn’t mean its impossible. It is hybrid territory and I do think this kind of work, such as in museum design, can make a very significant point. I believe passionately that there is no such thing any more as the heroic single designer. All great achievements in the world of design are generally the result of collaborations. And that’s what I’d like to do; institute some position to begin to understand how these collaborations can work. In this field in particular, it is obvious that teams have to be put together. Teams made up of people who have strong voices and are coming from digital areas or research, writers, designers, photographers. They all have to come together to produce a good outcome.

And I think you pose a good question, How do you construct a pedagogy for such a thing. You’ve got to just do it. Construct design studios where you put people together and that physical dynamic often yields very impressive results because we are dealing with creative people. And that’s the way I’ve been working. And out of that experience can come a sort of more formal pedagogy that’s articulated perhaps further down the line. But, at least we are doing it. maria :


I knew this painter who was teaching in an art school. One time all the painting students were with her painting for six weeks outside in some sort of a research lab, a biology institute, where they also had lectures about matters in nature. The experience affected the students’ way of looking at nature and painting. There are all kinds of ways of integrating another type of knowledge and understanding into the work.


Early on we opened up the textiles curriculum so that our students could spend a whole semester in junior year in another department. The way that I thought about it at that time was to expose students to another area that appeared tangent to their particular work. We have two directions in our curriculum, design and fine art textiles. I felt that, for instance, those students who wanted to work in three dimensions should take courses in sculpture. At that time there was more room in the departments. The option is still there, and we always promote painting courses because it is a much more direct medium than textiles and can enhance one’s understanding of design issues and content. But students are not using those options.

perme abilit y

maria :

I feel that students have changed in the past fifteen years. There seems to be much more pressure to learn many skills. Students don’t have enough time to take everything they want to take at the department, and they don’t even think about outside options. I think there is also more of an economic pressure on students and they need to get a job as soon as they graduate, and I think that RISD not having enough aid is a big hindrance on all kinds of things. willem :

You say that the students have changed and are feeling more pressure to leave here with a career or exit with the tools to make it in their field; has RISD changed to better accommodate that? This isn’t the first time you’ve seen a strategic plan come around (laughter), and do you think this is just like every other one where there is a lot of the same language—a lack of cohesion between departments, students need to be prepared for x, y, and z—and then it doesn’t necessarily happen.

maria :

le adership

Whether some kind of cohesion can be brought to these issues, at the end still depends on the departments. Perhaps inspired leadership on the deans level could help, and additional teaching units would certainly help in advancing non-major options at the departments.

But don’t the faculty continue to see that, especially when they practice multi-disciplinarily, wouldn’t they want to give their students the same opportunities? Aren’t those skills we need to understand for when we get out into the real world?

willem :

I don’t know. In the real world, in other good programs I am familiar with, there is a position of a leader (many times a dean). That dean has many administrative tasks, planning… all this absorbing and difficult administrative stuff. This is not of my interest. My interest is that this person is a leader challenging the faculty. The leader is telling them: “you are confronted with new technology and new patterns of communication in the society. How do you address this challenge in your pedagogy, what is your position?”. This person is not dictating them, what they supposed to do, but is challenging them to have a clear vision of where they are as a program and what they supposed to do, to be in a comfortable position five years from now.

le adership

krzysztof :

Three years ago my Mother passed away. She was 95. She was a quite interesting person with dry sense of humor. Not very outspoken but kind. Every six or eight years, out of the blue she would ask me: “Son, tell me what are you doing now?” “I’m designing, Mum.” I would answer. “What is design about?” I explained it, like a good son, and she would ask me some more particular questions. It happened several times in my life. Seven or eight years ago I visited her in Warsaw. It was a nice summer evening, and she asked me again... the same question. I really got mad. I was irritated, and I said: “Mum, for so many years you are asking me the same question and I am answering it to you—why?” “Oh son, cool down,” she said, “don’t be exasperated. I know well what you are doing, I am only checking if you do.” Then, leaving her, I started to think about. Over forty years my answer was every time a little bit different, because my design was different. What I was designing was different now than before. My Mum was like a dean checking her faculty’s design consciousness.


