[Images courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum]

Last winter, BUILD met up with Ruki Ravikumar, Director of Education at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. They talked about the Design Museum’s role in America, a designer’s professional responsibility, and getting the light bulbs to go on.

BUILD: Why do you think the general level of design across America is so limited?
Ruki Ravikumar: I ask that question a lot, and I really think it goes back to the history of how the various disciplines were born; there is still a sense that design is new, and therefore open to interpretation.

What barriers do you encounter when educating people on design?
This is where it becomes deeply personal for me. I grew up in India where not many people talked about design. India has such a deep history of craft and art, both of which have become high tradition, whereas design is almost viewed as the bad-boy of the creative world—it’s often associated with a mass-production, capitalist mindset, and can be misinterpreted as lacking an appreciation of craftsmanship. During my time in India, there was only one design school, the National Institute of Design, and thousands of people applied for a handful of seats. This made entry to design very difficult, which is why I came to the United States; I could obtain a design education more easily here, but through my work with Cooper Hewitt I’m realizing that this country has its own access issues. Schools around the U.S. that don’t have any exposure to design have the same problem; if design is discussed at all, it’s usually within the context of art, and the typical sentiment is that it won’t make for a sustainable career. It’s not valued as a discipline or profession.

If you think about who has an everyday understanding of design, you’ll find that it’s people who are in areas where design is all around them; places where there are more people talking about it, like New York and Chicago where there is ongoing interest and awareness. In middle America you don’t hear this conversation.

Design and architecture used to be found within the parent field of the arts, but now, in the United States, it seems like they better relate to development and real estate curriculums. Are you seeing any shifts regarding the parent fields of design?
When I was working in higher education, I was a regular and vocal advocate for design being a part of the core curriculum at universities, as it is a fundamental skill not unlike reading, writing and math. Design dictates how we interact with the world around us, and if we don’t teach this, then we are not developing students on a holistic level. In the K-12 system, design has become the unifier of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) system—it is the common vocabulary for those fields. I would like to see more of this.

We often visit schools where the teachers are apprehensive about adding design to their curriculum because they feel that they can’t teach one more thing on top of their existing course load; they are concerned that they don’t have expertise in design, to which we respond by explaining that if you live in the world and solve problems, you are constantly using design. They just have to shift their perspective and bring their teaching into real world applications. This energizes the teachers and provides a framework for collaborative projects. For me, this is hopeful and suggests that things will change in the future.

What advice do you have for non-design or art students who claim that because they are entering “non-creative” fields, they don’t need a basic knowledge of design?
Even if you are an accountant, your first interaction with the job market is creating an online profile. Most people use words and images to communicate who they are, and I think it would be valuable if they had more power and control over these mediums so they could represent who they are more accurately. We always tell design students that they should take a business class or an anthropology class. We want them to build an incredible portfolio of skills that we never ask of other disciplines. If the business person had a little bit of design knowledge, and the designer had a little bit of business knowledge, then there is great potential to build bridges. On a national scale, education and curricula have to move in this direction.

When do you know that the light-bulb has gone on for people when teaching about design?
The best way to describe it is the calm before the storm. I’ll be speaking to a class and all of a sudden the room will get really silent, and then I know everyone is listening and processing. Then there is a barrage of questions. It’s very much a phenomenon. We also see this when people visit the museum on weekends; they’ll be wandering through with their families, establishing good habits for the kids and having a productive weekend experience, and then they’ll casually walk into a workshop and before you know it, the entire family is spending the day. A kid will teach his/her parents something, or a grandparent will give a history lesson, and suddenly you see multiple generations looking at the same things in different ways. They find a common language.

There is a constant tidal wave of cheap, thoughtlessly designed products in the United States that we consumers know gets thrown away; are you seeing successful strategies to stem the tide of disposable consumerism?
When we do workshops we try to make people part of the solution, and as part of the process they gain a better awareness of what and why they are consuming. One example is a camp where we talk about ten different things to do with a plastic bag. Adults always have an additive process—we always want to make new things out of it. The six-year old starts to think about a subtractive process: Why do we need plastic bags? That is really a nice shift, right? And that speaks to the kind of work that is happening in schools and museums that is making people a little more conscious about what they are buying, and how they can use all of it.

How do we bring more diversity to the design profession?
Cooper Hewitt does this by exposing a greater cross-section of society to design. This might be through a traveling exhibition, or the education team visiting schools. When you help people see the role that design plays in their everyday lives, they start thinking differently about it. They want to engage.

What should the public better understand about teaching design?
As an educator, I believe people need to shift their thinking about teaching. Too many people who have never taught before take up teaching late in their careers without any training; teaching is difficult, it is a learned discipline, and if one doesn’t teach in a deliberate manner, they can do more harm than good. A good educator develops over time. I get frustrated with veteran professionals who give back by stopping in a classroom and teaching for five minutes. To me, this is like suggesting that you have five minutes to spare so you’re going to fly an airplane. Teaching is complex, and requires dedication by its practitioners. It’s not about dumping knowledge on students, but instead requires a careful understanding of the cognitive levels of the learner, and then finding the best, most suitable way for them to access knowledge.

Describe the master’s degree program between Cooper Hewitt and Parsons School of Design in New York City.
The partnership with Parsons was established in 1982. It’s an incredible opportunity for students because they can learn and conduct museum studies in a museum. It also creates a live, lab-like teaching environment, as the curators rely on students in the program to help with research and to support many of the programs. In the Venn diagram of Parsons and Cooper Hewitt, the overlap creates a mutually beneficial environment for learning. Working in a museum is not something people often say they want to do when they grow up, and these partnerships help create that kind of steady pipeline of qualified people who want to support the field.

How does the culture of design align with the problem-solving skills required of good design today?
Our problems are getting more and more complex. Over time we have created not just products, but systems—systems that connect to each other. So when there’s a problem with one system, it’s a problem with multiple systems. Concurrently, we have made the role of a designer very ambiguous; on the one hand, a designer’s breadth of knowledge allows them to tackle a broad range of problems, but on the other, how effective can the solution be when it is the result of a broad-stroke method of analysis?

What’s a concrete example of this?
Imagine a scenario where an architect designs a gorgeous building, but it lacks basic functions because the program wasn’t effectively thought-out with the users. If a doctor were to fail to this degree, the consequences would be very high. I think that designers are getting to a place where the price will be much more significant if they continue to fail. Part of the issue is that so many fields of design still don’t require licensure to practice. If you Google how do I become a designer? the search results basically suggest that you don’t need a degree to practice. It’s terrifying. The same search for doctor is very different.

Who do you recommend we interview next in New York City?
Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation; he is a man with a grand vision for people and design, and the scale at which he thinks and the influence of his work is incredible.

Ruki Ravikumar is the director of education at Cooper Hewitt. Ruki serves as the principal leader responsible for expanding Cooper Hewitt’s educational outreach initiatives, including the National Design Awards, Design in the Classroom National and the National High School Design Competition, both nationally and globally. Ruki holds a bachelor’s degree in the history of fine art and drawing and painting from the University of Madras, and a master of fine art in graphic design from Iowa State University.

BUILD llc is an industrious architecture firm in Seattle run by Kevin Eckert, Andrew van Leeuwen, Bart Gibson, and Carey Moran. The firm’s work focuses on effective, sustainable, and sensible design. BUILD llc operates an architectural office, contributes to ARCADE with an ongoing interview series, and is most known for their cultural leadership on the BUILD Blog.