This week we will recognize the five Purdue College of Liberal Arts graduates who were recognized with the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award on Friday, March 22.
Today’s recipient is Karen Korellis Reuther (BA 1979, Industrial Design), vice president and creative director at Reebok, who is responsible for creative leadership and design implementation in brand identity, product, retail, and mobile. The Hammond, Indiana native previously worked at Nike as global creative director and at Cast Collective as creative director and brand psychologist in the areas of design, innovation, and technology for multiple corporate clients.
Here are some of her thoughts on her Purdue experience and why studying liberal arts can make a difference:
Q: How did majoring in the liberal arts impact your life?
A: I majored in industrial design so it’s been an interesting profession because I think it’s the balance of art and science. And I think majoring in liberal arts, specifically at Purdue, was a really interesting balance – especially 40 years ago. It was a very engineering-driven school. I think it’s still very engineering-driven, although the liberal arts school is pretty large. So I never felt that I was in a liberal arts major. I just felt like I was in an alternative program to what the school was grounded in. I really liked that. I’ve always been more on the artistic side, but also very interested in design and architecture, so that opportunity was really the magic for me.
Q: It’s one of those professions that has elements of a lot of different fields.
A: Absolutely. I think that kind of profession now is needed even more. When I look back 40 years ago and even 20 years ago, having tech skills was more important. But now I think having the more personal skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity is much more important.
Q: What was your favorite course at Purdue and why?
A: I think my favorite course was art history. It’s because I had never taken any course even close to something like that, which taught me about the respect and the covet of history, but also the magic and meaning behind art and the stories that it told and the lives that it followed.
I always think about as a designer, you’re really studying people. An industrial designer designs for people and the way people use products. You’re an anthropologist. And art history, it’s certified anthropology. It speaks of time, it speaks of the moment, it speaks of breaking the rules of the time. I still have my art history book. There are many books that I’ve gotten rid of over the years as we’ve moved around the world, but that art history book was always something that I was attached to.
So I would say that and then my senior industrial design studio, when I felt like I’d really gotten an idea for what I wanted to do for my career.
Q: What would you have done professionally if you hadn’t selected the path you chose?
A: I absolutely love my career. So I majored in industrial design. I discovered industrial design in a class here at Purdue. I didn’t even know it existed. I was coming down because I wanted to become an architect. And I’ve been a designer for 40 years. I think the other profession may have been a lawyer, and it’s just because I love to do research. I love to do research when I’m designing product. I worked for Nike for 12 years and I’m vice president-creative for Reebok right now, so the reason I love working in these industries is because you’re solving problems for athletes. In order to solve problems for athletes, you have to understand how they move, what they do, what their rituals are, what makes them tick. A great designer is a bit of an anthropologist, and I think a great lawyer is that, too.
So I think I would have been a pretty good lawyer. I can argue a case pretty well. You come up with your reasons for proposing new designs and you really have to do your homework, so I think I would have gone into the law. Although I don’t know if I would have had the stamina to study for that.
I was going to say architect, but that was just too close to design.
Q: How has Purdue changed since you were a student?
A: I’ve come back quite a few times over the years – more in the last 8-10 years than in the first 30. I think there’s more women here. I think there was a ratio of about 4:1 when I came of men to women, so that’s interesting. I think it’s much more known for the other areas of study than engineering, so I think that has been really good.
I think what really strikes me is how it hasn’t changed. I think there’s just a demeanor of the students and the curiosity of the students. I don’t know how to explain it. I taught at a small college in Boston for a while and I’ve lived in Boston for many years, and you can kind of tell the essence of students from different universities. And when I come here, it feels like the same student that was here before: focused, and perhaps a little more serious than in other places. And it feels a lot younger.
Q: What advice would you offer to students in industrial design now?
A: I would say you’re going to be asked to do a lot of different things because when you can draw and you can sketch and you can build, you’re going to be called on to do a lot. Hone a couple skills and be really, really good at those because when I look to hire young designers now, they want to do everything right away. They’re like, ‘I want to do what you do.’ It took me 20 years to get to what I do now, and I always tell them, ‘Know what your crazy-mad skill is and just let that shine.’ I often call it their superpower. ‘Let people know what your superpower is, and let them know what they can rely on you to do better than anybody else, and then you’ll be given those other opportunities to stretch and grow and start to do more and more. But if you’re not known for one or two things that you do great in your first job, you could just kind of blend in.’