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.

Ellen DeGeneres: ID’s Secret Weapon

When I told my family I wanted to become an industrial designer, I had a reaction that I assume was similar to many aspiring designers. My parents starred at me with a look of love and confusion, and asked, “honey, what is industrial design?” This was followed by a, “but, can you get a job as a designer?” and “why don’t you just become an engineer?” I know they meant well, and that these questions came from a place of love and concern, but the frustration was still there.

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What it feels like trying to explain what ID is to my friends and family

My parents were not alone. Extended family, friends, and even strangers on the bus would ask me, “what is industrial design?” I used a variety of methods. I explained to them that ID was making iPhones, cars, and vegetable peelers. I explained that it could be as diverse as designing apps, pacemakers, or trade show displays. I explained to them that ID was what would happen if engineering and art made a baby. And, when all else failed, I just said that it was, “like getting a degree in Ikea.”

“Oh! I get it, now,” was the usual response.

Of course, I have come to learn that industrial design is not easily defined. Depending on whom you ask, you can get wildly varying answers. But for the sake of clarity, I have become OK with letting people think that ID can be defined as making iPhones and modular furniture. So imagine my surprise when one day my mom says, “Allie, Ellen is doing an industrial design show! Are you all watching it? I get what you’re doing, now!” (Ellen, being America’s sweetheart Ellen DeGeneres, and “you all” being my classmates).

“Mom, what do you mean ‘Ellen is doing an ID show’?” She went on to tell me that Ellen had paired with HGTV to air a reality show where furniture designers would compete for a prize and the title of “America’s Best Furniture Designer.” It was aptly named “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

Was Ellen the missing link? While I knew that a reality show was not the ultimate indication of success as a furniture designer, nor was it a holistic view of industrial design, it did bring up an interesting thought. Was design becoming popular enough where TV executives considered it legitimate programming? And what did it mean that a mainstream celebrity was now a barometer for critiquing a discipline once reserved for high-end Manhattan firms, and gallery directors? In one fell swoop, Ellen had made a convoluted industry digestible to a wide audience of hobbyists and housewives.

As I watched the show’s judges critique the contestants’ pieces in the opening episode, I let these questions linger. All esteemed panelists in their own right, their critiques were insightful and informed, and they used language similar to my own peers and professors. It didn’t feel overly contrived nor dumbed down, which I appreciated.

So, kudos to you Ellen! While I don’t see a reality show in UX happening anytime soon, I do appreciate the step towards bringing the world of design to the masses.

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Now, all we need to do is to get Beyoncé in on ID!

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.
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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.

Object Permanence: Associating Nostalgia with Object Value

In January of 2008, I bought my very first computer. It was a white MacBook, and I had been saving waitressing tips for months in order to pay for it. It was arguably the most expensive thing I had ever purchased. I was entering my first semester of college and I knew couldn’t show up to the first day of school without a shiny new plaything.

Seven years later, to the date, I found myself purchasing my second MacBook. This time, however, the $1500 price tag seemed like chump change compared to my student loan debt and surprisingly high credit limit. The employee at the Apple store was beaming with excitement over my purchase, exclaiming, “Oh, how exciting! Are you not so excited to get home and set this up?”

I appreciated her enthusiasm, truly, but there was something oddly bittersweet about the whole experience. Granted, I now had the latest and greatest MacBook Pro. It had a retina display, fancy interface features, and more ram, guts and glory than I knew what to do with. But as I got home and plugged my Time Machine into my new computer, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad staring at my first MacBook now relocated to the corner of my living room.
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How often is it that we own something for seven years? Cars? Technology? Clothes? There are very few things I have owned for as long as my Mac. The past 7 years of my life have been incredibly transformational, filled with the highest highs and lowest lows and little consistency in between. So, when an object, such as a computer, has served as one of the few common denominators in my life, it seems natural that I would form an attachment to it. Right? I wrote term papers on my Mac, watched movies with my friends, emailed far away crushes and lovers, and procrastinated on Buzzfeed. My MacBook was an undeniable fixture of my life. It housed my creative writing, my art, my favorite cooking blogs—all of the things that made me…me.

I remember a few years back reading an article by the president of Patagonia. In the article, he spoke at length about the importance of investing in quality products. He argued that it was critical to consider the longevity of an object’s life, while also weighing the ethics behinds its production, and the quality of its material. When we do this, he stated that we would be more likely to financially invest more, and also be less likely to dispose of them thereby contributing less to the global waste stream.

I found a significant amount of validity in his argument. In fact, as a burgeoning industrial designer, this is one of the ideas that I grapple with the most. When the success of my career relies on making desirable things, how do I ensure that I make quality goods consumers will value and not merely discard for the next best thing? How do I, as a designer, make my profession’s equivalent of the MacBook Pro—and object that can last over seven years, and be valued not merely for its function but its significance in the users daily life.

As my Time Machine sync finished, I placed on the Two Sisters Cafe sticker I had been saving for a new computer since I went to visit my brother in Alaska this past August. It was the first step in making this new machine my own. I don’t know how long I will have this new computer. Nor can I say what the next seven years of my life will look like. I can only hope that this machine will stay with me for as long as the first one did, and that I hope the next seven years are as blessed and transformative as the past seven have been.

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