From robot performances to experimental 3-D printing, TMU professor Jonathon Anderson is pushing the boundaries of the interdisciplinary curriculum
Driven by the principles he learned as a student of architecture and later in product design, Jonathon Anderson, associate professor of interior design and founding director of The Creative School’s Design + Technology Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), explores the impact of creative technology on design processes across multiple fields of study.
The Lab works closely with students, faculty and industry leaders to challenge traditional notions of design by integrating multidisciplinary approaches, creativity and non-traditional technology solutions.
Housing 27 of TMU’s media, communication and design-related programs, including journalism, performance, interior design, media production and film, The Creative School fosters global partnerships and offers more professional opportunities for its students than any competing program.
In conversation with Toronto Life, Anderson discusses his career journey, thinking beyond design and what keeps his curriculum ahead of the curve.
What led you to The Creative School?
I began teaching interiors as the scale, use of materials, human experience and ability to challenge technology were a natural extension of my education in architecture and product design. About nine years ago, I was fortunate to begin my tenure at The Creative School, where I’ve focused my teaching and research on creation and computation. Since I entered the academia space, my work has been a careful negotiation and balance between theory, research through making, and experiential learning.
Which area of design is your focus?
My work operates at the intersection of design, creative technology and art. Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s philosophy says that regardless of the intervention, the same principles and design elements should apply—from the architecture to the product to the interior space. I think their concept of “design is one” applies to all creative disciplines today. More so, we’re increasingly looking at how other subjects, like nature and psychology, can influence the design process.
Any recent projects that showcase an interdisciplinary approach to design?
I was fortunate to work with Cirque du Soleil International, and I met an artist named Kroy who I instantly connected with while creating a performance featuring industrial robots. I didn’t know anything about music or how to play the piano or understand beats per minute. She didn’t understand robots or how to control them. We had to trust and learn from each other, and produced seven performances that tell a story of love and loss. The project, Animachina, is a perfect example of what happens when two disciplines come together to create something incredibly unique.
What value do new industrial manufacturing, robotics and computer numerical control (CNC) tech bring to courses?
The Creative School pushes the boundaries of how our research methods and trajectories impact and influence the classroom—not only to generate cutting-edge work, but to ignite thoughtful conversations around pressing topics and needs. What happens in the classroom parallels research conducted in the Lab. I don’t think you should disconnect the classroom from a faculty member’s research—that’s where the magic happens.
What impact do students bring to the table?
Our students are encouraged to disrupt and revolutionize the use of technology within creative fields at the Design + Technology Lab, a non-discipline-specific facility that promotes the use of innovative technology, including CNC milling, 3-D printing, textile computing, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality. It’s not designed for students to come in and have projects done for them. It actually gives them the tools to break boundaries and push limitations themselves. Students can experiment and will likely fail repeatedly, but the facility ensures that failure is supported. In addition to hands-on learning, it provides a space where students can bounce ideas off staff and peers, whether studying fashion, biology or interior design.
How do your students engage with industry partners on design projects?
What I like about The Creative School is that it truly believes in bridging the gap between academia and the industry. I often bring industry professionals into the classroom while we’re working on research and development projects. Creating these relationships is very important. While I would never want what’s happening in the industry to dictate every aspect of what’s taught in the classroom, I take every opportunity to engage students with what’s happening in the real world. My students have worked with many partners over the years and have exhibited their work in prime spaces, such as the Eaton Centre and the DesignTO festival in Toronto, and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City.
With the tech landscape constantly changing, how do you ensure the curriculum remains relevant?
Technology is constantly evolving. I invite industry leaders to come into the classroom and speak on the subject matter, and as a faculty member, I’m constantly reskilling and upskilling my knowledge in different areas. I think remaining close to the industry and community at large is crucial.
Any advice for aspiring designers or technologists?
Remain curious and never stop learning. I have the opportunity to work with new students every year who bring a range of unique ideas to the table. It’s very important in the creative field that you allow yourself to feel comfortable in uncertainty and always ask questions.