Spotlight - 03/06/23

A Q&A with design consultant Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman

15 min

By Meghan Day

“Once you can get over that hump of being comfortable with the unknown, you’re free to be a really good designer.”

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. We ask designers about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this issue we speak to Interwoven’s very own founder and principal designer, Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, a design consultant and educator with expertise in wearable technology, functional apparel, and soft goods design.

Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman is a co-founder of SEArch+, Space Exploration Architecture, has developed a number of projects with NASA, is a professor of industrial design at Pratt Institute, and worked for over 20 years as a corporate Design Director for Champion, Fila, and Nike. She is the author of Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics and speaks internationally on design, innovation, and the future. We asked Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman about what great design consulting looks like, her work as a design educator, and how she nourishes her creativity.

Photo courtesy of Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman

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

A: I’m really excited about a line of adaptive lingerie that we did for a startup client called Even Adaptive. I love this project, not just because of the product that we designed and the innovation that we’re bringing to the market, but also because of the audience it serves. It’s a really underserved audience in terms of everyday products, especially everyday products that are stylish and fun and inclusive. In my own personal art practice I’ve been doing a lot of work in ceramics lately.  I’m obsessed with all of the technical knowledge that you need as well as the personal craft and being able to use your hands to discover materiality. All of these things are really exciting to me.

Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?

A: I’m going to go back to the Even Adaptive project. It was a fashion-type project that involved all the trend forecasting, colors, materials, and silhouette development that you would do as an apparel designer combined with the innovation of an industrial designer. We had to design and make a clasp that could be operated with a single hand, so that was straight up industrial design: CAD modeling and testing and user interaction. Combining those two into a single project that used both sides of my brain was really exciting. 

Another project I really enjoyed is the Apex Exosuit by HeroWear. That was another project that had this component that was very much like a textile product that’s worn on your body. It has to fit multiple different areas of your body, your back, your shoulders, and your thighs, then it connects those fitted parts with another highly designed mechanical component that is both a switch and a clutch. I like that idea of How do you get these machines and tools to fit comfortably on the body? Those two projects in particular really suit our skills.

Q: What is design consulting?

A: Personally, I love being a design consultant because, in full transparency, I get bored really easily. The nice thing about being a design consultant is that you can have your sphere of influence or your tunnel of expertise, which can be pretty specific, and clients hire you for those skills. But every project is different. In the case of someone like me, with a long career and experience in different areas, certain projects will focus on certain areas. So we can do everything from branding and product strategy, which is really fun and interesting, to a project that’s primarily apparel-driven and involves a lot of garment design and construction, to what I would call hardcore product design, hard objects that that need CAD work and 3D printing, to projects that bring all of those three things together. 

I think that hiring a design consultant is a way for a company to have an in-house design department without having the overhead of a design department. They can effectively hire a design department without signing up for the overhead of a full-time in-house design team.

Something that design consultants have to do really well is communicate. We have to document our process and communicate the way we’re thinking more than an in-house design staff, because the products that we create aren’t necessarily the end products. If I’m designing a pen case, it’s not just the pen case I need to deliver. How we made all the decisions to get to that pen case is also of critical value to the client. We deliver the process as well as the product. As a corporate designer, I didn’t really have to document my process because everybody witnessed it. As a design consultant, I have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it to our clients.

Q: What does a great design consulting experience look like?

A: Oh, it’s so fun. If a client has an idea that’s amazing and they are open to working with the design consultant that can bring ideas to the table, it becomes an incredible partnership, even a friendship. The best relationships are ones that are built over time, where there’s a lot of trust involved on both sides, because the creative process really needs a nurturing environment. It can’t be negative. You need a lot of “yes” people. I love when clients are open to ideas and they enjoy the process. Part of what I personally love about design is the process. I never know what the answer is going to be before I start, but I just know I’ll find an answer if I trust in the process. When I have a client that feels the same way and enjoys every step, it’s the most rewarding experience on both sides.

Q: Could you tell us what inspired the transition from being a corporate design director to founding your own consulting business?

A: I really loved working as a corporate designer. I liked the idea of working for many years on a single brand, really understanding the DNA of that brand and how, through new products and brand extensions, I could grow a business. When it’s a big company, you have a lot of resources at your fingertips. You can develop a brand new textile that has a two to three year development window. You can’t really do that if you’re a smaller company. 

