Growing Pains

Last May, a good friend introduced me to local designers Joyce and Meaghan at a regional design conference. For the next 2 hours we talked about our love of cats, our favorite places to eat in Atlanta, and this little side project they had started together.

What this project ended up being was Spark Corps. Its mission was simple, but lofty: help designers help the world. This little idea that was sparked how many ever years ago is now an exciting and green, little design studio in the heart of Atlanta. Spark Corps isn’t even a year old (and my time there even shorter!) but it is already full of potential. These past few months have been fraught with growing pains, missed steps, and the challenges that come with starting any new venture. But each of these has also been accompanied with little victories and marks of progress.

I think that when I started, I thought I would spend my days developing stunning visuals and falling in love with the design process all over again. Instead, I spend my days cold-calling potential clients, devising project budgets, and providing a space for Spark Corps’ organizational philosophy to grow and flourish. I spend my days as a businesswoman just as much as I do as a designer. The real crazy thing is that I sort of love it.

Ironically, for years I fled from the world of business. I grew up wanting to be an artist, or teacher, or maybe I would just travel the globe leaving all worldly possessions behind. But this desire to flee was forcing me to deny part of who I was. It was forcing me to deny my history and my heritage. My ancestors range from leading architects to pioneering pharmacists, from brew master to politician.

Big or small, my blood pulses an entrepreneurial spirit, and those who had the desire to use their minds and passions to create something. In their own way, they were designers.

So, while deliberating over emails, writing proposals, and pitching new work might not be as sexy as designing beautiful visuals, I feel like I am paying tribute to my own heritage. I’m helping build something.

They don’t look that fierce, but they’re pretty shrewd business leaders!

The First Year: My First 12 Months as a Designer

When I began writing this, it was 11:15 on a Sunday night. In a little over 12 hours I would begin a new school year. In no time, a new year of sleepless nights, coffee binges, and creative endeavors would begin. Quite honestly, I have no idea if I’m prepared. I think I am, but that’s only speculation at this point.

Just 12 months previously, I was a new and burgeoning designer. I was as green as the Atlanta kudzu, overly ambitious, and feisty as all get out. Well, I’m still overly ambitious and I am still feisty as all get out. This time, however, I have come prepared with a few life lessons a firmer grasp of what it means to be a designer in 2015.

The following is my list of 12 things I’ve learned in my 12 months as a designer.

1. It’s not personal. It’s design: At the end of the day, you are designing for the masses, or whatever your population might be. As tempting as it might be to invest your full self into the work, just remember that you are not designing for you. You are designing for them.

2. If you believe in it, fight for it: You are the one who has put in the blood, sweat and tears into your project. So, you know better than anyone what the direction of that project is. You have a spine. Use it.

3. But know when to listen: One of the amazing tings about design is that you are always learning. As much as you think you know, you don’t know everything. It’s critical to learn when you’ve reached these points and when it’s time to start listening and stop defending.

4. Over communicate: As much as you might think, not everyone around you is a psychic…and that is ok. Know who you are talking to, and how to talk to them. When you’ve mastered this, you will have mastered design.

5. Criticism is not an attack on your idea. It is an attack on the presentation of your idea: This is an important one. Naturally, we become invested in our work, but even the best ideas will be passed on if they are not communicated properly. You can never assume that your audience will “get” your idea. So, don’t take criticism personally. Think of it as a chance to improve the communication of you concept.

6. Know who your “client” is: There have been plenty of times when I thought I knew the problem, only to find that I hadn’t really listened to the needs of the client. Sometimes, we have to put our needs on a shelf and concentrate on the task at hand. This is ok…In fact, this is normal.

7. Know how to sweet-talk the above-mentioned “client.”: Sometimes, the client is wrong. Of course, never tell them this. That being said, however, sometimes you need to think critically about how to get the right idea across while still making the client think it is their idea. This isn’t easy…but you’ll get the hang of it.

8. The pig always looks better with lipstick: Appearance means more than is should. A beautiful idea is beautiful. But even a bad idea still looks good with a little bit of polish.

9. But at the end of the day, a pig is still a pig: In the long run, a good idea will always beat out a “pretty” idea. It just will.

10. Procrastination will never give you what you want: When you have learned how to manage your time, please let me know how you have done this. I am still working on this skill.

