Questions about RISD

Happy New Year Everyone. I’ve been on a hiatus from writing since graduation in June. I clearly needed a break. But, it’s 2013 and one of my resolutions is to get back on the blog wagon. I’ve had a few potential RISD GD MFA candidates contact me with some really good questions about the program. I thought I’d share them in case any other candidates have similar questions about the program. Hope it’s helpful. Good luck.

What is your BFA background and why did you choose RISD over any other program?
I went to UMASS Dartmouth and studied Digital Media/Photography with a concentration in Graphic Design. I was very happy with that experience and it prepared me to get a really good job at kor group in Boston which I worked at for over 10 years.

But, I was looking to push myself theoretically and conceptually. I was looking at some other programs like Yale and Cranbrook, but I felt RISD was best for me because it offered the theory and had not forgotten about the form as I feel Yale and Cranbrook have.

How would you describe your overall experience at RISD?
Tough but rewarding.

Are there any particular classes and/or teachers that stuck out to you?
My 1st Grad studio with Nancy Skolos and Bethany Johns made a huge impact on me. I found those first projects really helped me shape my thesis. I also loved my 1st grad elective “the urgent vignette” with visiting professor Cavan Huang, but I’m not sure if he will be teaching again? Finally, I highly recommend taking classes outside the department. I took 3 photography classes, including Issues and Images with Lisa Young which was extremely impactful.

What are the different areas of focus within the program and which did you choose?
The focus is really open and up to you. I really wanted to work on more screen based and time/motion based projects. So I did incorporate that into my work.

How hard would you say it is to get into the program?
I know they get hundreds of applications and only accept between 6-8 students per track. So I’d say it’s pretty hard to get into.

Is there anything you would do differently in the program now?
I would have trusted my intuition from the beginning, but I don’t think I would have found my final outcome without my struggles.

What are you doing now?
Working at Fathom Information Design in Boston on web based projects and data visualization.

Do you attribute any of your success as a designer to RISD?
Certainly, I wanted to go to RISD ever since I was a little kid. I looked to RISD as the pinnacle of creative thinking and making. So RISD helped me succeed even before I started the program, and having gone through the program and now on the other side it continues to help drive my success.

Did RISD help you find employment after graduating?
Not directly, but a classmate a year ahead of me was interning at Fathom and an alum of the program was working at Fathom, so it gave me a foot in the door.

Any tips you can give me regarding the statement of purpose and portfolio?
Be honest. It sounds cliché but describe yourself as you are now and why going to RISD is something you must do. Be creative. As I mentioned, there are hundreds of applicants so try to write something that makes you stand out. This holds true with the portfolio as well. Don’t show work you are not totally proud of. If you’ve done client work that’s weak don’t include it just because it’s out in the “real world” or something like that. Show process and thinking not just the final outcome.

MFA Thesis book: Shift

Shift: Intuition. Transformation. Feedback. is available through my blurb bookstore.

Enjoy, James

0.0 Abstract

train blur

Shift, in concept and method, is a view on empirically based graphic design.

Inviting constant shifts of perspective—from one place, position, direction, or person, to another—I assume the stance of observer and documentarian of the transitory. My work, which operates in the liminal space between ordinary and extraordinary places, things, and people in everyday life, is a time-lapse archive (whether in print or on screen) of localized experience. Within this role I capture the “qualitative data” of my daily commute, both as record of the everyday, and as a perspective on a culture in motion. The blurred color gradient of dawn seen through the window of a speeding train, the minute observations of a tattered ticket stub recording the travel zones in eight point Helvetica type, or the off-glances of the commuters trying to ignore the quotidian space, are the fragments that construct a document of the rituals of everyday life.

Shift is an inquiry into an empirically based graphic design methodology based on a process of observing and synthesizing amid constant flux, organized into three parts: first, intuition enables me to understand that my surroundings are the primary source for design inspiration. Second, transformation is formulated by using tools such as still photography and video to capture my intuitions. Then, I distill, edit, and reflect on the captured footage in order to uncover the essence of the original inspiration. Finally, feedback occurs when the transformed content is presented in a new context: whether it be a printed matter, a video vignette, an interactive screen project, or a physical installation. Although the process is based in science, it is anything but rigid or didactic. I do not seek predetermined outcomes so much as the awareness necessary to inspire further explorations—whether mine or that of others—in this method.

