Mar 21st  2016 RISD Hot Seat VI


John Caserta

is the department head of Graphic Design. His background contains journalism and he is an information designer who has worked for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Reuters, the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center in France, NBC, the NCAA and more. He is the founder of The Design Office, a work/project space which has housed about 40 independent designers since its opening in 2007, located in a 3,000 sf. space in downtown Providence. His current area of interest is in organizational systems where the design of productive, creative and healthy environments is increasingly important to understand.



          For me personally, I do come from the problem-solving world. I use design to try to improve situations and that process is rarely a solitary one. Rarely I have the answer. When I think of design it’s based on asking good questions, what needs to be named, what needs to be talked about. That’s a really important part of the process.

          I often react very viscerally to space. For instance, I’ve been on faculty part and full time. When I walk into a room I wonder, where am I, what is this light about, when was this building made? The desire to understand starts fueling very basic questions, and the more I engage, the more evolved the questions become. I believe design is about building an understanding from an evolved set of questions that can be shared with others. Design is part of the human condition. It serves a purpose in life, not commerce. I was talking about the GD Commons earlier as a place that I helped design. Designing the space was about building a set of questions with all those invested in the space. For example: what would it be like to have bigger events, to interact with the public along the river, to experiment with exhibitions, to be as transparent as possible? For me moving through life I look for opportunities to form questions.

           Concentrating is more difficult when you're stimulated so you need to go inward to think. Most making happens when you are actually in a flow state – it’s fairly personal. Sometimes really nice spaces make us unproductive though. It might be better to have a space that doesn't do too much, it still should have windows, light. At school you find your ideal work environment. Libraries are a good example. Our library has many spaces. You can hide and find a corner to work but there is open space as well. There is so much design around us that I often wonder what it is going to take to encourage someone to stop and look for a long period. What is the kind of design you will see over and over again because it is in the environment. It’s something we use like a product, interface, website, that will get you to appreciate it over time. It’s part of a system that might be used over time. You get smart, it gets smarter, you enjoy it more. Confusing at first, amazing later. Pushing the human intelligences, I think design should ask something of the viewer. It should be part of your growth. If we do our job right, it’s elevates the human condition, it elevates society. It helps us learn more about ourselves and others while appreciating and respecting our world and what we are using.

          I’ve never been a design who needs to form a finished object, who gains satisfaction from having a poster or object on the wall that has my touch. I’m much more interested in seeing the results of it – someone's experience of it. Which could still be something on the wall that produces some result or effect. Design is integral to people's life in some way. I think designing a very nice ATM machine is a service to humanity or deciding that there is another way to distribute money. Designing for the everyday is very honorable and interesting. I do think designers have to put forward their point of view, and they need to make sure they are taking responsibility for the work they produce



          I’ve been working with the web since it came out in the mid 90s. The web is very forgiving, the web browser wants to make you happy. It will take anything you put in and it doesn’t want to be controlled. It wants to do what it wants to do with design which means the more you give up control the more you can learn from it. It is like a little Buddha. Do as little as you can and then learn from it. There is so much that is built into it. It’s a very forgiving and easy medium for designers to get into. So much is open source and sharable. Once you learn the material, html, css, java, you can start to piece together parts of the web environment. So much exists now that a web page can be on a phone, wall, book. It’s a pretty evolved piece of software in 2016. It’s pretty good at interaction, slurping in data, it’s a great place to play with surface and interaction. 

          I’m interested in the web as part of a larger production environment and as a publishing platform. I’ve been questioning how to actually use the web browser as a way to produce publications. They can still live on screen, they don’t have to be printed. The browser has gotten to be pretty developed as a tool. You have lots of people comment or edit, or add hashtags, etc. You can have a website full of instagram images and then print that as a snapshot of time. 

          What we need to design as graphic designers is systems, and forms. We are thinking about how other people contribute content and how it evolves over time. The web is ideal because you can design a website but it is rare that the content that goes on it would be the only thing that ever goes there. A month from now you might change the image and text and I’m speaking generally about a website right now. That happens more and more not just on the web but that there is an expectation that content or authors might change in galleries. Type is always on the wall when you come into the museum. So how does that work, who produces that, is it always the same size, same font? So I’m thinking in terms of experience, and people, relationships of time and all forms within a system. They are parts that have to be connected. 



          It makes me happy when other people invest in their environment, in their own organization that they are a part of, whether that is a department, college, business, or family. I think it’s important for me to be the person I want other people to be. I just want to act the way I want us all to act, with some sense of responsibility and ownership, and to try to articulate, inform, and be an effective participant and ambassador. At RISD, I’ve tried to put the best ideas I’ve had forward and to explain them and learn from others when there are aspects that I haven't thought of or considered. Ideally there are huge voids in which other people can enter and be a part of things. So I just want others to do the same. At RISD, the department head position is very time consuming because there are so many specific responsibilities in terms of the number of demands so it’s not like I expect my colleagues to do those things too since there are specific job responsibilities they focus on. I do hope that others will take this position in the future and do their best at it, and involve everyone as I have tried to do in my position. The Design Office, which is the collective that I founded almost ten years ago now, is a similar attempt. I took a step and now see others taking those same steps. I was lucky to be joined by strong and talented individuals who now also tend to the space and take care of it with me. I think if I ever find myself not doing the work myself, I always want to be participating in everyday actions. Modeling good behavior brings out more of that good behavior. It’s more someone who is working hard to make his environment as interesting and as rich as possible. Wanting to learn and taking on new tasks all the time and figuring out new parts of myself. Then I can contribute to my surroundings. 



          Take care of your health. Make sure you are sleeping, eating, and exercising. Figure out something to do in the area with your time left. Explore things before you have to go. Grad school is a sprint, it’s 5 years of work crammed into 2 or 3 years. It’s so much about work and creating a lot of momentum around your own ideas while learning about the field that you're finding yourself in, but I think post-school life has a different kind of experience. The work graduate students do now is integrated into other things after school ends: love, travel, hobbies, reading, so don’t think school has to be everything. RISD students work really hard and I think it’s because they love what they do and when working that hard can’t be sustained after graduation. You realize it’s about remaining interested in your area over all. It’s important to explore once you graduate, the world, your environment, learn to go deep. Don’t just do everything to do it, have great passion and intention. 

          That’s one of the reasons my family is important. I have my family: wife, two daughters, and my dog. I got my dog when I was working at home. It was nice to have a companion at home before I started The Design Office. Ray is a lab terrier mutt that we found at the pond as a puppy. I like to run, exercise, play tennis, soccer, and just being mobile. I imagine myself doing more biking in the future. I don’t have time to do that now. This phase for me is so busy it’s hard to imagine what’s next. I think my priorities are very close to me right now with the work that I have and my family. That’s the most of what I can handle right now. Simple things go a long way though. 



Question for John Dunnigan

          He talks about form and scale and what I want to know is how big can furniture be before it becomes something else?


Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio



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RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.