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Chenyi Liao

MA Information Experience Design, 2014–16, MPhil Information Experience Design 2016–

What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA?

I did my undergraduate degree in Canada at the University of Alberta, on a rather conventional graphic design programme. I also did printmaking, which combined fine art and graphic design. The first step towards coming to the RCA was when I took an anthropology of science and technology class, and it got me started thinking about technology and media theories more generally.

When did you first hear about the RCA, and why did you decide to study here?

For some reason, I’ve been aware of the RCA since high school. Having taken those anthropology classes as part of my undergraduate degree and broadened my thinking, it was the diverse background of students that really drew me to the RCA. 

Kevin Walker, the head of programme on IED, has a background in anthropology, communication technology and experience design – every keyword clicked for me. I was keen for a change of environment and to try the British education system. I looked at other universities but the RCA seemed most interdisciplinary and at the forefront of innovation.

What was your experience of studying at the RCA?

When I started, the Information Experience Design programme was in its third year and the programme is still growing rapidly. We had intense debates about how each of us define the programme. In some ways the scope is really clear and then aspects of it are very open to interpretation. The discussion turned out to be a regular thing; each week we’d discuss how we might define the nature of the programme and the conclusions played around the fact that there’s value in each of us defining it differently.

Coming to the RCA was an intense experience; we were often there from 10am to 10pm and it was hard to explain the experience to someone outside the College. There was so much debate and discussion, and looking back it’s amazing to look at the amount of work we achieved, even though at the time it feels like you’re never doing enough. So it was exciting, stressful, perhaps unhealthy, but definitely worthwhile.

What have you found most rewarding about your time here?

The best thing about the RCA is probably the other students. I’d say 97% of conversations with anyone there are great, and that’s not true of so many other places, where initiating conversations about these things just results in a blank stare. Like-minded people and those in-depth discussions, I think that’s what makes the RCA great.

Have you been set any particular projects that you’ve really enjoyed working on?

The one that stands out is a collaboration between IED and Fashion for the Science Museum and concerned robotics. It felt like a long project but it was actually only two weeks, but it was all we did except sleep for those two weeks. It was the first collaboration with people who work so much with and through materials, so it was challenging to collaborate with people who have such a different approach. 

IED truly encourages you to look beyond the familiar and into areas you might never have thought to explore, from theatre and scriptwriting to interactive games, and this robotics project. We were always encouraged and challenged to go somewhere new and take risks.

What were the greatest challenges?

The real challenge is always managing a project. It’s so enticing to research every aspect of a project and the challenge is to set an appropriate scope and get the work done instead of disappearing down a research rabbit hole. Tutors are there to guide you, but I think it’s something you really have to feel out and learn for yourself.

You graduated last year – what are you doing now?

I’ve just started an MPhil at the RCA. I got a scholarship from the Chinese government, which is really fortunate. I like the environment here; the two years go so fast and there’s so much more I want to continue to do. I remember Neville Brody once told us that two years at the RCA take ten years to digest, and it’s so true; I flip through any page in my sketchbook and there’s something interesting there to carry further.

Studying at the RCA feels like standing in the middle of an airport with an aeroplane engine blasting right next to your face; the pace is fast and unrelenting. The MPhil feels like a whole new challenge, and I feel like a fish in dark goo right now – there’s a glimmer of light up ahead but right now I’m sticky and wet, and I think that’s a natural start to a research journey.

"It was the diverse background of students that really drew me to the RCA. I looked at other universities but the RCA seemed most interdisciplinary and at the forefront of innovation."
Chenyi Liao
Chenyi Liao