willem :

Do you think that there is enough opportunity for students to seek the right advising to find those kind of pathways at RISD?

brian : Probably not, and I think that every faculty member has had a similar experience where you have students come to you and say they’ve discovered that this is happening and can they get into the class. I don’t quite know how to run that one any other way.

maria :

It takes following the world. You really have to know what is going on. You have to follow your field, other areas of art in the world. Because can you keep doing the same thing you did, even five years ago? You can’t. There are such big changes. brian :

Actually, we’ve just gone through a very complicated and rigorous process to reinvent our curriculum in our department. I can honestly say that after all the work that has been put into it that we have a generally very progressive curriculum for the department for the future. I’m not seeing that in other parts of the school. We’ve really gone through so many things to get this right. There were many big questions that had to be answered. Some of which were posed as a result of a visiting committee. But you’re quite right. One has the feeling that we were kind of just set out on a long rope to get this right and we took that seriously. But whether it will help consequences for other departments, it remains to be seen.

le adership

willem : It is almost that the faculty need to feel a little threatened. The students feel threatened everyday here (laughter). I feel that so much at this school falls on student initiative. I am a true believer in self-authorship and owning your education but sometimes I scratch my head at how hard it is made. Change can never occur unless faculty are incentivized to think more broadly and take the time to consider their methods and interactions or they feel pressure for their position.

But these issues still exists today, even last semester in Senior Studio, the RISD Museum project was just purely theoretical. We had no opportunity to utilize real content and context.

willem :

Yes we tried that again (Senior Stuido Fall 09), after many years of break. It was not very successful. There are various mechanisms here in this school which make it difficult. People will say that they are busy, or they are not rewarded and evaluated for these kind of activity, outside of their primary duty.

krzysztof :

Do you think that it is an incentive issue?

willem :

I think that eventually this problem has to be addressed on College level, and I hope that the pressure from John Maeda will help to resolve it.

krzysztof :


brian : I think it is too much of a generalization to say that there isn’t an incentive for faculty to initiate such things. I think the incentive is clear as far as I’m concerned: to make life as interesting as possible and to create opportunities where there hasn’t been opportunities. So I think that, as I have already said, Sometimes thought it can feel like there are insurmountable obstacles but when you have a strong enough view you can bring people around. And I don’t think it should be left to the students to initiate such things because they are too complex and just because a student feels like they’d like to have such a thing, it is impossible for the student to do it. Other than the opportunity of an independent study for three credits.


willem :

So then what makes RISD intrinsically great? It seems that it is just almost RISD was lucky to have the right combination of individual department leaders that were passionate about making the school what it is today and that it attracts the right people today because of its history and reputation but do you think there could be some model that is more sustainable? That you have deans that are empowered to challenge the departments?

maria :

pr ac tic al vs. philosophic al

The deans have always been there but so much of their duty now is administrative. I see their hands being tied to some extent. It is hard for them to make changes without losing popularity, and also there is always the fear of not being reelected for the next term. Not that I would want real control but I think that there could be some sort of advising of departments. You may wonder about a particular department’s curriculum, but nobody raises questions about these issues. It’s difficult because nobody wants tight control but also it is clear that there are areas that could use help but then there isn’t any type of discussion of these issues anywhere, not between departments or between deans and departments. I sat in those department head meetings forever and it was almost always about practical things rather than anything philosophical.

s tudent s

There is no difference in the students. Nothing changed and everything changed. Students are different because they are born in a different civilization. They use the remote control for Saturday’s cartoons; nonlinear continuity of dynamic media is their first experience. My two year old grandson is already changing channels in TV. By jumping from one place of virtual world to another he is confronted with the idea of many parallel realities. My five year old granddaughter plays computer games. For her it is natural. The mentality of students is always defined by circumstances of their life.

krzysztof :

