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Preparing for the Design-ful Economy

Mark Kelly, vice president of student affairs at Columbia College Chicago, helps lead a discussion about how on-campus collaboration can better prepare art students for work in an increasingly design-ful economy.Image © Gensler

One of the more rewarding aspects of leading the education and culture practice area out of Gensler’s Chicago office is the opportunity to engage clients in conversations that extend beyond project work. One of our clients here in Chicago, the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), invited us to lead a session for the 2014 Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) conference hosted at the institution. Entitled Make No Little Plans: Building the Resilient Campus, the conference brought together leaders from art schools around the country to ideate around how the campus experience could better equip art students for the professional world and catapult them towards successful careers as a collective creative community.

For our session, “Cross-Collaborative Resilience: Building the Creative Community in Downtown Chicago”, David Broz brought Elissa Tenny, provost and senior vice president of Academic Affairs at SAIC and Mark Kelly, vice president of student affairs at Columbia College Chicago (CCC), to moderate a conversation focused on the realities of two of the country’s premier art schools. Located just blocks apart in downtown Chicago, SAIC and CCC contribute top talent to the city’s creative economy. Although they share a common goal of creating a vibrant campus community within a wonderfully challenging urban setting, the two institutions have disparate ethos, curricula and students. These two institutions are working to build a resilient culture and community within the city. During the session, they showcased opportunities and commonalities between the two that could be further strengthened through cross collaboration.


In today’s design-ful economy, where design-minded talent is starting to populate the ranks of CEO, COO, CLO (Chief Listening Officer), art institutions are preparing resilient students for creative careers. To that end, both SAIC and CCC place enormous emphasis on cross-disciplinary awareness across their curricula.

Students at CCC are pushing the college to recalibrate the academic structure to better support their desire for collaboration. The annual spring-time graduation celebration Manifest Urban Arts Festival is a paradigm for a multi-disciplinary student laboratory experience, where students from every major are involved in the ultimate street festival.

At SAIC, Elissa explained the school’s success at cooperating with schools whose students bring different perspectives to the table. Successful collaborations with Northwestern University and University of Chicago brought together engineers, artists and designers and allowed this diverse group to collaborate on a level playing field. The first class resulted in an animated film played alongside thousands of pink paper airplanes in a three-dimensional contour map and an interactive eye tracking program.


Shaped by heightened student expectations, an undulating economic climate and the onset of the digital age, institutions must broaden their reach to build resilience—the ability to rebound and to recover readily – into their campuses and facilities. SAIC and CCC are growing entrepreneurial thinkers, more adept at morphing an earned degree into a meaningful career and way of life.

SAIC has developed Porous Classrooms—a six credit-hour off-campus requirement. With the institution’s encouragement to interact with the community at large, SAIC students are making an impact in their community, whether through fieldwork experiences, co-op education, internships or study trips.

Columbia’s goal is to help students develop their own entrepreneurial skillset, built through intuitive sweat equity aspirations. From art galleries to Manifest to a storefront that displays and sells student work, their half-dozen on-campus initiatives are lead and run by students. While guided by faculty and administration, these entrepreneurial activities push students to build real-world skills in conjunction with their academic work.

Creative Community

And while the first two sections of the title, Cross-Collaborative and Resilience, are important trends in academia today, equally important is the core ethos of both of these institutions: they function as creative communities.

In the business community, co-working spaces and incubators like 1871 are all the rage—primarily filled with recession-era graduates who turned entrepreneurial because of the economic cycle. These incubators give business leaders structured co-working environments to develop deeper relationships and better products that stem from informal and formal collaboration. In 2013 Fast Company explored the question of whether the MFA is the new MBA. Based on an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries, the article purported that the most important skill to successfully navigate our increasingly complex world is CREATIVITY.

Both Elissa and Mark spoke of arts-type incubators that are either already underway or currently being developed at their institutions. The repeated ritual of creation, defense, and failure is inherent in the pedagogy of creative disciplines. Successful incubator spaces like 1871 are designed to allow people to fail in a supportive environment and come back stronger with new criteria that will ultimately lead to a more successful solution. SAIC and CCC are each working to harness a collaborative culture that will push students out of their comfort zone and into the realm of true creativity.

These two institutions represent the plight of art schools around the country, all of which are attempting to deliver innovative, creative, and ultimately resilient students to the business workforce. And perhaps these qualities of innovation, creativity, and resilience can extend beyond the student: both Elissa and Mark acknowledged the numerous opportunities to leverage their proximity and presence in Chicago and collaborate together at an inventive and heightened level. In the spirit of the theme of the AICAD conference, these two leading institutions of the city’s design-ful economy are making no little plans.

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.
Meghan has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.

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