April 11th  2016 RISD Hot Seat V


Charlie Cannon

is the current head of the Industrial Design Department at RISD. Prior to joining the ID department in 2009, he was a part-time faculty member at RISD for 12 years across architecture, industrial design, and grad studies. He is one of the Co-Principal Investigator’s for EPSCoR which researches the impact of climate change on marine life through studios at RISD and collaborations with local scientists. He currently is focused on bringing a design-centered approach to problems in sustainability and social innovation.


    I have always been interested in what I now recognize as Industrial Design. I started teaching in the ID department in 1999. I was just a few years out of graduate school. Over the years I was an itinerant adjunct faculty member, teaching Industrial Design and Landscape at RISD, architecture at Roger Williams, and eventually urban design at Columbia. Throughout that time I also maintained an architecture practice.  It wasn’t until about 2008 that I realized that I was more at home in Industrial Design than I was in Architecture. That slow dawning realization emerged as I came to be more interested in working with organizations and institutions to help them align their design goals with their larger mission and vision. Sometimes those client discussions led to architecture but as often they lead to long term plans, or books  and websites to communicate important ideas, or new ways to think about community development. I was so focused on being an architect that it took me quite a while to recognize that I was practicing more like a designer. Once I realized that, it changed my work, changed the way that I thought about it, and made me start looking at what I think of as “small d” design.  Eventually, I began applying to teach in Industrial Design Departments full-time to explore that perspective more. People responded enthusiastically and to be honest it was only then that I realized that industrial design was really the place for me.

      I don't imagine my experience is that different from the experience of many designers, in the sense that it took me a while to find my voice. Like a musician or a writer, I believe that as a maker or a designer that you practice and practice and slowly over time what is unique to you –your voice – reveals itself to you through your work. I believe we find ourselves through the work and the best thing is to engage in the work as deeply as you can.

      We are living in the midst of a new enthusiasm for design and creativity. There is an enormous appetite in the value that designers (and creative people of all kinds) bring to business and social problems. And at the same time it has never been easier for designers and creative people to find financial support for their ideas. Take Kickstarter, for example, graduates of the industrial design department have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on kickstarter for their projects. But it’s not just kickstarter, as I watch our alumni, I see more and more of them able to raise the capital that they need to start their own companies. These companies range from app development like Thryve, which helps people who are suffering from celiac disease and dietary, to transportation innovators like  Danny Kim’s, Lit Motors, that is building a single person, two wheeled commuter vehicle that drives like a car. For me this enthusiasm for design and for creative solutions holds great promise for young designers. 
      One thing that I really value about the graduate education at RISD is that students have the opportunity to develop their personal voice in a stand alone arts & design school.  A school where you have the luxury of time to do the work that is motivating you personally. We value personal discovery through work and through wherever your work might lead you.  For me, this makes your RISD experience enormously important and valuable. I love being at RISD because of all the amazing work that is being made in every department in the school.  I am as inspired by my colleagues in glass, ceramics, photography, printmaking, sculpture, painting and textiles as I am by my colleagues in the design departments. This is a uniquely creative place. You don’t get that kind of creative diversity at a Tier One research university or a small liberal arts college.
      My hope for students here is that they can find similar inspiration from all the other modes of creativity that are happening across the campus. There is such richness here, a wealth of really interesting makers that are asking all kinds of wonderful and crazy questions. 
Getting connected and having more opportunities to be more entwined with other modes of creativity is one of the most exciting things about being here.

      My advice to young designers, or indeed to anyone, is that you 
endeavor to hold onto the thing that interests you even if you don’t know where it’s going. It takes effort to construct a life and a way of living that makes creative experimentation and creative inquiry possible. You have to figure out a way to husband your energy, and make the time to stay with that thing until it reveals itself to you.It took me years to discover what I was doing. To match the things I loved intellectually with the things I was inspired by and with opportunities to do those things myself. I was fortunate to have been able to do that in my own life, and I am all the better for it.  
      The story of your life and your creativity should not be a story of failed romance.

Question from David Frazer 
1.  What challenges do you anticipate for the future of your discipline (Industrial Design) and is your department able to anticipate and meet these challenges?

2.  Do you and/or your students have any fun or is it all work and no play?

 One of the challenges in a field as broad as Industrial Design is defining what it is, and what it will be next. We are living in an incredibly fertile time in design. Fields like experience design see graphic designers, industrial designers, and architects all working together to create more rich and vibrant experiences for people. These “experience designers” are not trained in “experience” but in the rich ways people respond to typography, objects, spaces, and interactions. And more and more, they are being asked to understand and negotiate between their different disciplines to accomplish that. At the same time I feel like there is this incredible spin out of new fields. I remember a few years ago looking at diagrams of information architecture and experience design that described 27 distinct areas of expertise that one needs to draw upon to design new experiences. We are experiencing a convergence and a divergence in the fields of design. One outcome of these changes is that there are a profusion of new opportunities, of new ways to be a designer and of new ways to construct creative practice. Our challenge is to  figure out how we are responsibly preparing students for futures we can’t yet see.
      The way we are trying to address that challenge in the department is to
look to our alumni as indicator species of the future. They are out there meeting their future right now. What we are finding is that they are routinely working in one of four domains of practice. They work making objects and artifacts – what we might describe as traditional product design. They work developing experiences and services.  They, work designing the systems and platforms that make smartphones work, that treat playgrounds as a learning environments, and that support scientific research in space. They develop vision and strategy to guide companies, non-governmental organizations and institutions. After spending the last year identifying these four domains we are now trying to figure out how our alumni’s RISD experience prepared them for working across those domains, so that we adjust our curriculum to continue to prepare our students for a career in design.
      I know for a fact that we are never going to offer 25% of our classes in each of those domains and I don’t think we need to. I believe that our focus on making, drawing and thinking in studios, in shops, and in public is critical to preparing nimble and capable designers. I do think that as our department continues to grow that we need to be super clear in every class about what skills, lessons, and habits of mind students are acquiring. And that 
we need to be super clear about how those skills, lessons, and habits of mind are preparing them for a life in design. A life that will undoubtedly see them working across those four domains.
      In answer to the second question, no we don’t allow any fun here.


Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio



Look out for April 18th

RISD Hot Seat with John Caserta from Graphic Design!



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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.