Getting to know Cassini Nazir, M.F.A.

Clinical Associate Professor
Master of Fine Arts

Mr. Nazir uses his expertise and background in design to maximize the learning opportunities that UNT offers. I sat down (virtually, of course) with Mr. Nazir to gain some insight into his career, current projects and personal life. Join us for a moment with Cassini Nazir interview and have a look at what goes into creating new, future facing, degrees.

If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?

Time travel. I would love to go back in time and just see how people long ago lived. Then I’d love to see how people 500 years from now live, and more importantly what they think of us here in 2020.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love to read. I love to do gardening, although I have to confess, I’m not very good at it. I do like to draw. I’m very involved in design communities which is still kind of work-related. I like to give back to communities through talks, through mentoring, things like that.

What are any hobbies you’ve picked up during quarantine?

I’ve done more gardening just to try to enjoy the fresh air, we had some great weather. I spent some time with family members as well.

When did you first know you had a passion for design?

I think I had a passion for design before I even knew exactly what it was. When I was 18, I thought art and design were the same thing, the very simple difference being that design is other-focused. If I’m designing something, I have to take myself out and understand who I’m designing it for. Art is very self-focused. It’s about expression, it’s about my ideas on whatever medium I’m putting them on.

I started drawing as a very young kid. I did portraits for people in my early teenage years. I always thought that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t realize that design, which is looking at how we shape experiences, is actually much more interesting and much more challenging. I was always interested in the arts. In graduate school, I started to realize the difference between art and design, and I had a language for it. As an artist, you want to create something specifically tailored to the individual in a way that they’re going to enjoy, appreciate and like. Even though I didn’t have a language for it, I was kind of doing that as a young person without being consciously aware of it.

What do you hope to accomplish at UNT, professionally and personally?

I want the value of design to be understood and articulated by every student in the PDA program. They may not be designers themselves or think of themselves in that way. I think every one of us designs – from the clothes that we put on to the way that our house is laid out to the desk that I’m at. We’ve designed it, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Design is all around us. I’d like the PDA students to be able to see that and harness it to achieve great things.

I think our processes here as faculty should also reflect design methods. [For example], using tools of designers to design the program and understanding the user of the program. All of those things are really critical to making design not just a field of that people study, but something that we just naturally do.

Personally, I get a lot of gratification from seeing students achieve things that they either didn’t think was possible or didn’t feel confident enough [in]. Those [moments] are harder to capture. That’s one of the things that I love the most: seeing students achieve things that I knew was possible for them but that they may not have believed was possible for them. I know it’s hard to capture those things, but when I go home and talk to my wife those are the things that I love sharing at the end of the day.

You have a history with UT Dallas, both attending and teaching. What brought you to UNT?

What brought me to UNT is actually this really wonderful degree program, the Project Design and Analysis degree program. Getting a degree in three years is really unheard of. Forty percent of people graduate in four years [from] public institutions and sixty percent graduate in six years. This idea that we can do it in three is really attractive to me.

The other is just the nature of the PDA program – project management, design thinking and analysis. More and more jobs of the 21st century require these intersection of skills.

"There are very few programs that are doing those three things at the undergrad level. It’s an opportunity to shape something that’s still quite new and to work together with some great colleagues here in Frisco and on main campus."

What is the most exciting part of the coursework that you at teach?

We’re showing students how they can use design to help clients. But there’s another part of design that’s really critical, and that’s designing your life. Taking these same methods that you use for clients and then applying it to your own career is something that really excites me. You can shape your career very much in the same way that you can shape a client’s outcome. Helping students to see that is really amazing.

"I think it’s really critical to see design not just as something that we do for others but also for ourselves."

What’s something that you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

We as faculty have been putting our shoulders together virtually to work on what this whole project design and analysis thing means. What are the outcomes we want for students? Where do we want students to go with this curriculum?

Students understanding their place inside the program. Some students might say, “Hey I’m a project manager.” Some students might say, “I really love design.” Others might say, “I really love analysis.” Even others might say, “I love the integration of all of this stuff together.” That’s kind of where the jobs of the 21st century are. This program requires students to work on integrated projects. We’ve got one with a company called nThrive here in Frisco that works with healthcare clients, and we have another cohort working with the city of Frisco. Those projects may be primarily project-focused, design-focused or analysis-focused. Some of them may also be integrative. I always use the phrase, “the clay is still wet,” on this. We as faculty are shaping this degree program and we’ve got to do it together. There’s no one person who can say, “This is what this degree program is going to be.” It’s all of us coming together. We’ve got some fantastic people here: Zain Ali who has created this program from the ground up, Jesse Hamner who is sort of the analysis faculty who teaches a lot of the classes there, professor Ashley Reis who teaches English, Melissa McKay who teaches politics and others who I’m unfortunately leaving out. We’ve got some tremendous talent here to be able to shape this program, and that’s exciting to me.

Can you talk about the technology you use for work?

I’ll often use my iPad. I like to show people rather than tell people. Sometimes in meetings I’ll actually use my iPad to draw something and take notes. I use MURAL which allows other people to virtually make changes to a whiteboard. Primarily it’s about tools that allow us to visual and see things together.

If you had to pick one piece of technology to recommend to students, what would it be?

I always carry around a sketchbook. Mine is called a dot grid sketchbook, which allows me to make visualizations of things very quickly. I do the same thing digitally using my iPad, but I think every person can walk around with a cheap, $3 sketchbook [to use as] a place to capture ideas but also explore them. It’s not the kind of technology that includes much tech to it. I keep one of these near my bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea, I have a place to capture it. It is a wonderful tool.

What is your favorite part about your job?

II think the students. I’m always impressed by the students. I was never this mature when I was your age, I made a ton of stupid mistakes. I’m really just impressed at how savvy and smart the students are. When I was your age, I was tremendously excited about the things that I enjoyed doing. If you looked at my transcripts, you’d see all A’s in the topics that I really enjoyed, but then a whole bunch of D’s and C’s in the topics that I wasn’t interested in. This bunch of students here at UNT in the PDA program – and I imagine at the university as a whole – [are] very curious, very interested and very engaged. It gives me a tremendous amount of hope for the future.

Is there anything you would like to add?

"I think UNT is a university that embraces creativity. Not every university does that. I think that in itself is a differentiator for this university."

Being creative is a 21st century skill. What I mean by creative is the ability not just to draw something or capture something, but to take two ideas and connect them.

That in itself is creativity: the connecting of two things that may not have been connected before. I think the 21st century is going to demand that of us, and I think our jobs are going to demand that of us. I’m so glad to be in a place where creativity is encouraged. It’s given space to grow, and we want to see it in our students.

About the Author:

Mallory Cammarata is a senior at the University of North Texas with a major in journalism and a concentration in public relations. She spent her first two years at UNT studying photojournalism and taking photos for North Texas Daily, the student newspaper. At the beginning of her junior year, Mallory decided to pursue her passion for writing and switch her concentration to public relations. She is currently an intern at AgenZ PR where she writes blogs, produces marketing materials and takes photos. After graduating in December 2020, Mallory hopes to apply her new PR skills at an agency or nonprofit organization.