Live Event: March 17, 2016 at 1:00pm Eastern
Cas Holman is a professor and toymaker. She teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and is president of Heroes Will Rise, a company that designs learning materials, toys and playgrounds. She is the designer of Rigamajig, a large-scale building kit for hands-on free play and is currently involved in launching Rigamajig JR, an affordable version of the kit so that kids can more easily play alone
We asked her a few questions about herself and her STEM career to get to know her and her work a bit better before her live event.
What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Play with friends—make things and work on my land. I have 5 acres with a pond, brook, meadow and lots of things to rebuild and fix and climb and play on.
I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn and love to wander aimlessly and meet friends in the park.
Do you play any musical instruments?
Sometimes I drum on my dogs with my hands. They love it.
Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
I swim a lot, jump on my giant trampoline. When I’m in Brooklyn I ride my bike around.
What music to you listen to a lot?
Lots of Grimes, PJ Harvey, Peaches. Fugazi.
How do you describe yourself?
I try not to!
Highest degree attained
MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art
University California Santa Cruz, Cranbrook Academy of Art
Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
In elementary school I loved PE, art, and English class. In college I loved sculpture classes, and philosophy, and my cultural studies and feminist studies classes.
Heroes Will Rise and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
President at HWR, Associate Professor at RISD
Years in this organization/position
10 years at HWR , 4 years at RISD
What does your organization do?
HWR designs tools for imagination—learning materials, toys, playgrounds
What is your role in the organization?
I am the president so I make the final decisions with the help of an excellent business manager. I do most of the design with the help of temporary employees and interns.
Describe your work environment
My studio is a converted barn. It has a woodshop in the first level, and a clean studio space for the toy and book library, drawings and samples and testing on the second floor.
What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
Lots of sketching. On paper and with models—small wooden and cardboard representations of things I’m imagining. I can’t figure anything out without drawing it.
Describe a typical day in your job
First I avoid my computer by cleaning up my studio, then I look at my calendar and see what is due next and try to plan how to finish it on time. I take breaks to go jump on the trampoline or walk the dogs around the property.
Describe an atypical (but notable) day in your job
Factory tours!! Recently I’ve been spending time with a playground manufacturer. THAT is a great factory.
How is the work you do important to society?
Play is important. I think I have an interesting or unique way of designing for it as an artist or creative person or queer person. I identify with kids—I remember what it’s like to be underestimated, and an outsider. I want kids to know they are powerful. I want to help them find themselves through play and making and creative expression in any sense of the term.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
Rigamajig is reaching a lot of children in classrooms and libraries. That makes me proud.
What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
We are launching Rigamajig JR, for the home. It will be very affordable and kids can more easily play alone. It also has a lot of new parts I’m very excited about.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Creating something from nothing can be very daunting. Often overwhelming because there are so many steps between the start and the goal. I try to break it into small pieces and remember to celebrate each benchmark along the way. I have wonderful collaborators with each step so that makes all the difference.
What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
When I watch kids play with a new design for the first time I am really nervous. I usually want to hide, then I watch carefully to observe how the design is working, then usually if it works I cry. Weird, right?
What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
I make something from nothing at all. When I started my company I thought I would find a book or a person to tell me how to do it. But there is no right or wrong way to do things—usually you have to do it in the way you best can. There is the ideal way, which I try for, but often I don’t have the resources or connections for “ideal” so I make it work the best way I can.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
Watching children play on/with/in my designs. Seeing them invent things I wouldn’t have thought of, and do things they didn’t know they could do. Kids are really empowered when they build things, and Rigamajig can be difficult but rewarding to master, so when they figure out how to make something—right out of their imagination—it’s beautiful.
What are some of the perks of your job?
I have a toy library!! Shelves of old building toys from all over the world. I play with them a lot to see what works, what’s great about one or anther, how other designers tried to make building interesting or fun or unique.
What are the downsides of your job?
Email. I wish I could spend less time on the computer.
If asked to “sell” this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
It matters! If I work long hours or invest a lot of my energy or money I know that ultimately it will have a positive impact.
What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
As a professor I’m good at saying “I don’t know, let’s figure it out”. This teaches my students to lead with curiosity instead of looking for expertise. The world changes quickly. There is and will continue to be a lot we don’t know. If you love learning, that change is exciting rather than threatening.
In toy design: I relate to children but know how to talk to adults. My designs are easy for children to understand but adults sometimes need to be convinced. For example a child has never asked me for instructions. Adults very often ask me for instructions. When I tell them their kids don’t need instructions, they get very uncomfortable. I’m patient and getting better at speaking adult so they trust that their kids will be okay with large wooden pieces.
Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
I was a designer at Rockwell Group in NYC for a few years. I learned so much about the business of design there. It was a fun, brave group to be part of. I’ve taught at Syracuse University for 3 years, where I discovered that I love teaching. I also began to make connections between design, play and learning there.
Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
I’ve supported myself in many ways:
In my 20’s I was a pastry chef, a breakfast cook, a sous chef.
I was a ceramics teacher at a summer camp.
For a year I was a research assistant to my Aunt and Uncle in the Galapagos Islands, chasing iguanas.
I worked for a contract furniture company in San Francisco, which was my first foray into an “office job”. Because it was a great company it was really fun.
I was a Drag King performer at night clubs in San Francisco. My persona was a very handsome break dancer. We’d build really elaborate sets and costumes and choreograph dances for different shows. It was some of my best work!
I actually think all of these relate to what I do today. But that’s a long story.
Best job you’ve ever had and why
Breakfast cook. It was the perfect job for me. I had to do 30 things at once, and started and finished something every 20 seconds. That was so satisfying now that I do work that seemingly is never “finished.” It was also easy to tell when I did a good job. A perfectly flipped egg, a fluffy omelette—it’s rewarding and satisfying throughout the day.
What were you like as a kid?
I was busy. Always playing—some project or plan or elaborate scenario happening, usually outside. I bothered my older sister a lot, who preferred reading to playing with me.
When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
I was 28 when I realized I could bring together my love of imagining and making things with the need to pay bills. It seemed a long shot, but I’d never felt so strongly about “what I want to be when I grow up.” So I packed up my life and went back to school. It was the best move of my life.
What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
I thought designers wore black and took themselves very seriously. That’s not my version of designer.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what other career(s) might you have pursued?
I think I’d be a great spy.
What advice would you give students in general?
Invent your own model. It’s okay if you don’t see what you want in the world already. Build it yourself. There is so much exciting work to be done in the world. Be creative and find something you love. Don’t settle for paying the bills then making yourself happy on the weekend. Be brave.
What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
If you’re good at what you do and have the desire to travel, you’ll travel. I love seeing a new place through working there. Galapagos is incredible. Japan is fabulous. China is fascinating. Germany is wonderful. Moscow was filled with artists that no one had told me existed. Your own back yard is cool if you look hard enough.