A Q&A with Co-Design Expert Leah Caplan

A Q&A with Co-Design Expert Leah Caplan

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Leah Caplan. She is known for her innovative, human centered design work at Birsel + Seck, where she is the VP of Design and Project Management, as well as her work at her own design and branding company, LC&Co Creative. She is dedicated to helping companies create brands, products, and services with, as she would say, purpose and heart, including Target, Staples, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo., and more.  We asked her about the power of co-design, how to develop trust with your collaborators, and where she sees great collaboration happening in the industry.

Spotlight: Leah Caplan
Photo courtesy of Leah Caplan.

Q: You are known for your wonderful co-design projects. Could you explain what co-design is, and what drew you to it as a collaborative design approach?

A: What I’d really like to do is talk about collaborative design first, before co-design, to lay the groundwork. It’s one of those phrases that I find to be an oxymoron, like the term design thinking. Can you really have design without thinking? Similarly, can you have design without collaboration? Or, at least, can you have successful design without collaboration?

I believe that design as a process is inherently collaborative. To be successful, design can’t exist without collaboration. It requires working with others. Even just the premise of it is collaborative. Design is about solving a problem for others, which in and of itself is a collaborative act. You can’t do it without knowing who that other is. So, with that in mind, let’s go back to co-design.

The co-design work that I do is in collaboration with Ayse Birsel and our team at Birsel + Seck. We’ll talk later about my own side gig but basically I wear a couple different hats, and one of them is the VP of Design and Project Planning at Birsel + Seck. If you don’t know us, we’re a design and innovation studio. We’ve done a lot of work for companies like Herman Miller. We’re known for Ayse’s design process, which is called Deconstruction:Reconstruction. She outlines it in a book that I helped her bring to life called Design the Life You Love. This process is critical to how we do our design work, including our co-design. Co-design is basically what it sounds like: designing side by side with others. In our case, it’s not always with our current clients—although they’re almost always invited to be a part of the session—but with whoever is our target user. What’s key about co-design is the idea that you’re designing WITH, in capital letters, versus designing FOR. It’s based on a belief that everybody has the ability to be creative and solve a problem if they have the guidance, process, and tools to do it. We may not all solve a problem in the same way (thank goodness!), but we can all get into it with the proper guidance, process, and tools. 

Q: Could you share an example of a co-design project that demonstrates the power of collaborative design?

A: Probably the best project that I could use to demonstrate this is one that we did for an organization out in California called the SCAN Foundation. They are an independent charitable organization. Their mission is to improve the lives of older adults and help them—and really help everyone—to age with dignity and purpose. Interestingly, that wasn’t how they described themselves before we started working with them, their point of view and tone of voice shifted based on our  work. 

We started the project in 2019, before the pandemic. We conducted co-design sessions with people who were anywhere between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-five across the country. The idea was to reimagine with them what the aging experience could be. We really wanted to understand: What did they want from their later years in life? What were their needs and challenges? We came into the project with some assumptions, which tended to be the usual assumptions: that, as we get older, everything is about decline. We lose connections, we lose our purpose in life, we leave our work, our family leaves, we lose friends. It was a very negative mindset.

In our ability to sit and do this design work with these individuals, we found that there was much more of a glass half-full versus glass half-empty mindset. A lot of the language that the SCAN Foundation uses also shifted. This idea of helping everyone age well and with purpose came out of that. The big thing was that this design process ended up modeling what these individuals wanted. Through this process, we allowed these individuals, who are often marginalized, to be heard, to be a part of a community of people, to build new relationships, to make friends, to have a purpose, and to feel—to use the word very generously—loved. We worked hard to make sure that the experience acknowledged them. This included the types of rooms we used, the temperature, the lighting, the space around the table, the type of food we offered; we really wanted to make sure that we recognized them. We gave them not just the process and the tools but the place, the comfort, the security. 

Our team was carefully curated and we trained each other how to talk to and approach people, and to be preemptive in everything that we did. It was like a service or hospitality model, and that was really important. We acknowledged these individuals and allowed them, through that, to be able to share and dream openly. That’s not easy. I think co-design is most effective when all of that is taken into consideration. It’s not just the process and the tools and the problem that you’re trying to solve but the whole experience. Otherwise, people don’t feel comfortable contributing. In the end, I believe this work helped to shift the perspective, the approaches, and the tone of voice that the SCAN Foundation uses. They’re now more human-centered. They’re also more optimistic in how they present themselves and what they do. It became a little bit less about them, the foundation, and more about who they’re looking to help and the community. 

This was an intimate experience. The process brought people together, and many of those people are still connected to each other. As we know, this age group is the loneliest age group. There’s a loneliness epidemic. Again, we didn’t know we were doing that until we did it. Once we started, we realized, in addition to everything, this was a place that they wanted to be. It got them out of the house, it brought them in contact with other people. So we started extending the time, so that there was at least half an hour to forty-five minutes after each session wherein people could just connect with one another, have a cup of coffee, etc.

The biggest thing that this work resulted in is a book, Design the Long Life You Love, also by Ayse. The power of this outcome is that we’re now able to share these ideas with a much larger group of people, with the hope of making a cultural shift over time. Older people are marginalized. The ability to share what these individuals said: it’s straight from the horse’s mouth, and it breaks what we traditionally think about older people. There’s a positive perspective. There’s a shift in mindset; new language and approaches. It has so many different prongs to it, and that’s the power of co-design. A product can have that kind of universe that  surrounds it as well, but in this case it was an experience and it was a life stage, which is a huge thing to try to tackle.

I think one of the most interesting things that we learned, which again wasn’t something we went in knowing, was that we’re actually not that different. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or ninety five: basic human things that we want and need remain the same. It’s having a purpose, it’s being healthy of mind and body, it’s having vitality. And those things, they don’t change. Just how we access them changes. That was a beautiful aha moment for us. It shouldn’t have been. It feels so obvious but, because of our culture, it wasn’t obvious. Ayse is a master of making complex ideas simple, and the book has some unbelievable illustrations. They’re really funny. They have to do with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that continuum from when you’re young to when you’re older. There’s some fabulous stuff that we don’t think about, but it’s real.

Q: You have said that great collaborations are built on trust, understanding, and curiosity. Could you talk about how you go about developing trust with your collaborators?

A: I believe that, in any relationship, trust comes from actions and attitudes. It’s about being transparent; showing that you’re responsive, reliable, upfront, and honest. And just as important as that is showing that you care, that you are truly passionate about who your collaborators are, and that you value what they have to offer. It’s a bit like what I was saying before about the older adults, they need to know that you respect them. You hear what they have to say, and you make sure to acknowledge and thank them. With kids or in relationships, you want to model the behavior that you’d like to receive. Trust comes through that, and all of this is because you have to have the trust. Because collaboration is an inherently reciprocal process: it has give and take. And you really only want to give and take with people you trust. When you trust each other, you feel comfortable challenging each other. The best way to build trust, and therefore have a successful collaboration, is to pick your collaborators carefully. Great collaboration doesn’t happen with everyone, and it’s important to know and accept that. Also, these relationships often need to be built and nurtured over time. You learn from the positives and the challenges, and then you evolve to make your collaboration better. But there has to be a baseline of trust and respect. 

Q: After years of working as a branding and design consultant, you started your own design company, LC&CO Creative. What prompted you to do that, and what role does collaboration play in your work there?

