Jeff Smith ’93 (industrial design) has made a successful career straddling the realms of art and industry, which makes perfect sense upon learning he spent his formative years in Buffalo, N.Y., and Paris—followed by two Rust Belt cities in Ohio.
Growing up in Buffalo until age 10, his father received a transfer to France’s capital city for what was supposed to be one year but turned out to be two.
“Living in Paris taught me a lot and it changed my life,” Smith recalled. “My parents signed me up for art classes at The Louvre— a weekly exploration and drawing session in the museum. Learning about art and then sketching it resounds with me to this day.”
Upon moving back to the United States, Smith and his family lived in Dayton and Sandusky, Ohio, before it was time for him to look at colleges. “After my parents took me around to several art schools, I visited the RIT campus once and said, ‘This is where I want to go.’”
Originally enrolled as a graphic design major in the School of Design at the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, Smith was introduced to the industrial design program through a friend. “Toby Thompson was the department chair at the time and he gave a 20-minute presentation on industrial design,” said Smith, referring to the late founding chair of the program. “He had such passion for what he did and that rang so true to me.”
That passion and zeal for how art and design impact the business and manufacturing worlds has stayed with Smith to this very day. After more than two decades with a Taiwanese product design firm, Smith now serves as education program manager for Autodesk, the California-based software giant behind many of today’s most ubiquitous design platforms.
As Autodesk’s primary liaison with higher-education institutions across the United States, Smith has traveled to scores of college campuses, including RIT’s several times every semester. He does so in support of design and engineering education—that fine line he continues to bestride.
“People don’t automatically think that a program in the design school ties into manufacturing or business, but when you combine industrial design and engineering—and do it right—that’s the sweet spot,” said Smith, who works out of his Boca Raton, Fla., home.
RIT students have provided valuable feedback on the company’s software tools, and the university and Autodesk have signed a memorandum of understanding agreement to collaborate even further.
Smith said RIT’s “real world, pragmatist” approach to art and engineering has inspired him while carving out a design career for nearly 25 years.
“It’s awesome to be creative, but some schools tend to be too ‘blue sky,’” Smith said. “You have to blend innovation with reality. RIT does a really good job of preparing students—like it did me. Your designs have to be real, and ultimately that last step is the hardest part.”