“It is like a tennis game: if you both stop hitting the ball, the game ends.”—Tom Wedell

Nancy Skolos + Tom Wedell: Interdisciplinary Design Faculty, RISD / Providence RI

“it is like a tennis game: if you both stop hitting the ball, the game ends.”—tom wedell

How do you handle collaboration in an art school environment?
Nancy: RISD is still based on a very deep disciplinary structure with 19 different areas. We find the best way to catalyze collaboration is through a menu of courses. We recently came up with a concentration called Nature, Culture, Sustainability, where the students are given a list of courses that relate through architecture, philosophy, etc., and that has helped give the students a thematic path, so we’re hoping to do more of that with large-scale projects. Also, we just completed a house for the Solar Decathlon, which involves not just the design disciplines, but also fine arts. We called it the Techstyle Haus, so the textile people can get involved by making fabrics for the interior and the concept for the whole thing. The students also made glassware, and Ceramics made the dishes. Furniture made all of the cabinetry and furniture, and there was art in the house from all the students.

Tom did a really interesting collaborative piece on a course that was cooked up between Brown and RISD.

Tom: One of the advantages of being at RISD is that we have Brown University right there. For years, we have had a number of moments where courses have been established, and some are still ongoing, that include Brown students who aren’t necessarily art students, although some pursue dual majors or dual degrees. I taught a course mixing Writing students at Brown with Industrial Design (ID) students from RISD to re-examine the purpose of the book and find alternative forms of the book. We came up with a lot of variety. There was a show in the gallery at the end. We set the criteria pretty high and got some interesting work; it was our first prototype of a class that will be running again this coming year. We hope to continue it. It is one of many possible courses that can allow RISD to collaborate with Brown.

Yale Haloween Poster 1978

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Abelson Poster 2013

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Nancy: The class was called Built Thought and it was about how narrative can exist in different forms. The course itself was a collaboration, because there were three teachers: one of them was from Brown, one was from ID, and Tom from Graphic Design. One of the ID teacher’s specialties is collaboration, so they did some exercises about how to work together as a class.

Tom: There are a couple of group games that are based on a lot of things that they discovered from children working at a collaborative level; how to get people to work together, usually at a common task or goal. We came up with some interesting ways of getting students on board with teamwork. Surprisingly, a number of them had never really worked in a collaborative environment, even though, as we know from the industrial designers, they will be working collaboratively as soon as they step foot outside the school doors. So I think that they were quite delighted to have that opportunity to explore the ideas of collaboration, of working both with other industrial designers and other students who were completely unrelated. They worked in groups of four or five depending on who was interested. We tried to find common thematic relationships between what the writers were working on and what the industrial designers knew.

What were things you would adjust next time around?
Tom: One of the problems was that students immediately wanted to work in their comfort zone. You’ll get two industrial designers or two writers working together, and perhaps the writers are working on poetic expressions and language, and the ID students are working on very particular processes or particular ways of expressive form, like working with boxes or something. We want the students to not abandon what they know, but rather to see how the combination of those ideas makes a different kind of approach—something that is not necessarily comfortable for either side of the group, but in fact becomes an investigation, and that investigation eventually becomes comfortable enough to explore even further. We need to be able to use restrictions to prompt questions of what a form can possibly do. In other words, is it bigger than a bread box? Or is it going to sit on a stand? Or is it legible? We may have to establish a set of criteria to help them better formulate a conclusion and direct their research so that their work does not conform to their comfort zone. It is going to take a bit of doing to do that because we only have a 12-week semester, which is very short, and the students develop some working methods that are successful, so they tend to lean into those methods almost immediately because of the timeline.

Is there ever resistance from students who want to do their own thing?
Tom: I teach another course called Making Meaning, which is a course that is primarily based on individual assignments, but we do have one assignment where they make a short two to three–minute film using stills. They end up editing and producing the short film and those are done in groups. We insist that they group-up randomly. And the reason for that is somewhat obvious because of the comfort zone problem, but also we find that people become friends because they know one thing. However, what we need for this project is diversity of strategy and diversity of interest.