A: In this side gig generation, what I wanted to do was to connect my work with the things that I love, and the things that I really love personally are food, hospitality, retail, travel. My husband works in the food industry, we live and breathe food. Aside from just eating incredible food, we travel for it. Everything in our lives is about food.I started my career in design doing branding—primarily in the retail industry—and I worked with big brands that had huge, daunting budgets because it was the 1990s. What I most loved about doing that work was feeling like I was helping to develop and tell a story, and that story made the company and its products more understandable,delightful, and engaging for its customers. What I realized, or I always knew but then decided I wanted to come back to, was this idea that smaller brands don’t necessarily have the awareness of or the access to those kinds of design and branding services, and I wanted to give it to them. It was this idea of great design that was affordable or sometimes even free. I have done branding workshops for women, immigrant workers in Philadelphia who are looking to become entrepreneurs. I hate this idea that money is a barrier to good design. I know it’s real. I know it’s a reality but it really bothers me. What I liked about my side gig was that, because it was a side gig, I could afford to do it that way. I could afford to try to do more with less, and help the people that I work with do more with less. 

In that business the collaboration is immediate because, again, these are small customers. We work hand in hand. In a lot of cases I live and breathe their businesses because we’re so interconnected and there’s so much trust between us. I love what they do. When I’m excited by something I want to deep dive into it, and I can do that with them. I’m not able to do that often on the bigger projects. I can love the project and I can deep dive into their business, but I can’t necessarily be as intimate as I am with my own work, which covers everything from one-off restaurants to arts and crafts malls, to a cookie company…they’re little businesses that are just trying to make it work, and there aren’t many people to help them. It’s educational, too, because they don’t know these things. So they’re learning about design while I’m learning about them, and it’s a real collaborative, reciprocal process.

Q: Are there industries that are doing a better job of incorporating collaborative design principles? What do you see as key drivers of collaborative design being adopted more widely in the industry?

A: It’s a great question and my answer for the first one is: I’m not sure. I think there are many industries and companies that have this intention. But I think it tends to be more individuals who are driving this than corporate mandates or a collaborative culture. There’s this idea of conscious collaboration and unconscious collaboration, particularly in design because, as I said, it’s inherently collaborative but people aren’t necessarily talking about it that way. There’s a lack of recognition or understanding that design is a process that is collaborative. When you go beyond designers or design firms and you look within organizations people still don’t even understand what design is.

Design relies on others to happen. That is a blessing and a curse, particularly in companies, where everyone wants to be the owner of the project or to be seen as the hero; I made this happen and now I get the credit. I believe that if designers could go beyond that—and I don’t want to offend anybody but ego does have to be put to the side—then collaboration would be easier.

I think some of the best collaborative design is happening in non-design creative fields. It happens in film, in theater, in music, in dance, in the culinary arts, and in a chef’s kitchen. I think this is because it’s openly understood that collaboration is foundational to the process and its success. In a kitchen, it’s even foundational to its safety, right? Somehow that seems to get lost in our industry, that it’s foundational. Maybe because design is usually paired with business, and the objectives of those things can often be at odds; solving a problem versus making money. I think it continues to be misunderstood.

The key drivers are people, education, and building awareness and understanding. Again, people need to understand that design is inherently collaborative. We wouldn’t need to define it as such if they understood that. We could then build the conditions for making it more successful. A key aspect of that is going to be communication. What I mean by that is not just speaking, but listening. Listening is key to collaboration, and we’re not all good at doing that. That’s again because our culture says, You want to be seen and heard, and that’s what makes you successful. That’s how you’re often measured. Quietness and being the listener in the room are not necessarily valued to the degree that they should be but it’s one of the most important skills in collaboration; hearing others, gauging what they have to say, assessing what’s valuable, what needs to be explored further, what needs to get done, and what needs to be gently pushed back on. These are all really important elements: who’s comfortable, who’s uncomfortable. These are important parts to collaboration and you won’t pick them up unless you’re listening. Collaboration is about learning, sharing, leading, and supporting each other, and you can’t do that without listening.

Q: You talk about working with Purpose and Heart. Could you talk about what that means and how you bring it into your day to day design practice?

A: For me, purpose and heart is about designing things that are meaningful and that will resonate emotionally. It’s creating things that exist for a reason, they answer a why for the creator and the customer or user. The emotional side of it is what makes them sing. The heartfelt part is visceral and hard to explain. It’s about something that you feel; it just feels right. It’s like Goldilocks sitting in the chairs. She gets to the final chair and it is just right. She tried all the others, they didn’t work. It’s a feeling, it’s a sense. I think many of us who work in design, whether it’s branding or product or another area, we know  when something is right. I always rub my fingers together to express it, because it’s a feeling.

The question of how I bring purpose and heart into my work brings us back to collaboration. When I’m working with my clients, I want them to trust me. I want to have a deep understanding of who they are, and I want them to feel my curiosity. And I do this by asking a lot of questions. Questions like, What makes you tick? And really intensely listening. That’s been a part of my DNA from early on. When I was in my 20s I worked with a client who said, The thing about you is that you really are a good listener

The other part of purpose and heart for me comes from working on projects that really get me excited. If I’m excited, I want to get to the heart of what the project is about. I will often say to clients that I feel like my work is almost like being a medium.My job is to help draw out of them what is already there. I just help them bring it to fruition. Ayse calls me her design doula. Same idea: what could be more about purpose and heart than the role of a doula? I allow myself to be taken over by their ideas and projects, and they become important to me. It’s my purpose and heart, but I’m also helping them to get to the purpose and the heart of what they do. The purpose being why they exist and the heart being what’s going to make them sing.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

A Q&A with Participatory Design Expert Ranee Lee

A Q&A with Participatory Design Expert Ranee Lee

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Ranee Lee, an industrial designer, design educator, and participatory design expert with a focus on community-centered and non-profit design. She is a professor at Ontario College of Art & Design University, where her innovative curricula help students stay engaged and connected to the real world. She is also the founder of DESIGNwith, a collective that transforms communities by democratizing design. We asked her about the draw of participatory design, her experiences in non-profit design, and how to design for disruption.

Ranee Lee, Industrial Designer
Photo courtesy of Ranee Lee.

Q: You have a Master’s in education on participatory design framework, a powerful form of collaborative design. Could you explain what participatory design is and why you were drawn to it? How is participatory design distinct from cross-disciplinary design and other forms of collaborative design?

A: As designers, we’ve got a design process, and you specifically invite those with specialized skills at a certain juncture of that process. That’s not how participatory design works. For me, working in communities where folks are marginalized and as a university professor, there’s a power imbalance that is already there, whether you like it or not. Moving my practice methodology into participatory design was really a way to flatten that teaching and learning. I think participatory design is slower and probably more uncomfortable, it takes the control out of our hands as designers. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s slower, but I think the upside of it is that I am able to invite participants from the community who are not familiar with the design process. They are not trained as designers but they have skill sets and lived experiences that allow us to create a more equitable future through design. 

Participatory design for me personally is what’s worked. I was trained as a traditional product designer. As I started taking a community-centered approach and tackling more wicked problems, this methodology of participatory design put me in a position to be okay not knowing everything, and to rely on people’s lived experiences and knowledge to also guide the learning process. Learning shifts that power. I love it even more because I end up learning far more in design projects than I would have if I’d had more control. All in all, it’s been a great collaborative methodology. I have to say that the timing piece is not as neat and tidy as we would like it to be as designers, but that’s okay.

Q: Could you share an example of a participatory design project that has meaning for you?

A: I think all participatory design projects have so much meaning because of the nature of the process. It allows people to bring their whole selves into projects and, by doing that, you learn about them. You learn about their lives, and allowing those stories to be told is what helps to bring the project meaning. I love it best when the narratives themselves start to inform the project, but that takes time and trust. I don’t think there’s a formula that I could share. People always say, It’s so beautiful what you’ve created but how do you do that? To me it’s a relationship, and it requires a much longer time frame. 

We actually had a workshop here at DESIGNwith recently. We invited a like-minded design company from Costa Rica to do work here, that was the premise of the workshop. I love my workshops to be made up of different types of people. You have these middle-aged immigrant women from Regent Park, which is this area in Toronto that is being revitalized, along with young students, sitting side by side. When the person running the workshop asks, Anyone have any questions? For one of the Regent Park women to just jump up and have a question, that is the result of a whole year of working at DESIGNwith, building the creative confidence to own this place and feel comfortable asking questions. We opened in June of 2022 and I had never seen that side of her before now. So, it takes a long time.

