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Roger Mandle on Consilient Design

Roger Mandle, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, is talking about Asia’s role in new product design. China is frenetically building design schools, including the Shanghai Institute for Visual Art. Korea, once laughed at in the world of car design, is now building hugely competitive cars and American manufacturers are learning from Hyundai.

Mandle looks at ways that design can be a key factor in addressing some of the problems we’re talking about in a conference like TED. Design includes planning for sustainaibility. Design can be a strategy for economic development. And design is a way of making meaning, a uniquely human way.

Pointing to E.O. Wilson’s work on “consilience”, Mandle is interested in design that integrates left and right brain activity, incorporates art and engineering, brings aesthetics and function together, like Leonardo da Vinci – perhaps the world’s most consilient artists and designer ever – drew.

We’re being pushed in the opposite direction of consilience.
we’re teaching – or at least condoning – intelligent design in the schools. The National Defense Language Initiative is teaching Farsi, Arabic and Chinese in our schools, not to increase international understanding, but so we can learn about our enemies.

There’s another way, Mandle believes. He points to RISD’s kitchen initiative, redesigning kitchens so that a person with disabilities can make food. They watched a person make a spaghetti dinner and discovered the process involved 300 steps. Through this process, they learned to build a kitchen with adjustable counters, lowered dishwashers, multiple doors to open a refrigerator, etc. The kitchen has been displayed at the Cooper Hewitt museum as an example of excellence in design.

RISD wants to produce citizen designers, aware of the impact of their work outside their field, collaborating across disciplines and borders and being involved with community service. They’re consilient designers, working towards different priorities than we had in the era of the great World Fairs. Then we designed for obsolence and for national interest – now we need to design for much more.

To move towards consilient design, Mandle believes we need to teach art and design at the K-12 level, have a math and science curiculum for design, a National Design Council, and the integration of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts in the Department of Education, which he’d like to see as a cabinet post.