11. Get out of the studio! NOW!: There is a whole world outside of the studio. I get it. There are a lot of things you have to do—renderings, portfolios, models, etc…Here is the thing, though, you are designing for people and not other designers. GET OUT OF THE STUDIO and learn about the people you are designing for. If this means avoiding class work for the sake of “research” then so be it. Own it.

12. It’s only design: I love what I do, and so should you. But, at the end of the day, we are designers. We are not solving the Iran nuclear crisis or writing hunger policies in Nairobi. We are designers. Love what you do and make the best of your skill set. If you are passionate and show up, the rest will fall into place.

I hope these have helped! Keep on truckin’, my design warriors. I believe in you.

A Love Letter to Fashion

I was born a fashionista. From the white socks with the rainbow beads tied around the edges to subscribing to Vogue, fashion has always been my lover. So imagine my delight when over the past few weeks I have been inundated with instances of how fashion and design are colliding in incredible ways.

These are not simply the latest fall trends. Nor are they highly tech oriented explorations which still have the Arduino boards attached to them. No. These are beautiful, refined pieces of fashion that go above and beyond the call of duty and achieve something truly remarkable.

The following are my 3 favorite instances:

1. Seated Design: As if I needed another reason to love NPR, they had to go and report on designer Lucy Jones. Inspired by her cousin who is paralyzed, she wanted to created a fashion line that was both stylish and usable for those in a wheel chair. What resulted was a refined collection with clean lines and user centered designs. The article goes on to talk about students at the Fashion Institute of Technology who designed for veterans with prosthesis and a blogger who lobbies for stores to carry accessible clothing.

fashion, wearable technology, design, universal design

2. Danit Peleg: A brand new fashion design graduate, she promoted this video in july exploring an entire fashion collection made with a 3D printer. Not only are the designs lovely, but this collection pushed the boundaries of 3D printing bringing it out of the tech nerd’s lab and into a environment of elegance. I am so excited to see where she goes.

3D printing, wearable technology, design, fashion

3. Thinx: Finally, I have to give a shout out to any lady who can successfully use fashion to advocate for women’s rights. Just today, I stumbled upon the ladies of Thinx. They have developed what might be the most insane thing I have seen in a long time. They have designed underwear for your period sans pad or tampon! I know. It seems crazy, but as I (and Buzzfeed) looked into it, i discovered how brilliant these are, and how tirelessly these ladies have been working to develop Thinx. Also, can we just talk about the crazy good branding!? Plus, every pair your buy, supports reusable pads for school girls in developing countries. Being a cause close to my heart, I could definitely get behind that!?

periods, women and girls, fashion, health, underwear, design, technology

So, a huge “WOOO!!” to all the awsome ladies using fashion, design, and technology to help transform lives. Never have I been so proud to be a fashionista.

Less Talking. More Doing.

I’ve spent the last week talking–talking about design, talking about manufacturing, and talking about my goals as a designer. I’ve talked with the president of IDSA, freshman design students from burgeoning design programs, and I’ve talked about my fictitious design firm to my fictitious clients/real life professors. Yet despite my love of improvisational small talk and my natural inclination towards public speaking, I am spent. I’m done talking. I want to start doing.

This past week, I ventured down to Florida for the 2015 IDSA Southern Conference. It was my first professional conference with IDSA and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I had been to plenty of conferences and networking events before, but never for design. These were my people, and I wanted to make a good impression.

For the past 9 months, my view of ID has been fairly limited to what my university has provided for me. And while I’ve ventured out on my own to the best of my abilities, I still have a very narrow view of the field. It was like I had spend the past 9 months in elementary school, and this was my first day of junior high. What if I didn’t fit in? What if the big kids stole my lunch money or stuffed me in a locker? But as I settled into the conference’s first lecture regarding the sustainability of design and the use of innovative materials, I knew instantly I was where I needed to be.

The next few days were a blur filled with insightful presentations, plenty of small talk, the exchange of business cards, and happy hours that lasted well into the evening. During this time, one consistent theme kept coming up: making. Every speaker, engaging in their own way, spoke on the importance of getting your hands dirty–of investing in local manufacturers, artisans, and resources. The talked about becoming more invested in the process after our designs left the studio, and thinking critically about our influence as designers during a product’s life cycle.

