RISD’s Identity Crisis

Karina Garbarini
→BFA FAV 2024

↥ The new logo on flags at 15 West, as rendered on RISD’s Identity Framework

“That’s so RISD” is a classic saying. It can be applied to anything from an artwork to an outfit, a logistical quirk to a state of mind. Overheard among friends and peers, the phrase always lands, with everyone understanding its reference, no matter how abstract. Intangible but viscerally felt. It is RISD’s identity, or at least the one that students know. But what exactly is that RISD identity? And who decides what that means for its students, faculty and staff? In the spring of 2021, RISD embarked on a long, complicated process in an attempt to answer these questions. The RISD Identity redesign officially launched this past fall, complete with a new typeface, a set of official school colors, new merchandise for the RISD store, and replacement banners along the Providence canal.

Immediately, people were talking about it, and not admiringly. The most common feelings I heard seemed to be confusion and even outrage. Fellow v.1 editor and friend Alex Ferrandiz talked with some peers and confirmed my instincts about what other students were thinking. One reflected that “The new identity seems more institutionalized than how students would like for their institution to be perceived.” Another assumed that “RISD is trying to change its image, trying to be more clean cut, which I was kind of upset about . . . I was thinking, well it’s an art school that prides itself on being experimental, and the fact that RISD wants to make everything more cohesive was upsetting.” A third student felt as though the new identity “takes away from the character and the appeal of the school and the individuality . . . it’s so corporate that it’s like everybody else.” There seemed to be a sense of grief over losing the RISD we knew before the identity, with one student recalling RISD’s former lack of official colors as “really cool” and “open-ended.” Another called the new identity “disappointing and following what everyone’s been doing. I went here because I don’t want to do that.” (We chose to keep student voices anonymous to maintain privacy while encouraging honest thoughts and opinions).

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It was hard not to react strongly. My own thoughts traveled to all of the old equipment in various buildings, the scarily janky FAV elevator, the wages of the dining hall and facilities staff and the RISD Ride drivers and how RISD supposedly didn’t have enough funding to replace its ancient equipment or increase wages, but they did have enough to finance the transformation of RISD’s outer image. Students have been asking for better facilities, for more aid for materials, for more community-focused events to bring the school together after Covid destroyed normal social scenes and senses of community. What students haven’t requested are official school colors or a new font to slap on our admissions posters and pamphlets.

Making things worse, at the same time that the RISD identity was officially launched, we started hearing rumors about the removal of Scrotie as the unofficial mascot. Immediately, students were talking. Petitions, an angry Instagram account, hundreds of reposts, memes, conversations, rivers of strongly worded emails. Despite the fact that Scrotie had nothing to do with the identity effort, when v.1 put up posters asking “What’s In and What’s Out?” for the month of October, one of the most salient themes was that Scrotie was in and anything regarding the new identity was out.

I had seen small tidbits about the new identity throughout the summer, when I wasn’t paying much attention to emails. Even though I understood that perhaps we had been informed about this change for some time, when fall came, it still felt as though it had been sprung on us out of thin air. A couple of Alex’s conversations went in this direction, too. Few students he interviewed were aware of the RISD identity before its launch in late September. Most heard about it from peers. One mentioned that “the first thing I saw being changed was the student ID card, and people complaining about it.” I decided that I wanted to do more research and figure out what happened, where this new identity framework came from, and what this might mean for us as students at this institution.

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I decided to attempt to learn more about the process. I began with reading through the website that had been created throughout the formation of the identity. Design and strategy studio Gretel Inc., based in Brooklyn, had the task of creating a comprehensive visual and verbal identity, and ON ROAD, based in London, aided the research, all of which can be found on the website identity.risd.edu. It outlines everything that had to be done for a large-scale transformation like this one: research, design, and administrative “onboarding.” The guiding theme distilled from the entire process of research among staff, students, alumni, and shareholders, the apparent core of RISD turned out to be: “question to create, create to question.” This guiding idea felt accurate to me and my personal experience at RISD. It reflects the fact that RISD’s student body and core curriculum aim to question everything, from our role as makers and artists and students within the institution and the broader world to even what we’re learning in the classroom.

