Photo courtesy RISD. Photo treatment by Jarrett Fuller.

On April 1, RISD welcomed Crystal Williams as its new president. Williams is a Black woman, a poet, and an academic administrator known for helping small elite liberal arts colleges become more equitable and inclusive. She succeeds Rosanne Somerson, a white woman, educator, and furniture designer with a 50-year career at RISD. Somerson stepped into the role in 2014, after John Maeda, a Japanese-American man with a global reputation as a design and tech visionary who came to RISD from the MIT Media Lab. A mere eight years separate the end of Maeda’s term from the beginning of Williams’, but their profiles and priorities are radically different, signaling a cultural sea change and shifting priorities in design. 

When John Maeda arrived at RISD in 2008, expectations ran high. Roger Mandle, RISD’s popular outgoing president, described Maeda as “a commanding presence” and “a genius.” MIT’s coverage of Maeda’s new role was similarly laudatory, calling him “pioneering,” “brilliant,” “visionary,” and a “trailblazer.” Many viewed him as a savior who could make RISD more relevant and solvent. The heroic individualism of this language is striking, and feels out of step with the consensus-based culture of most art schools. Indeed, Maeda’s tenure at RISD was rocky. He weathered criticism for his tech-centric leadership style and a no-confidence vote from the faculty. In January 2014, after six years, he left the school to take a job as Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms. In the Bay Area, where I live, Maeda’s renunciation of the ivory towers of the East Coast for the office parks of Silicon Valley confirmed that we were at the center of the design zeitgeist. In California, Maeda cultivated a reputation as a creature of the new economy, choosing to live in Airbnbs and ride in Ubers rather than buying a house or a car. 

Around that time, I was transitioning from industry to academia, and seeking answers to existential questions about the future of design. Suddenly, Maeda was everywhere I looked, tweeting and advising and convening and TED talking, a high prophet for the gospel of DE$IGN. In November 2014, I saw Maeda give his stump speech at Gigaom Roadmap, one of the many tech and design conferences he appeared at that year. He explained his role at Kleiner as helping CEOs and tech founders understand “how to leverage the maximum impact out of design, design talent, and design culture.” One theme of Maeda’s talk was the question of what matters. “Design didn’t matter at all” during his time at MIT in the ’80s and ’90s, he said. Maeda then described 2014 as a moment where “technology still matters,” but that designers deserved recognition because “the experience now matters.” A few months later, in his inaugural #DesignInTech Report at SXSW, he hit the subject again, proclaiming, “This is a new way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking where design matters.” 

Of course, design has always mattered to designers, but Maeda was leading a growing chorus of voices evangelizing for the value of design to a tech and business audience. In 2008, Nathan Shedroff founded a Design MBA program at California College of the Arts. Its mantra: design is the future of business, business is the future of design. When Shedroff chaired the 2014 AIGA GAIN Conference, he described enormous opportunities for designers to use their skills to influence everything from business to government to society itself, but warned of a “great divide” between leaders who view design as an expense and those who recognize it as an asset. In 2013, Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland published Rise of the DEO, which makes the case for the Design Executive Officer as the ideal business executive of the 21st century. In a 2014 talk of the same name, Giudice lamented, “designers are the worst when it comes to defining what their power is.” She called on designers to claim the value of the skills they learned in school, not merely for making beautiful artifacts, but for business processes like collaborating, negotiating, learning from failure, and adapting to change.

Maeda was leading a growing chorus of voices evangelizing for the value of design to a tech and business audience.

During the same period, venture funds increasingly flowed toward design. In 2012, Enrique Allen and Ben Blumenfeld founded the Designer Fund, a San Francisco-based firm that invests in designer-led tech startups. Their Bridge fellowship, which ran from 2013 to 2017, placed designers in three-month paid residencies at design-led startups like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Pinterest, and supported the fellows’ transition into tech through workshops, talks, and community dinners. 

My CCA colleague Chris Hamamoto was a Bridge fellow at Flipboard in 2013. Hamamoto had recently completed an MFA at RISD, and saw Bridge as an opportunity to return to the Bay Area and learn about working in tech. At Flipboard, “design was thought of as an asset that used to be undervalued, but they were now recognizing its importance and its ability to make a tech product successful,” he told me, feeling flattered “they were giving designers a bigger seat at the table.” But the commodification of design concerned him. He encountered claims like, “We’re going to add design, and that’s going to make us 10x more valuable.” At RISD, design had been about investigation and personal expression. In tech, design was outcomes driven and directly tied to value generation.