As I made the drive back to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon, I was slap happy, sleep deprived, and in dire need of my own bed. During the ride, I began really thinking about that message of making. Here I had been sitting in a beautiful conference center listening to professionals out in the field about making. I had watched undergrads present their merit work, rendering me speechless. Here I was, surrounded by makers, feeling inspired, overwhelmed, inadequate and empowered all at the same time. But here’s the thing–I wasn’t making!

What does this all mean, then? Well, I need to start doing more. Talk is cheap. I will never reach the level of those individuals I had admired so much over the past 3 days without working just as hard, if not harder, than they had. I started small, writing down excerpts and snippets overheard during the conference. It was small, but it was putting pen to paper which was a step in some direction.

In building my online portfolio, I stumbled upon my senior thesis from undergrad. In it, I put a quote from Mark Rothko stating, “if a thing’s worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again–exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.” As an developing designer, I couldn’t think of a better way to express my views on design at this very moment. Designers are makers, thinkers, and doers. And only from repetition and continuous self examination will we progress.

So, lets get to work.

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Titans and Icons

How funny is it that every day we interact with a myriad of objects and environments but know little about the people that created them—designs inextricably linked with our identity that you couldn’t begin to describe the history of. This past week, I was confronted with some these identities through a series of discreetly linked events.

On Monday, a professor told our class about the passing of Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan. Most famously known for designing the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, he was one of Japan’s most revered designers and responsible for countless influential designs. He was a giant, and I had no idea who he was.https://i0.wp.com/www.japan-guide.com/g3/2019_01.jpg

After class, I did some digging and found that he was on the design team of the Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan. I had to do a double take, because just 20 minutes previously, I had been editing a piece about the rail system for my work through The Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature project. Previous to that, I had been reading an article about the train in Zygote Quarterly. I sat back, for a moment, basking in the delight of such a serendipitous twist.

On Tuesday, I was confronted with another one my idols. I’ve been watching John Stewart’s The Daily Show since adolescence. Though through a T.V. screen, he was undoubtedly a part of my life, helping foster my interests in politics and global development. So imagine my shock and heartbreak when I learned Tuesday night that he would be ending the show sometime in 2015. Granted, he wasn’t a designer, but he brought on designers, writers, artists, and activists. He gave them a national platform that they otherwise wouldn’t get.

https://i2.wp.com/graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/10/31/31rally-blog4/31rally-blog4-blogSpan.jpgAdditionally, his mentorship of Stephen Colbert was huge for me. It was on The Colbert report that I first saw a 3D printer, and watched a pivotal interview with Senior MOMA Curator Paola Antonelli, arguably introducing me to the field of industrial design and changing the course of my professional life.

Finally, this week introduced me to designer Henry Dryfus. He was the man behind the Honeywell thermostat, the modern Bell Telephone, and mid-century tractor designs. My History of Industrial Design professor was lucky enough to be contacted by a Dryfus historian who then came into our class to speak. I listened as he spoke about Dryfus’ accomplishments and how they had impacted my life in small ways. Like how Honeywell, a Minneapolis company, was in my home of Minnesota and helped establish Minnesota as a major metropolis. Or how he designed tractors which likely had an impact on the way my grandfather did business having worked as a tractor salesmen in the Midwest for over 30 years. https://thefunambulistdotnet.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/the-medicalization-of-architecture013.jpg?w=205&h=519

I think it comes with out saying that we have to know where we come from. Not only as people, but also as designers. We need to learn from the work of the designers who came before us—their failures, their successes and their temperaments. What made them great? How did they respond to failure? Who were the people and what were the events in their lives that made them great. Knowing these insights makes us better designers, and more integrated into the larger community we are trying so hard to be part of.

Let’s Talk About Periods…and User Experience

No, gentlemen, I am not talking about grammar. I am talking about the necessary evil and paradoxically beautiful event necessary for creating life. But before you get your undies in a bunch, and run from this page as fast as you can grunt, “Super Bowl Sunday,” let me give you a little back story. This week, I was on Facebook when one of my favorite sites for girls empowerment, A Might Girl, featured a story about Arunachalam Muruganantham. A lower-middle class Indian man, Muruganantham was shocked one day to find that his wife was continually choosing between purchasing food for their family and purchasing sanitary pads.
https://i1.wp.com/news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/73331000/jpg/_73331692_muruga6.jpg

Rather than purchase sanitary devices, his wife and many other women globally resort to using rags, leaves, grass, hay, and even mud to prevent embarrassment. In many parts of the world, access to basic hygiene is a luxury, and specifically with regards to female health. These alternative methods lead to a host of UTIs and vaginal infections, all which are easily preventable. To add another layer of complexity, the lack in access to hygiene devices causes girls to routinely miss school, and makes it difficult for women to hold steady jobs.

