Does Debt Shrink Designers’ Dreams?: A Report from CalArts; Plus, “Engineering Serendipity”

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Students across the US are leaving college with huge debt. And that means design graduates too. What does that mean for LA’s young talent that hopes to make their mark on the world?  Alissa Walker talks to graphic design graduates at one of LA’s premier schools, CalArts, and found that debt is real but it doesn’t always cramp designers’ style. Plus, Aerotropolis author Greg Lindsay talks about creating creativity through “engineering serendipity.”

Engineering Serendipity

greg lindsayIf creativity could be bottled it would be a bestseller. And that’s exactly what companies are trying to do – use data analysis and workspace planning to enable the serendipitous encounters that result in the Eureka moments that create bonanzas for company. But is creativity something that can be contrived by design or by algorithm? Greg Lindsay says maybe.

Lindsay, left, is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and author of Aerotropolis: The Way We Will Live Next, about cities built around airports to tap into the hyper-competitive global economy.

Now he is researching a new book, to be called “Engineering Creativity,” and he came to KCRW to talk about his findings. Hear about how data can detect who we like sitting next to in the office (and who bugs us), why longer cafeteria tables are better for business, and why urbane cities (not anonymous aerotropolises) provide the best breeding grounds for great ideas.

Does Debt Shrink Designers’ Dreams?

Inbox exhibit by Cassandra Cisneros, Kat Dickinson, Tom Krakauer
Inbox, the MFA graduate exhibition at CalArts

Design entrepreneurs are part of the engine of LA economy – and fuel its reputation for innovation. But what happens when young designers who hope to start their own companies face the problem most graduates are facing nationwide: Huge debt.

Just like students nationwide in many disciplines, LA design students typically take out large loans to support their dream.

I learned just how much at a recent fundraiser for one of the famed design schools in LA. I was shocked to find out that the $400,000 being raised that night would barely covered the total costs of tuition, materials and living costs for one student, and vowed that DnA’s ongoing coverage of young designers in LA should take into account the realities of creating and running a design business in today’s world.

So our intrepid design journalist, aka DJ, Alissa Walker went on an expedition to one of LA’s premier fine arts and design school, CalArts, in Valencia, and talked to new graduates in the graphic design department there.

CalArts is known for encouraging individualism and highly conceptual work, meaning it does not offer a vocational training with a commitment to channel its graduates into industry jobs, and its web site states that next year’s fulltime tuition will be almost $40,000, an amount they say could rise.

So how does that leave students after their training? It leaves many with debts ranging from $30,000 — 120,000, but still hoping to launch their own design companies, while others want a decent job that will pay the bills. It leaves some hoping to move to New York (pricey) or continue to surround themselves with “expensive things,” and others happy to live on “kale and quinoa” as long as they don’t have to sell out and work with ***holes.

In sum, after talking with Armando Martinez-Celis, Sarah Faith Gottesdiener (see an image, top, from Gottesdiener’s reader: “Texts on Utopia Construction, and Failure”), Bijan Berahimi, Tom Kracauer (designer, with Kat Dickinson and Cassandra Cisneros, of the “Inbox” exhibition in the CalArts gallery, shown above), Amanda Gartman and David Davis, Alissa found that for the class of 2013 debt is real but it doesn’t always cramp their style. Read more about her trip to CalArts and see more images of the graduates’ work here.

We want to know more about the challenges and benefits of starting your own design business in LA. Write us at or comment on our web page at For a downer commencement address regarding prospects for arts students, read about this speech by musician — and RISDE grad — David Byrne.