When James Goggin earned his Master’s in graphic design from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1999, he was also in the midst of fighting the department’s decision to rename itself. “They wanted to call themselves ‘Communication Arts and Design,’ but I was interested in keeping graphic design as an emphatic name,” says Goggin. “Graphic design isn’t restrictive. It’s interconnected with other fields. The inherent scope of it is always open.”
This sort of steadfast dedication to the discipline is why Goggin applied to teach at the graphic design department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) this year. As John Caserta, professor and current department head, puts it, “Graphic design is a relative term, not an absolute. So our curriculum has to help define and move along with it. It’s a living medium, and we won’t give up on it.” (RCA settled on “Visual Communication,” in case you’re curious.)
Goggin, along with assistant professors Keetra Dixon and Paul Soulellis, are the department’s newest hires. And they’re not just members of a tightly knit group of like-minded academics, but dedicated design practitioners as well. “It’s how we all ended up here,” says Lucinda Hitchcock, professor and soon-to-be department head (beginning in 2017). “We’re all teachers and designers, and we actually like each other. We talk to each other about this kind of stuff late into the night, and are still texting in the morning.” Soulellis agrees:
“I’m constantly looking for a design community, and feel like I found it here—in the students, faculty, the institution, even in Providence. We’re all constantly talking to each other. There’s a real openness here.”
That openness is especially evident where the faculty and students work. Formerly an insurance building from the 1970s, the department’s building has remained unchanged for the most part—except for the recently unveiled gallery space on the ground floor. You’ll still find unflattering fluorescent lightning, creaky elevators, and beat-up floor tiles throughout the structure. (There’s even a laughable “computer room” sign left hanging from years ago).
But as you poke around further, you’ll notice bits of spontaneous creativity (think signs, tags, marks) on the walls, in stairwells, on the floors—everywhere. “This building is not precious,” says Caserta. “Students can really beat on it.” Assistant professor Keetra Dixon believes this freedom to create wherever and whenever is linked to the students’ success. “I’m teaching a class where we literally hack things together a lot, and the fact the space feels malleable is really important.”
Though academia has developed a reputation for being, well, stuffy, that’s not the case here. Egos are noticeably absent. “We don’t bring a lot of that to the table,” says Hitchcock. “Because everyone comes here with their own intellectual pursuits that support graphic design, we intensely support those individual inquiries and look at things critically and theoretically. We’re trying to educate an entire person.” If anything, there’s an earnest sense of humility amongst the faculty. Professor and graduate program director Bethany Johns says, “It’s really a privilege to work with such a high level of intelligent, intellectual, inquiring people. We actually plug into the energy of our students.”
The feelings of gratitude and respect are mutual among the students, too. Graduate student Lake Buckley, for example, also draws inspiration from everyone around her. “I get to be part of this joyous and insane community of dedicated people, and have access to incredibly talented, high-profile designers who are generous with their time and knowledge, even though they don’t have to be.” Graduate student Mary Yang adds, “I love how they push you to think about what design could be, but also what it could be for you. Above all, there’s warmth here. You don’t feel like you’re at another institution. We’re like one big family, and the faculty become your friends.”
“You can question everything here, and the teachers want you to do that,” says undergrad Ishaan Bose Verma. Fellow undergrad Jacob Poindexter agrees, “We’re being taught how to think, not just how to make things look pretty; that’s something you can apply to everything in life.” Learning how to design independently while thinking critically is an invaluable skill, but just as important is the ability to convey the why.
“We’re taught how to talk about our work,” says grad student Drew Litowitz. “Because why make incredible work if you can’t talk about it?”
It’s this sort of transparent, open communication that led Goggin to RISD in the first place. “This is when you really get the joy from teaching, when everybody is sharing ideas and experiences. And you get to this point where it’s mutually beneficial.”
But perhaps most interesting about RISD is what happens after graduation—how the experience shapes and informs every student in such a lasting, deeply embedded way. In fact, graduates can often identify fellow alumnae without having to ask where they attended school. “There’s a DNA here of risk-taking and individualism, because grads and undergrads finish here with a self-initiated project,” says Caserta. “But education is not an end in itself. Grads have the power to continue redefining design on their own.”