Ryan Cunningham, IDSA

Ryan Cunningham, IDSA
ArtCenter College of Design
IDSA West District Graduate Student Merit Winner 2018

Ryan Cunningham, IDSA, knew early on that he was creative, though this wasn’t always readily apparent to those tasked with molding that creativity. “From a young age, I frustrated my art teachers. While the rest of the class was painting flowers, I was painting tanks in a field of flowers.” Unwilling to restrict his talents to one particular path, the West District Graduate Student Merit Award winner ricocheted between drawing and inventing, creating and engineering before finally—and by total happenstance—falling into design. “By complete luck, while looking at colleges with me, my mom happened to come across industrial design. All it took was one look at the motorcycle sketches in the office of Lance Rake at The University of Kansas, and I was hooked.”

Cunningham, having graduated from KU in 2016, wanted to ensure that the graduate program he chose would accommodate his twin passions: designing and entrepreneurship. The faculty at ArtCenter College of Design, much to Cunningham’s delight, welcomed such a multidisciplinary approach, encouraging him to seek out the nearby Claremont Drucker School of Management. “When introduced to the Grad ID program at ArtCenter,” he says, “I was ecstatic to find a master’s curriculum that would allow me to further develop my design skills and experience. …The Grad ID/MBA program at ArtCenter and Drucker matched so closely with my interests that I applied immediately.”

With the other members of his program at ArtCenter, Cunningham was educated on the importance of designing with an eye toward the future, encouraged to ruminate on the unique challenge of creating today what would solve tomorrow’s problems. “As designers, we have the ability to conceptualize and visualize the unknown and thus are given the opportunity to define this future. At ArtCenter, we envision what the future holds and seek to create this reality.” Research and strategy, Cunningham says, are vital to navigating these waters, and thus it is dangerous to neglect them during the design process. “The intersection of the skills cultivated in design strategy … allows us to not only take a human-centered approach but also anticipate and understand how these needs will be impacted by a rapidly changing societal landscape.”

Evolving though it may be, the societal landscape is indelibly changed by the presence of technology—a relationship that Cunningham says is central to designing for today’s clients. “Technology is … the primary driver for change in design education. Companies and products are evolving more rapidly than ever. As new technologies emerge, entire industries are revolutionized.” Far from being intimidated by its looming presence, Cunningham is adamant that the opportunities for designers will only increase with the inclusion of technology. An Eagle Scout since 2012, he intends to use every tool at his disposal—design, technology and otherwise—to improve quality of life. “Designers,” he says, “have the ability to foster innovation, making connections and seeing potential in places other people may not. I believe as companies search for the next innovation … design education will evolve to fill this void.”

Cunningham has applied this ideology to a number of his designs, both independently and in group settings. These projects include, among others, Trueform, a guided exercise platform personalized for gym goers wanting to combine fitness and fun; Oasist, designed to sustainably merge technologies and make public spaces safer and more enjoyable; Google app, designed to give streamers the ability to choose how they wish to be seen by others; and Bayer, designed to help individuals with diabetes manage their daily activities.

In the future, Cunningham hopes to one day be a design director focusing on forward-looking product development. “As a designer whose strength lies in understanding the human elements of technology,” he says, “I will be well positioned to help shape these innovations that have such a significant impact on the future of human society.” The professional connections that Cunningham has made through IDSA will no doubt help him achieve these goals, having just recently landed an internship through the IDSA District Conference.

Having firsthand knowledge of the challenges that today’s designers face, Cunningham stresses the importance of finding a balance between productivity and creativity. “As designers, we are expected to produce creativity on demand. Sacrificing creativity for the sake of productivity, or vice versa, is something designers cannot afford to do. As such, it is important for each individual to recognize what they require to foster creativity in their lives.” Once this balance is achieved, it is up to the designer to believe in his or her project enough that its worth will be apparent to others. “At the end of the day,” concludes Cunningham, “you have to convince someone that your project is valuable. Build up your ability to present your ideas confidently, verbally, visually and in writing. Believe in your ideas. If you don’t, no one else will.”