Thought At Work: Fostering a Design Community
by Ryan Black | published Nov. 6th, 2016
This past October, students from Design disciplines across RIT’s campus had a year’s worth of work culminate into the production of “Thought At Work.” For three days industry professionals, RIT students and students from visiting schools gathered for this annual student-run conference — all to learn and celebrate design.
A Completely Student-Run Conference, All About Design
Each year, the students in charge of Thought At Work strive to bring in professionals who are willing to speak to and will truly resonate with the attending students. These speakers are experts with experience and insight that make them stand out in their respective field.
"Each speaker has their own unique background,” said Frank Barletta, a third year Industrial Design student who served as one of the organizing team leaders. Barletta noted that everyone brings something different and unique to the conference and there’s no one “umbrella” that every speaker’s message falls under — besides design.
“We have students on the [Thought At Work] team, from Film and Animation, Industrial Design, New Media Design, some Engineering and Computer Science [majors]," said Barletta.
"We try to get a cool blend of a lot of different design industries to try to appeal to as many students as we can,” explained Barletta. “We have students on the [Thought At Work] team, from Film and Animation, Industrial Design, New Media Design, some Engineering and Computer Science [majors]. We try to bring in relevant people for everyone."
To Barletta, the conference is a perfect outlet “to open people up” to the many perspectives and mindsets that exist within the world of design. According to professor Josh Owen, chair of the Industrial Design department, “design” is a term far larger than what the average person might think of.
"I think most people when they hear the term design, think of aesthetics. Where design in its true meaning is a much deeper, more pervasive label that encompasses a deep knowledge of behavior and iterative thinking."
"I think most people when they hear the term design, think of aesthetics. Where design in its true meaning is a much deeper, more pervasive label that encompasses a deep knowledge of behavior and iterative thinking,” described Owen. “[It] coalesces in objects, systems, environments, basically everything that surrounds us which is thoughtful." In Owen’s eyes, the concept of design goes well beyond just making things pretty. “It's making our world a better place by doing research, by understanding human behavior," he said.
For Owen, what cannot be replicated about Thought At Work is how it gives students the ability to essentially “write their own curriculum,” as the students involvedchoose what speakers and areas they most want to learn from.
This Year’s Speakers and Conference
“We invite people based on their work. If we admire someone's work we want to know what's behind that [person’s] outlooks on things,” said Caleb Payne, the lead organizer of this year's conference and a fourth year New Media Design student.
Seeing design as something which is informed by “many different areas,” Payne helped make sure that was reflected in having a broadly informed body of speakers. "We had a lot of diversity in our speakers in terms of areas that they come from," he said. "Something comes from collecting all these people, that you might not see anything in common with them, but you put them together into one conference and somehow it creates its own message. And that seems to have happened every year that I've been a part of it."
Several of this year's speakers discussed the applications of design-minded thinking,or look at the world through the eyes of a designer —in particularly unconventional ways. On the second day of the conference, the keynote opener, Allan Chochinov (Chair of the MFA in Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a partner of Core77), conveyed the potential for good results through experimenting with "evil design."
He recalled a time when one of his students was instructed to design a hypothetical app that intentionally encouraged the harmful usage of household chemicals — an idea unconventionally beneficial to society. The student's project evolved into "Venom" — an app which educates kids about many of the bad side effects of beauty products people already use every day.
Patricia Moore, an RIT alumna from the class of 1974 and longtime leader in the field of industrial design, spoke about the design mindset necessary when crafting solutions for those like the elderly; and how concerns like quality of life should always be the guiding force. She positioned it as a design problem and spoke about the sympathetic mindset necessary when designing products and services around such older individuals' constraints. Any designer seeking to address such a problem in her mind needs to be mindful of who they are designing for and what their unique needs are.
The conference's keynote speaker, Jake Lodwick — an early employee of CollegeHumor and co-creator of Vimeo — talked about how college is the time to explore any novel concepts one might have in mind, perhaps even the opportunity to create a start-up company built upon such ideas. He noted how this is the age where one typically has less adult responsibilities and far more security, so now is the time to take such a risk. It was a student-centered message which underscored how many people at the conference sought to encourage designers — soon joining their respective industries — about the importance of not fearing taking risk and instead, defying norms.
What Such an Unique Event Brings and Enables
Being a student-centric event, Thought At Work's structure instills a unique dynamic that makes networking with such professionals feel more authentic.
"It's not so stuffy and 'oh I'm afraid to go talk to this speaker because they're so professional and they've made it and I'm just a lowly student'," said Barletta.