I’m actually wearing this necklace that Rafia made for me. Rafia is one of the women we work with here. This is a simple design that came out of the question, How do we use fabric scraps to make a necklace? I love it because she noticed that I wear a lot of black and white, and she gathered black and white fabrics secretly, which took her months. One day, she came up to me and said, I made you something. I cherish this because this is from my daughter’s dress and I saved it, and this is from my neighbor. It was like a story of her life and a necklace that she made me. And to me, this is an outcome of participatory design. It empowers these women to have the creative confidence to express and share their ideas. They come here, to a space like this, and feel like they have agency. As much as we do as designers.

Q: You have said that you see design as a tool for disruption and response, which we love. How does this attitude influence your design practice? How does it influence your teaching practice?

A: As designers, we’re trained problem solvers. I tell students, that’s just the inherent nature of a problem: where there are problems, there are opportunities. I would say that my design practice is deeply rooted in these opportunities.

My work with the women in Regent Park started in 2015. And this lab only opened last year, but that was rooted in an opportunity, because the city of Toronto came up with this document called the Poverty Reduction Strategy. As a designer I was reading this document, thinking, Prosperity for all, that sounds really nice and it’s in this really nice font, but how are we actually including everyone in this? I’m not in policy design but I’m an industrial designer. How do I impact poverty reduction through making? That’s how this whole idea started. To me, there are always opportunities in these problems, and the biggest opportunities come out of the biggest disruptions. We all know the biggest disruption recently has been the pandemic. This opportunity of having a design lab in the middle of Toronto is one of those stories. It was me teaching a design class in my basement and thinking, How do I get out of my basement? I saw the shift in the retail landscape and the storefronts in my own neighborhood started to close. And I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity for space. I approached Canada’s largest property owner and gave them a proposal for a design lab that aligned with the “transforming communities” mandate, and to me that opportunity came out of a disruption. When there are disruptions in our world, people are more open to changes and new ideas. They’re like, We have nothing to lose.

I also embed this into my teaching, which means that it makes a lot more work for me as an educator. I don’t recycle anything. All my projects are new every year because the way I look at it the world changes. What was relevant last year, it’s not relevant this year. There are new opportunities this year. I think that when students see me bring what they see in the world into the classroom, it challenges them to tackle it in their own projects. I don’t believe in educators who have the whole year planned and just publish all their lectures from week one to week 13. I am changing my lecture slides the day before and bringing in what I read in the news because I think design is a response. We need to respond as designers to the world around us, and I bring that challenge into my own teaching practice. I think that challenges students to also respond to the world around them.

Q: In 2010 you co-founded Thinking Forward, a charity focusing on anti-bullying and character education programs for youth. Could you talk about your transition into non-profit design work? What was the catalyst for that transition?

A: I have to say, I’m in so many interviews and not many people actually ask this question. I see life as a scaffold, you know what I mean? So in 2010, I had a four year old and a one year old. I started brainstorming with my partner. His work is in leadership development and I’m an industrial designer. We had young kids. One was about to go into school. I believe in the public school system. I do not believe in private schools but we started to see gaps in the school system, and that the idea of character development was something that the Toronto District School Board could embrace. Just to give you an idea, this is the largest school board in Canada, and it’s the fourth largest in North America. So it’s massive. And Toronto is also very diverse. I think it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world in terms of how many nationalities are represented. So, it was a values-based question, How do we get people from opposite sides of the world to come together in a school? There was an opportunity. Seeing opportunities in these in-between spaces is what I feel like, as designers, we’re quite good at. So, we felt called to do this thing. We were in our 30s and realized, If we’re not gonna do this now, when are we gonna do this? We’re not gonna do this in our 60s, right? So, obviously it meant a lifestyle change. 

Looking back, it was thrilling on our end. It was an opportunity; we saw that we could make an impact that way. It was not an employment thing. We designed the curriculum and we had staff to run it while we had our own regular jobs. So for us, it was a passion. It was a huge side hustle. As of last year it was acquired by a local charity that has been running for a hundred years. To me, that was the biggest compliment ever, that they wanted to take over the work that we were doing. We just got too busy, too. Our kids are now 17 and 14, life is so different now.  It was a way to design a unique curriculum that we called Leadership. We asked, How do we use art-space leadership to combat bullying? As an industrial designer, I loved engaging students who are otherwise not engaged in school. After hands-on, play-type learning, you’re able to then teach other things.

Q: More recently, you founded DESIGNwith, a design incubator that supports local communities. Could you talk about how that project came about and the work you are doing there?

A: DESIGNwith opened in June of 2022 but, like I said, my relationship goes back to 2015. I approached Cadillac Fairview, who owns CF Toronto Eaton Center, Toronto’s busiest Mall. I think 50 million people walk through a year; almost as many as Times Square, which is crazy. They donated the space. When I first approached them I said, On your website, you speak of “transforming communities for a vibrant tomorrow.” I have a really tangible project that just requires space. That’s how this partnership came about; working with a group of thoughtful corporate folks who could imagine what this lab could be for the community. They renovated the space for me and we’ve designed it to have huge windows, which were salvaged from an Ann Taylor storefront. That’s key to democratizing design: it needs to be accessible. People need to see it. Did I always think I wanted to be in a mall? No, it just so happened that they owned a mall. I took whatever space they gave me. But, after being here a year, I think it is the perfect place. Where do you go when it’s so hot in the summer and you have no air conditioning at home? You go to the mall. When we talk about access, giving design to everyday people, where are these people? They’re at the mall, is what I’ve learned. So, it was a happy accident. I’d love to say that I had this in my mind and planned it, but no.

DESIGNwith is…Let’s just say a chair. There are so many times we look at chairs. People have no idea how it’s made. Is it injection  molded? We know, because we’re industrial designers. Everything here, even down to our furniture, is what we have designed it to be: a manifestation of our concept. So the chair itself is made out of lumber from your local Home Depot. Dimensional number, is what it’s called. So the idea was that and using only straight cuts. We gave ourselves really strict parameters to be able to showcase what DESIGNwith is visually. When people see through the window, they already go, There’s something different about this place. There’s our stool, and then on our wall is an exploded version of the stool, so it’s open source. You can go get your wood cut at Home Depot and learn to make it. I believe that it’s in that learning and making that you gain creative confidence. 

Going back to how long it takes to do community development; it took a whole year for someone to feel comfortable enough to ask questions. But it’s also in the making and doing that the everyday person participates in this design process, and they gradually gain confidence. They learn to dismantle, they learn to recycle, they learn to reuse. I would say the biggest mandate at DESIGNwith is that it’s designed for social innovation while also being within the circular economy. That means that all of the materials we use here have been discarded. All of these materials are destined for the landfill. 

We also design things into templates, so everyday people can then do the project. It’s like baby steps. Everything is down to template, and all of the materials are upcycled. Not only are people learning to make something, they’re learning that, My goodness, this material was from that banner on the street outside! And while they learn to make, they are also learning to fix, another design principle for circular design. They are learning to disassemble. They are learning to care, right? And remanufacture an old material into new material. It’s a bit magical because I think the designers who get drawn into this space, where you want to share, are a pretty special group of people.

Q: Do you see your design concept as possible to expand? Could it be grown in other places by other people?

A: It’s a question I’ve been thinking about myself. We were invited as far as Oslo, Norway to talk about this idea, because people are fascinated with it. There’s this Venn diagram that outlines sources of creativity in our world, and the areas are academia, corporations, and community coming together. The middle is the sweet spot of DESIGNwith. I think we’ve developed the framework. I want to spend this next year to flesh out that framework so that it can be implemented in other localities. A recipe for success, if you’re working with marginalized groups of people, is that it needs to be accessible for them. I’m a kilometer away from Regent Park, and I’m another kilometer away from the university. That location is very strategic.