The downside of working for a large corporate company is that you’re working on the same product over and over again and you have to find ways to reinvent it. Also you’re at the mercy of the business needs of the corporation. They don’t really see you as an individual. There were a couple of times in my career that I was laid off from a job through no fault of my own, just due to corporate restructuring. That led to a lot of stress. One day I had a job, and the next day I didn’t. Part of the transition for me was to be able to take control of my own career. Also, as you get older as a designer it’s harder to find work. People really want young designers on their full-time staff. People don’t like to talk about it but ageism does exist. I felt like this was one way that I could not only control my career and stay excited about the projects I was working on, but I could battle ageism, which I saw as a real problem, especially in the corporate area of active sportswear.

Q: What does your design process look like? Any favorite tools or techniques?

A: It’s pretty much a traditional process with multiple phases. Personally I love the problem definition, which is the very first step. I feel like that’s where you find your opportunities, and that’s where innovation can come from; doing the anthropological research of observation in the field, keeping an open mind, and being super curious about things. There’s always a huge learning curve with every project. I have to educate myself on the brand and the direction as well as the customer and their needs. I love that first phase of knowledge acquisition and problem definition, discovering where the opportunity is.

Then the ideation phase is so much fun, just coming up with lots of possible solutions. After that first research phase I bring in more members of the team to refine the designs. I can step back a little, and that allows me to start looking at the next big problem that we have to solve.

Q: What do you do to nourish your creativity?

A: I like to stay active, but mostly I like to see things. I know that sounds really rudimentary. What do you like to see? I like to see everything. I go to a lot of museums. I love modern dance. I love the abstract nature of the movement of the body. Choreography is so elegant and fluid, but it’s also so unusual. We don’t move like that in our everyday lives. So that brings me a lot of joy.  I’ve done some costumes for modern dance and I love that kind of project. I’m interested in that question of how you enhance that performance or change the perception of the body. That’s why I love dance, because every movement is a new invention. Movement is so interesting because it consists of shapes and forms over time. It’s like a time-based medium and sometimes design feels very static. I think design is best when it considers that it exists in time. Every object that you use needs to participate in some sort of movement. It’s an interesting way to look at what you would consider a static object.

I also love abstract, avant-garde music because I like unusual combinations of things. I love to garden and grow things, and I find a lot of inspiration in nature. Lately I’ve been into collecting all sorts of dead seed pods because it’s cold outside, there’s nothing growing unless it’s inside your house. And I love to cook! I like trying new recipes, combining foods in unusual ways, and that also leads to a lot of social engagement. I love hanging out with a lot of people and cooking food for them and laughing. Those are my tips and tricks.

Q: How does your work as a design educator influence your design work?

A: I started teaching because I felt like my career had been really good to me. It took me a while to figure out what my career path was going to be when I was a young person. I didn’t have a lot of role models in the type of work that I wanted to do, so when the opportunity came to become a teacher it felt like I could give back by leading by example. Like, Hey I was able to do this. You can do it too. 

I’ve been teaching now for 25 years and I really love it. It’s going to sound a little weird, but I like to prototype in the classroom, to try out new ideas and see how students react to them. I like to see how different types of communication work better with different people. I like to help people understand that there’s so much unknown, right? When you’re a designer, you have to be really comfortable with the unknown. Once you can get over that hump of being comfortable with the unknown, you’re free to be a really good designer. I know from my own practice, that was something I had to learn for myself. If I can teach that to my students, I feel like it helps them throughout their whole life: to approach a problem not knowing what the answer is going to be when they come in.

I mentioned that research is my favorite part of the process, and I try to impart that to my students, that research is the most important part. You don’t know the answer until you really understand the problem. There are parallels between what I do in my practice and what I try to communicate in the classroom. Communicating with students is also a lot like communicating with clients, as clear, informative communication is critical. 

I also enjoy being in the classroom with the students, who are obviously younger than I am. It keeps me on my toes because they’re always asking me how to solve problems that I don’t particularly know how to solve. We can sit down and talk it through together, and that helps me keep my mind elastic. I’m observing over time how the questions of the students have changed, and how the priorities in their lives are different. They’re so different today than they were even four years ago.  Witnessing that change is invaluable.

