When I was young, my teachers praised me for being good at math and art, but my father would always tell people, “John is good at math.” I felt I had to choose between the two, and with my parents’ influence winning over my own, I went to MIT. After many years there, I saw technology succeeding in making everything cheaper, faster and smaller—but failing to make things any more emotionally rich. Something else was needed to transform our experience and inspire true innovation. I believe what was missing was design and art, and it was this belief that propelled me into leading the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Here in the US, the White House reminds us that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are “... essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation—whether it’s broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, or longer, healthier lives.” Around the world, even small countries such as Estonia are focusing on teaching coding, positing that technological literacy will be key to future innovation. As a lifelong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) student myself, I’ve seen firsthand the innovation that STEM practice can produce. but I’ve also witnessed STEM’s limits. The challenges the next generation is going to face will demand creative solutions, and I would argue that these subjects alone will not get us there. Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goals, combine forces with divergent thinkers, those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable.
With global competition rising, America is at a critical juncture in defining its economic future. I believe that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the twenty-first century, like science and technology did in the last century, and the STEAM movement – adding Art to STEM – is an opportunity for America to sustain its role as a world innovator.
MAKING THE REAL
In our heavily digital age, we’re seeing renewed curiosity about materials and all things physical, simply because much of the world has lost sight of them. You see this in the obsession with placing faux woodgrain veneers on software apps, for example. My experience at RISD has reawakened me to this world of physical creation. Here, there is no greater manifestation of integrity, no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue between eye, mind and hand “critical thinking – critical making.” It’s an education in getting your hands dirty, in understanding why you made what you made and owning the impact of that work in the world. It’s what artists and designers do.
PRODUCTS WITH ARTISTIC VISION
Artists are not as interested in fitting in or feeling comfortable as in geting to the truth at the core of an enigma. In the late Steve Jobs’s case, he painstakingly pursued the question of what a digital ecosystem that transcends mere relevance and basic needs could mean for contemporary culture. We buy Apple products not just because they function, not just because they’re well designed, but out of respect for his vision and what it brought us. We buy into the vision of the world he was trying to create and the values they represent. And for this, we are happy to pay a little extra.
Art speaks to us as humans, not as “human capital.” It shows us that human beings still matter in a world where money speaks loudest, machines make our meals and computers know everything about us. In a world in which new breaches of integrity are revealed every day, it’s important for us to hold on to clear values. We want the products we buy to be made responsibly, presented honestly and come from the mind of a human being, not an algorithm.
ART + SCIENCE REUNITE
So how do we have more of these successes? I’m not talking about commercializing or debasing art but reminding people that innovation and cultural advancement stem from an artistic sensibility. After a life spent traversing the fields of technology, art and design, my conclusion is that there is great power in both fields taken separately and more in both fields put together.
Art and science – once inextricably linked, both dedicated to finding truth and beauty – are better together than apart. In da Vinci’s time of naturalist observation, the two cohabitated. “Art is the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world,” he said. Today, many artists and designers are making headway in visualizing much more complex scientific concepts in forms that make sense to people, and what’s more, emotionally compel them to act. Just recently at RISD, we had a studio course dedicated to the concept of communicating medical risk, so that patients could make truly informed decisions. Similarly, there is a body of work being conducted here that pairs artists with oceanographers to address the global crisis of climate change. The work of the artist and designer in this context is not just to package the results of the scientists but to enrich the questions that are being asked.
With all that we have to address in the world – warming climates, fluctuating economies, growing cities – finding a solution driven by art and design may not be our leaders’ first inclination. but artists and designers – in partnership with those developing scientific and technical solutions – can ask deep questions, bring humanity to the problem, make us care and create answers that resonate with our values. And that’s what will propel us forward.