I think it could be replicated. People from Philly contacted me after the conference, saying, My gosh, this needs to happen in our city! And I’m thinking, Of course it needs to! There are all of these resources but we are all in silos. If there’s something that climate change and wildfires are teaching us, it’s that we can no longer be in silos. We need to work together. I think DESIGNwith is a real example of what it’s like to work together: we accomplished so much in a year because we collaborated.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

A Q&A with AI Proponent Juan Carlos Noguera

A Q&A with AI Proponent Juan Carlos Noguera

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Juan Carlos Noguera, an industrial designer and design educator who focuses on creating holistic design solutions. He holds a masters in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and a bachelor’s in industrial design from Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala city. He is well known for being the product design director at Voxel8, where he pioneered the development of the first 3D electronics printer, and he is a professor of industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he brings AI into the classroom. We asked him about how AI is changing design education, how to incorporate AI into the design process, and how he teaches students to use AI effectively and responsibly.

Juan Carlos Noguera
Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Noguera

Q: Design has been revolutionized in the last decade by the emergence of sophisticated digital tools, the latest of which include powerful AI generators that we have barely begun to regulate. How have you seen design education changing in light of these developments?

A: I think the first knee-jerk reaction has been lots of fear from people, from faculty, especially because every time you read about AI and education in the same sentence, you hear about cheating and plagiarism and all of the very valid gray areas of AI. It’s a valid fear that people have. I think there are still a lot of things that need to be resolved regarding the regulation of intellectual property. These are ongoing conversations that I think we should definitely keep in mind. I’m a person who’s very excited about using AI in my classes. My personal perspective is that, if we are transparent about teaching incorporating AI into the projects that we teach, if we show students what AI can do really well, what the shortcomings of using AI in your process are, how your process can suffer from using AI — I think students will organically use it appropriately, because they want to reap the greatest benefit. If we give way to the hand wringing and fear and start prohibiting it in our classes, it starts becoming a problem. 

I’ve had a chance to do things like faculty workshops here at RIT, where I try to start to dispel some of the fear around it. These systems are not black magic. There are mathematical models: they do these certain things really well, and they don’t do these other things very well. I start getting people to jump on board and feel a little bit more excited. So, I have seen a big sea change toward positivity from some people, but there are still a lot of fears. I think that’s the biggest battle right now. But let’s get people to embrace it because, if we don’t, students will use it anyway, and they’re not going to see the downsides if we don’t point them out.

Q: The role of AI tools, especially image generators, is not yet standardized in the industry. How do you see AI being incorporated into design education, and how do you see it being incorporated into the design process more broadly?

A:  It’s always hard to visualize the future. I’m trying to think what may happen when the novelty wears off, at which point do we start seeing the net benefit of these tools existing? So, for education it means a few things. One is curricular change. We start rethinking what types of assignments get put into courses. Mechanical tasks that we used to ask students to do and that can easily be replaced by AI will get replaced by AI, whether you want it or not. So how do you get that learning out of more project-based work where students engage more in critical thinking. I think it’s a good thing, it also forces us as faculty to rethink things that were easy before. It’s going to force us to make some adjustments. Having faculty become experts in the area is hard, not everybody uses technology at that level. Some faculty are more reticent to start using it or to accept that it could be a tool.

Educational institutions are ships that are hard to steer because they’ve been going in one direction for a long time, and some people don’t want things to change. We’re a bit of a tribe as designers. You have to go through a right of passage of doing this one thing. What if that thing is no longer part of the process? We were just having a discussion at RIT.  We’ve been using this AI tool called Vizcom a lot in class, and it’s basically jumping over the entire need for my students to get good at marker renderings. Now, if they have a great line drawing of their idea they pump it through Vizcom and get a good enough representation of the thing that is as good as their marker rendering would have been. So why would you learn that manual skill? There are a lot of moving parts to this, which is why I understand the frustration.

On the other hand, in industry, once that novelty wears off you’re going to start seeing these AI tools being built into things you already use. It’s going to make the tools you’re used to smarter. When you go into your CAD program, AI tools are going to be there to help you with tasks that, right now, you might consider tedious. I think Adobe in particular is really a great job at incorporating AI into their offerings. It’s naturally built into Photoshop and Illustrator, and they’re going to slowly expand on this. They’re not taking these tools and saying, Here’s AI added on top of them. They’re saying, Hey, here’s the fill tool you’ve been using for a while, we’ve made it smarter. I think that approach is very future-proof in particular. They’re calling it generative. It’s just an offshoot of their previous version. They’re doing a good job at softening that landing for people, saying, Now Photoshop does one more thing. As opposed to the crash people have when they open Chat GPT and get this ominous feeling of not knowing what is chatting back. People have a hard time getting over that. That feeling isn’t there with Adobe products. I think we will see more of that and less of the inaccessible version.

Q: It can be challenging to use AI tools efficiently and effectively. At what point(s) in your design process do you find AI tools most valuable?

A: I have found that at least some of the generative tools I’ve been using so far in my practice, and also in class with my students, are really great during the ideation phase in a number of ways. Image generation software like Midjourney and Dall-E have been great at helping teams communicate. I had a chance to do a project with artisans from my home country, Guatemala. They do bronze castings. They typically work with a designer, and the designer is up here and they’re down here, just making the thing. It feels like a very top-down relationship. We recently jumped on a Zoom call and used Dall-E to communicate visual ideas. We went back and forth and just used that as a communication tool. It really helped level the conversation field. Dall-E is almost like an automated journey mapping or storyboarding tool, so it’s great for teams. I also think image generators have great potential when a designer is just hunkered down ideating. It’s an endless firehose of stuff. And that could be good or bad, depending. But let’s say you’re tasked with designing a plywood chair, right? It’s almost like having the key to the plywood chair museum. You can ask for plywood chairs all day and you will get all these different things that are plywood chairs. Some of them will be good, some of them will be garbage. But you’ll have an endless stream of images to look at and get inspired by, which can help you work through a block. It’s like the stimulation of going to a museum. It’s more targeted, because you get to input what you want, but the mechanism is the same. So, I think it’s going to make us more efficient.

I’ve pretty much absorbed it into my workflow. It really helps me visualize specific situations as well. It’s even helped me visualize situations for my client. I’m working right now on an underwater robot model for a client. I had the CAD model for the bot and and my own rendering, and I fed it to Midjourney and said, I want this thing to be underwater on the ship hull. And Midjourney did a beautiful job of putting my object underwater and on the ship hull. That’s the kind of thing that would be very time consuming to do. All of that sort of mechanical work is not going to be client facing anyway. It’s automated now, so it’s taking away some of the more painful parts of what I do, which is what automation should do, right? I think people are worried because this is now automation for the mind, and that’s a strange concept.

Q: How do you guide students to incorporate AI into their process ethically and in a way that preserves the integrity of their ideas? What are some of the common pitfalls in AI use that you see as a design educator?

A: I think it’s important to have students use it and also kind of crash and fail with it. I like to start with very open questions and assignments when we work with AI, so that they can see that the direct output from the system is not something they can use.

First of all, they have to understand how it works. So we go ahead and talk about how a diffusion system for image generation works, how it’s been trained. The data set is owned by everyone in the world. And what you’re getting is basically reprocessed data that’s combined based on your text input, but the information is coming from unknown sources. All of these different software companies are very opaque about how their software works. This means that any output that you get from the AI, you can consider that the same way you consider the results of a Google image search. You see the results. You might find something inspiring. It’s not something you want to use directly. That’s the first thing. It’s a great way to remix things in unexpected ways and find unexpected and inspiration. But they have to remember: this is just an echo chamber of everything that’s out there in the world. If you actually want to generate something new, you can’t use that output, because that’s not how the system works. You won’t get something new, it’s just giving you information from its data set. I’ve tried to get students to use it as a way to generate rich mood boards and inspiration boards as opposed to trying to get form from it.