We found that the random approach worked. It does, however, present problems with people who perhaps don’t know each other well enough, and so one tries to become the dominant voice, which brings the usual social problems. At first, it was a struggle. People were fighting and coming to us saying they couldn’t work together. But over the years, I think the general understanding of what collaborative design entails has spread, leading to fewer social problems. Usually students understand that the group is important, and they find ways of working. I suspect, although I haven’t investigated this, that they have been exposed to some degree of working together at some level previously. I suspect that it is more of an interest to a lot of other teachers, and it is becoming easier for us to say that we are doing a collaborative project.

Are students more willing to collaborate because of cultural influences?
Tom: Yeah. I think so. There wasn’t a lot of interest or concentration on collaboration when I was growing up. There was certainly more if you were in the orchestra or a band or a group like that, but if you were in class, generally you were individually tested. I think that schools prior to college have now become more interested in collaboration.

Certainly with the rise of team sports, every kid is going to soccer or something. That kind of thing has inserted itself into the culture and into the students’ mindset. I also think Facebook, Twitter, and everything else is helping people see themselves linked into other people. There is still a bit of individuality, but it is becoming a more socially conscious environment.

Are faculty actively trying to capitalize on that?
Nancy: I think that the faculty really love to collaborate. Most of the graphic design courses are multiple sections of students, so there is a team of four or five teachers that get together and figure out how the whole thing is going to run. But a class of different disciplines is a lot trickier for collaboration, because at RISD, each department gets a finite amount of resources, and they need all of it to run their programs. We do get a few grants and things where you can apply for a fellowship to teach an interdisciplinary course together. But I think the mechanical structure of schools makes it difficult to do that.

Is there a way to address that?
Nancy: Well, we are working on it. Now that I am the Interim Dean, I am getting a little bit closer to the controls. But there is a limited amount of money and a lot of the programs, like architecture, are accredited, and they have to run certain classes, and they just don’t have a dime more. I’m exaggerating. Architecture has at least a handful of courses that are collaborative, and also a lot of courses that are open to non-majors, but I think the obstacle to collaboratively taught classes is more financial than anything else.

Tom: I think that there is also a degree of tradition here. RISD, being an old art school, has allocated areas and everyone is in their silos. While that is changing quite a bit, it still exists. I think Nancy speaks to it well because it is about resources, but it is also about how much time a program needs with its students.

Nancy: I think that students need to be valuable participants in a collaboration and they need to know all that.

Tom: Yeah, they need to bring something to the table. It is interesting to know how schools throughout history have always run into this problem. That is what’s so interesting about looking at the history, because you begin to see where schools did run on collaboration, almost as a backbone of the entire institution. So you look at how they did that and were so successful, versus when individuals ran departments, and were the master of the department, and could stick with whatever they were peddling. We’ve come a full circle.

Nancy: It is interesting too because I have only been on this job for six months, and there have been a couple situations where it seems like a natural collaboration can come forward, for instance, Industrial Design is running their own casting work; why are they doing this when Ceramics has plenty of room, and they love to teach ID students? But then you get the two teachers in the room together and you realize that they are completely not on the same page. The Ceramics teacher is excited to teach 300 different glazes and the ID teacher doesn’t even want to learn about glazes because they don’t have time; there are only 12 weeks, and they want to focus on production. It really is professor-specific. They eventually ended up coming to a middle point where they were both happy with the course, but it was trickier than I thought. Similarly, we tried to share the bookbinding facility between Printmaking and Graphic Design, and it was like the odd couple trying to work together. The graphic designers were always cleaning up and putting away paper left out on the tables, and the printmakers were always putting ink everywhere and messing everything up. They just drove each other crazy. It was pretty funny.

Tom: That was a total clash of working methods. And that is a good example, but there are many other examples where students want to use another department’s facilities, or what used to be an independent facility, and you become aware that working methods have been established on one side of the fence that are quite different from the other side. It is a matter of training, getting people together, and faculty understanding what they need and want, and how they can compromise to be equals. Then students understand what to do and what the proper methods are.