What is negative in this school? It has always been the same: RISD is a very upper middle class place, is too expensive, and it has no financial resources to support very talented people from minorities. Every time you have a black student on scholarship here, you find something different coming —some kind of different approach. Other black students from very rich families are not different than other students. In RISD, and in graphic design in particular, we have many nice, very intelligent, very polite Asian girls. I’ve had frequent discussions with many of them, kind of personal conversations, when they are telling me that their rich fathers will not allow them to be a professional designer. This is how it works. Students are always formatted by the environment they are living in.

financial suppor t

brian :


There’s one point I’d really like to make. I come from a background where one didn’t have to pay tuition fees to be educated. Its true in several countries in the world. Most notably in Scandinavia and the quality of their education is as good as if not higher than this. It is a different system, it is a different way of seeing. It is deeply disturbing to me that its only the sons and daughters of the fairly well-heeled can even get a sniff of life at RISD. That’s sad because talent isn’t confined to whether you can pay for it or not. And so there is a real danger there that you are just closing it down to this particular little segment of society and with that comes a lot of skewed viewpoints of the world and what the world needs.

accessibilit y

brian : Nobody is saying things remotely indicating how this (accessibility) can be altered but it is true of nearly all the prestigious universities in this country. But if there were a gift of significant amount one day that could make more scholarships available to genuinely produce more diversity in this school, that’s got to be a good thing. I see no sign of it though —its been talked about for years, ever since I’ve arrived here its been there as a subject. willem :

So you mentioned the financial challenges of RISD, but how do you feel about the curriculum here and do you believe that a change to our structure is imperative for RISD to remain competitive among other art and design schools? How do you feel we are positioned in the world?

compe tition

brian : Not very well because I’ve noticed in my travels over recent years that sometimes schools get gifts, significant gifts. That can result in new buildings and new facilities. It is interested that the current president said when he arrived that he saw this as his primary function and it hasn’t yet really appeared. And I think that does put RISD at somewhat of a disadvantage because it is happening other places that are our competitors. An example I can give you, because I’ve recently spent some time in the South of France. SCAD has a campus in the South of France which was the result of a gift. That places them in a very powerful position because that an attractive thing to anybody who is comparing School A or School B to see that they have campuses in Hong Kong, South of France, as well as Savannah. They haven’t done that on the strength of their tuition, they’ve had it as a result of gifts. And for whatever reason, RISD alums aren’t yet delivering. I’m not really saying it always has to be the alums but it seems to be what is happening at other schools. It’s curious isn’t it?

brian :

I don’t necessarily regard SCAD as competition in our area at all but they are delivering facilities, that’s what I mean. And to a certain mind-set that is an important thing. As far as I’m concerned, in my area, I wouldn’t name them as significant competition at all, but nevertheless, they do get students and somehow they are able to offer them some financial incentives and that’s what RISD has demonstratively been unable to do. That’s huge at the moment. We are losing good students every year. We know that. They say to us, very clearly, we’d love to come here but we can’t because we’ve been offered this. That’s bad. So, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Art Center are usually the schools I would rate with us.

willem :

risd & socie t y

What imperative does RISD have to uphold these values in our society and how can it continue to establish itself or hold its place among the great institutions of the world?

maria :


Yes, I have thought about this many times. All RISD can do is send out individuals who have been able to develop their talents as far as possible here. How do the fields advance? You think of science, you think of music, and those areas really advance only through individuals. For instance, Finland is well-known for its musical talent. They have sent conductors out to the world, they have people who have composed new contemporary operas, and they have singers. They talked about one particular professor who was teaching in Sibelius Academy and seemed to have had powers to understand many kinds of talent and students and to help them progress (Perhaps his teaching methods could have been studied). The truth is that there are only few people who are going to make real changes in their fields. Then there are many people who are going to be working in their chosen fields, who will be fine and can be solid artists and designers but they may also conform; they don’t have the ability to go beyond what is there already. I am sure RISD will continue to successfully produce both kinds of artists and designers in the future if it stays focused on its mission.