One story of the last decade is that of the ascendance of design in tech and business. Another story of the same period is that of racial reckoning. The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. The movement gained national recognition in 2014 after a jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked protests across the country.

While Maeda circled the design and tech lecture track and social upheaval roiled the country, RISD welcomed a familiar face as its next president: Rosanne Somerson. A white woman who graduated from RISD’s industrial design program in 1976, Somerson began teaching furniture design at RISD in 1985, served 25 years as professor and department head, then as provost before becoming president in 2014. In the wake of Maeda’s iconoclastic tenure, Somerson’s familiarity with the institution was seen as an asset. Her appointment announcement emphasized her “deep roots” at the school and an “almost instinctive understanding of the institution.” 

One story of the last decade is that of the ascendance of design in tech and business. Another story of the same period is that of racial reckoning.

Meanwhile, Crystal Williams was 200 miles up I-95 from Providence and about as far from Silicon Valley as one can be without leaving the country. She had moved to Lewiston, Maine, in 2013 to take a job as English Professor and Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Bates College. In November 2014, the month I saw Maeda speak at Gigaom Roadmap, Williams’s sporadic Twitter feed lit up with retweets about the Ferguson protests and a recommendation for an obscure Cathy Park Hong essay condemning racism in poetry culture. (Hong later became a national figure with the publication of Minor Feelings, a collection of autobiographical essays about Asian American identity). Williams’s feed indicated a radically different narrative about what matters in the culture from the one designers were bathing in back in the Bay Area. 

Between 2014 and 2020, conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion waxed and waned at RISD and in the culture at large. In 2016, RISD alum Eloise Sherrid and RISD student group Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) released The Room of Silence, a documentary about race, identity, and marginalization at the school. The film catalyzed a dialogue about race at art schools across the country. The following year, President Somerson announced RISD’s first SEI (Social Equity and Inclusion) action plan, and in 2018, the school established a Center for SEI, hiring Matthew Shenoda as its first vice president for SEI. Despite these moves, many students and faculty were unsatisfied. In a 2020 statement, Sherrid noted, “reports from students and faculty currently at RISD indicate that the school has taken no concrete steps to act on student demands.”

In summer 2020, after Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, simmering outrage over police brutality and structural and individual racism erupted into massive global protests. Millions called for change, and powerful white leaders in the design industry and design education were forced to acknowledge their role in racist systems of oppression and pledge dramatic action. It felt like every school, every company, every agency, was celebrating Juneteenth, posting black squares on social media, taking accountability, and committing to action. In July 2020, students from the RISD Anti-Racism Coalition (risdARC) presented the RISD community with a detailed list of demands for racial equity and inclusion, including defunding the public safety department, increasing faculty and student diversity, and reducing the cost of tuition. 

In a follow-up Instagram post, risdARC took aim at “institutionally racist hiring practices” at RISD, noting that the school had more white alumni professors than non-white, non-alumni professors. One of those white alumni professors was Rosanne Somerson. In the shifting cultural landscape, her insider status had become a liability. Somerson benefited from the status quo, and was implicated in calls for institutional change. She responded to the risdARC demands by taking responsibility for “having allowed a culture to continue to exist that does not fully live up to our values,” and announcing an action plan that included a cluster-hire initiative to recruit new faculty with expertise in issues of race and decoloniality in the arts and design.

That summer was full of key moments: The first Where Are the Black Designers conference, where more than 10,000 people gathered online for a day of talks exploring racism in the design community. An indelible memory from that day was moderator Raja Schaar pressing IDEO CEO Sandy Speicher on the connection between design thinking and white supremacy. Another moment: The implosion of the Type Directors Club, when board member Juan Villanueva’s Medium post quitting the board and accusing the organization of racism went viral. “The TDC is a racist organization,” he wrote, “I’ve been steamrolled, suppressed, silenced, and condescended to by the executive board.” Two days later, citing financial pressures and Villanueva’s letter, TDC announced it was shutting down. It ended the lease on its Manhattan office, dissolved its nonprofit, and went about the difficult work of building a more equitable, more sustainable structure. Another moment: The publication of Design Leadership: Now What? an open letter by a group of Black design educators calling on leaders in publishing, academia, and industry to cede power.

