Environmental Design student Alvin Oei is both a busy student, and a student leader. Early on in his ArtCenter career, he founded ArtReach, a student led mentorship program that brings free art and design education to local non profit organizations. It will soon be a 3 unit studio course at ArtCenter. On campus, he has since started and leads the TEA Next Gen Group, working with some of the top names in the themed entertainment industry as well as the IIDA Campus Center (after winning their Stephanie Tarr award and their Social Relevance award). He participated in Safe Niños, a Designmatters initiative in Chile, and secured a prestigious Sappi Grant to continue the good work of the project. We caught up with him to find out what makes him tick, why he came to ArtCenter, how the College has changed him and what he plans for the future.
I was at Mount Sac Community College in Covina going to school for architecture and I was just about finishing and planning to go to Cal Poly Pomona. One of my instructors, Robert Perkins, who had noticed my interest in companies like Disney Imagineering, told me I belonged at ArtCenter. I said, “what’s ArtCenter?”
I didn’t want to go to an “art school” but I looked into it and visited the student gallery and I came away realizing it was much more. I discovered this thing called environmental design, which allows me to fuse my narrative driven designs with still architecture.
So I applied, got in, and this was in 2007, and I was here for about a week when I realized I couldn’t afford it. After meeting some students on scholarships, I quit, making a plan to spend a year getting together a really good portfolio so that I could get a scholarship.
A year went by, two years went by, three years went by, four years went by, I was still saying in my head, ‘I’m going to go to ArtCenter; I’m preparing my portfolio.’ Then one Christmas I got this gift from my company and I put it under my Christmas tree for about, a whole month. My girlfriend and I were saving it, hoping it could be something like Hollywood Bowl tickets and when I opened it, it was a $15 dollar Starbucks gift card. It was nothing against the company, but I realized, “I’m never going to be anything if I don't follow my original dream.” I spent the next year getting together everything I had done for the past six years into a portfolio, hoping that I could finally get that scholarship to come back. I waited in anxiousness for the next three or four months and I got that letter, congratulations, you got the scholarship.
Many people don't know this, but I was actually expelled from school 3 times in high school so I never took it seriously, until I found a passion for design. From Mt. Sac to working in architecture, that field helped me develop a system of rules and technical thinking but it was ArtCenter that taught me why it was important to break them. Designmatters then gave me a door to a new kind of design and it gave me opportunities to do the work I have always wanted to do; I just never realized it. I’m really story driven and I want to create things that appeal to regular everyday people and things that will help regular everyday people. Designmatters provided an avenue for what design can actually do to change the world and I realized that a lot of the world is actually looking for what students can provide beyond just making things. When you look at ArtCenter, you’re expected to make beautiful things but what I’ve been hearing from people in the industry is, “what else are you?” My time at ArtCenter has made me realize how design is really shaping the world in different ways. You’re sent halfway across the world and you’re addressing problems thinking like designers. We approach a problem and reframe it and provide new opportunities that other people don’t think about. People are anxious to graduate; I’m anxious to stay.
The topic was really challenging: we were asked to create a healing space for children who have been burned. I mean, that’s not an easy thing. So we get sent off to Chile and this is the first time I had really been involved that deeply in research, which is why I mentioned it developed a new way of thinking for me.
We had this whole strategic plan—day one, we’re going to do all these interviews. Day two, we’re going to do all these interviews to understand these people. And I think during the quiet moments, we sat down with these families and these children and that is where we realized, they’re looking for hope. They’re really burned. And so we had to step back from the research, and ask “can we do anything to make it better and to inspire these children, but also help the hospital communicate with them in new ways?” As a group of students, we all went there, we realized the project was bigger than us and the only way we were going to do something really amazing was if we worked together in collaboration with our amazing faculty Penny, Dan, and Stella.
We acted like a design studio and through that I learned the value of teamwork and that you can’t do things alone. Why would you when you have amazing people all over ArtCenter? Utilize that power of collaboration. Students don’t do it enough. Working with others is only a bad thing if you make it that way. Reframe it as an opportunity because that's the world you’re going to be getting into after graduation.
That was the turning point and a new excitement came over me, I was finally able to do what I came here to do—tell stories, which was my involvement in the project with my amazing partner Lori Nishikawa. But now, we can use it to help people, which is something I never thought could have happened.
I’m first and foremost a storyteller focused on imaginative environments that can adapt to different audiences. I know that world, but through my time at ArtCenter, I’m beginning to see the emergence and importance of idea strategy which moves beyond the realm of environments and more into why that environment needs to exist in the first place. While I am inspired by companies like Imagineering, Moment Factory, and Bjarke Ingels Group for their grand approaches to storytelling, companies like IDEO are also really inspiring to me because they approach problems by asking the right questions through human centered design. Is there an intersection where they both meet?
I’m still exploring where that is, but I think it exists somewhere within the realm of storytelling as a methodology in thinking. If you can create a good story no matter what kind of trend, social cause, user is there, you can adapt to it. But if you create a really, really strong technology and the story isn’t there, that’s where you fail. Never stop asking questions. Never stop being imaginative.