"The setting is a lot more casual," noted Barletta. "It's not so stuffy and 'oh I'm afraid to go talk to this speaker because they're so professional and they've made it and I'm just a lowly student'." For Barletta, this casual approach manifests itself most prominently in the likes of after-parties and bowling events, similar to how speakers will attend many of the other parts of the conference just like the students.
It's an experience that, to him, isn't possible in the classroom. "When are you ever going to be able to hang out and drink coffee (or bowl) with these awesome professionals?" he said.
The networking that happens at Thought At Work though is far from limited to being just between speakers and students. Jean Paul Pompeo, a fourth year Industrial Design major from Ohio State University (OSU) and his classmates were drawn to attend — by both the presentations and the desire to know what the design scene within other parts of the country were like. Besides Columbus, Ohio, Thought At Work's reach extends to places like Montclair, N.J. and even Toronto, Ontario.
Barletta expressed that the aim of their school outreach has been to get as many people involved as possible; Their efforts even include "couch-surfing," allowing visiting students to crash in people's apartments in order to make the trip more affordable.
Pompeo recognized that those organizing and attending the conference are not just their current counterparts, but future peers within the professional world. "What can we learn that they do, to try and improve what we do; what can we teach them that they might not know, that we do," he said in reference to the exchange of disciplinary perspectives that occurs.
"You have all these woodshops and metal shops, glass shops; something that we at OSU are lacking," he recalled about his visit to RIT's Industrial Design department. From Pompeo's point of view, Ohio State's emphasis in comparison lies far more in the research behind the designed solution. "But then again our models are going to be 3D printed — and that's about it. We're not going to have visual models, functional models. We're not going to have anything with actual real materials, because we don't know how to work them."
"We're all going to be in the same industry some day, and on some level we recognize that we're going to learn from each other — or that we should learn from each other," said Payne.
This sort of exchange is something Payne, the conference's lead organizer, finds subversive of the sports-like rivalry that can often exist between schools. "We're all going to be in the same industry some day, and on some level we recognize that we're going to learn from each other — or that we should learn from each other," contended Payne. "So it's really gratifying that we kind of break that barrier with other schools."
How Such an Event Reflects the Professional World of Design
A collaborative effort across multiple disciplines, Thought At Work is an endeavor which gives the students involved in its organization an idea of what to expect in the professional world. According to Payne, it certainly models the sort of group work designers will partake in their future careers.
"All of us, we know what it's like to need things from other people," pointed out Payne. "We know what it's like to have our ideas subject to a big group, and we have experience delegating things and experience doing what other people tell us to do."
"That's what happens on the outside right? Things don't exist in pigeon holes, we work together with people in other disciplines to understand how to make the world a better place," said Owen.
Owen recognized the value in allowing students across different disciplines the freedom and resources to organize such an event and find the overlaps and intersections between fields. "That's what happens on the outside right? Things don't exist in pigeon holes, we work together with people in other disciplines to understand how to make the world a better place," he said.
Both Payne and Barletta also expressed how Thought At Work presents opportunities for designers to learn from other students' strengths and skill-sets. Barletta noted how his friend who studies photography was able to learn from him how to use a laser cutter while working on the signage team. They — like so many other students collaborating on Thought At Work — recognize that their respective area of design is not a silo.
This kind of understanding seems to have helped build up a sense of inter-disciplinary community among the different design fields helping to organize Thought At Work. To Owen, this is why the importance of Thought At Work's approach can't be emphasized enough. "It's so important, not just in the educational sense. It's community-building," he said.
Barletta very much echoed this sentiment. "The team is so close, I've met a lot of my best friends working on it now and these are people I never would have met if we didn't do this," he said.
"Being a part of the planning team of the conference is also in the spirit of the conference: of exploring everything and no boundaries (and no majors). Everyone's all one big design community," said Barletta.
Payne is already talking to next year's organizers about how to move forward with 2017's Thought At Work. After each year's conference they meet to discuss and evaluate the event. "It doesn't really end until the next one begins ... A conference run by designers is very much iterative — every year we try to do it better. How can we improve this?" he said.
To many of its organizers, attendees, and supporters, Thought At Work embodies the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and collaborative effort that all within the design community should strive for. It — and events of its like — captures how comprehensive and iterative design truly is, as well as how everyone and every field benefits from such an active community.
"Being a part of the planning team of the conference is also in the spirit of the conference: of exploring everything and no boundaries (and no majors)," expressed Barletta. "Everyone's all one big design community."