Does the structure of the programs make it difficult for students to pursue interdisciplinary work?
Nancy: I think that there are opportunities in the curriculum for them to do it. Almost all of the majors have at least four non-major studios and a couple of open electives. But the tricky part is getting familiar with what the offerings are. The advisors can’t possibly memorize all of the courses and put it all together, so the students have to be self-motivated and navigate it to get what they want.

Tom: The Wintersession is designed for students to take a studio outside of their major. So if you are a graphic designer, and you think metal-smithing might be interesting, you can take that in the Wintersession. It becomes a golden opportunity to experience some of the other departments and aspects of the school that students normally wouldn’t encounter. It often leads to an interest in another level of working that is normally not available. Students become familiar with the department, and the department becomes familiar with them, so then the students can incorporate glass or ceramics or whatever interests them into their primary discipline.

Nancy: Also, we are opening up interdisciplinary workshop areas that have things like an embroidery machine, CNC router, drill press—a really weird mix of stuff that fosters diverse groups of people working in there.

Tom: Of course, there is also the problem of competition, which means you have 2,300 students, and they are all vying for the same courses. But I think that there is no way to get around that problem, because we have so many students and a limited number of courses and space. And I think that is the idea behind some of these open collaborative workshop ideas—that there is this work area where people can all come and learn a CNC router, which they will probably end up applying it in some form to their major. It is a much more tool-driven idea. And their other courses will hopefully benefit from this experience.

These are small makerspace areas?
Tom: Yeah. The initial model for that was the Writing Center, which has been around forever. The Writing Center was simply set up to help students whose first language was not English, with writing papers or preparing presentations: how to formulate their ideas in written form. Although, students with English as their first language can also go there for help.

Nancy: Even the faculty can go there. Other things that we share are the library, the museum, the Nature Lab, and the Code Lab, which we just started. The Code Lab is a place where students can come and get help with code.

Do students come in expecting to work across disciplines?
Nancy: Grad students do. The undergrads are still a bit more major-centric, although now they tend to be gravitating towards the more open-ended majors. But the grad students come to school with an expectation that they will be working together, and they will be able access and share space and equipment.

Tom: Yeah, I think that’s a surprise:“What do you mean that I can’t go to that floor and use the equipment there? I can’t open the store? I can’t get into the Processing Center? What is this place?” The students are suddenly appalled that there isn’t a fluid crossover between departments.

RISD tends to be a very course-heavy, especially in the graduate programs. The schedule is pretty much assigned, with a few gaps here and there. So if students need or want other resources, or have another way of thinking about something, they have to make it work within a core structure that already exists. This has been a bit of an issue with students. But again, it’s the idea of what you need to complete a successful graphic design thesis or painting thesis. It becomes a challenge. However, as they move into their second or third year, we have quite often allowed them to work around registration requirements and work in areas that are not as familiar to their major. It opens up their thesis explorations and their research.

Nancy: A lot of times it works informally. Students find a friend in another department and they get access.

Tom: Or they collaborate. This is a great thing. We have this collaborative project thing going on all of the time in the graduate level where they say, “I ran into so-and-so, who is a painting major, and we decided that we are going to do a public art thing or something…” and it works because they justify it within the class. Those collaboratives are motivated individually. That is not an expectation of the school or the course, but it occurs quite a bit.

Do you get a lot of collaborative thesis projects?
Nancy: I can only think of a couple in the graduate program.

Tom: I teach Graduate Thesis, and probably find out of 16 to 18 graduating thesis students, that each one has something that entails a collaborative experience to some degree. Some are more embedded or more devoted to a multi-semester collaborative experience. Others are sort of a one-off, where they spend three weeks together doing something that supports their thesis idea. Sometimes students have made several friends in other departments, and they have a series of these collaborative experiences. Design thesis students often collaborate with each other. That invariably happens. That is based on how they see their thesis forming. Or a particular course structure allows for it: one year they were doing pop-up shops in a Wintersession seminar. Students automatically linked up in twos or threes to make little products to investigate that.

