Have you ever thought, “how’d they do that?” when considering the latest gadget or product, or said to yourself, “somebody should make this,” before you wander into your fantasy of creating the perfect product. Well, it might be a passing thought or dream for you, but for Eric Anderson, an industrial designer and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, it’s his jo, to not just think about making products better, but to actually do it. And when he’s not teaching design or conceptualizing a new product, Anderson is advancing the nonprofit organization, Designers for the 21st Century (D421), that he co-founded with African-American designer Joi Roberts, to support Black designers.
Anderson admits he stumbled upon his profession, rather than planning for it. “Most folks don’t understand where design comes from, and that was true of me when I was entering college,” he said. “I went to Overbrook High. At the time, they had one of the best art programs in the city. When I graduated, I thought I was going to be an illustrator, but took a class in design.” That one class was the beginning of his path as a designer.
Anderson grew up in Philadelphia, and was educated at Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts in downtown Philly. He earned a master’s of Arts and master’s of a fine arts degree from The Ohio State University, and was quickly hired at Carnegie Mellon, where he has taught for the past 12 years. He’s been on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America for five years, and is its current president.
Although Anderson has become successful in the design field and in the realm of higher education, he has added supporting and connecting with African-American designers around the country to his professional agenda.
“There are few designers of color associated with IDSA. While there is a structure for folks to be engaged, there’s still a challenge in identifying designers of color, particularly African-American designers,”
Anderson said, “I always saw a desperate need to engage designers of color. What I find is that established organizations are challenged to move as quickly as we need to engage designers of color. D421 looks at the collective need of designers of color across disciplines.”
The initiatives of D421 are multi-dynamic, and involve mentoring, professional development, historical documentation, community outreach and advocacy. If you visit the D421 website, you’ll find designers of all ethnicities, although persons from the African Diaspora are majorly featured. While the website is a work in progress, it is engaging, informative and user-friendly. And you don’t have to be in the field of design to appreciate the quality of the website; the interesting work of the designers featured on the site; or the “hot topics” publicized there, like the recent “black facing” of Caucasian model, Lara Stone, for “French Vogue.”
The site will enable designers to find each other, and collaborate, not only for work purposes, but also to provide a sense of community, one to another. “One of the largest challenges is that in the field of design, particularly in industrial design, there are so few [African-Americans], that we are not even aware of where we are or who we are. There are so many who are in positions for the first time, leading and operating for the first time. There’s a great need to realize that [we designers] are not alone, because there are others out there,” Anderson said.
If you’re wondering what Anderson does as an industrial designer, it’s simple— he creates things that don’t exist yet, that you will need, even if you don’t know yet, that you’ll need them.
“We design just about everything that you come in contact with. The term industrial designer comes from the Industrial Revolution. It’s when artists, for the first time, started to create things that were for mass production. That is the large umbrella that industrial design covers. We work with all different types of engineers in other disciplines. We determine the look, safety and appeal of products. In that process, we aim to create new things, and also to address consumer needs. We predict what folks are going to need based on human behavior. We are creators, and we are charged with creating the future.”
(For more details on D421, visit designers421.org.)