Faculty members JD Beltran and Scott Minneman teach graduate design at CCA. Both have active creative and consulting practices in addition to their work with students. Beltran is a conceptual artist working in several media, and she is currently president of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Minneman is an independent consultant who creates interactive experiences for hands-on museums, and he is also an affiliate researcher at the Institute for the Future. Working together, Beltran and Minneman have created the Cinema Snowglobe, an interactive artwork that incorporates films or animations amid small particles of “snow” that move and settle.
You both teach design courses for graduate students. Could you discuss how you work with students who are doing projects and other assignments?
SM: I teach some higher-level “topic studios” (semester-long, project-based courses); some are exclusively interaction design. For instance, I’ve developed (with Maria Mortati) a studio on public interactivity. The subject matter ranges from the mundane walk-up-and-use sorts of things (such as an ATM or parking meter) to interactive museum installations. I’ve had a practice, for 15 or so years, of creating hands-on interactive installations for museums and technology centers, so there’s a pretty broad range of topics that get covered in that studio.
JDB: I do project-based teaching, but I also teach another course, Conceptual Cartography, which essentially aims to build the skills and approach for abstract thinking about design. It’s trying to prompt students to break out of their normal way of thinking about how to tell a story through any kind of material—and to start thinking more broadly, in the way that artists do, about telling that story.
In what ways do you incorporate multiple disciplines in your teaching?
JDB: Many times some of the most brilliant ideas come from tapping into how people are used to interacting with something that you transfer to the problem that you’re working, one that is completely unrelated.
Also, one of the nice things about an art practice combined with a design practice is that you don’t always have to be practical. With art, many times what you’re making could be considered by most of the world as not very practical. But it’s those kinds of ideas that you pursue that end up really being exciting. There’s more engagement in your ideas and your creativity and your vision, rather than trying to solve something that’s merely utilitarian.
SM: In grad design we do a sort of mash-up studio, where there’s an instructor from one discipline paired with one from another, and we’re trying to bring those two perspectives together on a sequence of projects. I’m teaching one of those with Paul Montgomery, who’s the coordinator for Industrial Design in our department. We’re looking really broadly at assistive technologies—products and services that might be brought to bear on the needs and opportunities of disabled individuals. That’s been a really fruitful mash-up where students early in the semester have sort of “adopted” a disability, and they are working that from different angles—like rethinking a well-trodden form of intervention.
We have one student who is essentially doing “playful” prosthetics for amputees. She’s been meeting with all sorts of people, including this legendary motorcycle racer up in Marin who developed a prosthetic arm-to-handlebar attachment for men and women who want to ride motorcycles when they don’t have a hand. She’s been talking to him and his customers about these special-purpose prosthetics. That’s an instance where direct interaction with her community of disabled people has been invaluable for developing empathy, and it provided insights to transfer into her prosthetic devices.
How does teaching fit with and influence your own work and art practice?
JDB: I think both Scott and I can attest to this: One of the things I love about that blending of our own art-making and our own design practices and teaching is that both of those practices require this way of going about things, in terms of problem solving, that I think is valuable and critical. You start with an idea, and you do your research, and you start to figure out how you could actually realize the idea—what kinds of materials to use, what form it will take, what it will do (if it’s going to do something), and how people are going to react to it.
SM: I’m a designer, so this is what I’ve done my whole life. Part of teaching is imparting some of that hard-won wisdom [laughs] and experience to the students in a way that’s benign and approachable, so teaching and work definitely integrate in the terms of storytelling and understanding where they are with a particular design problem.
Every year of teaching exposes me to new topics, so I’m always learning. In particular with the thesis projects, there are people I’m working really closely with who in effect become experts in their topic domain, and I have to become an expert alongside them or else I’m not a good advisor. So that’s one way that teaching keeps me very informed and fresh in what’s going on in the world.