What compelled a busy guy like you to tackle a big education job?
I started Fuseproject with a different type of dialogue that design brings stories to life; it’s brand building, it’s strategizing, it’s thinking beyond the object. This idea was innovative at the time, and as fast as design is evolving right now, schools should be allowed to think in that way as well.
Does that mean we should expect CCA students to start conducting ethnographic research, writing scripts, and drawing storyboards?
Absolutely. The job of the designer is essentially to communicate. And the mediums we are allowed to communicate with range from drawing and other forms of visual expression to building ideas through research and ethnographic studies.
How will you implement that point of view?
There are opportunities to make changes in a school, but typically they take more time than doing it in your own business. Early on, I’ll communicate clearly our expectations for the students. For the sophomore year, we are exploring cultural history classes (contemporary and classic), an ethnography class, and possibly a writing/storytelling class.
Doesn’t an aspiring designer need a foundation in problem-solving?
Problem-solving can develop from studying behavior. You can also take an emotional approach. We can enjoy at the same time the most functional object and the most frivolous piece of self-expression. The door needs to be left open for students to determine whether function or emotion is the main driver.
This past year, Art Center designed furniture with Bernhardt, and CCA students developed messenger bags with Timbuk2. Are there new classroom-to-market projects in the works?
Timbuk2 is going to continue to sponsor a nomadism class. Also there’s a glass company we’re talking to, a global computer brand we are looking for sponsors who will take a risk by producing or promoting the students labor.
Do corporations too often sponsor industrial design classes for their own gain?
In my own education, some big businesses used to come to school looking for a portfolio of ideas and 25 youngsters to sweatshop for them. I think this has changed quite a bit. The sponsors we’re talking to see an opportunity to keep their own culture and ideas relevant. I see it as a positive collaboration if the right expectations are communicated at all times, like any design project.
You’ve designed brand extensions for Mini, packaging for Perfume09, an environment and logo for the San Francisco store Friend all outside traditional industrial design boundaries. Do you expect your students to collaborate closely with CCAs 17 other programs?
The first part of your question implies, Am I creating students in my own image? Certainly not. If there’s one thing that gives Fuseproject a place in the world of design it is, I hope, that we bring something different to the table. Secondly, multidisciplinary design is not something you teach; it’s something you have students experience. And it’s more about collaboration than turning an ID student into a fashion designer or an architect. When students with different terminologies and skills conduct dialogues, it involves twice as much thinking power and often leads to very original results.
Many of your products biodegrade or can be recycled. Will the CCA curriculum emphasize greenness?
There has been interest in developing a sustainablity offering. As it relates to the ID program, I do not see sustainability as a separate piece of the process, but instead as part of a whole toolbox. The challenge is to go beyond the material and manufacturing processes as a way of addressing the issue, and instead look at business models creatively, to boldly propose approaches to the distribution and conception of products that solve the bigger issues.
Will there be measures to introduce more women to the industrial design profession?
There’s still a gender gap. I guess we close it by teaching classes that have both fashion and ID, since most fashion students are women, at least from what I’ve experienced at CCA. But that’s a guess.
How will you balance chairing the department with studio work?
I can continuously think about those two challenges while I do both and while I do either. There’s going to be some personal presence, but not 8 to 5 every day. Part of my role is to see what’s happening and bring back to the school interesting opportunities, connections, and people. It’s a role that demands being in the world.
David Sokol is the managing editor of I.D.