The website emphasizes that the identity effort is a long term project. It aims to “embrace tensions” at RISD in order to prevent the elimination of diversity. Something that I found particularly interesting was something coined an “orbit structure,” complete with a graph that places the entirety of RISD in a kind of solar system to demonstrate how the identity would be affecting each cohort. The website states that “orbit systems help localize a core of RISD.” Within the core were administrative groups, like the President’s Office and Admissions. Beyond that were various galleries, workshops and studios, the Fleet Library, and labs on campus. Far on the outside, in fact so far as to be labeled “out of orbit,” were the  “temporal and student-led” initiatives. I was appalled by this marginal placement at first. How could they say that the students and their initiatives were not the core of the school?

It was even more appalling to see the kinds of thinking that the idea of the identity came from. When students were asked during the research process “What is something that makes you say ‘This is so RISD’?”, “exhaustion” and “self-deprecation” were popular answers. Some quotes from the website: “RISD does not want to appear stale, stuck in the purely intellectual, or overly authoritative and definitive.” “RISD has a fractured sense of self.” “How can we bring the power of RISD to the world of work? What aspects of our curriculum transfer to corporate structures and which need to evolve based on this new lens?” I was confused about how RISD could so blatantly turn its focus to corporate ideologies rather than genuine education. I was also confused about how a new identity structure that was outlined and clearly dictated could help prevent RISD from being authoritative or definitive, or how it was expected to patch up RISD’s fractured sense of self. Clearly more research needed to be done.

I had the pleasure of meeting with two people from RISD Media, Kerci Marcello Stroud and Huy Vu (leader of the marketing and communications team and creative director, respectively). From them, I was able to learn more about the thinking that’s coming from outside the student body, from real people, not business language on the website. When I asked them what an identity for a large institution like RISD really is, Huy answered:

“I think everyone sort of understands RISD when you’re here but I think what we lacked for a long time was just like, ‘how do we communicate our role in the world? Why do we exist?’ to the outside public. I think when you’re here you start to understand it by just being here, but how do you communicate that externally? . . . Our hope is geared towards presenting guardrails and guidelines, so that when people are talking about RISD specifically, they’re talking about RISD in similar ways, not in sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory ways. I think that really helps folks who work here who have to communicate on behalf of the school to give them a shared sense of language and ideas and values. It’s not necessarily there to dictate what actually happens in the classroom—that changes every day, every month, every year—but more about looking at our past to our present to where we want to go as an institution. What’s the shared throughline that we can all hopefully agree upon?”

This idea of not touching what happens in the classroom clarified the orbital structure that had seemed so offensive initially. Rather than excluding student-led initiatives from RISD, it was more meant to represent how student initiatives wouldn’t need to be touched by the cohesion of the identity. Kerci explained that they wanted the academic departments to “have lots of freedom to express themselves in different ways.” At the same time, both Kerci and Huy expressed that the identity was meant to amplify community and student voices. Kerci emphasized that “It’s really intended to create ways to center student and alumni experiences and work and voices wherever possible. So the identity itself is not really meant to be overly complicated and sort of the shining star. I would think of it more as a container, and a set of ways we organize ourselves, but that we allow those voices to come through. . . But we wanted it to be a really flexible system that leaves a lot of space for our community to be front and center.” She touched on the RISD Instagram page, which has been posting student highlights since the beginning of the semester, allowing students to talk about and share their work in their own words. Kerci and Huy described the identity as something malleable, something that the RISD community could work around and within over time, as it takes shape throughout its journey of becoming solidified in the institution. It was meant to be inclusive, a definition that prevented RISD from feeling private and secretive.

When I asked about how the students who participated in the identity research were able to do so, Kerci explained that she had sent out opportunities to engage in various emails, along with invitations to community forums and student surveys. We joked about how I should’ve just read my emails and how much students are bombarded with them, but it seemed to hold more weight than that. How could there have been easier, more facilitative ways to get students involved in this project, which, it turns out, we’re all very invested in, despite not reading emails? Would that have helped make the identity feel less like a slap in the face?

By the end of the interview, it was apparent that Kerci, Huy, and the rest of RISD Media really felt as though the new identity was something that would be beneficial for students, and that they cared deeply about student feedback and participation. By refining internal communication needs, student’s daily lives would be made easier and more efficient. Kerci outlined her hopes by saying “I think the other thing for students to know, too, is that this is really about creating more cohesion about how the institution communicates. It’s not at all about seeking to restrict the way students communicate. Especially thinking about students receiving information—we just want to make it easier and more consistent for people to find the information that they need, and to know what’s coming from RISD, like what’s officially from RISD. We hope that in a few years, when the project is much more far reaching, it’ll feel different for students and feel easier for students to find and receive the information that they need from RISD. So, time will tell, but that’s the hope!”

