The University Record, October 8, 1996

School of Art and Design creates 'visual explorers'

Allen Samuels, dean of the School of Art and Design, is surrounded by state-of-the art equipment that has become the standard in the design labs housed in the Media Union

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Suzanne Tainter
Research News


"Our students recognize the need to be visual explorers," says Allen Samuels, dean of the School of Art and Design. "We strive to give them a sense of what was, and what is, but we want them to be preoccupied with what can and ought to be."

Joining Samuels in the belief that art, as one of the creative fields that will be taking center stage in the university of the 21st century, Paul Boylan, vice provost for the arts, says artists act as "a catalyst to the general intellectual and cultural climate of the university and society." Using art as a visual language to communicate ideas, Samuels says designers go through a process akin to that of any other field of inquiry. "It is the process of invention. We observe, conceptualize, visualize, realize, evaluate, and refine. Creative work is our research."

In their work, some artists deal overtly with meaning---making statements about mothers and daughters, memory, autobiography, recycling, pollution, domestic violence. Some investigate the formal concerns of the fine arts---composition, balance, color. Some explore where new technology can take their work. All grapple with the philosophical, emotional and technical concerns of the various worlds of the arts, the university and beyond.

Artists collaborating with a variety of university disciplines excites Samuels, who has shared some of his own methods as an industrial designer with students in a writing class. Samuels guides his own research by making a matrix. Along one edge of a piece of paper he notes all the potential users of a product. Along the other edge he lists the properties that product is supposed to have. With this tool for systematically considering the interaction of users and attributes, his thinking is often spurred in new directions.

Such new directions soon became apparent to the English students attempting to write short stories. Using a similar matrix to explore intersections of plot and character, this visual tool, engendering systematic inquiry, allowed the writers to think through what interactions were possible among characters, letting them explore dynamics between characters they had never considered before.

Combining art with training dentists is another idea Samuels is working on. Currently dentists-in-training use plastic or ceramic models to practice procedures. But once the student has "treated" the model tooth, it can't be used again to try another approach or to perfect a technique. Samuels sees virtual reality as a remedy for the current "messy" practice technique. With virtual reality, the dentist-in-training might practice all techniques and be able to start over again as easily as another go 'round on a computer game. The student, wearing video headgear that presents three-dimensional images of a diseased mouth, would wear a special glove to hold the necessary tools. Moving the tools in space, an image would appear on a screen that, in fact, the tool was being used in the virtual patient's mouth.

To create a virtual reality program like this requires sophisticated manipulation of images. And that is what the art school can bring to such a collaboration. "We see and think visually," says Samuels. "We would influence how the diseased material appeared. We could help make sure it was presented in a way that was telling to a young dentist."

Graphic designers, among other artists, Samuels says, have insights valuable to presenting information on a computer screen such as that found in digital libraries, projects that involve computer scientists, librarians and specialists from a number of disciplines. The digitizing of books, journals and other resources are forcing a rethinking of fundamental ideas about how readers use books and journals. "Artists have long wrestled with the visual connotations of text," Samuels says.

"Art is central to being human and understanding being human is what the university is all about," Samuels says. "What stands the test of time are designed images, objects and spaces." Illustrating that communication moves across divides of time, culture, language and geography, Samuels says, "What speaks to us from prehistoric cultures are their carved statues, jewelry, pottery vessels or painted cave walls."

The methods we use to speak to future cultures will come from visual explorers."