Nancy: They always do the grad show together.

Tom: Yeah, the grad show is a collaborative project. That is the final moment of panic in the course structure, so that actually becomes the most collaborative time because it is a small space, and we do this massive graduate show that involves every department. They are assigned to spaces, so early on in the final year, they are required to come up with a solid plan. They get this thing started in October and November but it doesn’t come out until May. The museum directs it, and they are very insistent that everything become finalized by January. So that means the students get very collaborative very quickly.

How important do you think it is to teach collaborative processes?
Nancy: In my Graphic Design experience, we didn’t formalize anything in terms of working together. Tom has some good exercises for using disagreement to elevate ideas to the next level beyond what the group would have thought.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve tried them in a couple of the courses, including Making Meaning. It’s a little bit easier now to get students interested in the idea, which is really what is important, and how the mix of ideas creates something more powerful. That is done several ways. One is by example, by presenting history early on in the undergraduate curriculum, and then clarifying those moments that were individually motivated and those moments that were group or collaborative moments. Nancy and I tend to reinforce that idea in discussions or lectures by showing examples. You can open a book and talk about Charles and Ray working together on something, where people can see the benefits of having multiple people involved in a particular idea. I generally use film to examine narrative and emphasize that film is a collaborative effort, with the writer and director and cinematographer all working toward a creative expression. It can be one person, but really, film is one of the most constantly collaborative mediums.

Nancy: This sounds like a copout, but every class is a collaborative effort. When the students are critiquing each other’s work, they are helping each other solve for their weaknesses, whether they are technical or conceptual. Our students really are such an energetic group, and they are not all about themselves. They always pitch in to help each other. I do think that crit is a natural way that our students work in the studio together.

Tom: I think that is something that has changed. The culture has changed. Over the past 20 years, I have noted an almost drastic change in the way students help each other out, rather than “I have mine and you do yours.” That has changed culturally for a lot of reasons. It is definitely evident in the classroom. When students graduate, quite often they are very excited about going off and working with a team of people. I remember when students were very much about, “Man this sucks, I have to go work with these people. Yuck.”

Nancy: When we were in school, design was still a very heroic field. You aspired to be like Massimo Vignelli, or April Greiman, or even looking back at Cassandre, but now there are so many collaborative design studios that the students are looking at as models in the ways that people work now—people just get together through Skype or whatever.

Tom: Technology has allowed more global thinking about where design is sent. Designers are not the individual rockstars with minions standing behind somewhere, and won’t tell anybody about them. It is more about global collaborative ideas, and I think students are well aware of that.

Nancy: The idea of being entrepreneurial with design has motivated a lot of ideas that way. Programmers have been that way for a long time, realizing the connection between what they can do with their work, how it can affect commerce, and how that is good for society. Design went through a phase with the First Things First Manifesto, where anything that had to do with commercial design was bad. But now, students are interested in all of the interventions that they can do and why they can make them better. Our most famous example is Joe Gebbia, who started Airbnb. He was a double major, even though we don’t really have those.

I think we had one graphic design course called Call for Proposals, where they had to come up with an idea like that. It brought students together.

Tom: It’s a return to where graphic design was, way back when it was actually called “commercial art.” The expectation was that designers wanted to work in the industry and promote products and sell whatever. Then we got off on intellectual tangents. Design became very individualistic and righteous—“saving the world”—but we were not going to deal with those horrible people that make products. Now, I think it is coming back around because the relationships are very clear between designers and a consumer society. That is a given, and anything designers can do to change that perspective about mass consumption, is good.

Do you team-teach, or informally work together in the classroom?
Nancy: We do. We pretty much do it for free. We help each other out just because of the mechanics of it. Tom will come into some of my crits. Actually, I did team-teach with Tom and the grad students for a little segment: we conducted an Intro to Form class for our three-year grad students. We also do a lot of workshops together, and sometimes summer school, under one salary.

