Design Educator Profile: Walter Zesk

Interview by Deana Marzocchi

Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews highlighting members of the DEC Community, focusing on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in various institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition, we share a profile of design educator Walter Zesk.

Tell us about Product Design and how this field impacts Design Education in 2022? 

The challenges of our complex world require innovative thinkers. The Product Design bachelor’s degree equips creative problem solvers to rethink the products that underly our day-to-day experiences and fundamentally transform people’s lives for the better. We attract students that want to solve global problems and create impactful products and experiences that matter. 

Similar to traditional design curricula, our Product Design program is an opportunity for students to create, explore, research and collaborate as they craft their own perspectives and design process. In other ways, we diverge from traditional product or industrial design. We believe the greatest growth in design practice and the greatest opportunity for impact is in digital and experiential products created by businesses not explicitly selling design. Our program uniquely prepares students to leverage design thinking in these contexts.

The Johnson & Wales University (JWU) Design department is implementing a new studio model to help enhance teaching. Would you please describe this innovative studio model and the benefits and challenges you see going forward?

Our new Design Studio model is an opportunity for students from any field or department, sophomore, junior, and senior level, to work in diverse teams on open-ended problems while learning the practice of Design. Students engage with the studio at their particular skill and experience level applying design practices to solve problems. 

The learning experience in these classes is more like professional practice or lab-centered research.  Students work in multidisciplinary multi-year teams on projects contained within the Design Studio shell. The work is outward facing with real-world objectives and external stakeholders. Logistically this model is challenging to manage and assess, but it is the best way to offer students experiences that prepare them for future design practice.

How do you implement sustainability into your classes, and how do you see the importance of sustainability in future course planning?

I think about sustainability as a designer.  From this perspective, the practice of sustainable design is the practice of studying the relationship products have with the systems that surround them and incorporating that understanding into the goals and objectives for the product. If you are designing thoughtfully to support human systems over time, you are designing sustainably. In this approach, sustainability is not an independent or added consideration, it is simply a byproduct of thoughtful user-centered design at longer timescales.

In terms of sustainability, how do the students respond to this element in their design practice?

Product Design students study human factors and user-centered design, building an understanding of human capabilities and needs. They look at both individuals and social groups. This understanding is both requisite and sufficient for sustainable design practice because it defines what should be sustained and incorporates that into the goals of each product or experience.

What do you see as your next steps in Education now that you are completing your doctorate? 

I have lived nearly all my life along the coast. In my doctoral research, I am investigating how communities can best persist in coastal environments now and in the future. This question intertwines with all the topics I teach, and I hope to engage students even more directly in this effort in the future.

Walter Zesk, has a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University, a Master of Architecture from RISD, a Master of Science in Engineering Management from Tufts University, and is working on a Ph.D. from MIT [expected completion 2025].

Walter Zesk’s professional practice has been a mix of design and engineering, typically using computational design strategies to develop new parametric product systems. While pursuing a Master’s degree at RISD, he collaborated on an investigation into automated folding that grew into a business, Seeyond Architectural Systems. Walter also co-founded Conform Lab, which provides consulting in architectural systems, design automation, and direct manufacturing technologies.

As an educator, Walter helped develop and teaches in the new Product Design Bachelor of Science degree program at JWU. Prior to joining JWU, he helped to launch a Digital Fabrication program at IYRS and has taught at RISD and Boston Architecture College.

As an Undergrad, Walter’s study of philosophy led to an interest in the emergent properties of complex systems. While an architecture student at RISD, Walter returned to this interest in complex systems as a summer fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. Walter’s current research as a member of the MIT Self Assembly Lab, continues this exploration, focusing on coastal resilience, and designing interventions that leverage existing energetic systems to sustain human habitation along coasts.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Deana Marzocchi, Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Design Department Chair at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, Rhode Island. 

By aigaeducators
Published November 28, 2022
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