Muruganantham, like many men, was shocked by this realization. He began tinkering with a host of low cost designs and prototypes, and at one point began wearing his inventions himself (with the aid of goats blood!) because finding women to were willing to test them was so difficult. Currently, Muruganantham’s products are manufactured in over 1,300 villages and 23 Indian states, as well as employing as many as 10 women in each village. In 2014, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People.

I took a step back, and thought about his work through the lens of the industrial designer. User experience is an increasingly important aspect of design. If we don’t understand how our client thinks, acts and what they experience, there will always be a disconnect no matter how strong the product is. Companies like IDEO have near-perfected this model, and countless others have provided supporting material. But what do we do when the user wont engage with the development process? In the case of Muruganantham, there was a very real and critical need. He had to bring “User Experience” to a whole new level, literally putting himself in the position of the client in order to bring a viable product to market.

I was also enamored by the idea of a man with no formal education or exposure to design methods using a principle that is still being explored in the design field to a whole new height. It reminded me of a similar story published in 2013 in which in Jorge Odón, an Argentinian car mechanic, invented a life saving device for emergency births.

While part of me reads these stories and thinks, “Why am I in design school again?” the other part of me is inspired by these inventors and further affirms my belief that to be a good designer you need to have a strong understanding of the world you want to design. Being able to wade through the endless sea of design methodologies and diagrams will only get you so far. You need to actually understand the problem you are addressing. This should be common sense, right, but I seem to be finding this isn’t always the case.

With this in mind, I leave you with a quote I heard from Dan Formose of Smart Design, New York in the documentary Objectified. He stated, “What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we undersand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” In the case of Muruganantham and Odón, they looked at the extreme. They saw a problem, learned about the user, and worked tirelessly to solve it. The rest, as Formose, stated, took care of itself.

This is Your Brain on Grad School

I think its safe to say that almost everyone who was alive in the 90s remembers the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA where the woman cracks an egg into a hot skillet and we watch in horror as our poor brain is cooked to a pulp. Replace the word “drugs” with “graduate school” and you essentially have the same idea.

This past week has been a dizzying string of deadlines, deliverables, lectures, and exams. Hardly a month in, I was already feeling the same level of intensity that I didn’t feel until finals time last semester. My biggest priority became checking as many things off of my to-do list as possible. The more and more I did this, the less joyful and inspired I felt.

This changed when the other day I was flipping through an old issue of Marie Claire. No, I was not leisurely absorbing the latest spring fashions (if only!). Instead, I was finding images that would become part of an interactive products assignment. While my primary goal was to find images of vintage women’s fashion, my eyes stopped when I turned the page and saw a LifeStraw accompanied by the ostentatious title 6 Simple Ways to Save the World.

Having exposure in the nonprofit and development sector, LifeStraw was nothing new to me. Why, though, was it in Marie Claire? The brief article went on to describe incredible, simple innovations for promoting positive change in the lives of women and girls around the world. In addition to LifeStraw, it highlighted Q Drum, clean cook stoves, a cervical cancer screening test with vinegar, natural pads for schoolgirls, and rural birthing kits.

I sat for a moment and took the article in. As I looked at the pages, I suddenly remembered why I wanted to be an industrial designer. These products were not new to me. In fact, I remember being just 18 when I first learned about Q Drum. But these products were significant to me for a range of personal and professional reasons. Revisiting them in Marie Claire was a wake up call for me, aggressively reminding me why I was here in Atlanta. These were the i-pods of the development world, and the preeminent example of the kinds of products I wanted to design. Being a part of the global development community has always been a goal of mine. I won’t hide the fact that I am an idealist, nor will I suppress my desire to make truly impactful designs that will improve the lives of women and girls, globally (as goody-goody as that may sound).

I still have a long way to go, however, and my current skill set will be of no use to anyone until I put in the time to work on it. Seeing this article was a breath a fresh air, and the jolt of inspiration I so desperately needed to keep moving. So, while I may not be ecstatic about every assignment, and there might be some nights that I want to pull my hair out, I need to be conscious about putting things into perspective and remembering my end goal.