The Creative Process and Critical Thinking

As I walked through the exhibits of our graduating Art and Design students at the end of the spring semester, I was reminded of a wonderful story about the composer Johannes Brahms that people like to tell when talking about creativity–or the creative process. One evening in Vienna, so the story goes, Brahms was with a group of friends in a local café. He was asked how he spent the day. “I was working on my symphony,” he said. “In the morning, I added an eighth note. In the afternoon, I took it out.”

As much as anything, this story–probably apocryphal–illustrates a salient point about creativity. It is hard, painstaking work. It is often a struggle. It requires deep and serious thinking. Critical thinking.

I think we often harbor romantic notions about the creative process. We may envision a Jackson Pollack exuberantly dripping paint on a canvas…a designer intuitively draping fabric around a dress form… a rap artist spontaneously rhyming. But it doesn’t happen like that. And I think our students know that very well. They work long hard hours to produce their amazingly inventive objects, products and art works. And like their peers in any traditional liberal arts college, they need well-developed critical thinking skills to succeed.

In fact, because creativity is one of the highest forms of critical thinking, I could even argue that our students are held to a higher standard than students at traditional colleges and universities. In their senior design projects, our Art and Design students face complex problem-solving challenges and produce brilliant toys and jewelry, packages and paintings, garments and accessories, textiles, jewelry, interiors, photographs. The creation of these works reflects all of those cognitive processes that make up the full complement of critical thinking skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and judgment.

Imagine the knowledge required to determine the impact of pigments and dyes on silks or linens, to understand the relationship between light and color or to design a restaurant lounge to code; imagine the analysis required to resolve basic design issues of size and composition, the judgment that goes into the selection of a fabric, the placement of a dart or a button or a product in a photo shoot. These are just a few examples of the kind of critical thinking skills these students must master and apply as they go about their creative tasks.

As Brahms said of that eighth note: “In the afternoon, I took it out.”

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FIT’s First Ever Summer Institute

For four intensive days in June, FIT was a hotbed of sustainability study and activity as we inaugurated our first Summer Institute–an interdisciplinary program that focused specifically on sustainability in fashion and textiles. Designed for industry professionals and academics, it answered a growing need for information on the part of those who want to broaden their understanding of sustainability and, where applicable, integrate it into their businesses. And clearly the need was there because the Institute quickly attracted over 90 applicants from around the world–three times more than it could accommodate. In fact, the Institute’s organizers capped attendance at 30 in order to maintain an optimal learning environment, one in which participants could comfortably and effectively interact with the instructors and with each other.

Participants came from companies as diverse as Eileen Fisher, Karen Kane, and Harley Davidson, and institutions as far reaching as the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India, Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, the University of Idaho, and Mesa Community College in Arizona–not to mention some “closer by” such as Purdue and the University of Kentucky. Indeed, the international component was strong with participants from Ecuador, Denmark, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and numerous individuals from the UK.

Mornings were devoted to lectures and panels on topics such as world fiber consumption, conscious consumerism, eco-fashion design, and 3D design while afternoons were spent in hands-on workshops and labs devoted to screen printing, quality assurance, zero waste, color, and weft knitting technology. Throughout their busy days, the participants came to know one another and got the benefit of their diverse professions and geographic locations–coming to understand the issue of sustainability from many different perspectives. And in a farewell survey, they gave a resounding “thumbs up” to the organizers–many of them expressing an interest in future such opportunities.

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FIT’s Rooftop Natural Dye Garden

I love gardens and have always enjoyed the greenery on the 9th floor terrace of the Marvin Feldman Center. But little did I expect that one day we would have growing there a veritable kingdom of plant life: fennel and hollyhocks, indigo, purple cabbage, rosemary and zinnias, Black eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, purple basil. This profusion of vegetation is the work of three enterprising FIT students who conceived, designed and developed what is FIT’s first natural dye plant garden. Amber Harkonen, Meghan Navoy, and Caitlin Powell–all Textile Development and Marketing students who graduated in May–took their shared passion for preserving the planet and translated it into this tangible, hands-on corrective for the toxic processes so commonly used in the production of textiles around the world.

