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Dr. Anijo Mathew: Designers will be the most desired professionals of the future
Innovation and entrepreneurship are major themes for students of the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD) at American University of Sharjah as the design studios fill up for the beginning of a new semester.
Students meeting with the new Head of the Department of Art and Design, Dr. Anijo Mathew, who joined the university this past fall semester, are asked one simple question: “What gets you more excited: studying something that will get you a job today or studying something that will influence millions of people in the future?”
“Design is continually transforming the world around us. Some we see—compelling brand narratives, storytelling through film and animation, and engaging visual stories; some we touch—websites, kiosks, augmented and virtual reality interfaces; and some we feel—excellent service experiences, innovative organizational strategies and beautiful products. A designer was involved in all of this. They are the architects of human experience in a highly technical and business-oriented world,” says Dr. Mathew.
“At CAAD, we are very clear. We don’t just teach our students tactical skills. We want our alumni to be critical thinkers who create for the needs and aspirations of people by embedding themselves in the regional, social, cultural contexts of the region. We use cutting-edge techniques and methods, artefacts, programs and frameworks, as well as new educational strategies to provide our students with critical thinking and tactical tools required for a lifelong career of learning and experimentation,” he says.
A successful entrepreneur, design strategist and educator, Dr. Mathew worked with the renowned Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago for 11 years prior to joining AUS, bringing with him a breadth of experience in administration, research, innovation and entrepreneurship in his new role with CAAD.
In addition to his impressive academic portfolio, which has also seen him teaching innovation and entrepreneurship at Harvard University’s School of Business, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and the Illinois Tech Stuart School of Business, Dr. Mathew has served as an advisor to the Chicago Commissioner of Culture, Michelle Boone, on the development of the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan. He regularly serves as an advisor on innovation projects to senior leadership of Asian multinational corporations such as Finablr in the UAE, Godrej & Boyce in India and the Far Eastern Group in Taiwan.
Leading a highly qualified, international team of faculty in the Department of Art and Design, Dr. Mathew plans to strengthen the college’s already firm position as the leading design institution for the region through a design-led vision that is grounded in the realities of modern technology, design and business thinking.
“My goal is to create an experience for students, alumni and faculty that echoes this vision in every aspect of their life at CAAD and afterwards. We are looking at everything—our curriculum, classroom experience, teaching methods—from this strategic perspective. And most importantly, the faculty are working together as a team so that solutions are not top-down but bottom-up, designed for our students and our alumni, and expand the field of design,” says Dr. Mathew.
It was the UAE’s proven commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship in the art and design sector that initially attracted Dr. Mathew to the role at CAAD.
“The center of design is shifting. From what I can see, by 2050 the UAE will solidify its stature as a global economic powerhouse. Africa will account for more than half the world’s middle class. Six of the seven largest economies in the world will be emerging economies, with China and India leading the charge,” says Dr. Mathew.
“To meet the needs and demands of this change, new companies will sprout, nation-states will make infrastructural changes, and technology-led innovation will take center stage. Designers, with their inherent ability to combine creativity with rigor, will become the most desired professionals of the next few decades. Designers of the future will need to think beyond the design of artefacts; they need to become planners and strategists. They will be called upon to lead systemic changes in education, transportation, healthcare and governance. They will create product, media and communication systems for explorations on and beyond our planet. They will be entrepreneurs and innovators,” he predicts.
In this context, Dr. Mathew is convinced that old models of education must change, making way for a new and highly collaborative approach that sees entities like CAAD at AUS becoming more intrinsically aligned to industry and government entities for mutual benefit.
“Universities such as AUS have an opportunity to serve as the new platforms for global education, gateways to the changes in Asia and Africa, and sandboxes for innovation. For a university that is only a little more than 20 years old and yet has achieved so much, the next 20 years will be a critically relevant period—one where design will play a defining role,” he says.
“We want our students to become design leaders. We must prototype new ‘Design+’ programs and collaborative initiatives, working with departments, institutions, companies, organizations and government agencies. Most importantly, we must empower our graduates to become change agents of the future, not only in the region but globally.”
Dr. Mathew’s own entrepreneurial success has had a huge impact on his approach to design education. In 2015, he founded VAMONDE, a start-up that explores the intersection between digitally savvy explorers and urban organizations. Raising over US$4 million in startup funding, the company started in Chicago with a small team of three people. VAMONDE is now in more than 50 cities around the world with a growing team that shares office space with Google in Chicago, and Built in Chicago has named it as one of six Chicago startups shaping the future of virtual reality.
“My founding of VAMONDE has had a significant impact on my teaching and research. It continues to serve as an experimentation platform for my research into space and technology. In my classes, I talk to my students about my experiences starting a company and sustaining it. I teach my students to not only design, visualize and communicate what is to be real but also evaluate how it will become real,” he says.
Dr. Mathew is highly optimistic about the quality of designers that are coming out of CAAD and their potential to influence change in the marketplace.
“I believe designers have an obligation to shape the dominant discourse in the world through their work. To encourage this, I bring together concepts from design, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in my classes and engage students in local, social and system design challenges. My students are expected to create work that is competition or publication-ready (100 percent of the time). And when they graduate, my students take up leadership positions in companies because they have the ability to combine creative insights with rigorous strategy and planning methodology,” he says.
“The Department of Art and Design is one of the best design programs in the region, and we are slowly establishing it as one of the most recognized design programs in the world. In the future, design will have an impact on our world in ways we cannot even imagine today, and I am confident that one day, our students will be architects of such change,” says Dr. Mathew.
“But it starts with one simple question,” he says.