Storyboard: Mia Ferrera Wiesenthal

From New York to L.A.: Why Our World Needs Designers

My East Coast family goes back four generations. My great-grandparents owned a candy shop in East New York, Brooklyn. My father took my sister and me to museums in Manhattan and weekend lunches in Chinatown. For the longest time, I never had any intention of leaving New York. It was home. In some ways, it always will be.

Today, New York is still a critical part of my identity, even if I no longer live there. I grew up in the suburbs of Staten Island, admittedly far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Still, my father made sure that my sister and I got out and saw the city. To him, it was important that we weren’t sheltered.

I got my Industrial Design degree from Pratt Institute in 2006. That was the first time I heard the word “ArtCenter” spoken aloud. Today, I am an associate professor in ArtCenter’s Product Design department. I couldn’t be prouder of the program we’ve built, and what our future looks like.

ArtCenter, in my experience, has been a consistently warm and welcoming place. When I felt adrift, they took me in. They gave me purpose. Visiting their campus for the first time was definitely a “pinch me” moment, and working there has been a dream come true.

ArtCenter pushes students to build upon their existing talents. As a result, there are few students who graduate from the College who don’t emerge from the experience with fully developed and sophisticated creative skill sets. At other schools, students can get left behind -- I’ve seen it happen.

Scholastically speaking, ArtCenter is the furthest thing from cookie-cutter. The faculty has a remarkable gift for helping students translate their individual perspectives and then implementing them via the magic of design language.

That said, burning out is a real thing. Exhaustion happens to even the most industrious of us. A sturdy and professional work ethic goes a ways towards countering that. We teach that in our program. Our students are set up to succeed. It’s easy for them to get down on themselves and feel like they’re simply not the best in their class. Then again, is there even such a thing as a “best” student? Or is everyone working at varying levels of excellence?

Facilitating connections is integral to what I do. My students are a source of immeasurable support in this regard. I encourage them to seek out the many amazing and accomplished individuals who populate ArtCenter’s campus. And you know what? For the most part, our alums are more than receptive. After all, alums need students. Students are not only hard-working, but also approachable and fundamentally adaptable. A lot of designers are introverts -- but they don’t have to be.

In my class, I teach students the basics of how to approach people in business relationships. We have a terrific first-year immersion program that assists students who aren’t exactly sure what they want to study yet.

And then I run the Instagram page, but more importantly, I run the term representatives group that Dr. Wendee Lee started and entrusted me with, which is a student advocacy group that I love. We take students' concerns, requests, and questions to the department chair at the end of the term after meeting as a group. The students represent different term levels, and they speak to their peers and bring the dialogue forward. It teaches me a lot and makes me a better educator -- it also makes them learn to advocate for themselves and each other.

My students are an essential part of keeping our Instagram page up and running. My primary job is listening to them. I try to encourage our group to think of themselves as journalists, or members of a yearbook committee: after all, we want to make it fun, don’t we?

The 2nd program I run is the Peer Coaching program. We hire upper-term students to tutor and help their peers and early-term students with their work and struggle. The coaches love giving back. I worked many jobs during undergrad and grad, and helping students financially is very important.

I also just became part of the Axel Lives Scholarship Jury because I had written a lot of recommendation letters for students who needed it -- some going through lot of rough stuff.

I’ve learned to feel at home here in California. I’m in love with the state’s natural beauty: the flora, the fauna, all that good stuff. I mean, how could I possibly give up the Huntington Gardens? I did almost get a degree in landscape architecture, after all.

Everything I do begins and ends with education. Our world needs designers. My job is to let people know that design isn’t just a viable career path -- it’s also an important one.

Mia Ferrera Wiesenthal
Associate Professor, Product Design
Industrial Design Consultant and Fabrication Specialist, Studio MW Design
Grantee, VentureWell

Everything I do begins and ends with education.

Mia Ferrera Wiesenthal
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