Putting CCA First: Provost Mark Breitenberg

Q. Your job involves a lot of international travel. What are some global trends in art and design education?

The overarching trend is simply the belief that art and design education has become more important—that it’s a lively, dynamic field. Creativity and innovation are the most valuable currencies of our time. We hear that China has started around 1,000 new art and design programs in the last 10 to 15 years, and there are similar government-led education initiatives across the globe, particularly in Asia (including India), starting at the primary and secondary school levels.

The premise is that the new global economy will be built on the creative industries, and there will be more professional opportunities and more spheres of influence for artists and designers. In much of Asia, traditional ways of teaching and learning are not seen as conducive to creativity and innovation. When I’m over there I’m often asked questions about how to teach and instill creativity.

In the fine art and craft disciplines, I see more and more interdisciplinary fluidity across different media, as well as across the divide between studio practice and commercial application. I also think public art is on the rise in many urban centers and consequently more appealing to student artists. The Social Practice and Craft Lab components of our interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Fine Arts developed by Ted Purves really position CCA at the front of both of these trends.

Art and design education is (and should be) moving toward a model of learning that is built on partnerships: with community organizations, governments and cities, NGOs, businesses, and entities in the fields of engineering, medicine, and public policy. It’s a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and very outward-facing form of education.

Q. You recently said that you’re seeing a resurgence in crafts. What do you mean by this?

There are a lot of factors contributing to this resurgence. The traditional craft fields are riding the crest of renewed interest in DIY, as well as new distribution systems enabled by the internet that bring regional craft to the rest of the world. The fundamental materiality of craft has also become more important as a result of our focus on the environment and sustainability. I’ve also seen a lot of exciting new theoretical work coming out about craft’s historical and social function.

But there is also the idea of craft as a verb—the basic elements of the crafted object and the craft process are becoming more important to all art and design fields, and I certainly include architecture here. There is a kind of pendulum swing going on: a renewed interest in the unique as we’re awash in the mass-produced, regional interest in an age of globalism, handmade tactility in a digital world. CCA’s cross-disciplinary craft symposium this coming spring will address this resurgence.

Q. CCA’s MBA in Design Strategy just graduated its first class and applications continue to exceed expectations. What do you make of this success?

For the last 10 years or so the awareness of design’s relevance to business has accelerated. BusinessWeek ran a cover story about our new “Creativity Economy,” Dan Pink famously wrote that “the MFA is the new MBA” in the Harvard Business Review, design firms like IDEO are consulting with traditional companies about their creative processes, and CCA had been working with the Haas School of Business at Berkeley. So it was in the air.

But CCA’s exceptionally bold move was to create an MBA program within an art and design college. Business had been reaching out to design as a kind of added value, but we changed the game by placing design strategy, sustainability, and creativity at the core of where business leadership is going.

There was a national survey done a few years ago by I.D. magazine that asked business leaders to rate the importance of design to their company’s success. The results were skewed by age: younger business leaders placed the highest value on design, older leaders the lowest. So it’s clear to me that our MBA in Design Strategy is not only timely but also positioned to shape the next generation of business leadership. Already we’ve seen derivative programs springing up in the U.S. and Asia.

Q. CCA plans to launch an Interaction Design Program in 2011. Tell us more about this—how it came about, what is the field of interaction design, etc.

Interaction Design is about the relationship between people and the machines they use—particularly, in our world, digital machines. So it focuses on the human experience of interacting with and navigating digital interfaces—computers, hand-held devices, video games, exhibition and retail spaces, even smart fabrics. But although there are important technological components, CCA’s new program will be human-centered, emphasizing storytelling, psychology, meaning, critical thinking, and research in addition to fundamental design skills. Malcolm McDowell recently wrote, “As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to be one of the main liberal arts of the 21st century.”

Interaction Design is a natural for CCA. Located as we are in the Bay Area, we’ll be able to attract a brilliant faculty, and I think prospective students will really respond to our geographical situation as part of our brand. Kristian Simsarian, an associate partner at IDEO, will lead the program, and he’s already put together an impressive advisory board.

Q. You’ve now been provost at CCA for a year and a half. What are your observations of CCA’s faculty and students?

I’ve been very impressed with the quality of our faculty, in their own creative practices and also in their dedication to our students. It’s not that easy to find accomplished professionals who are also great teachers; there’s an art to being able to translate one’s own deep expertise into a language that students can grasp and apply to their own creative development. But again, I think our greatest strength is that we can draw our faculty from the abundantly creative culture of the Bay Area.

As someone trained in the humanities, I’m also especially impressed with our “academic” faculty—in the Humanities and Sciences division but also those in the studio programs. It’s sometimes overlooked that we have some truly eminent and well-known writers and scholars at CCA. I’ve visited more than 100 art and design colleges around the world and very few compare with us in this area.

Of course our students have a wide range of backgrounds and levels of ability when they come to CCA. But one of the consistent qualities I’ve seen in this diverse group is their commitment to social justice, to making a difference in their communities, to making art that matters. Studies of millennial students show that this generation is the most activist and politically engaged since the 1960s, so CCA is at the epicenter of a larger trend. It’s also interesting to me that many of our students see this engagement as consistent with their professional and even economic ambitions; they’re optimistic that making money and making a difference are not mutually exclusive options.

Q. Your educational background is in the humanities. How did you get interested in art and design?

I taught at Swarthmore College after graduate school. It’s a great school, but I had begun to feel a kind of “ivory tower” isolation from the rest of the world. So I moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry as a screenwriter and story analyst. I was hanging out with artists, and some of them were teaching in the fine art programs at Art Center College of Design and at Otis College of Art and Design. So I started teaching critical theory and writing to artists.

