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A Conversation with Brian Alves, Chairperson, Art + Design

Brian, we were thrilled to have your expertise guiding the design of our 2019 TEDxSalemStateUniversity event, which explored the theme "Mindfulness and Transformation." The concept that you created is bold, vibrant and playful. Could you talk about your approach to thinking about the design for this event?

My background is in fine art, and then I became a designer. I approach design with an artist mindset: looking for an emotional take or something compelling. This is what distinguishes fine art from design.

I usually start the design process by researching the words and underlying concepts around something to find definition. In this case, the words were “mindfulness” and “transformation.” These are very generic words. I needed to dig into them to find something specific to guide the thought-process. Studying the words allows you to take a broad concept and transform it into something more tangible.

From there I take out the phrases that explain it just enough, without forcing a particular way of thinking. For example, “self-regulation of attention.” Then I start thinking about audience participation and how they might engage with a design.

As the idea of overlapping shapes folding into each other started to emerge, I began to think about what I could give the audience that would allow them to make choices, without being overwhelming. The end result is six basic shapes that can be combined either by shape interactions, color interactions, or both, resulting in millions of iterations. This is all from a very basic common core.

Once the concept was established my final step was to convey it in a way in which the client (event organizer) could understand. This is another big difference between design and fine art. You need to be able to show how it works.

On this note, one of the things that was really fun at our inaugural 2018 event were the colorful stickers of the different chair designs that participants affixed to their name badges. It was such a great ice breaker as folks sought out others who chose the same sticker as them to spark conversation. Could you talk about the interactive elements that you planned for this year's event?

Last year’s interactive activity was an accident. The stickers came up because I was doing an assignment refresh for a design course. My students were doing a “get out the vote” project using iMessage stickers. At the same time, I was obsessively drawing chairs as a way to show “hospitality” in a variety of different ways. The two things ended up colliding and I found myself designing stickers for the name badges. When I presented the idea to the event host, Provost Silva, he immediately thought that it would be a great way for people to connect with each other. He saw something in my work that I didn’t initially see, which as an artist, is exactly what you hope for.

This year I built on this concept by designing many different combinations of shapes and colors that audience members could select from. When interacting with others, participants can look at shape, color or both to decide how the choices of other participants reflect their own. What you prioritize is a simple action, but it is a choice. It is a mindful choice.

TEDxSalemStateUniversity is a unique way for our faculty to share their expertise not just on-stage but also off-stage, as you so generously demonstrate. Could you talk about how you got interested in the field of Art + Design and what inspired you to become a professor?

I entered the field of Art + Design because I could not not do it. I was "the one" in the family with an artistic streak, and my interest was nurtured and encouraged from elementary to high school. It was in college that I realized that I wanted to be a professor. I teach courses in graphic and web design. Structure and code – visualization and process – is exciting to me. I love to create assignments where students have to be inventive. For example, I will ask students to invent an application to solve a problem. They don’t have to develop the application, but rather show how it would solve a problem. They have to visualize it and show how it will work while also incorporating brand and identity into their design. Focusing on solutions is a fundamental precept of my teaching. The idea of discovery: discover what needs to be solved, discover what you care about, discover what you love.

I am sure that some of our students have aspirations to be designers someday. Is there advice that you would give to those looking to ‘break in’ to the field?

My advice is six-fold:

  1. Endlessly look at things. Everything. Look at the visual details of the things in your life.
  2. Look at the work of other artists and designers as well. Become an avid consumer of visual design.
  3. Gravitate toward what you like and explore why you like it.
  4. Start browsing job listings right away. Read descriptions and see what kinds of skills employers are looking for. The “intellectualization” of design has been evolving over the past 15 years or so.
  5. Expand your idea of where you find design. I suggest design-thinking for the screen first before print. Fifty to 70 percent of the time, you will be designing for the screen. Remember this.
  6. Try to find left and right balance. Good design is creative but also logical, clear, and readable.

Art and design are in everything. It is interdisciplinary, not separate. You can use drawing as a way to understand and explain the world, not to be isolated from it. This is why it is valuable.

Learn more about Salem State's Art + Design program and Professor Brian Alves

Debra Longo
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