Prompt engineering is on the horizon of being an actual profession. Out of all of these systems I like to have students play with Chat GPT. It’s a great way to train your thought process. They need to learn how to ask things from AI systems. You can give it a lot of context and get really great results back. We did this experiment in class where I said, Okay, I’m going to write a letter or recommendation for one of you, which is a task that I do as a teacher all the time. And at first I just asked Chat GPT directly, I want a letter of recommendation for this student. The student is an industrial design student. It gave me something professional and polite, a very generic letter of recommendation that sounded like a template, it sounded robotic. It was bad, it was not something usable. On the other hand, we repeated the exercise. We started describing my relationship to one student in the class. I said, Hey, Chat GPT, my name is Juan. I’m an industrial design professor. I come from Guatemala. I’ve worked on this and that before, these are my interests. You describe them in a couple sentences. And I said, I met the student last semester. They took my drawing class. They did this. The prompt was probably as long as the letter that I needed to write but I wasn’t trying to word it well. I had grammatical errors. I was being very casual about just telling it a lot of information. The language model is great at processing that. And then after that I just said, Knowing all that, please write a letter of recommendation for this person. And that letter was amazing. It was great. I would not guess it was written by AI. I seemed connected, like I really knew the student wanted to speak to the things they did. When you do an exercise like that, the students really see the power of the right prompt. They see, okay, I need to get context, I need to think carefully about keywords and information and try to frame my thoughts. After that, they start using the tool in more creative ways.

I use the tools in class as much as possible to try to take away the shame element of using AI. I say, Use it as much as you want. You just need to tell me when you use it. You need to cite it almost as if you’re citing a source for an image or anything else you’re putting in your paper. I want to know which steps used it, and how that helped inform your design decisions. Once we get that established, they feel more at home using it. They know that they’re not cheating, it’s not plagiarism. They’re using it, they’re being transparent about what they got from it, what they couldn’t get from it, and what failed. 

Q: What reaction are you seeing from the students? I know there can be costs to using these tools.

A: Yeah, there’s grumbling on the cost, but the same way that we’ve been grumbling about the cost of software forever. The same way I grumbled about paying $100 a year for my Keyshot subscription. Or when I finally graduated from school and realized that my professional license for SolidWorks was $5,000. Students here at RIT don’t get free Adobe licenses, they have to have their own. And that’s always a problem. So, that really hasn’t changed. 

One thing I do notice that is a source of frustration is going back to curriculum and course development. They now start seeing, Okay, here’s this tool, and it does the thing that you’re teaching me how to do by hand. So why are you teaching me this again? It feels redundant to them. I think that has been the most painful part of it for my students, just trying to figure out: What is the skill set of a designer in the end? What’s desirable when I go out into the world? Should I have AI skills? I might not be getting them from the school. Do I have to get them on my own? Should they be in my CV? All these things are a source of frustration.

Q: How do you see the relationship between AI and design education developing in the near future?

A: That’s a great question that I don’t have a very solid answer for. Last semester we had about five or six different faculty forums about what’s going to happen with AI and education. Universities are wrestling with how to tackle it and these tools are popping up that are really unexpected, like Vizcom. It basically showed up a couple of weeks before we started the semester and it really made us think, Should we try to retool the entire design drawing class we’re teaching this semester? Because they’re going to use this and wonder why they need to learn how to work with Copic markers. Those are valid questions, because… is this a skill that is no longer relevant?

We need to ask those hard questions. That’s definitely on the horizon because I think this is significant enough that we’re going to need to rethink many parts of our curriculum and how we do things in education. We can’t treat it like a piece of software. We have to treat it as the sea change that it is. It’s very fast-paced, and we don’t know what other tools will pop up. They’re going to replace everyday tasks. This has already started to happen. When I went to school, I did three semesters of technical drawing. Giant board with a parallel ruler. That now feels like it was a waste of time, but that was the industry standard when I went  to school. That change happened gradually, but this is happening fast, and I think that’s the big difference. 

The school-wide policy in most schools that I’ve seen has been very nebulous. It’s mostly been about trying to give faculty a little bit of power over how to use AI in their class. The syllabi that we use now have language that says that the faculty get to say when AI is appropriate or not, or that it’s not to be used unless the faculty instructs the students to use it. This leaves the door open for usage while still trying to be cautious. institutions are trying to use caution, which is natural, right? But there should be a sense of urgency. And that really depends on who you ask. 

I would say generally that industrial designers are overall super excited. Very happy. They can see lots of applications, things that can help us. If you’re a graphic designer, you’re less excited. If you’re Illustrator, you’re definitely not very excited about this at all. A concept artist? You don’t want this at all. It really depends on your specific area of interest and also your industry. There are a few industries that might be more directly affected by this existing. If you work in an industry with a very specialized knowledge base, soft goods for example, I would be less worried. If you work in another area, maybe traditional consumer goods, plastics, it’s hard to tell.

I’m very optimistic and see great benefits using AI in my work. It frees me up for what I consider the more critical parts of designing, like trying to be user-centric, trying to be sustainable in my decisions. It’s reducing the workload of things I don’t like to do, which is what automation should do. Not everyone is that optimistic, but I see good historical precedents for this. When photography was invented, everybody thought, This is going to destroy painting. Most painters were tradespeople, because painting was a way to do naturalistic documentation. But the rise of photography spurred painting as an art form, and all these different currents, like impressionism and cubism. It was a documentation tool that was taken over by this other, more automated thing: photography.

When they invented the sewing machine, they thought, It’s going to replace the people that create clothes. And there were strikes and all this resistance. It took 30 years for it to catch on. And people realize, no, the sewing machine just makes people that make clothes more efficient. It drives up quality, it ends up being a good thing. But there’s a lot of fear. 

When we started having records for music, musicians unions got the radio station consortium of New York to play records one time and then destroy them. Because before that, music was live, right? So you have to pay the band for every play. Records took that away. So buying one record for each play was the way that they saw out of it. There’s always a clash but, in the end, all of these technologies helped make things progress. I think that’s what’s going to happen here.

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A Q&A with Design Strategy Expert Daniela Macías

A Q&A with Design Strategy Expert Daniela Macías

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Daniela Macías, Global Experience Design Manager at Colgate-Palmolive and an expert in design strategy, consumer packaged goods, and leading cross-functional teams. She is a champion of empathy, innovation, and human-centered design research. We talked to her about the value of design strategy, how to think like a design strategist, and influencing without authority.

Daniela Macias, Industrial Design Strategist
Photo courtesy of Daniela Macías.

Q: Most of us, as designers, have some kind of plan as we work, but we aren’t all trained in design strategy. What is the difference between having a plan and having a design strategy?

A: From my perspective, when you have a plan it’s just a series of steps and activities. You’re going to do them, and they will get you from point A to point B, right? It’s very simple. Anybody can have a plan. I think the difference between a plan and strategy is that strategy is more like, How can we influence something that we don’t control? How can we make choices when there is a gap between what’s actually happening and what we want to be happening? It’s very different. Strategy also gets you from point A to point B, but it’s more about making certain choices—what to do and what not to do— in a way that brings you closer to your desired outcome.

Q: Previously you talked about design strategy bringing structure, clear direction, and purpose to the design process. What are your first steps when developing a design strategy and who is ideally on that initial development team?