Tom: I do a number of things with other teachers. We have a couple of type courses that do this sort of 2D/3D thing on typography, and the whole goal is to get photographic images out of it. I seem to be the one to teach it. I demonstrate how to use a camera and lighting. It is necessary because students don’t know, and they are not going to learn unless somebody can walk in and do that. Would we like a more formalized way of doing that? Sure. But again, schedules, budgets, and all of the other restrictions that happen within institutions prevent that.

How can we fix that support issue?
Tom: There is so much to learn now, that if I had my way, I would lower the tuition and make it a five-year program. They need five years. There is no way to learn it in four years. At RISD, the first year is spent in Foundations, and they haven’t even declared a major. Then in their next three years, they are in their major, but that is only six semesters. Six 12-week semesters, plus Wintersessions, but those are non-major classes. So if we just talk about majors and close encounters, it is somewhat limited. We used to have a fifth-year option, where we could deal with pragmatic problems and sponsor studios. I think that would be one way to extend the collaborative idea. It would take funding of course, because a lot of students don’t have that extra scholarship money.

The other method is the internship; I am in charge of internships for graphic design and know a lot about it. I would say we are getting increased numbers of internships. It used to be five or six students in the summer who wanted an internship, and it wasn’t a big deal. Now, we are getting in the 40s and 50s or more who are looking at internships as a viable way to get this collaborative experience that they are craving.

Do you find internships to be a good way of teaching collaboration?
Tom: It varies. We try to avoid “work for hire” internships in which some marketing person says that they can get free design through an intern. We watch out for that because it is often frustrating and not a true educational experience. It is simply cranking out whatever they are told to do without any kind of mindfulness to it. We are always looking for relationships with larger design firms, in which they work with multiple designers and encounter that kind of collaboration. We know a lot of studios now, but we review them and ask them what they are going to be doing exactly.

Can you describe your collaborative process in your own work?
Nancy: Most of our work is an honest 50-50 split, but some of it can be 90% by one person and 10% the other. I think that the secret to our successes is that the goal of the project takes the first priority and we develop our work towards that. We are not working for ourselves; we are working for the result. A lot of times, it starts out with sketching. We will talk about stuff, and we will sketch stuff. It’s funny, because we go to this Japanese restaurant and we always draw on the back of the placemats. Tom can draw upside down because he is so used to working in a view camera.

Restaurant Placemat Sketching for Abelson Poster

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Tom: The woman at the restaurant asks us if we want placemats because they only use them for lunch. It is one of our favorite restaurants, so they automatically bring us placemats, and we draw immediately, coming up with ideas and writing words on the margins and things that relate to whatever the project is.

Nancy: They don’t know that we are brilliant. They must think we are crazy.

Tom: When they are cleaning up, they look at us like, “Uh huh, okay whatever…” It’s all crazy forms and doodles and type and whatever. But they are so used to it now, that they accept the fact that we are going to come in and draw. This is how collaboration works.

Lyceum Poster + Process 2015

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Nancy: We are working on a poster project right now that is totally insane. I don’t even know how we got to where we are. It is a really interesting museum poster including a chair from Diller Scofidio + Renfro and reuses the Empire State Building for older-person housing. I am really butchering the program, but we started out thinking about the city and how to express that. We talked about maps and reflecting maps into surfaces and keeping it abstract. We did a bunch of prototype patterns that were maps, and then we did a bunch of shades and Mylar and all of these pictures. Then we played with them in Photoshop. And then we decided we didn’t really like them. So then we decided we wanted to use the actual building, so we spent days translating the Empire State Building into a graphic line translation and all of these different kinds of lines. It probably took us 100 hours. And then we printed them out and put them on shades and set them up and photographed them. And then we cut out other pieces and stuck them on top. And now we are finally shooting the thing for our final.

Lyceum Poster + Process 2015

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Tom: Almost. We are getting there.

Nancy: We still have to figure out where the type is going. We usually try to figure that out while we are shooting it, but we have a lot of possibilities.

Tom: It is such a convoluted method.

Nancy: Nobody would believe it, but I think we’ve put 200 or 300 hours into it already. It’s going to be a poster for 12 schools. Nobody will really care about it that much.