Their idea for the garden began to germinate just as last year’s Student Government president David Hamilton invited FIT students to come up with proposals that address global issues, proposals inspired enough to be submitted to and selected by the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU). I am proud to say that this proposal was selected and in late March, Amber, Meghan, and Caitlin attended the Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Arizona in Tempe.

When they returned, the students worked with Brooklyn Grange, one of the country’s leading rooftop farming businesses, to build the garden, and its staff will continue to guide them. Today, just weeks after they went into the ground, the plants are flourishing–growing in two 10 x 14 foot beds–some of them “as high as an elephant’s eye.” The first harvest will be ready for sale at FIT’s Thursday Flea Markets in the fall.

The students also met and were mentored by knitwear designer and natural dyer Liz Spencer. They hope that the garden generates enough student interest to justify a series of natural dyeing workshops. Indeed, as members of the Class of 2014, they see this garden as their gift to future FIT students–a place where students from all disciplines can learn about the beauty of natural dyes and their benefit to the environment.

Even though they graduated in May, Amber, Meghan and Caitlin will be on campus–on the terrace–throughout the summer, tending to the garden. I look forward to seeing them there and reporting on the garden’s progress throughout the year.

Read more about the Rooftop Natural Dye Garden

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Expanding Arts Education in New York City

New York City got some excellent news the other day when Mayor De Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that as part of the new fiscal budget, $23 million will be spent to expand arts education in the city’s schools. This news follows a report issued by Comptroller Stringer in April which found that many of the city’s public schools offer no education in the arts; that 20 percent had no arts teachers—and that the shortage is particularly stark in low-income areas.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new: for years, the arts have been treated as a step-child in our country’s primary and secondary schools, and as a life-long educator, I find this heart-breaking. Over the years, first as a student, then as a professor, advisor, mentor, and administrator in New York’s public higher education system, I have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of education. And it is especially here at FIT, that I see—almost daily—talented, passionately motivated, and creative students determined to learn and to turn their dreams into reality. However, I think that few of our students—however bright and gifted—could have reached FIT’s doors without the kind of educational background that provides sustained encouragement, training, and exposure to the arts. As Dana Gioia, the former NEA chairman, once said, “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination.”

I myself recall the influence that my school’s art appreciation classes–and even piano lessons–had on me as a child. And yet today, education in the arts is considered, as Mr. Stringer said, “expendable.” Federal testing mandates and plummeting public funds notwithstanding, many people—even educators—think of the arts as add-ons: hobbies, fun extracurricular activities, but certainly not pivotal to a child’s education.

They are wrong. As studies show again and again that youngsters who participate in the arts on a steady basis for just one year are far more likely to achieve academically in every area from math and science to writing. Their attendance records soar; they read for pleasure nearly twice as much as their peers and become far more likely to participate in community service. Some may grow up to become artists or designers, as many of our students do, but all of them are indelibly enriched and undoubtedly become more complete human beings.

That is why I believe we are fortunate to have leaders in New York who understand the necessity of arts education in our schools and are willing to invest in it. I hope their efforts encourage others across the country to do the same.

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Sustainability Shapes Millennial Shopping Habits

One of the most interesting outcomes of one of the latest polls on the Millenials came as a kind of a footnote. The poll was designed to examine the purchasing patterns of these 18 to 34-year olds–probably the most intensely and frequently studied generation in research history. And while the findings on how they buy were certainly interesting and no doubt of great value to manufacturers and retailers, I found one small outcome perhaps the most intriguing. The researchers found that almost one-third of Millenial customers have stopped buying from companies “when they’ve become aware of social practices they deem unacceptable.”

That is promising. We know that this generation cares about the environment and embraces, in general, the values and ethics of sustainability. Here at FIT, sustainability is an issue that our student body has, for a long time, supported, promoted, and rallied around.

But they are consumers, after all. They love to shop. Moreover, many of them are out and out fashionistas–and like their peers at other colleges and universities, they can develop a touch of amnesia when they walk into the latest fast-fashion shop…or fall in love with a cute top from a notorious brand. So to learn that almost a third of Millenials–no doubt all from FIT–are making ethical decisions in their personal shopping habits is good news indeed. I think the next question is how we can boost that percentage higher–and then influence the next generation–teens from 14 to 17–to follow suit.

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