0.1 – 0.2 Point of View

Boy with a Movie Camera, Kona, Hawaii 1992

0.2 Point of View
When I was fourteen, my family went on a trip to Kona, Hawaii, and I brought my first video camera with me, a Sony HI8 HandyCam; I was rarely seen without it. Although most tourists capture Hawaii’s environmental beauty, I, for some unknown reason, mostly chose to film anything but the typical scenic viewpoints of majestic volcanoes, black sand beaches or botanical gardens; instead, I documented the ordinary events of the everyday: the hotel elevator, the front desk attendant, the other tourists coming and going in the hotel lobbies, the bathroom, and the TV in the hotel room that was continuously showing a loop of activities geared toward getting tourists out of their rooms. Little did I suspect that this unique point of view would continue to influence my work twenty years later.

During the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the “passenger,” or “liminar,”) becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification; he passes through a symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his coming state. — Victor Turner

Past points of view continue to influence present work. They both operate within a liminal space, between ordinary and extraordinary people, places and things in my everyday life. Throughout my methodology I act as an ethnographic researcher using a set of conceptual tools for investigation to observe these categories. The term liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”)  is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. In ethnographic research, the researcher is in a liminal state, separated from his own culture yet not incorporated into the host culture—where he or she is both participating in the culture and observing the culture. The researcher must consider the self in relation to others and his or her positioning in the culture being studied.

0.3 – 0.5 Methodology

process diagram

0.3 Experience
Before coming to graduate school, I spent eleven years working at a graphic design/brand strategy firm. We used qualitative and quantitative process models for integrated branding strategies. Although I see the value in this research I became frustrated with the imbalance clients put on quantitative research verses qualitative research and creative work. Quantitative research marginalized certain creativity and limited experimentation through design making. One of the main reasons I came to graduate school was to investigate my own creative methodology. In How do you design? Graphic designer Hugh Dubberly evaluates a typology of over one hundred descriptions of design and development processes in hopes to foster debate about design and development processes. Is there a system that works better than another? I suspect that they all can work. Creative methodologies are moving targets. In order to stay creative and relevant, designers need to adapt and evolve – that seems to be the only constant in design.

0.4 Empirical Methodology
My thesis is one of methodology more than process. I see an important distinction between the two. Methodology is a body of rules that a discipline employs as a particular procedure or set of procedures. Process is series of actions or operations that bring about a means to an end. In other words, a methodology is a box of tools to be used however/whenever one wishes. A process is an instruction book, the step-by-step kind.

Empirical evidence is information that is derived from the trials and errors of direct experience rather than controlled experiments with expected outcomes. Empirical research is a way of gaining knowledge by means of direct and indirect observation or experience. The structure of my empirical methodology is organized into 3 parts:

1. Intuition enables me to understand that my surroundings are the primary source for design inspiration.

2. Transformation is formulated by using tools such as still photography and video to capture my intuitions. Then, I distill, edit, and reflect on the captured footage in order to uncover the essence of the original inspiration.

3. Feedback occurs when the transformed content is presented in a new context—whether it be a printed matter, a video vignette, an interactive screen project, or a physical installation. Although the process is based in science, it is anything but rigid or didactic. I do not seek predetermined outcomes so much as the awareness necessary to inspire further explorations—whether mine or that of others—in this method.

All artists and designers have some type of creative process, but I believe as Buckminster Fuller states, “If each project is unique, the process should be unique.”

0.5 Feedback Loop
According to Robert Mattison, “Robert Rauschenberg’s greatest strengths are his instinctual responses to images, materials and formal structures and his ability to absorb the complex surface of life.” My work reflects a similar immediacy and reaction to an ever-changing environment. I use feedback from my environment as well as feedback from the designed form transformed from that environment. I am not necessarily looking for a finished outcome but for an action that will inspire me or someone else to take the next step in the method.