A: There are all sizes of projects. There’s a range of scopes. Colgate is a matrix organization, with many functions spread out across the globe, which complicates things. For our strategy team, the first step is that you need us to jump in because there’s something we can solve through design. Because that’s what we do. We solve problems every day, business problems for the organization. So, it usually starts with someone coming to us to ask for help, saying, Hey, we need to create this new thing or experience, we need help solving this problem

As a first step, we create a specific document to understand the whole scope of the project. We ask, How big is this? Okay, you need a design solution, but what is the impact? Who are the stakeholders? Who are the decision makers? We extract as much information as we can from the team coming to us. And then we start what I call ‘gathering the puzzle pieces’. You find one piece here, one piece there. We usually know where to find these pieces. Colgate is a very relationship-driven company. You go and get a little bit from someone who might have worked on a similar product, or who has information on the team that used to touch that brand. Once we have all these pieces, we put them together to create the scope and the criteria for success, which will guide us like a north star from beginning to end. 

To define scope we have different tools. We might ask questions, or we might create a framework. It depends on the size and scope of the objective we are looking to accomplish. We call this phase zero. Phase zero is, Okay, let’s just define. This is what we have on our hands. What’s the ask? How much money do we think we need? What could be a tentative working plan and its phases? We do stakeholder interviews. Anyone who has a stake in the project and who will be impacted, we want to hear from them. And the higher the stakes, the deeper you have to go. 

Once we define the project, then we can go to the next phase. For us, that’s the discovery phase. That means we gather everything that has been created in the past—insights information from the relevant markets, brand information from our marketers, formula information from R&D —everything we’re going to need for our development. We don’t go through all the phases all the time, or we might go through shortened phases. It depends on the project. So, we discover and then we synthesize.

Synthesize means: let’s condense everything that we’ve heard. You’ve agreed to what we think the scope should be or you’ve agreed to our plan—because by then we’ve created a plan, a timeline. We synthesize and say, Okay, this is the essence, right? This is what we’re really trying to solve. Up until then we’ve only had hypotheses; we thought it was something, but it wasn’t. This is the most complex step and I’m oversimplifying it, but that’s more or less how we do it. Only then, which is something that no one prepares you for, only then we create. And the creation is so short, it’s crazy. We spend so much time thinking and talking about the problem, gathering the pieces, and redirecting as new learnings come up. 

I think that’s part of our responsibility as design leaders, to guide the non-designer teams throughout the process, because it’s very uncomfortable. People don’t like uncertainty. Many people we work with, engineers or scientists or even marketers, react to a spreadsheet. They want to know what the solution is from the start, but it doesn’t work like that. One of my most useful skills is translating all the different parts of the design into something other departments can understand, because they all have different objectives. We’re all working towards the same purpose and the same thing, but in the end they have different metrics and objectives, and they need to comply with other requirements that I might not be  aware of. But we need their buy-in, and a key part of getting it is walking them through the process as smoothly as possible. We say, It’s uncomfortable. It’s awful. We know. We’ll get there, it’s fine. We know what we’re doing. After we create, then comes iteration, which is about testing and learning and nurturing this new design solution so it becomes the best it can be. We assess the outcome based on the strategy that we have for testing or validating whatever we’re trying to do. We might go through this loop several times, and not all projects get there. If we’ve made it that far, then we are in the delivery phase, and we get to hand it off to the team who is going to implement it, or to the team who is going to continue developing it.

Q: It’s hard to talk about design strategy abstractly as it can incorporate so many different aspects of the business and design processes. How do you determine the scope of a strategy? How do you determine hierarchies of importance within a complex strategy?

A: When we get a new project request, we more or less have a good idea of the size of the ask. We know that if it’s a brand that has been out in the market for many years, maybe it’s time to change to build on brand equity. That’s one motivator. But in our world, there might be other factors to trigger a redesign, right? Things start to get more and more complex in the case of a global brand, or a brand that exists in many countries, where we know that whatever we touch is going to impact a lot of things. That’s when we say, Whoa, let’s sit down. Let’s think about this. Then there are projects that are really straightforward; We need a size extension. We need to improve ergonomics. It might be very targeted, and my team has to be ready to go either way. 

I wouldn’t want to take on high risk in one of these high stakes projects, though of course we have to take calculated risks. But this is something that you figure out together with your team at the beginning, and everyone needs to be on board. I think the real monsters are these projects that have many pieces, many regions involved, many functions. It’s like trying to move an entire ship. And you’re the single designer trying to steer everyone in a certain direction.

The first thing for me at least is, Okay. What’s the size of the ask? What does the final user need? Who are the main actors and decision makers who are going to help me? Because that’s super important. Maybe you need a project sponsor, someone who is committed and wants to push it with you. Some projects get very complicated, and you need to negotiate and influence heavily. That part is not about design, and it’s not personal. It’s not because people like it or don’t like it. All of that is subjective and has to be removed. It’s more like, What’s the impact on the business? What is good for the business? What is good for our final users? What’s the highest risk we’re able to take? Obviously, I don’t have the answers to all these questions at first. 

There are many layers to these projects. I own the first part, which is, Okay, there’s a decision to create something. I have to make my working plan and I have to make sure that I have everyone that I need in there. But usually things are happening in parallel. I need to be informed on the state of the business to know my budget and my resources before I can make a plan. I was thinking about how I do this and really, it comes down to experience, because every project is different, and it makes every design strategy unique. We ground ourselves in the steps of the creative process: define, discover, synthesize, create, test and learn, rinse and repeat. That structure is a guide. But then I need to know the context—what the key decisions are in the process, and who needs to make those decisions—to keep us moving forward. From experience I more or less know the steps that I need to take, but there’s always something new. We have to react accordingly without stopping progress because most of these initiatives are time sensitive.

When I think back, the scope or the motivation to start a project changes constantly. Ten years ago, we might have been thinking about relaunching a new bottle because we needed something more competitive. Today, maybe we’re looking for the most sustainable choice. We’re looking for something that people will fall in love with that can also achieve our sustainability strategy objectives. As you put more layers on what a design needs to do or bring to the business, the process gets more complicated and the path gets narrower because there is a lot that we don’t control. For example, if we don’t end up with a cap that complies with a certain sustainability objective, then it’s a no-go. You don’t launch anything. Of course, I want it to launch. It’s mostly about defining scope and negotiating heavily, saying, Okay, I hear you Mr. Engineer. If we can’t do it like this, what would it take for this to be a yes? How can I help you?

It’s a lot of negotiating and constantly asking why. It’s about pushing the envelope, because everyone wants to do what’s easiest or most straightforward, but it’s not always in the best interest of the project. 

Q: Design strategies often come from executive management and require strong leadership to implement. How do you advocate for a bold or risky strategy? How do you test the validity of a strategy?

A: When I said sponsor before, I meant someone in top management who is passionate about the initiative and can help you push forward; removing obstacles, speaking to other people on your behalf, and getting information. It’s not always official. It’s about finding allies, and not only at the top level. I think that part of why I’ve been successful doing this is because I started in a region, and I started working very close to these teams on the ground. In a way, I learned their language. So for me it’s easier to come and say, Okay if I stay close to you, we can do this, right? Let’s help each other. I think it works both ways. It’s a lot of negotiating up but also negotiating downwards and doing the best for the project and our final users, which is the main thing. 

These cross-regional projects don’t happen that often. I don’t have a specific number in mind, just because we have so many brands and so many different structures that it feels like there’s always something happening. It depends on each brand and they are all different, but I would say it used to be an industry standard to remain in a certain shape language for maybe five to ten years. But it really varies nowadays. Because now there are so many new brands, the pace of the rate of renewal is picking up, and many choose to just use stock components. One of Colgate’s biggest strengths is the supply chain, but it’s so big and so widespread and volumes are so high, that it can be hard to implement change. We want to do it carefully and at our own pace but also as fast as we can, which is always a challenge. 