I would like the student to understand what kind of talent he has, and to develop it. Because each person has a different combination of talents, and there is no two identical cases. It is so complex and complicated. In a moment when you find what is yours, then you start to develop it. You are able to deal with what is your own. I only try to help a student, to support him in his efforts, sometimes with good success. In the school in Poland I was teaching before coming to RISD we had a five year program, and students will come to my workshop for three years of study as a major. I then advised them to take other studios as minors. I was not only their teacher but also their tutor. It was much easier to advise and help them. Now I have students for twelve weeks, and they have short span of attention. They don’t have habit of intensive reading, but they have easy access to information on a net, and they are very well organized in the sense of finding information in an amazing way. I try to do my job in the best possible way, but results are not only on my side.

krzysztof :

This is a very good question, and a very good point you are making. I don’t remember RISD asking where we stand versus society. It was always my personal concern as a teacher and a citizen, but not RISD’s concern.

krzysztof :

s truc ture

I really believe that, as I am entering the start of my career, the education I received here is so much larger and more important than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. But I really believe that the creative process and design education can lend a very important role in work to collaborate and solve societies problems and to be more than sign makers or creators of artifacts. So as an educator what do you see RISD’s role in society? Is it something that is imperative to our success as a society?

willem :

My first exposure to teaching in the United States was with the Ohio State University in 1979. It was an excellent program of Industrial Design and Visual Communication, run by people from Ulm, in great German tradition of pragmatism. When I was there, I saw once in the hallway, in a glass window, a poster for the Tenth Anniversary of the graduated class. It was about a hundred names in the entire list. Under each of these names was printed what this person is doing now. Some of alumni were working in the print industry, some in paper making and distribution, many in other industries. When I started to count, only fifteen, maybe twenty percent were still active designers. Puzzled by it I came to the head of program asking about. I said: “listen, I understand, it is the tenth anniversary event, but only 20 percent of your alumni are still active designers. Is it a failure of your program? Why are your advertising it?” He had some problem grasping what I was talking about. Then suddenly he realized what I was telling him and he said: “have you seen what their positions are, what they are doing? Take a look, some are presidents, another are managers, so almost all of them occupied prominent positions, are successful. Our is the undergraduate program, and we try to give them methodology of dealing with design problems and objectives. Life is like design. In your life you face similar elements like designers do in their projects. All of these people are so successful, and we are proud of providing them with methodologies of problem solving, means to identify and define tasks in a clear way, to develop strategies.” It was a great lesson to me.


krzysztof :

I am telling you this story from Ohio State as an answer to your question. In designing we are basically applying rules of a general theory of organization, or other methodology of doing things in a proper way. These things are not totally dependent on current state of technology. Traditional design as we used to know in the past disappears slowly. Now, instead of developing crafts oriented objects students in best programs are developing processes, writing programs, learning to use scripting on advanced level. Traditionally separated media of photography, illustration, video and typography are merging in new narrations. We don’t discuss these new phenomena in our department, but we are still strong in addressing many fundamental things which students take with them for their future life in design. 19

maria :

willem :

Its really a new type of research. And maybe research isn’t the right word.

maria :

Yes. I use the example of Matisse. If research is measured in terms of the outcome, whether it brings something new into the world, Matisse brought a totally new way of seeing into art and it was a major discovery. What he did was certainly research in those terms.

rese arch

In the past couple of years there have been talks about research and little consensus of what it is. People have tried to think of ways how we could also be engaged in a more scientific research and I would be all for that, we should have a chance to learn... But we don’t have the foundation to do any meaningful research in the way scientists are doing it. Nevertheless, artists should be working in research teams when appropriate dealing with the visual and the form. It should be acknowledged that an artist’s visual and material research is valued research. My alma mater started offering doctoral degrees. They asked me to work with them for a couple of weeks with their carefully selected students (one out of ten applicants gets in). But they couldn’t see research as anything beyond scientific research; they go into art history and some sorts of social sciences as their research topics and the visual and material does not advance. Secondly, whatever scientific type research they are doing is very elementary because they lack the foundation. Their model from a university is not serving them and will not serve well in an art school.