Lyceum Poster + Process 2015

courtesy of skolos-wedell

Tom: But we love it, so we are doing it. I think ideation is one of the things that is a strength for collaboration—when you get this idea that everybody can contribute to, ideation is going to be a part of it, and it is going to be lengthy. We tell the students that everybody contributes during the process with all of these injections. It morphs from a blob into a form, and everybody has contributed to that. That activity becomes the strength. The final thing is fine, but we are much more interested in the process.

Nancy: We have a whole room full of collaged possibilities and it is always more fun looking at that than it will be looking at the final piece.

Tom: The danger of too much collaboration, and overworking ideation, is killing the project; it comes out very stiff and dry, like chicken when you have overcooked it. That is another strength of the collaborative experience, and for us, it does keep it lively. It is like a tennis game: if you both stop hitting the ball, the game ends. Hitting back and forth and seeing how far you can take something, certainly becomes a strength. The key is in the editing to the goal of the project, the essence of the project, and once you solve that, everything that you do works to that end, and you begin to see which result is best.

You mentioned tennis; would you say your relationship is a friendly collaborative competition?
Tom: No.

Nancy: I never feel like we are competing at all.

Tom: It is more like team sports. We are on the same team, and we are trying to do something. It is kind of necessary that everybody works together. It is not competition. I think for some people it could be, and maybe that is healthy. We have never really worked that way, partly because we each have a unique area: we basically said from the beginning that Nancy is in charge of the graphics and type, and I am in charge of the image. But that has morphed many times over. We lost sight of that because we are all contributing to everything now. But in the beginning, it helped.

Nancy: We have never used our veto power because we’ve never needed it. When you are collaborating, it is important to pick somebody with a complementary skill and vision, but it also has to be somebody that you totally think is your equal.

Now that you have worked together for so long, do you anticipate what each other is going to say or do and you can account for that?
Nancy: It didn’t start out that way. A lot of unexpected things would happen, and then we went through a phase where not enough unexpected things happened, but we have finally learned how to work around all of it. It is almost like we are the same person. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t have to anticipate, because I just know what he is thinking. We have developed our train of thought together over 39 years, so we automatically think the same because we have developed our sensibilities together.

Tom: Which is an unusual way of thinking, so you know it’s going to be weird, because that is just what we do.

We had an opportunity to judge a show, and they had both of us as judges. We told them that wasn’t necessary. But they claimed it would be a good diversity of opinion. We explained that we would go through the show and pick the same things. They said they ensured that wouldn’t happen by sending us through separately. I told them again, that our answers would be the same. And sure enough, they were.

Is that a good thing?
Nancy: It is very good, I think. I have friends that say, “Don’t you want to make things by yourself? How can you always do what Tom wants?” They totally don’t get it. They think that I am completely compromising my life, but it is not like that at all.

One of the funniest projects was when one of our colleagues wanted to paint their house. They have this really interesting house that is like a ’60s ranch, and it was pretty ad hoc in terms of the interior space. He knew that Tom and I were good at colors, so he invited me over. Tom was out of town at the time. But I went over there, and he basically wanted it white. But his wife started bringing over the colors she liked: eggplant, coral, turquoise, and salmon. I was like, I need a glass of wine. I brought out all of this Color-aid paper and had a couple of glasses of wine. It was kind of like that show Design for the Sexes on HGTV, where the guy compromises. Because of their specific ideas, we all came together and put Color-aid paper all over the room.

Tom: That is a method that we have used before. You encourage participation in the process, and then everybody is invested.

We have another friend and client that we have done two or three houses with, and now they can do it themselves because they know what they are doing. He is actually a very great collaborator because he has experienced this idea of getting invested, which he does readily on any project now. In the beginning, he was very questioning: “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” You have to be very clear about your goals and why you are doing things. That is part of being an educator, and what you are doing is educating people so that they get invested through a clear process.

Nancy: He is the only client that we have ever had that got so excited about the design that he threw up. We actually made a whole model of his office, and he got so excited he started jumping up and down, and then he ran out of the room and threw up.