The Art in
I N N OVA T I O N
R&D Magazine’s 2015 Innovator of the Year
Skylar Tibbits sees the art in innovation.
If you talk to many engineers and ask what first piqued their interest in engineer- ing, most will answer playing with Legos or Tinker Toys as tots. The ability to tangibly build something and see how it comes to fruition sparks their interest and, at the same time, is play. And this leads to an inquisitive nature well past college years to solve everyday problems by constructing something with their
hands (and their knowledge/creativity).
The same is true for architects. Most are infatuated with art, or the ability to sketch a
building and see it become a tall skyscraper or building of stature. Even with the field
of architecture becoming more digital in nature—with BIM and CAD systems used consistently—there is still an artistic touch to the detail-oriented designs we stare in awe
at when we visit New York City, Chicago, Boston or any city known for its architectural
history. And new technologies in the field enhance creativity and development.
While engineering and architecture may seem worlds apart to some people, the fact
is they can easily go hand-in-hand. And, whether we believe it or not, there is as much
artistic presence in engineering and innovation as there is in architecture.
R&D Magazine’s 2015 Innovator of the Year, Skylar Tibbits, knew at young age
whatever career path he would embark on would be some creative endeavor. “I knew I
would end in a career that dealt with art, as I have various artists in my family and it’s a
big part of who I am,” says Tibbits to R&D Magazine. “My grandfather was an archi-
tect, and that lead to my appeal towards architecture.”
“At one point I wanted to be an artist or a photographer,” says Tibbits. “But I landed
on architecture as my path. Yet, I somehow came full circle to computer science, and
now I’m somewhere between an artist, architect and a scientist.”
By coming full circle, Tibbits, now the Director of Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology (MIT)’s Self-Assembly Lab, has hands in both worlds and can see artistic
inspiration in his lab’s innovations.
Enhancing 3-D printing, programmable materials through art
Following his artistic passions, Tibbits studied architecture as his undergraduate degree at
Philadelphia Univ., with a minor in experimental computation. In 2007, before completing his
masters degrees in design computation and computer science at MIT, Tibbits started his own
business, SJET LLC as a small design studio and consulting opportunity to help design various
projects from art commissions to exhibitions and installations and more.
“I was really drawn to design, but I also had interest in computer science,” says Tibbits. “Yet,
what intrigued me the most about architecture was the hands-on nature of the discipline.”
The design fields were one of the first adopters of the well-known additive manufacturing
technique 3-D printing. The technology was, and continues to be, mostly used for rapid proto-
typing of models so architects could see the detail of their grandiose ideas in small-scale mod-
els. Architecture as a field is hands-on as designers must create buildings and test their ideas
through precise materials and small-scale model prototypes of different proponents.
Skylar Tibbits’s fluid
the promise of breakthroughs in many fields.
Photo: Len Rubenstein