gr aduate s tudies

brian : The growth of the graduate dimension at RISD is a significant change and I know that some faculty members are a bit wary of this because there is a notion that the heart and sole of RISD is in its undergraduate schools. Which is where it was all started. So that is part of the institutional memory that I have been talking about. But on the other hand that think there are remarkable people coming to RISD now who earned undergraduate degrees in other subjects, so that’s the other side of the same coin. That you have these people coming in with fantastic backgrounds realizing that they are not mature enough to deal with this stuff and put that together with their undergraduate degree and they can go out in the world and do amazing things. So I’ve observed this in detail and I think that it is a very positive thing for RISD. It certainly has been a good thing for this department for sure. willem :

Have you structured your curriculum in a way that graduates and undergraduates overlap? I’ve found that the studios in graphic design that allow for this are really great.

brian :

I think it is invaluable. I enjoy that very much. It is unpredictable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the graduate students are going to produce better work. Sometimes the graduate students get a shock at how clever and green-fingered the younger kids are and that is all very interesting. And we know from talking to our own students, that they value that when it is put together. But it has to be fairly carefully choreographed by the faculty members involved. If you just toss students together with different levels of experience and interest, it can be a recipe for disaster. But when its controlled I think it is a very positive things.


I don’t know... I don’t know how to answer your question. I really don’t know. I know a few other things. This institution has to change itself because otherwise competition will take us down. The middle class in this country is in ruin and the number of people able to send a child for a four year program at RISD is smaller and smaller. So this institution will change itself, no question about it. There are several layers of problems to resolve, this is why it is not a fast process. This school has to change. There is no way to keep existing structure and existing disorganization, because it is too expensive and inefficient. You see serious resistance of people involved, and the resistance is very, very deep, and it will be, like in any conservative institution. You’ll always have a better chance to create a college from new. The best way would be to dissolve RISD and to start it from scratch.

krzysztof :

s truc ture vs. agenc y

I’ve been going back and forth with, in my own head about RISD needing change certain fundamental elements of how it is organized and how people communicate within the school but then I look at myself as a product of this education and I think —I made it work. I followed my passion, I developed parallel educations to my studio education. And I feel like so much of my success here was because I had to work within the confines of this system and to deal with the fact that parts aren’t address directly and I am having to work against the bureaucracy. Sometimes I am curious, RISD is pathetic in terms of advising and in terms of development and teams but do you think that the students that come out of here are so great because of this broken system and if everything was handed to the students it wouldn’t work and it would kind of kill some of the initiative that drives people.

willem :

willem :

And I have often wondered that if everything was handed to students in a fined tuned track, that something would be lost in terms of initiative and the ability for students to learn how to fight through organizations and really seek out their personal passions.

brian : At the risk of sounding very cynical about this, I doubt very much that the average undergraduate students can see that there can be a very carefully honed path through things. It amazes me for example that the most popular declaration of department at RISD is Illustration. I’m puzzled by that. willem :

s truc ture vs. agenc y

It has less requirements and is such a broad range of practices that students take it toward graphic design, painting, a whole spectrum. Graphic Design is the same way; it’s interaction, print, exhibit, strategy, programming and coding. I think that the department structure, and the fact that is often based in a specific media, is a somewhat anachronistic way of looking at the world of art and design. And that really what you should be signing up for is a way of learning theories, perspectives, and histories. Then the actual practice or media is more independent than it is.


