Getting Inspired

james helms
Sep 10, 2018 · 3 min read
The Nature Lab, at Rhode Island School of Design

I just spent the better part of my day touring the famed Rhode Island School of Design, learning how students view the school, how companies partner with RISD to solve complex problems, and how employers connect with some of the best design talent in the world. And everyone wants me to see the Nature Lab. I mean — everyone.

You can read all about the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab for yourself, but suffice it to say, RISD takes hands on learning incredibly seriously — and believes that nature is one of our greatest teachers. And so there are shelves and shelves of insects and seed pods and pressed plants and skeletons. Most of which can be “checked out” like a library book, taken home and pored over at length. It’s really quite striking, walking into a room with a taxidermy bear, scorpions suspended in jars full of fluid, a tank with a live tortoise, and what might be described as the most impressive collection of pine cones ever assembled.

My guide went on to explain that nature is a master designer of hinges and storage and armature and color and space. And so students use this lab all the time — to study how nature does it (whatever “it” they are currently focused on). There are places to look at these examples under a microscope — and really understand the details of a skeleton, or an exoskeleton. The surface: is it porous? Is it fibrous? What color is is REALLY? Professors build assignments that require the students to spend time really exploring and inspecting. And it develops within them a true appreciation for the way nature and evolution solves problems through differentiation over millenia.

The Fleet Library is equally stunning in its use of space and ability to provoke and inspire. Housed in the first two floors of the former Rhode Island Hospital Trust bank, students are met with soaring architecture, contrasted nicely with some new modifications that solve permanent problems in a delightfully flexible way. Surely one of the most complete collections of art, design and associated literature — plus technology to search even deeper in their archives.

RISD’s Fleet Library, and the retrofitted space-creating ampitheater
Cubbies and workspaces tucked under the ampitheater

As the library website puts it, “Studio practice and research share fundamental traits. Both begin with open-ended inquiry that involves forming and developing questions followed by searching, experimenting, and discovery. Both require periods of active looking interspersed with time for reflection. This view of research and its relationship to studio work acknowledges the dynamic flow and interplay of thought, physical experimentation, looking, reflecting, and serendipity inherent in the creative process.”

Oh my. I need to be doing more of that, I think.

Student-designed dining room floor, and student-designed chair, in the newly reopened Portfolio Cafe

Maybe what I loved most about my visit, is that the impact of the students on the school is tangible in a way that is uniquely inspiring. RISD has been using its own students, its own methodology, its own inspiration to solve its own problems. From the Lab to the Library to the cafeteria to the museum. Every space has been created with the intention to inspire and challenge the students to push their thinking and leave their mark — here in Providence, and wherever else they go.

james helms

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Design Leader. Student of Experiences. Customer advocate. Relationship Enabler.