Physical and digital spaces of daily interaction.

A short talk with John Caserta.

JP/ I read that your work as a designer is about generating productive health environments. I would love to know more about this. How design can produce such environments? And does this approach influence the way you are managing the program at RISD?

JC/ In organization or community there are systems used to interact with each other, whether that people are sitting on the same room, there is a daily meeting, there is Slack use or email use to people working from home. I think design as a form of problem solving, as an approach, can improve how people feel about the work they do, the quality of their life — as work is a big part of everyone’s day — and also the end product, the actual quality of what they produce. If people love their work, and I am generally surrounded by situation in which this is true (I think both of RISD and the Design Office), doing good work is a good motivator, thus is about figuring out ways how to do this.
Something I created, which goes in this direction, is a tumblr theme called ‘notices’, a multi-format messaging system, which primary purpose is to communicate what is going on in the department to students and faculty. It is a digital system, which allows for really physical outputs. It generates a simple website, printable pdfs, an animated full-screen slideshow to use as screensaver, and a rolling archive. Another thing I’ve tried to implement, and I think successfully, is doing as much work in person as possible. Not getting in long email exchanges and asynchronous communication whereas using editable documents so that real time progress can be done and seen. Certainly meetings are viable, but trying to do them almost unplanned, just by being in the building and going and finding folks, that has actually been much more helpful… and encouraging everyone to do things thoroughly. The end result is created, works comes out of those communication.

JP/ The work produced at RISD is highly interdisciplinary. How do you encourage this approach in which design, theory, art, technology, all play together towards a common goal? Are students motivated to engage with their own education?

JC/ RISD is a very disciplinary school, students choose departments and they’re doing the majority of their course work in that department. But inevitably happens that they have relationships with their peers on the fact that this is a fairly small school, buildings are near each other, there are shows and opening constantly, students tend disturb breaking out of their discipline. ‘Studio’ courses within the graphic design curriculum, were recently tweaked to actually open up the deliverable as much as possible, to ask questions, this is the primary instigator of the project. These questions might lead to performances, digital works, etc. and so we have seen more work that is less composition based, print based, because design is a mean to get somewhere, it is a vocabulary, a plan making process. We want students to understand that where we are and where we were in XX century, when graphic design formed itself, isn’t necessary what their career will be about. The DNA of graphic design is being able to express something to someone else, whether the message is your own or you are an intermediate. So it might be that typography has a smaller part, composition or special layout has a smaller part… I think there will always be beautifully composed works in the sense of books and posters, however I think we need to make sure that we don’t assume that those are the solutions to many of the problems, or opportunities, that designers will be facing. Those are almost specialties, not everyday matters. Those specialties should be dealt with in school, but the notion of surface and audience those permeate every project. We want to make sure those are primary, and this lead to more interdisciplinary work even though image making and the creating of esthetic tend to be very grounding, so we are still very rooted in form making…

JP/ At RISD you have a museum, an interesting program of exhibitions and a number of gallery and exhibition spaces. How are these spaces important for the school? Are they used and integrated with the teaching?

JC/ The fact that we are a graphic design department but we are in an art school and the art school has a museum and an healthy exhibition culture, meaning a few galleries that students have access to as well as departments have planned exhibitions, that’s important. You can produce exhibition and space, create artifacts for exhibition, use projections and so forth. The RISD Museum itself has an incredible collection of graphic design works, print making, textile, etc. Than there is the Providence public library…
The fact that there is a proper museum means we can do certain projects that relate to it in different ways. Which relate to culture, but also to way-finding for instance, as the museum is a real live laboratory. Having a museum is an asset for sure.
We recently opened our own exhibition space for the graphic design department. We use it for events and shows. There we get to blur the line between events, shows and the classroom. We call the space ‘the commons’ because it is primarily a ‘piazza’ sort where folks can gather and discuss related to the department and to the field, welcome guests,… The space is on the river so it has a public facing side and we can also open up shows to the public. As design is a public facing discipline this is a huge opportunity.

John Caserta
John Caserta is a Providence-based designer and educator. He is Department Head of the Graphic Design Department at The Rhode Island School of Design. John’s current area of interest is in organizational systems: the design of productive, creative and healthy environments. This research area often creates the need for graphic matter, or provides methods that apply to classic design problems. An increasingly important tool has been the Web. It is networked, user-controllable and visual. In 2007, he founded The Design Office, a work and project space for independent designers in downtown Providence.

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