I see that RISD wants to maintain its institutional memory as you say, to retain departments even though everything else they will be doing around it will muddle it even more. brian :

But it is flawed, I think everybody would agree. I certainly agree that Illustration probably gets these declarations because it seems like the place you are going to be comfortable if you don’t quite know who you are but that is still not right. But it doesn’t mean that the whole departmental system should be thrown out either. It does raise some big question marks. I actually don’t think that the institution is always getting to grips with these big questions.

brian :

I think that the territory that we are now beginning to develop, really is a hybrid territory, between Interior Architecture, Three-dimensional design, and Graphic Design. And I like that very much. I think that it is the conventional wisdom, that you have heard many times —things function within these kind of boundaries within departments, but I’ve found that although it is difficult, one can be persuasive and get things to happen if you have a strong enough viewpoint. It is not necessarily easy to do it but it can be done. And I enjoy that, and I think I’ve been doing that for a long time —trying to build bridges between departments. I’m curious if there is anyway that we can maximize the handful of students that are going to go out and change the world? And then you have even more who are going on to do great things. It becomes more of a model than just an individual’s expertise and mastery.

maria :

I wish that kind of a model could be found. To get students to a point where they take full charge of their education and be imaginative thinkers would be the starting place. My sister, who taught in medicine, practiced a Canadian teaching method, called ProblemBased Learning, which, by asking each individual to research a part of the topic to be learned and then to deliver his or her findings to the group, emphasized students’ part in the learning. It was not “transferring knowledge” from the podium. A teacher should not make students dependent on him or her. Nobody ever talks about any particular teaching methods or how the projects should be set up to expand student’s creativity. It is crucial that students become independent thinkers and makers –that they stretch their abilities. I think that a curriculum could help that but how it should be set up? This is a very creative place but it is also a very conservative place.

hybrid design

willem :

willem :

I think that there is a lot that RISD is facing, so many pressure points. I wonder if it has always been that way, technological changes, demands of industry and right now do we just have this self-awareness that we think we are at this great moment of change but in twenty years we’ll look back and say “Oh that’s funny they had that little strategic plan and they thought they were going to open things up,” and it will still be the same (laughter). And maybe RISD is just this creature that will continue to exist in spite of itself and never really transcend or fall out entirely.

prepar ation

maria :


I really believe that we should attract as bright students as we can. I think that talent, an intellectual capacity is the main ingredient in becoming a good artist, good designer. It is a very important aspect in art and design. You need to be able to think beyond the customary. We have to understand what is the world outside of our windows, and which are our most serious challenges from rapid changes in civilization. Nothing more. All together, we, faculty, RISD administration and students. Do we address it in our GD program? No. Instead we are doing well other things, in a traditional way. One could say that our students are not well prepared for new instant challenges. It’s truth. Although most of our students are very intelligent, and having excellent foundations they will adopt themselves easily to work with constantly progressing technology. krzysztof :

I hope that everything will change soon, or the school will die.

krzysztof :

You were right when you describe your own case. The personal effort you put into your self-education was the most important element of developing your talent. As an instructor I could guide you, give you a good advice, stimulate you, because I am older, more experienced, and see thinks in broader contexts, but the engine is on your side. When coming to the end of your time at RISD you should ask yourself a question: Have you worked up to potential (not killing yourself, and having also some pleasures of life to remember later)? If the answer is “yes”, then that is a chance of good future in front of you. brian : Well it is quite obvious to everybody that John Maeda’s arrival coincided with a realization that things had to change in terms of the financial set up and it is perfectly obvious that that is a big change. I think there is a powerful institutional memory here. Which I have the feeling that sometimes people play down as not being a significant thing. But every so often it does emerge as a powerful force. It is a mysterious thing but it is the RISD identity, and it definitely exists. So every administration, whatever it is and whoever it is, has to deal with that history. As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. There are many faculty here who are more senior than I am and they are sources of that collective memory as well.


But I think the opinion has been that way for a long time —our students are smart, they’ll find a way. But what I am interested in is if they find it earlier, then they will go beyond it and achieve more.

willem :

maria :

I actually think that the division of fine arts is at the heart of RISD. That area lays the whole foundation of RISD. willem :

fine ar t s

But is it a disservice that design often gets packaged as the commercial art, and fine arts is the true art? I see the creative process as something that can be found anywhere. I’ve worked with engineers, Med students, business students, there are creative people everywhere. All we are doing here is making —we are visual creative people and that what you see RISD students graduate and do displays that fluidity in our education. We have alumni that are orthopedic surgeons and heads of companies and producers. So tell me why do you think the categorization of fine arts and design is so enmeshed in RISD’s success.

