U appoints first-ever director of new Design Institute

Benjamin Sandell

Janet Abrams has been appointed the first director of the new Design Institute, an organization within the University that emphasizes the study and research of design. She will begin at her post Nov. 1.
Abrams, who worked at the Netherlands Design Institute, is an internationally known design journalist and professor.
“I’m excited,” Abrams said, “I’m also aware of the scale of this opportunity and how many competitors are within it. My vision is of something comparable to the best research institutes in other fields.”
Architecture school dean Thomas Fisher served as the institute’s temporary director and said the University has searched long and hard for an appropriate person to take over the position.
“We engaged in a year-long, international search to find somebody who could operate successfully both inside the University and in the larger corporate community,” Fisher said. “(Abrams) is really ideally suited for the position.”
The institute is a collaboration among six different colleges: Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Education and Human Development, Human Ecology, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the Institute of Technology and the College of Liberal Arts.
“It’s such a tremendous opportunity to put the University, Twin Cities and the region back on the map in terms of being a center for design thinking,” Fisher said.
The institute offers an introductory design course which is part of a new minor in the field. The colleges within the collaboration have worked together to ensure that the students’ courses are more compatible.
Institute faculty said they hope students will have an opportunity to “taste” the range of design possibilities.
“Think of each college as a great pillar of learning. The departments are columns within these colleges, tiny little box structures,” said Bonnie Pechtel, the design minor coordinator. “The institute is outside of all these boxes. We span the pillars.”
She added that she wishes students would discover how design will change their lives before they graduate.
The new institute is one of the five interdisciplinary initiatives established in 1997 by University President Mark Yudof.
Yudof has stressed recruiting new faculty to the University in order to develop the initiatives.
Two of the main goals behind the interdisciplinary initiatives are to make the University stronger as a community and to improve research, teaching and outreach programs, according to a University Web site.
Additionally, the academic initiatives are meant to spur economic growth in the state and facilitate innovations in science and technology.
Other academic initiatives include emphasis on new media, molecular and cellular biology, agriculture and digital technology.
“A lot of new knowledge and new discoveries are going on in these areas that are fundamentally cross-disciplinary,” Fisher said.
Abrams said the goal of the Design Institute is “to be a kaleidoscope of perspectives, different ways of leading daily lives.”
“(It’s) a place to test propositions and possibilities about alternative futures,” she said.

Benjamin Sandell welcomes comments at [email protected]