Usually, we don’t do it all at once, which is something that’s important to mention. Some of my most complex projects have taken years to launch. And when I say years, I mean years. I’ve worked on projects that have been on and off for seven years. That’s part of the strategy: What goes first? What are the most pressing questions that we need to answer to get this right? What can we do better this time? And influencing how the research happens is key as well. Testing for what we do is very different from testing a label or a logo or graphics. I have found that training myself in research and methodologies to create the research plans I need, inform design decisions and make those decisions as best as I can is extremely important. It allows me to speak the language of our insights people, and our insights people are key to help us get to success. It also helps us empathize with our final users, which are at the core of it all.I’m specifically tapping on insights and empathy because, from my perspective, industrial designers might be the only ones seeing all the way from the beginning to the finish line, and that is an  actual  person using the thing and sharing their homes with it.

My sales people think about the retailer and the presence on the shelf, and that’s great, that’s their job, and they do it really well. The packaging engineers; they’re concerned with making our design run smoothly in our production lines . The marketers are in charge of the brand strategy and the brand health. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for weeks now: Isn’t it crazy that industrial designers are there from the start,at the inception, saying, What is this  going to be? What should this be? And you have to see all the way to the end user, it’s all about empathy. In the end, this thing we will create is going to be living in someone’s home. Someone’s going to use it and then dispose of it, and then they might come back. What does that look like? 

Thinking like that has helped me drive and influence a lot of decisions, to justify a lot of decisions for our design strategy. I can say, Hey guys, we thought about that, the people, the plan, we know this, and we know that. We don’t have a lot of power. Most of the time, we don’t own the budget when we’re working on something. It’s usually the region coming to us or the brand coming to us that owns the budget. When you don’t own the budget, it’s not that you are powerless but you definitely don’t have the same amount of power. That’s where a strong design strategy comes in – how do you influence outcomes that you have little to no control over?

I’m telling you, industrial designers: we have superpowers. They are not as evident at first because not a lot of people know who we are and why we exist. I’ve been here for 15 years and I started in one of the regions. My first position was in a factory in the middle of nowhere. The next one was in the corporate office in Mexico City, which was great. But it still wasn’t global, so the visibility was limited for me. When I first joined the global team, we had a change of management. We got this new manager, very much a can-do designer. He gets his hands dirty. He said, Hey, we need to pick up more skills. We need to arm ourselves. This really resonated with me. He made us realize that we are some of the only people in this company who can create something with our hands. That’s so important. It sounds like it’s nothing but it really is everything, because you can communicate any idea. You can convince someone, you can quickly show them possibilities. He pushed for a lot of change and I think we were hungry for it because we were incredibly responsive. We did our job and we did it well. But when we started upscaling and expanding our skill set—not only to the hard skills of traditional design but getting our feet wet with research, taking courses on impactful presentations, going to conferences, learning new tools and frameworks, sharing our knowledge with other functions, and learning design strategy—it made us feel so powerful. It empowered us to say, Hey, we know how to do this. We can test this. We can run with this. We came up with a solution for this. We are so curious, and we get good at things so quickly. No matter the skill, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with my work, I find that it informs things, it helps me become a better designer.

That was a huge shift, when that happened. For a brief time, we were peers with our research and development scientists. We were basically in the same team as our very healthy group of scientists all around the world. They are so talented. Something that was fun to discover is that scientists are just as curious as we are, and they can also create things with their hands and with their minds.  What they didn’t have was the ability to make those things beautiful, or to talk about and sell ideas to others in the organization. So we found an odd match there, industrial designers and researchers or scientists. It was great because we upskilled them, we trained them, we created courses: Here’s how you make a quick prototype. We gave them some of our tools. They were very happy. They’re still doing it. Having these design processes helped us expand the awareness and impact of design through the organization. We started leading a lot of innovation projects, and I think that has cemented us as the team that can dream. And we can help other people dream. They don’t have to go to an agency to empower them. And, I don’t know. It’s just fun.

Q: How can we incorporate the values of design strategy, or experience some of the benefits of design strategy, as individuals who might not be in a position of authority?

A: Yes, I love this question. It resonates with me because even though it sounds like we have a lot of power, we really don’t. This puts us in a position where we have to constantly influence and negotiate, and nudge the team to do what we believe is the right thing to do. I think at the times when I felt the most powerless in my career, just learning has always helped me get unstuck. And learning doesn’t only mean going and taking a course, it comes in many shapes and it doesn’t even have to be about design necessarily. A course is great, but even a podcast: if you listen to a podcast, there’s an expert and he’s saying, I do this. And you’re like, What if I do that? And it sparks something, and it is because we have trained our creativity to make odd connections and find patterns where others might not see any. I think that’s really, really useful. I don’t lose sight of that, I keep a folder with tools and methodologies and cards and materials that I’ve found on the internet. It might be free or not, or a framework or a diagram, or a map that I like. These tools will help you speak their language. This will help you.

Within a company, you first have to understand what’s important for them, the people in authority, to achieve. Who are the stakeholders, what are they trying to achieve, and can you help them? Get there in a way that also benefits you. See what tools you have at your disposal to build a case. It might be a prototype, it might be a schedule with all the steps clear for your marketing department, to give them peace of mind that you have thought it through. I think that’s paramount: trust that you have their best interest in mind and they can rely on your work. 

Going back to what strategy is and how it’s different from a plan, strategy is about asking, How do you fill this gap between what is happening today and what you wish was happening? What is your ideal scenario, and how could you get there, how do you build that bridge? It’s influencing what you can’t control, and that’s all we can do. I think it’s also important to say that things are not always going to go the way that you want them to go. You will have to settle most of the time or a lot of the time. You have to be ready for that. Yes, have a strategy. But at the end of the day: things happen, no one’s perfect, plans don’t go as planned. You have to be ready to pivot and react, but it’s not the end of the world. As long as you stay close to the people you design for, keep expanding your set of tools, and become a master of influence: you got this.

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A Q&A with Interaction Designer Elham Morshedzadeh

“I believe that we can’t design the experience. We design the interaction, and the experience is unique to every single person.”

A Q&A with Interaction Designer Elham Morshedzadeh

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Elham Morshedzadeh, an industrial designer, usability researcher, and design educator with a focus on healthcare and community-centered design. She has a master’s in industrial and product design and a PhD in user-product interaction design. She is currently teaching at the University of Houston and works on a number of transdisciplinary healthcare-related research and design projects. We asked her about her user-product interaction, her experiences in design higher education, and the approach to design education in different countries.

Q: What motivated you to pursue a PhD in User-Product Interaction design? 

A: There were different reasons. I was into art and I was into design, but I was also always a good researcher. I like to get in-depth with things, and that’s why I started my master’s in the first place. I would say that my master’s was not a traditional master’s in design. Many people basically do more product design in their master’s program. For me it was more about looking into different types of interactions; between humans and products and between humans and systems. When I was pursuing my master’s, the meaning of interactive design implied digital products, or products that have some digital components in them. I always wanted to look into the true meaning of interaction, interacting with this device or object, this physical thing. I like the physical, functional, and cognitive aspect, so it started there. I did deep research into the overall understanding of how interaction creates the experience. I believe that we can’t design the experience. We design the interaction, and the experience is unique to every single person. It’s literally that person’s experience, and no matter how much you try, people’s experience will be different and unique to themselves.

There were a couple of reasons for getting the PhD. One was that I was fascinated in how we can combine our thoughts and qualitative aspects of design into something that is more reliable, something that can facilitate stronger conversations in interdisciplinary work that we do with the engineers. They don’t communicate like us. How can we describe our qualitative data in a more reliable way such that we can gain the respect from our colleagues or from our collaborators when we are working on a design? I thought that would be more than just a project to do on my own, and I really wanted to do it in a more academic way because it was part of my understanding that that structure can provide me a good foundation for achieving my goal.

I also really wanted to teach. I really love teaching, so that was also aligned with what I was doing. I worked in industry as well before getting my PhD, before even getting my master’s. The combination of my experience working with big groups of people, where I was the only designer, and trying to convince those people that what I’m saying, it might not have the same data or numbers that you’re looking for, but it makes sense. That was an experience that pushed me towards trying to find better language to communicate in interdisciplinary work. In my opinion, interaction applies to any type of design, and that’s why I took a deep dive into interaction evaluation.