maria :

Because I see them as very interlinked, but I think that the freedom in fine arts is very important for one’s development both as a designer and artist. In the investigation in fine arts you don’t have all of the practical stipulations that you have in design. I see design as an application of one’s progress as an artist. In other words, an individual’s artistic development is very important and becomes a foundation and an intrinsic part of anything new in design. I practice it with the graduate students. Their design has depth and it has ideas that bring something new to the field.


brian : For the students who can put ideas like Design and Entrepreneurship into the context of their own studies it is amazingly beneficial and will go onto another level to weave this more closely into what they are doing as designers. That’s got to make sense, so I am very pleased it is happening. But you mention the obvious fact that this form of education, which is what the British call a modular system, where you put together independent courses, inevitably means that sometimes the connections aren’t so clear.

brian : I came from a culture where there were very few choices, it was very structured, but that meant it was very finely honed and it was cumulative. That you could control it that way. And I’m still open-minded about this because I can quite see the that some times there are huge conflicts that aren’t necessarily in the student’s best interest. Right now for example, students are having to take themselves away from the studio work, which is very demanding, in order to finish a liberal arts paper or something. That’s kind of irrational in a way. But it has always been a part of this system and it is what I would call cafeteria culture. So, a resourceful and intelligent student can get what they want out of that, but for the students who just go to get their fifteen credits, it is not necessarily the most finely honed way to get the best of out this system.

Some months ago I was invited by the Department of Teaching and Learning in Art and Design to give a short talk on what I thought quality was. I spoke about quality as something that was different from excellence. I think that excellence is an idea about measurability. Its a very American business idea actually. I think quality involved a factor x, there’s something mysterious about that. I think that’s true about life at RISD that it is the students. Its this huge well of talent that has always been there and so it is a very subjective view and I think that is very important. The idea of excellence comes back to this notion that everything being measured and being fit into some kind of bureaucratic regime that is dangerous because it can look like it is about quality but it is not necessarily. It is about someone else’s view and measurement. So it is something elusive and it is about talent.

qualit y vs. e xcellence

You come back again to the whole advising process, but in the end it is perhaps a good thing that it is the student’s own responsibility to figure it out. And it is graduate students interestingly who are the most mature about this for obvious reasons.

Over several semesters I was looking at you and your performance in our program. From some distance, not being your instructor, I knew that you have a particularly bright time at RISD, and that we owe you many things. You are the model of an active, self-challenging student who are looking for common good, have great ideas and know how to delivery. I wish we had students like you more often. I appreciate very much what you did to this place. Take most honest wishes of success in your life and your design.

krzysztof :


thanks & acknowledgement s

risd will never exist as a printed and fixed doctrine of educational ideals or a set of board-appointed expectations; its true greatness stems from the commitment and excellence of individuals like Krzysztof, Maria, and Brian. I thank them sincerely for their work and the opportunity to learn from them in a truly unique way. This exercise would have never been possible without the mentorship and guidance of David Bogen and his challenge introducing me to the concepts of ethnography and research over the past few months. The conversations I have had with David have pushed me to find a deeper understanding and appreciation for every situation I find myself in. I must also thank Jessie Shefrin, the core group of the risd Strategic Plan, notably Margot Nishimura, Rosanne Somerson, and Ken Horii, for their on-going commitment to risd’s excellence and their respect and inclusion of my ideas into conversations much larger than any one of us. Finally, I could not create a list of this nature without thanking Tom Ockerse. Tom has been my most influential advisor during my tenure at risd. His counter balance to my pragmatism and his ability to challenge me to look deeper to understand myself has literally changed the way I learn and appreciate what I do.


This book is part of a series of works by Willem Van Lancker as a component to his Graphic Design bfa degree thesis at Rhode Island School of Design entitled “Agency & Structure.” © 2010 Providence, ri


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Conversations with Retiring Faculty  

Interviews with three retiring RISD faculty. Degree Thesis, 2010