Famed Designer Rosanne Somerson on Innovation and Failure
Last month Rosanne Somerson became the 17th president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The esteemed furniture designer and educator has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts; and has had her work exhibited at the Louvre, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and, appropriately, the RISD Museum.
She is also the first alumna to lead the college, and has strong, enduring ties with the institution. In addition to studying there as an undergraduate (she received her Industrial Design BFA in 1976), she has worked at the college as an Industrial Design professor, as the co-founder and first department head of its Furniture Design department, and as its interim associate provost and provost.
We sat down with Somerson to talk about how she plans to prepare the school for challenges that have yet to emerge, and about RISD’s growing relevance in tech—an industry increasingly devoted to the school’s fundamental tenets of creativity, disruption, and human-centered design.
WIRED: What can RISD graduates provide tech firms and other businesses that are traditionally considered to be outside the design realm?
Somerson: One way our artists and designers help make sense of the tech world is by putting human beings first. They can design new things while really thinking about the user experience and the cultural impact that technology is instigating. A lot of initial research in tech is done by engineers and programmers who may not be as connected to how we perceive and experience things. Artists have a window into that that is highly developed.
Engineers are very gifted at what they do, but they don’t have this piece. I think in the future there will be these collaborations of the best IT and software engineers, along with people who can translate that into a meaningful human experience that is central to the concept as a whole, instead of an add-on. Those days are behind us. It’s really much more seminal than that. And that’s something that RISD does really well.
We teach students how to get through uncomfortable moments so that they can actually get to really new places. That’s why I think our alumni are succeeding so broadly in the world. Rosanne Somerson
We also have particular relevance in the tech world because that world is creating a lot of disruption. The fact that artists and designers find ways to ask impossible questions and solve impossible problems is more important than ever as tech is more and more integrated into our lives. We see failure not as an end but as part of the path—part of digging deeper and finding new solutions.
WIRED: Why do you see failure as an important part of the creative process?
Somerson: A lot of education is built on clearly defined outcomes, or on the assumption that there’s a place to get that’s ideal. And that’s a no-win situation if we’re trying to make a path of change. Our approach is much more about the notion that the outcome is the unknown. That can be very uncomfortable. It can be horrible. It can be depressing and scary. But we teach students how to get through those moments so that they can actually get to really new places. That’s why I think our alumni are succeeding so broadly in the world.
WIRED: How do you institutionalize that innovative, disruptive way of thinking?
Somerson: It really starts in our foundation year, when students are given problems that in some cases might seem impossible.
For example there’s a faculty member, Deborah Coolidge, who asks students in her Spatial Dynamics studio to make an object that picks up an egg, cracks the egg, and scrambles the egg without any hands touching the egg—and the object has to be made out of wood. The students make these inventions that are so surprising. The solutions are so brilliant and so different. One was a machine that you kept turning, like an egg-beater, but different things happened at different stages. There was another that was almost like a performance piece, where there were attachments to your body.
The ability to innovate in the face of restrictive criteria is what helped RISD students design NeoNurture, a neonatal incubator for the developing world. There are incubators in some of those regions, but people don’t necessarily have the training or parts to keep them going. The students realized there was a supply chain of motorcycles and cars and trucks in those regions, so they decided to make an incubator out of car parts. The headlights produce heat, a car battery provides power, and so on. It does the same thing but in a way that can be maintained and serviced, and the training already exists. The incubator was named one of Time Magazine’s 50 best inventions of 2010.
I think a lot of the kind of thinking that makes inventions like this possible starts in the first year: It teaches students how to apply creative problem solving to more and more complex applications.
WIRED: The founders of Airbnb went to RISD
Somerson: They did. Joe (Gebbia) and Brian (Chesky) really attribute the formation of their company to their design education. It came out of a problem where they were having trouble making the rent. There was a big convention in San Francisco and all the hotels were booked. One suggested renting out their air mattress. It worked, and they thought others would want to do the same. It was sort of a design problem that they solved for themselves. But, more importantly, they were able to scale that into an idea that didn’t exist yet. There were a lot of hurdles along the way that they couldn’t anticipate. At every impasse, they found a creative solution that made the company stronger. That’s almost more important than the company’s origins. There are lots of people with good ideas. The ability to see through the challenges and solve them and make something better is one of the greatest outcomes of a design education.
WIRE: What role do you see technology playing as you update your curriculum for the future?
Somerson: Our students are embracing technology as a natural tool, and we’re facilitating that. Coding, for instance, which has naturally integrated with the curiosity of our students, is now part of our core freshman curriculum.
Students use technology almost like a material. In many instances, they learn what the technology is supposed to do and then they hack it to do something else—altering a 3D printer’s resolution, for example, or changing the direction of its tool path to create surprising results. They’re taking the technology they’re working with into completely new realms that expand its use. The future’s going to see a lot of that.
WIRED: The opportunities for innovation are so exciting. They’re also challenging. You have faculty and departments that are used to being very focused on what they do. They have to open their minds to collaboration. I’m sure that’s a challenge as well.
Somerson: It is a challenge. I think one of the great things about RISD is the diversity of the way people teach and the diversity of expertise here. So we’re not saying to any faculty member: “this is how you have to morph your teaching practice.” But we are trying to create situations where people can teach in all different ways.
Meanwhile, in our buildings, we’re creating more informal spaces. Because even within departments it’s really nice for students to see what their peers in other disciplines are doing, and have conversations outside the classroom about their work. That’s so important to the development of their ideas. We’re trying to create more spaces where that kind of informal learning can take place.
It was this kind of thinking that helped inspire Co-Works, RISD’s new multi-disciplinary digital fabrication studio. When I was provost, the idea came to me to create a cross-disciplinary lab that wasn’t located in any one department—the kind of place where a glass artist could observe what a furniture designer or architect was working on. It’s become a wonderful lab for innovation. There’s a lot of discovery going on. A lot of people don’t understand the idea of research in the art and design context. But designers are always working to expand conventions—to redefine even the boundaries of their own forms of practice.
WIRED: You talk a lot about teaching students to anticipate future scenarios that haven’t been thought of yet. How do you plan to implement that philosophy in your new position?
Somerson: The curriculum and practices here have always been about invention and innovation. It’s the natural inclination here to make something that doesn’t exist. Because I was educated at RISD and am a practicing artist and designer, I apply that same way of thinking to higher education. For one, we’re looking at the potential to engage more students through expanding continuing and executive education. We’ve just completed a campus master, looking at what can happen here and what adjacencies can encourage collaboration. What elements would be helpful for students to be exposed to more ideas, and how physical space can activate curricular space.
We’re also looking at who we partner with. Our students are partnering in all kinds of arenas that wouldn’t typically be interested in design. One is health care design and patient experience, like work with the Mayo Clinic. We just held an institute with Rhode Island’s Board of Elections called VoteLab, re-imagining the election structure in Rhode Island, and re-designing the ballot to make it more acceptable to people with disabilities. We have students looking at bee keeping and climate change and social justice. Students looking at how clean water can be delivered to places that don’t have access to it.
People are beginning to recognize artists’ abilities to take an idea and make it come to life. There are lot of other kinds of educational systems that provide a path to things that aren’t as open ended and versatile as an arts education. People recognize that versatility as an attribute that is very needed in this time of change. It’s highly sought by companies who are looking to transform and expand and iterate and change.