Q: How did the different levels of design degrees you experienced differ from one another?

A:  It was not funny, but I will say it was funny that in the last conference I attended there was this guy sitting beside me. When we introduced ourselves he saw my business card and he said, Ohh, PhD. Since when did we need a PhD in design? He was basically saying, What do you know? But I think he was being privileged, he was always given this permission to speak his thoughts aloud, no matter what they are. I wanted to tell you that it’s not the only way to pursue higher education in design, but it’s one of the ways. So I’m not saying that it is for every single person, but it has its own value. 

I have a little bit of a skills issue with the master’s in industrial design curriculum. To me, a master’s in industrial design, it’s just another studio. In many programs, it’s another studio project with a little bit of deeper aspects in the design of a product. I’m actually looking at higher education in design as looking into different philosophies and different methodologies, and incorporating design with other disciplines. That’s why, for example, in my PhD I looked into quantifying my data. I looked into factor analysis, basically looking into how to use the computer to quantify my qualitative data. I was looking into how the impact of one interaction can impact another, things that as a designer I might not know, but a machine can tell me.

I see higher education as an infrastructure and a foundation to strengthen designers and give them the seat at table for designing a strategy, designing vision, designing a pathway for any idea or company, rather than just sitting behind a desk and sketching. That’s my idea of higher education in design because, to be honest, they are partly right. Many of the things being taught in traditional education in industrial design are skills. They are hard skills like sketching classes, software classes. I always tell my students that if you just want to be good in Rhino, you can take a module. You really don’t have to come to school. What we are trying to train them is more about those soft skills, about better communication. Understanding how their decision or their design is impacting other things around in that environment. Working together and even creating the respect that the designer needs between themselves and other people in the discipline. Good storytelling. Storytelling is not just about good drawings, good illustrations. Yes, you need good technique to tell your story, but it’s not all about the illustration. It’s about knowing: where is the peak of your story? Where are you at the end? How do you connect everything that you said into a conclusion that reminds your user about all the challenges that you explained to them at the beginning?

So these are the soft skills that it might not be possible to do in a four week module. It might not be possible to do it in six weeks. It’s something that we constantly talk about with our students. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically getting myself ready to do more interdisciplinary work. Nobody was even talking about interdisciplinary work then. Fifteen years ago I was the only designer in a team of 20 different engineers and entrepreneurs, and they were all wearing suits. The moment they saw me, they said, Who is this kid? But by the end of that project, they were constantly calling me to say, What do you think we should do with this? What do you think the solution is for this? I gained their respect and changed their opinions about what designers do, and that has been my agenda since that moment. I always wanted to teach and I always wanted to learn, so being in an academic environment always made me happy. They say to the job that you don’t work one day in your life. I’m not saying 100%, but it’s summer and I’m in my office so…


Q: You did your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Iran and now work and teach in the U.S. What differences have you experienced in the attitude toward design education across different countries and institutions?

A: There is a truth that we can’t deny: most programs around the world are influenced by the traditional, Bauhaus, European design definition. In my experience in Iran, we were definitely influenced by that. It really depended on which college the program was located in; if the program was located in an art and design college, it was more artistic. It was more towards Italian design, fun, emotional design playing with form and function. And then if it was located in an engineering college, it was more focused on the engineering aspect. There were even two different degrees, a BA and a BS. At the same time, my college was something in between. The difference was that we were taught plenty of basic courses in engineering, like mathematics, physics, mechanics, and physical electronics. That was a good practice to have in order to be able to work with other disciplines. That’s something I feel we are lacking in programs in the U.S. We expect our students to learn about mechanics themselves. Unless there is a course or unless there is a project designed specifically for them, they don’t get an official education in any of these disciplines, and that causes the quality of prototypes to decline in the depth. 

I told you, I’ve worked with engineers. It’s not just the it’s not just the facade or how it works or something like that. You really have to understand how to pack those devices in that space. Production limitations are a very, very important thing in the evolution of a concept into a product that can be production-ready. I would say, at least in a couple of the programs that I experienced in the United States, they lack that unless there is a good professor, you know? I don’t mean to say that we need to teach everything, but I would say it is good to have those foundations.

In Japan, one thing that was interesting to me was the attention to their culture. You could see the integration of their own culture in the design of their studios and in the design of the projects they teach their students. They also idealized western design history, but they were fully aware of their own potential, their own value. So they empower their own culture and values but, at the same time, it can isolate them. They can be more focused on: what is a good design for this company, for this environment, for this community in Japan? 

Another thing that I wish I could see change in American programs is the approach to the senior project. I think it’s very rushed, allowing just one semester. The students aren’t able to complete a full design process. In a best case scenario, maybe some of them will test their first prototype. In both Chiba University and in my own country, we would dedicate at least one year and sometimes more to accommodate working with a manufacturer.

Q: How does your experience teaching in design influence your design practice?

There are two different types of impact. One is design related, and one is personality or teaching related. On the personality side, I would say it makes me more patient toward my students. It makes me even more open minded towards different approaches. I’m really happy that I work in design outside of my teaching because it keeps me more human towards my students, rather than just being their teacher. From the teaching point of view, it keeps me updated. It really pushes me to keep track of what needs to be taught, which is also the challenge for design education in my opinion. This is a never ending question.

Overall, what I am teaching right now is not that similar to traditional design education. I focus very little on the end product. I focused a lot on the process, on decision-making, on prioritization. I ask myself, What is the demand in the industry? My work is still very narrow in one area, and while teaching a group of 20 students, I experience a very wide area. That itself adds to the challenge of teaching industrial design or design students, because you have to be able to have some knowledge about everything, which is ridiculous… but that’s also this exciting part, in my opinion.

We talk constantly to the students about what’s happening in the world right now. How is it going to impact our job? How is it going to impact their future as a designer? And I’m being honest with my students, it’s not that I know everything. Especially when they are in their senior project, I tell them, You are supposed to have even more knowledge than me about this topic by the end of this project. Going back to the difference between the bachelor’s and the master’s, the thing is that if you go back to the traditional definition of a master’s degree, you really need to have an agenda of research and a body of research.

If you’re just doing another product design as your master’s without a good body of research behind it, then why are you doing it? The degree means that you are capable of starting, running, and accomplishing a whole research process, no matter what the end product might be.

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?

A: There are actually two things. One is that I’m starting a new initiative for women’s healthcare, making it better and more accessible. We’re working with new technologies like eye tracking to understand what’s going on in a woman’s head when they go to the exam room and they are waiting to hear for example if the lump in their breast is a cancer or not. We have so much capability right now to make those experiences less traumatic. It’s not an easy route convincing people to work with you. Even the communities and the public, and it’s very, very hard. That’s another mission that I have, I want to rely on communities rather than isolate or alienate them.

The second thing is that I want to work on small, detailed add-on designs that make somebody’s life a little bit better. For example, a better bike handle for people with arthritis. That’s something I’m really excited about. A third thing: I also do painting. I used to be a painter. I was doing it professionally and then in the last ten years I couldn’t because of life getting busy, moving to a new country, getting a job, and all these crazy things. I decided that I want to go back to it and I’m already working on my fifth painting. I hope to be able to do an exhibition by the end of this year. My true passion is actually drawing and painting. And it’s so funny, even though I haven’t painted in the last ten years, my brush strokes have changed. I think they are more confident because I am a more confident person. Internally I feel more comfortable with who I am. The way that I put the brush on the canvas; I’m not afraid to be who I am. I think that a lot of that is because I’m a researcher. Because I’m always looking, I’m not doing something similar every single day. I have to come up with new proposals, new ideas to do research. And I think this is a skill that I learned in higher education; to think in different directions and connect things that might not seem connected at all.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!