This all sounds great, but reflecting after the interview, I realized I was even more confused. Where did the identity get lost in translation between the institution and the student population? We were invited to participate in the process and intended to be the beneficiaries of this project. So how is it that when the launch arrived, our identity seemed to be threatened by theirs?

At the risk of overgeneralizing, let me back out a bit. It feels like there’s a great disconnect between the administration and the student body, and not for lack of trying. The fact that students were unaware of the identity effort before its launch reveals the communication breakdown that it was attempting to resolve. Even now that it’s been launched, students are still unaware of the internal impact that it’s meant to have, in large to benefit them. My confusion over the orbital structure seems to be a perfect metaphor. Even when our voices are asked for, even when we do participate, and listen, and engage, we feel like an afterthought. We don’t feel as though we’re being taken seriously. We’re too exhausted by the rigor of this school and the weight of our course load to commit the energy required to battle against administration, to push for what we need, or simply to collaborate. And with everyone drained from work, it doesn’t feel as though there’s many others who are willing or able to fight the fight with you. I think a lot of this problem comes down to hopelessness. It feels aimless to speak our minds when we know that the changes need to go through so many various bureaucratic hurdles that by the time they might be implemented, we’ll be long gone from Providence. I’ve heard this tale from countless friends and peers. Stories of voicemails left from CAPS, department heads refusing to sponsor events their students need, marginalized students being denied the opportunity to create their own spaces on campus. Nothing happens, and then the students move on.

Many of the students Alex interviewed shared a sense that the identity, rather than enhancing coherence or connection, amplified a greater sense of disconnect between the student body and the school and its administration. One said, “I feel more disconnected from the institution as a whole because with the rebranding it feels like there’s less of an individual voice for each student. . . there’s a broad umbrella that’s trying to capture everyone within this particular color scheme, which makes me feel more like I’m in a corporate institution.” Another noted a feeling of being sidelined in favor of other audiences, stating that the identity “has nothing to do with the students, [it] only has to do with people who come to the school, to the RISD Store.” Another noted that, ironically, the increased disconnect from the institution left her feeling more connected to the rest of the student body, who seem to share the same negative opinion: “The rebranding helps the community identify itself as a community. . . we’re uniting because we don’t like it, and I think that’s interesting.”

Here’s what I gather from all of these perspectives: RISD students view RISD as a school, a place of learning, thinking, making—a college, not a corporation. This conflicts with the RISD identity effort, which is part of a larger trend in colleges and universities across the country functioning more and more like corporations, complete with corporate identities and onboarding tasks and orbital organizational structures. At the heart of it, it seems to me that the new RISD identity, while intended to create clarity and coherence, reveals insecurity and obsession with outer perception. It is evidence that the institution fears they are running behind, that they are becoming stagnant, that they are only known for their small acceptance rate and their students working themselves to death. But if they really want to be known for something different, if they truly want to make their mark on the world, if they want to be understood as a deeply questioning, radical, generative place, then they need to look not towards packaging but towards the students and faculty who make it so. They need to do more in action, not just words, fonts, and banners. Let’s get to the real questions: If we don’t want to be known for the mental and physical exhaustion of our students, why are our course loads still so demanding?

Why is CAPS and mental health help geared towards instances of crisis, and even then, difficult to reach? If we don’t want to be known as regressive, insular, or monolithic, why was a student of color I know rejected when asking to create an affinity space? Why are so few materials supplied but expected or required? In short, RISD needs to place itself in the reality, and stop floundering in the metaphorical.

What makes RISD RISD to me are the students I’m proud to be able to know. We have so much to say and so much to offer. We are the core of this institution. We do not orbit around it, flung into space. Our identities are impossible to define by corporate logos and inaccessible jargon. Instead of extracting an abstract institutional identity, perhaps RISD should let go of its insecurity, its will to distill and label and cohere, and begin prioritizing student interests, contributions, needs, and demands on campus. Only then will our “fractured sense of self” begin to mend.

Student feedback and questions regarding the RISD Identity can be sent to identity@risd.edu.

Karina Garbarini is looking for Orion’s Belt.