Transitions Workshop: A Conversation with Sinclair Smith

This semester, Sinclair Smith led a new workshop series entitled “Transitions,” where students are led through a refresher in three dimensional design concepts and semantics, and a crash course in 3D sketching and model making. We sat down with Sinclair to talk about the workshop and its outputs.

PoD: The Transitions workshop is something that you brought to the department as a result of your experiences during your Design Performance class last year. A foundational training in 3-dimensions can take many forms (sorry for the pun)—and you’re taking a certain approach, through the notion of “transitions.” Can you talk us through its meaning?

SS: The origin of the name is three-fold and consequently so are the course objectives: logistical, formal and philosophical.

The logistical goal of the workshop is to literally transition incoming students into working in the Products of Design studio and in the Visible Futures Lab next door. Students learn basic methods of sketching in studio materials and learn how to use the tools in the VFL to create durable models in finished materials. After the workshop, they’re familiar with the tools the department provides and can feel at home as they move forward with their course load.

The formal goal is to highlight the role of transitions between primary elements in 3D composition. We see transitions between forms in composition as the spaces that define those forms in relation to one another, and we take the opportunity to discuss the whole in terms of its transitions. Transitional points and connection points are opportunities for ornament, for space, for surface and material change; they are the makings of style. But they are also structural—they are where things need to be held together and where things fall apart. We use transitions as an opportunity to discuss hardware and design-engineering.

Finally, the philosophical goal is to see that the ways in which all things are held in system and sequence is what gives them meaning. No object, form, person or material exists alone. We all exist in context. By training ourselves to observe the transitions between artifacts and behaviors in systems we can become better problem solvers. This leads to a sustainable practice, where we learn to rearrange the relationships between our existing tools to solve existing problems—instead of throwing all our tools out and building new tools with new problems.

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PoD: The notion of “using what we have “or of using current resources” is something that’s consistent with a lot of the teaching in the program. How do you see students better leveraging their talents and resources as they progress through the program?

SS: That question goes directly to a conversation I have with each student midway through the Transitions workshop. At a certain point, it becomes clear that no one will be able to digest and address all the parameters of the syllabus. I throw a lot of material at them very quickly. So we look at their individual progress and I tell them to pick their battles and ask themselves some questions, “What are my strong skills? What do I want to improve? How can I get the most out of this?” Everyone comes to the program with different skills and areas to develop. Students have to relearn themselves in the program, and make fast decisions about what they want to achieve in school and what kind of work they want to be doing when finished. I think it’s important to leverage skills that students have coming in—they can be strong assets. But they can also be liabilities. I encourage students to try and forget what they know; habits from previous experience can prevent learning new ideas and techniques that will lead to a more well-rounded designer.

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PoD: We talk a lot about the “sweet spot” between design making and design thinking; that both are essential, but that neither is sufficient. Do you find yourself traveling in one more than the other?

SS: No. I am an avid generalist. I like to wear many hats and I find each informs the other. I make as a thinker and I think as a maker. I think what I do well is take a broad view and make connections between seemingly unrelated things. Industrial design requires the ability to address a huge range of human needs with a huge range of available tools. It’s good to have a specialty, but it’s increasingly important to be broadly conversant.

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PoD: Talk about your style of teaching. What kinds of input and nurturing do design students need, and do you see any particular opportunities unique to this moment in time?

SS: Teaching is a performance. It’s a conversation with an audience. And as they say in show business, you have to go out there and read the crowd. No two students in a class learn in the same way. I try to find out how people learn and what works best for them. There is information and perspective that I can relay in a rote manner, but I find that it only clicks and forms lasting memory in the student if I can lead the student to the place where the material resonates personally.

Fortunately, in studio classes where we are working with three dimensional design, that can often be as simple as literally moving someone by the shoulders and saying, “stand over here, squint, and NOW look at it!” and then the light goes on. But it’s different for everyone. So I try to make an empathic connection with the student and find out what works best for them. It can be a personalized approach that some students are not accustomed to, but I encourage students to get messy and take emotional chances with their studies and their work. That’s what school is for and I believe that’s what the world needs from designers: the ability to be emotionally open and to take significant risks.

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