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Design student Gabrielle Widjaja on life in art school, diversifying workspaces, and staying balanced

Meet Gabrielle Widjaja, a designer currently completing her last semester at the Rhode Island School of Design. With a demanding schedule that art school imposes, Gabrielle gives us a refreshing take on her life as a student, shares what she’ll truly miss about art school, and explains why she believes there’s always a way to find work/life balance through it all.

Where do you work? Tell us about your space(s).

I only have one rule: I never work in my room. For those that are fortunate enough to have multi-room spaces, it’s probably easy to designate one room as the “working room”. As a college student, I live in a small studio apartment so it’s important for me to go somewhere else to be productive.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had the unique experience of being a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. In the Graphic Design department building, many students are assigned their own desks within collaborative workspaces. Typically each student will have a desktop monitor for extra screen real estate, a collection of art and design books, and an assortment of tools such as cutting mats, Olfa knives, bone folders, and other craft paraphernalia. I’m a fan of personalizing my workspace. I’m pretty sure as soon as you enter this workroom, you can tell right away which desk is mine. I’ve filled the wall next to my desk with colorful posters that I’ve collected and I put random gizmos and gadgets that spark joy on display. I feel like every detail of my space represents me and my design sensibilities, from my tiny 80s-inspired clock to my pastel slap bracelet and tiny risographed zine collections. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think one of the best privileges of going to art school is that you are surrounded by hard-working peers with unique talents and interests. While you’d think competitiveness would be rife in art school, you’d be happy to know that everyone is very supportive of each other. This workroom is a safe and collaborative space for the growth and development of young designers, and it feels amazing to be a part of this environment. You really get to know your peers in this work setting—so well in fact that they pretty much become your family.

Spatial diversity can do wonders for productivity and put you in just the right mood to get stuff done.

While my desk is certainly my most comfortable working space, I also like to get away from the graphic design building sometimes. Spatial diversity can do wonders for productivity and put you in just the right mood to get stuff done. There is a plethora of conveniently located cafes and workspaces, both on and off campus around College Hill to choose from. Also, blessed be the fact that Brown University is a mere 3-minute walk from RISD campus; I sometimes make the hike up there to work in the Brown student spaces.

What hardware and software do you use to create your designs?

Well, the TLDR is that I mainly use the Adobe Creative Suite applications for most of my work on my 15” MacBook Pro. Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, After Effects and others are industry standard so those are the most basic elements in my toolbox. I even have a keyboard cover that shows all the Illustrator shortcuts which is incredibly helpful and convenient! In terms of sketching and drawing, I use my 12.9 inch iPad Pro which a super convenient alternative to traditional sketchbooks.

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The long answer is that being at art school has given me access to an endless list of different tools and mediums that I’ve been able to use at least once. This is a compilation of things I’ve been able to learn thus far as a second-semester senior, but I’m probably still forgetting a few:

Traditional mediums: Oil painting, vinyl cutting, book-making, installation, laser cutting, animation, woodworking, and risograph.

Digital mediums: Processing language / P5.js, HTML/CSS/JS, Arduino, electronics & physical computation, and projection.

Most recently I’ve just finished a course on Digital Embroidery in the Textiles department, in which I learned how to use a software to create designs which can be brought to life on a Tajima embroidery machine. I’ve also gotten really into hand-embroidering my designs and illustrations! Things I have yet to learn that are on my senior bucket list include UV printing, vacuum forming, and screen printing.

Tell us about your routine (or lack of one.) How do you structure your days to get things done?

Since I have classes, I have to work around those hours. If you’ve heard that the RISD workload is intense, it’s true. On top of having five-hour studios around three to four times a week and a few one to three-hour liberal arts classes scattered in-between, I spend upwards of four to five hours at my studio desk working almost every day except some weekends. Any given day out of my week might look like this:

9:00 am: Wake up. Not really though—I snooze three or more times. Groan for three minutes straight. Shower hazardously half-asleep.
10:00 am: Go to a morning liberal arts class.
11:30 am: Cram homework before studio begins. Also, lunch.
1:00 pm - 6:00 pm: Studio class.
6:30 pm: Dinner.
8:00 pm: Return to my studio desk and work for a few more hours.
11:00 pm - 2:00 am: Between these hours I’ll usually call it quits and go home.

My schedule has to be fairly regimented due to school in general, and I always have between two to six projects going on concurrently in addition to extracurricular obligations. One thing I always try to maintain in my tight schedule is cooking; it’s a meditative process for me and sometimes it’s my only time to relax. My main takeaway though is that there’s always a way to have work-life or school-life balance, no matter what you’re doing. I always make time to party with friends, go out for brunches and dinners, and shut off my laptop (but not before saving all my files).

How do your space, tools, and habits benefit you? What about those things do you think needs improvement?

I only wish the desks in our studio were newer and IKEA-esque. But no worries, I’ll be able to craft my perfect workspace once I graduate and move to New York City in several months!

I think one thing I constantly worry about is that I’m not taking full advantage of all the tools, spaces, and resources I have access to at RISD right now. Since it’s currently my last semester, I have been actively trying to use and learn everything I can. Once school ends, I have no idea where I’ll just happen upon a risograph machine that I can freely use and test print on, or a digital embroidery machine that I can borrow for a few hours.

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