These seismic conversations took place against the backdrop of the first pandemic summer, which may have helped make them possible. “There’s this point where moments of extreme turbulence and societal unraveling feel transformational,” said creative director and educator Forest Young in an interview with Eye on Design. Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design at OCAD University, speculated in Fast Company that, “The deprivation that white, affluent people are experiencing through COVID-19 has given them a glimpse of the deprivation that other communities face every single day,” and created an unprecedented level of solidarity across communities. A few months later, in an interview with the Letterform Archive, Tunstall observed, “OCAD U is a possibility story: A 144-year-old colonial institution that is open to change and acknowledging the Black lived experience as part of the design experience.”

It’s easy for me to see Crystal Williams’s appointment as another possibility story. I’m a white woman who believes design leadership needs to change.

It’s easy for me to see Crystal Williams’s appointment as another possibility story. I’m a white woman who believes design leadership needs to change. I asked Jennifer Rittner, Anne H. Berry, and Raja Schaar, three of the co-authors of Design Leadership: Now What?, for their take. Rittner, Berry, and Schaar don’t know Williams personally, but they track closely the stories of Black women in leadership. They reminded me of the pitfalls of my simplistic perspective. “You can be Black, you can be queer, you can be disabled, and you can still uphold the patriarchy,” said Rittner, Visiting Assistant Professor at Parsons, warning that institutions might use a person as “a stand-in for change.” Berry, Associate Professor at Cleveland State University, cautioned, “We have to be careful about foisting our own hopes and dreams onto one person,” which reminded me of the unrealistic expectations John Maeda faced in 2008. 

Meanwhile, Schaar, Program Director of Product Design at Drexel University, worried about the unbearable pressure on Williams and other women of color in leadership roles. “There is not only the responsibility to uphold your position and perform at a high level,” Schaar observed, “There is also the stress of feeling like no one is there supporting you or you have to work twice as hard or do so much more.” She cited recent exits by Vivianne Castillo at Salesforce, Temnit Gebru at Google, and Leslie Lokko at City College of New York.

Mindful of these concerns, I still believe Crystal Williams represents the possibility of radical change called for in Design Leadership: Now What? She has the track record. In summer 2020, at Boston University, she led a Day of Collective Engagement that engaged 5,000 members of the community in an “unprecedented conversation” on racism and antiracism. She is a systems thinker. In a 2016 talk in MoMA’s Equity Series, she explained her administrative strategy as helping colleges “build capacity across the organization, so that the vision, values, and structure of the institution are in complete alignment with the cultural practices and programs of the institution, so that all of the people at the institution can thrive equally.” 

Williams’s identity is integral to her unique leadership profile. She is a poet. Poetry, she explained in a 2016 interview, “asks us to slow down, ponder, turn language and meaning over in our heads and hearts.” Williams will bring a poet’s capacity for patience and precision to her work at RISD. And she is, to borrow the title of an essay she wrote in August 2020, “Always Female, Always Black, Ever Dangerous.” In that piece, she claims space for herself, I am Black, and yes, do belong in this room/this meeting/this building/this place.” Williams’s essay offers a deeply personal answer to risdARC’s list of demands, which opens with the assertion that RISD “perpetuates systemic racism and anti-Blackness through its violent erasure” of BIPOC community members and closes with a quote on Black feminist liberation as universal freedom. 

The language of Williams’s appointment announcement signals a new direction for RISD. Where John Maeda’s RISD sought a bold genius and Rosanne Somerson’s RISD needed an experienced insider, Crystal Williams’s RISD values a leader with what Board Chair Michael Spalter characterizes as “a deep, abiding empathy that can bind us all together.” The search committee also highlights Williams’s personal qualities, calling her “present, receptive, and kind,” before crediting her for doing the “hard, relentless, unglamorous, often under-recognized work” of building more equitable, inclusive institutions. A word that doesn’t appear in either of her predecessors’ announcements but appears twice in Williams’s is “change.” Apparently, RISD is ready for change.

Crystal Williams has the biggest seat at the table at RISD. What will she do with that seat? What will it do with her? Rittner muses, “Wanting to have a seat at the table is potentially corrupting the very basic premise of what design can do, which is to be a space of expression.” Rittner has shifted from calling on white people to cede power to calling on BIPOC people to “reject the room”—to refuse spaces where they cannot thrive as themselves. Meanwhile, in a 2016 Q&A with TORCH, Williams admitted to being “most productive when physically surrounded by the bodies and voices of people who operate within non-normative, non-dominant frameworks.” During the financial crisis of 2008 and the tech industry-driven recovery that followed, design culture sought recognition in the most normative and dominant rooms—business, technology, government. Today, it is imperative that we recognize the value of other voices, different tables, and new rooms altogether.