Q&A With Leslie Speer

LESLIE SPEER, recently selected to lead MICA’s new B.F.A. in Product Design, is a designer and educator who has worked for companies and clients around the globe. She has spent over a decade helping artisans in small villages from Costa Rica to China to create viable products for the world market. She comes to MICA from San Jose State University in San Francisco. MICA Communications recently sat down with Speer to discuss her work, the new Dolphin Design Center and the role product design can play in society.

What attracted you to MICA?

Leslie Speer  I am a native Californian but for most of my life I have moved around quite a bit. For the last three decades, I have lived in San Jose; it is situated on a large bay, filled with people that are diverse and talented, and the environment and closeness to nature is inspiring. I find the same types of things here in the Baltimore region. However, MICA is unique and very different from anything I have seen before. It is a vibrant place, with talented faculty and students, and based on what I have seen, it is grounded in a strong foundation of creativity and innovation. These have set MICA on a path towards the future that excites and inspires me, and in which I want to play a part.

Can you tell us about your vision for the new B.F.A. in Product Design?

lS Our country was founded on principles that embraced the individual and their role in creating the built world through hard work, innovation and vision. I envision a Product Design program at MICA that embraces these beginnings, looks to the past for inspiration, but heavily relies on the burgeoning maker culture to design a new direction for product design. MICA is set to be the leader in this development — the designer as innovator, collaborator, maker, manufacturer and distributor. I don’t believe the tools to build this path forward for future designers is possible just anywhere. I believe it is here at MICA.

One of the founding elements of MICA’s Product Design program is to integrate entrepreneurial intelligence with social good. Can you discuss how your background in social entrepreneurship fits in with that goal for the program?

LS Shouldn’t all creative work be aimed towards “social good”? That is something that I’d like permeated into the Product Design program at MICA. It is easy to get caught up in day-to-day work life and forget our responsibility as humans to the greater good. My work practice and experience have taught me how to find and define the problems that are the most meaningful to society, and I would like to incorporate that into what we teach here at MICA. Also, entrepreneurialism is the backbone of this country. Small businesses support families, neighborhoods, and cities. Combined they are the economic force of the United States. Product Design at MICA has an opportunity to create those new businesses and new jobs to strengthen the fabric of communities.

Can you talk about the new Dolphin Design Center and its possibilities as a maker space?

LS The bringing together of the Architectural Design, Interactive Arts, Game Design and Product Design programs under one roof brings the possibility of synergies we can only imagine right now. With the merging of technology into our lives in such a pervasive manner, it makes sense to allow our students to work together, collaborate and innovate. The future of design is less about importance of the corporation, and more about the power an individual can have in the connected world we live in. Designers will be the creators and the manufacturers, much like our ancestors were in the guilds, but supported with tomorrow’s technologies for sourcing, production and distribution. The Dolphin Design Center will be able to foster this through its facilities but also through the talented professors, staff and design students that will work and create in it.

You come to MICA from a very different part of the country. What do you think about Baltimore as a place to study, work and live?

LSBaltimore is a vibrant city that is neither too big nor too small. It is just the right size. I am inspired by the “realness” of Baltimore. It has its strong and weak points but it is clear that everyone in the city is trying to make Baltimore a better place to live and work. That optimism is palpable. There are a number of institutions of higher learning that are close to one another, so the diversity of education is broad and it is also easier to collaborate. The history here in Baltimore is also a draw for me. Coming from California, nothing is more than 50 years old. When it gets too old, we just knock it down and start again. The fact that I can walk from a building that was built over 200 years ago into another that is being built today is very calming. The ability to look back at what has worked here in history is tangible, yet doesn’t seem to keep the people of Baltimore from looking forward towards what that can inspire.

Anything else you’d like to share with the MICA community?

LS Optimism is key to how I work and embodies the attitude that I will bring to MICA and the new Product Design program. This is a rare and opportune moment, to create something that is future forward, to work openly and collaboratively with the creative community at MICA and in the city, and to design and develop new paradigms around what defines product design. I am very honored to have been selected to start building this program at MICA, and I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty. It’s a giant sandbox and I am excited to see who wants to join us to build their own future and tomorrow’s visions.