Radical Collaborations

I never thought that a place like the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation (CFI) could exist in the real world. Yet, as I found out, radical collaborations happen every day here.

Though everyone talks about how great cross-disciplinary collaboration is, in reality, the difficulties of getting two completely different sets of people to speak the same language, much less to collaborate fruitfully, often keeps such visions from being realized.  At the CFI, Monday through Friday, a team of designers–graphic, industrial, and service–come together with doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers to ask difficult questions and to bring a new vision of the future to life.  And now, thanks to the Maharam STEAM fellowship, one illustrator has joined their ranks.

The Maharam STEAM fellowship supports students like myself from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) who have proposed a unique internship with a government agency or nonprofit organization to explore the ways in which art and design can improve public policy. The fellowship comes out of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to STEAM initiative (STEM+ Art = STEAM), which advocates for federal and societal support for the arts along side the sciences.

My STEAMy journey began four weeks ago with a shock, when I grasped the vastness of the cornfields surrounding the city Rochester in southern Minnesota. Since then, I’ve learned that there are stranger things in this city than vast quantities of produce. There are things like cheese curds and the propensity of the natives to call soda “pop”.  However strange these things are to a born and bred New Englander, by far the most interesting thing I’ve found in Rochester is the work I’m doing at CFI.

My second shock came when I discussed my position as a Maharam STEAM fellow with Lorna Ross, the design manager at CFI, which regularly hosts co-ops. This summer I find myself working with four other young designers. Each co-op works on a specific platform, and follows that single project for the duration of her time here. So I assumed that my position as a fellow would be much the same. Imagine my surprise when Lorna sat me down and explained that there are no limitations on the projects I can complete or conceive of as a fellow. Because I came here with my own funding, she added, I am free to explore any area of design that I’m interested in. I will be able to conduct my own research, and can create whatever I deem appropriate to explain my experience. I can produce anything, from an installation to an exhibit to a concrete product.  My job is to figure out just what an illustrator can do here. I’m “an experiment.” I’m the CFI’s “artist in residence” and the first illustrator to be part of this incredible team.

My third shock came when I met the design team for the first time. We all sat around a table to discuss the projects we’d been working on, and offered each other insights.  Lorna asked the team for ideas and ways they’d like to see my skills implemented at CFI as a free-floating illustrator. I recorded the answers in my sketchbook, which you can see here–their suggestions were as varied and as exciting as any projects I could have dreamed up for myself.  In the end, two themes emerged as important for me to explore as an illustrator: storytelling and the importance of empathetic (as opposed to just data-based) information.

Being a part of CFI feels almost unreal in the freedom and perfect niche I’ve found here.  The entire clinic is open for me to observe, experiment with, and figure out just what I can do here as an artist, a designer, and a storyteller. I’ve never been so inspired by a team. It’s still hard to believe that I’m lucky enough to be a valued member of it. I don’t fetch coffee here. I’m using the intersection of art, design, and medicine to help people. In the process I’m carving out a new place for at least one illustrator in this world.

Samantha Dempsey is a senior in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is the daughter of two engineers in Massachusetts and studies healthcare at Brown University in addition to her studio courses at RISD. She believes that the best ideas come through radical collaboration and is always on the lookout for the gray areas where art and science combine. Samantha once designed a card game based on early Victorian germ theory, and her favorite microorganisms are daphnia.

Categories: Healthcare Architecture, Uncategorized