Q: You bring a unique perspective to all of your collaborations, could you talk about how your neurodivergent thinking informs your design work?

A: I think about this a lot. Both my brother and I are dyslexic. When we were in high school it was the 70s and nobody was really talking about it. Both of my parents are teachers—so maybe that’s where I get it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My mom actually went back and did a second master’s degree in reading specialty, because she couldn’t understand why her really bright children weren’t successful at regular school. Just the fact that my parents had faith in us and made us feel like we were smart—even though we didn’t get great grades and school was difficult—changed the way I think about all sorts of different types of ways of thinking.

I’ve learned that my dyslexia is actually my superpower as a designer, because the way that I learned how to navigate the world at a very young age was through extreme observation. I still, to this day, can’t tell left from right, but I never get lost. I have a great sense of direction because I can memorize what everything looks like wherever I go. That power of observation has helped me as a designer. I try to embrace different ways of thinking and problem solving and I personally love working with people who think differently than me. I think that’s a great approach to life: to surround yourself with those who are diverse in their life experiences as well as how they think and solve problems.

Q: How did your book, Smart Textiles for Designers, come about?

A: I have two adult-aged children, and when my youngest child was a senior in high school, I realized that the transition from being a mom with children living at home to being an empty nester was not going to be an easy one for me. So my brilliant solution was to assign myself a task that would be so involved that I would not miss my son. So I decided to write a book!

It was a challenge because, as I mentioned, I’m dyslexic. So I had to devise a way to write a book that would work for my brain. It took me about a year and a half. I’d write every day before I did my daily tasks, and it worked. It was a good opportunity and it really transitioned me into focusing more on my own work.

I have a couple of ideas for other books but I don’t really have that impetus anymore, I solved that problem. But I do have an idea for a book that supports women in design; celebrating everyday objects that people use all the time and that they likely don’t realize were designed by women. I like the idea of allowing people to understand that not everything was designed by a factory or by the ”He” designer, which is typically what people think.

That topic also aligns with something else I’m really passionate about, which is supporting women and industrial design.

Q: Over 80% of industrial designers are men, could you tell us about being a woman in industrial design today?

A: Well, It’s better than it was. It’s always getting better. Maybe I had a little bit of an easier time than most because in the early part of my career I worked in the apparel industry. In that industry the stats are almost flipped. There are so many women that are apparel designers. There’s a glass ceiling because a lot of the senior executives are men, but I never felt like gender was an issue until I started working more intensely in industrial design, after I completed my Master’s. But by then I was already a very strong personality and a successful designer, so when I experienced the natural sexism that happens in a work environment, it was easier for me to confront it. 

The other thing that’s different for me is that I work a lot in technology, which means that many of my design partners are engineers. Most of my family members are actually engineers; my brother is an engineer and my brother in law is an engineer…so it’s easier for me to navigate those conversations. But I still feel that there’s a lot of bias against women designers. For example I’m often asked, Well what color do you think it should be? What material do you think it should be? Not, How does this thing work? What are the gears like? And I I feel like that’s an inherent bias that comes across a lot in industrial design, that the softer side of cut, make and trim is something people feel women should have a better take on. 

That’s one of the reasons I feel passionate about the work we do on Instagram, Design Objects by Women, which I see as educational as well as a communication tool to promote women in the field. It highlights that women have been doing this type of work for a long time, it just hasn’t been celebrated.

Q: How has the field of design consulting changed over the course of your career?

A:  I think it ebbs and flows. Sometimes there are a billion design consultants and nobody wants an in-house design department, and then we go through a phase where everybody wants to bring design in-house because of whatever business reasons, and then they phase it out again and there’s more interest in design consulting. Now we seem to be in transition. For the last maybe five or six years there’s been a big push to bring designers in-house, so there was less need for design consulting, but with the rise of the technology market I see more demand for design consultants, especially in startups. Startups don’t tend to start with an in-house design department. They have one product that they need to develop really well. Those are the two areas that design consultants are really serving these days; large companies who’ve divested of in-house design departments but still need some design work done, and startups.

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!


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