Office Hours with Mike Glaser
August 10, 2017
Mike Glaser is the Program Director of Product Design at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Mike brings over 30 years of combined experience in product development and design education. His passion is to explore and quantify a designers way of being. He's driven by his love for all things design and has a passion to educate the next generation of thinker-makers. Mike holds an MFA from The Ohio State University and a Bachelors in Industrial Design from University of Cincinnati. Mike has teaching experience at The Ohio State University, Savannah College of Art and Design, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to Mike’s pedagogical pursuits, he has a long career of developing products and design strategies for Hewlett-Packard, Ciba Corning, Data General, Telxon, Texas Instruments, Whal Clippers, among others. Mike was previously Director of the Design at Ignition in Plano, TX, and has spearheaded the launch two independent design firms.
We sat down with Mike to learn more about his background, work, and perspectives.
Q: Tell me about your early years in this field – what attracted you to teaching?
A: My early years in design were a lot of fun - the 80’s were an exciting time to be a designer. Being a young creative and working for high-tech companies creating innovation in the era when it really still was continues to influence me today. I was privileged to work with top scientists and engineers inventing the future of many medical devices, analytical equipment, and consumer products we still use today, like the development of the first commercial Ultrasound device. I used my 15 minutes of fame to design several handheld props for the Brian De Palma movie, Mission to Mars. Unfortunately, it was one of the worst science fiction movies of all time, next to the cult-classic Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Teaching was a happy accident -- as good as the 80’s and 90’s were good for design, the 2000’s were a turning point for the worse. Design was used to prop up dot-com startups who were spending millions a day. Corporate takeovers, downsizing, profit taking and an era of greed started. Everyone was out for money, even the designers. Then in 2001 many of us got burned when the tech bubble burst. I was a design director for a medium sized firm called Ignition in Dallas, Texas. When the bubble popped, we went from 52 employees to less than 20 in one day. It was brutal, at the end of the day after firing 75% of my staff, they let me go too.
I went back to grad school at The Ohio State University to get my MFA in Industrial Design. I got a full ride to teach, and I haven’t looked back since.
What attracted me to teaching is that it is important for our future. For me it’s an investment and a gift as pay back for all the damage done in the 2000’s and the mess our generation is going to leave behind. I see students craving knowledge and experiences, and seeking an understanding of what the world is all about. What they bring is optimism, questions, and energy; what they need is a chance to grow and experience life skills that produce wisdom.
Drexel Product Design's educational process emphasizes empowerment and finding oneself. Our program is about community over outcomes and knowing thyself over process, but with this philosophy we result in amazing process and incredible outcomes. The best win for me is having students that become self-actualize during their time in the program; once that happens everything else takes care of itself.
What interests did you have in your childhood and/or high school years that are still with you today?
I still like rice crispy treats… but I was not a good student up until college. My saving grace was that I was creative at breaking things and rebuilding them into new things. I believe that when you enable childhood energy and a sense of wonderment it fuels an innate ability to disrupt. When I got to college things made more sense and I was finally challenged intellectually and creatively.
My interests as a child were simple and still define how I design today. I remember hating being a paperboy in the 70’s. The only time I enjoyed it was early in the morning when no one was awake and when I had to go door to door to collect money or try to sell subscriptions. What I remember so fondly is the smell of everyone’s house, each house had a unique and exotic smell back then, whether it was cooking, laundry, or something unknown and mysterious. I treasure that memory.
What questions are you still working on answering?
Yikes – what a question… there are so many I’m working on…. Like: Why do I still act like I’m 18? What was I thinking when I started watching Twin Peaks? Should I take the red pill or the blue pill? More seriously, I am working on several interrelated questions that fuel my curiosity and drive my work. They are: What is the future of design and creativity? How does education move design from a profession to a way of being?
Intellectually I’m struggling to connect creativity and intuition with the understanding of quantum physics and metaphysics. Right now, I’m stuck on finding a thread between Karl Jung, Heidegger, the pixilated universe, and 8-dimentional crystalline structures.
What are you involved in that is outside of your field or practice?
You mean other than a 57-year-old trying to raise a two-year-old? This is really a trick question. For me and maybe most creatives nothing is outside of my field or practice. I’m wired to be a designer 24/7, it is a curse with no escaping. With that said, I do volunteering at the Franklin institute working with underserved kids helping bring design to STEM. I have been doing this for some time now with the Cooper Hewitt Museum; we have done everything from launch 800 kites in the air on the Hudson river to learning to make Jell-O molds on a 3D printer.
Has your role as a professor been different from what you expected?
Yes, I’m certain that it has. I’m hard pressed to say what my expectations were. I’ve always really enjoyed being in the classroom. Things changed when I was offered the opportunity to develop a program at Drexel. I think I’ve changed from passionate, to fanatic, to design-as-a-way-of-being evangelistic.
When you began college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?
No, absolutely not, I knew I was creative, but I was not able to get into most programs. I thought I wanted to be an Interior Designer. I did not even know about Industrial Design. My dad pulled some strings at University of Cincinnati, I could not get into their Interior or Architecture program, but they had an opening in Industrial Design. If I proved myself there I would be allowed to transfer… ha! Little did I know, Industrial Design was so perfect for me, I never wanted to change after that.
What advice would you give to graduating seniors? Incoming Freshmen?
This is an easy one: CARE! Have a voice, make change, learn to network, be humble, live in the moment, don’t obsess about money, power or fame, empathize, embrace what it means to be human, and never ever make an iPhone app.
Tell us about your work – what is hidden? What is in plain sight?
What is hidden is all that happens in my head. I’m working slowly on one of several books that are in there but are slow to come out.
I don’t know if this is immodest or not or if it’s even relevant but, I don’t value attention in the typical sense. I’m happy to function in the background, I don’t seem to know how or care about getting credit for things… I like it when others get success through my actions or teachings. Maybe it is a gene deficiency. I’m most happy in one-on-one conversations and in conversations that become a journey. I’m ok with being hidden. It’s also how I describe our PROD program… it’s a hidden gem.
With that said, my perfect medium is a podcast: I’m starting one called “Design Drinking” where I talk to creatives over a drink of their choice. I’m also going to continue to make musical things… I think a turntable is next and then an amp.
What does your work mean to you? Do you think this differs from what it means to others?
My work is me, there is no separation. I am a way of being, my way of being includes the will to create. I think people often misstate work as either an act of output, a chore, or even worse a means of commerce. So, I don’t talk about work in the traditional sense, my work is not used to define me... I hope what people get from me is a change of perception and a sense of joy in just being. I try to use my way of being to enhance what it means to be human.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.