The real turning point came when I was asked by the president of Art Center, Richard Koshalek, to create a new liberal arts and sciences department there. I wanted it to be very rigorous and very relevant to the studio programs. So I had to immerse myself in studio pedagogy, the design fields in particular. We created a program based on the idea that artists, designers, and writers today are the Renaissance men and women of our time. They need to know their creative disciplines but also range across other disciplines; art and design are at the intersection of many other fields of knowledge, and the best artists and designers are polymaths.

Q. You are the new president of Icsid. Tell us a little about this organization and what you hope to achieve in the next two years in your role as president.

The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid)] is composed of member organizations around the world: professional designers associations, national design councils and promotional bodies, design companies, and art and design schools. It was founded in 1957, and today we have about 200,000 individual members from every continent. Icsid functions as an international network for all fields of design, and we maintain a diverse portfolio of initiatives: the World Design Capital, awarded to a city that has demonstrated the power of design to transform its citizens’ quality of life (Torino in 2008, Seoul in 2010, Helsinki in 2012); Interdesign, two-week design charettes in which designers from around the world work with a community to solve a pressing need; the World Design Congress, held every two years; and many forms of education and promotion for our members.

A significant part of my job as president is to represent the organization at international design events. That gives me an influential platform to promote all the great work we’re doing at CCA, and I learn a lot about what’s going on in design around the world.

The big initiative I’m hoping to achieve is the launch of the World Design Impact Prize. We’re going to start an international competition in 2011 honoring projects that demonstrate and encourage the growth of socially responsible and sustainable design at the grass-roots level. I’m especially interested in the expanded applications of design: problem solving, design thinking, and creative new economic models that transform communities such as social entrepreneurship and micro financing. It will be a “people’s choice” selection process, with online voting open to anyone in the world. We’re hoping to raise money for a cash prize that would be applied to extending the reach and impact of the project we select.

Q. ENGAGE at CCA is one of the initiatives that began during your tenure. How does this kind of project-based learning benefit our students?

ENGAGE at CCA courses epitomize the way we teach and our values as an institution. The most significant benefit to students is that they acquire skills and knowledge relevant to their disciplines in the context of working with community partners. And those partners are chosen because we believe our students’ work will have a real impact on people’s lives outside the college. From a pedagogical standpoint, project-based learning in real-world contexts is more effective. We learn better when our work is significant and meaningful to us.

There is also an important ethical dimension to ENGAGE at CCA projects. Educational institutions—particularly creative institutions like CCA—have the opportunity and the responsibility to shape and influence the world beyond our walls. This commitment to social justice comes from our legacy in the Arts and Crafts movement, which was in part a reaction to the idea of “art for art’s sake.” So a lot of important ideas and goals converge in the ENGAGE at CCA initiative.

Q. Any other programs in the works?

We want to expand our study abroad program in Oaxaca, Mexico. President Beal would like to see us establish a semester abroad there for students, and an artists’ residency for faculty. I would love to see us develop five or six sustainable partnerships with schools or other organizations around the world, strategically located, that would support international recruitment and simultaneously broaden our students’ global perspective.

This fall we’ve launched a new Industry Partnerships Committee that will develop sponsored studios, internships, job opportunities, and alumni relations, leveraging our location in the Bay Area. Our newly expanded MBA in Design Strategy will be a key component in this effort.

This past year, KC Rosenberg created a task force that redesigned our core curriculum for first-year students. The goal was to give them an interdisciplinary experience that at the same time would develop their discipline-specific skill sets in preparation for the demands of their chosen programs. Our first cohort in the new curriculum started this fall, so it will be critically important to assess how it’s working this year. The Humanities and Sciences division under Rachel Schreiber’s leadership has also created a collegewide team that will look at how the humanities and sciences courses can be more relevant to, and embedded in, the studio curriculum.

Q. You’ve praised CCA for its “commitment to the importance of diversity, visual literacy, and community outreach.” Are there examples of each in which you’ve been involved—or student accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud?

Associate Provost Melanie Corn has really energized the President’s Task Force on diversity this past year, and we also made three significant diversity hires in Fine Arts, Film, and Humanities and Sciences. We’d like to continue this momentum. And I’m especially proud of the community outreach work we did this year in the inaugural ENGAGE at CCA projects.

Q. CCA supports designing with sustainability in mind. How can we advance our reputation as a leader in this vital area?

Our strategy needs to be multifaceted. We’ll continue to build sustainability into our courses and studios; it’s already a key component in Fashion Design, Industrial Design, the Graduate Program in Design, Architecture, and the MBA in Design Strategy program. We’ll look for project-based partnerships with other schools’ programs, as Architecture did so successfully with Santa Clara University in the 2009 Solar Decathlon. I’m very excited about the faculty-initiated EcoTAP workshops that faculty member David Heintz has set up; this kind of grassroots, extracurricular project enriches our programs and energizes the community. Humanities and Sciences has created four interdisciplinary courses on issues around water.

We also need to increase the public visibility of the environmental work we’re doing at CCA via public events and partnerships with local organizations. We recently had Barry Lopez, one of the world’s premier writers on nature, and we’re an official partner at the GreenBiz Innovation Summit this fall.

But above all, of course, the best way to advance our reputation is to send graduates out into the world with passion and expertise about sustainability and the environment.