A Q&A with Lighting Design Expert Alecia Wesner

A Q&A with Lighting Design Expert Alecia Wesner

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 and their design journey. In this interview we spoke with lighting design expert Alecia Wesner. Alecia is the president and managing-partner of Kovacs-Wesner Design Group, licensor of George Kovacs Lighting, an iconic heritage lighting brand. She is a deeply empathetic designer, and is dedicated to telling the stories of other empathetic designers as the host of the Healthy by Design podcast. She has type 1 diabetes and dedicates a significant amount of time to fundraising for the cure for diabetes as well as participating in clinical trials. In addition to her lighting design work, Alecia has a jewelry design business, part of the proceeds of which are donated to fight the battle against diabetes. We asked her about incorporating new technologies, innovating at a heritage brand, and the intersection of lighting and health.

Photo courtesy of Alecia Wesner.

Q: Could you discuss the role that lighting plays in shaping the mood of a space, and how you consider that in your design process?

A: I am a lighting designer but not in the sense of going into someone’s home and figuring out their scheme of lighting. I’m designing primarily decorative lighting fixtures. One of the biggest things for me is considering the task or purpose of the space. It’s easy to say that ambient and decorative lighting are secondary but we are all in our homes more than we were a couple of years ago, and homes are primarily what I’m designing for. Although we do hotels and office spaces, the home has taken on many more roles than it did previously. Your home office might also be your kitchen. Lighting that works for one task can be different from lighting that works for another task, but now we need lighting for two separate but possibly overlapping applications. One of the features I like to incorporate is dimmability within the space. I don’t think everybody needs their lighting at the maximum brightness all the time. This ties into mood; the light that you want to dine under is very different from the light that you want to work under.

I end up dealing with a lot of other designers in lighting who come from a background that is not industrial design, primarily interior designers and architects who’ve gotten into lighting design. One of the things that I hope that they understand is the role of shadow in lighting, and that when you’re designing a light fixture, yes, you need light to see something, but an important part of creating a mood is shadow and layering light. It kills me when I see a space that has one chandelier or fixture that is supposed to be the lighting for the entire room. You don’t get to see that space transform. As far as the design of light, let’s face it: I’m never going to beat mother nature. Having natural light combined with the lighting that I design is a big part of what I do. What something looks like at sunrise as a light fixture is very different from what it looks like in the middle of the day or in the darkness of night.

Q: What does a lighting design process look like for you? Could you take us from the initial brief or inspiration to the finished product?

A: I’ve never had a cookie cutter approach to this. I represent the brand George Kovacs, and I look for areas where we can continue to grow as well as areas where we can evolve. That tends to dictate the project. Often, I seek feedback from our customers and representatives who are directly selling the product to get their feedback.

For me, one of the most exciting  aspects of the design process is the technology. I started working for George in 1997. I’m technically still in my first industrial design job! In  the late 90s, George and I were in my car, talking about how brake lights were becoming LEDs in buses. He said that believed that LEDs would revolutionize the lighting industry. There were LEDs being manufactured out of Europe, lighting fixtures and task lamps, and they were incredibly expensive. They used blue, green, and red LEDs combined to make white light, and it wasn’t really accepted in the U.S. market. The strategy, in terms of the form, was essentially to retrofit the light bulb. It was an incandescent light bulb shape with encased LEDs that screwed into a standard socket, because that was what we knew. George said, These designers with these LEDs. They’re all just trying to make the same fixtures that we’ve always seen when, at this point, you could make a donut as a task lamp, and put your hand right through the center of it! That’s the magic. Looking back at those conversations with him, that’s where we are now. There are so many more options—as far as form and shape and ability to transform—with LEDs. Also, heat is always the enemy in the design of lighting and LEDs offset that to some extent. Now you take into consideration other challenges, like the placement of the driver or securing the circuit board, but you have the ability to make things, shapewise, that you couldn’t before. You can also distribute light output differently.

Q: What role does research and development play in the creation of new lighting products, and how does this process inform design decisions?

A: I always find this fun to talk about because you could talk to a million different designers about their inspiration and everybody would say something different. It’s the storytelling behind a product that to me is the intoxicating part of design. Life evolves, as do our needs. I have always, like any designer, had a million outside interests beyond the  job of lighting. I took glass making classes for many years. I took a neon class at night because I think neon is so magical, it’s a lost art. It’s those outside interests that often become the spark of inspiration for my next design.

I have a group of designs, Dripping Gems, that are based on 3D printed forms that I was creating for jewelry. I was working on those forms because, during the pandemic, we were in lockdown and I didn’t have access to a jewelry studio. I had a designer friend with a 3D printer, so the two of us would get together and we’d start printing out design forms we were considering for unrelated projects. I made a pair of earrings that were based on a light fixture that I was working on. I’m not the only one deciding which lamps make it into our product line. I’m selling myself and I’m selling the idea of what I’m doing, just like any other designer. So I made these earrings, and I Photoshopped the earring as a light fixture into a room setting, showing what it would look like as accent lighting over a kitchen counter. 

Technology plays a big role in my design process. Now, I can model and print any idea. I like working three-dimensionally instead of just sketching it out. I like to move around and see the concept from a variety of angles. I ask, What would this look like in different spaces? That is a starting point for me but also a way to evolve an idea. Once you have that three-dimensional object, whether it is a piece of jewelry or a scale model, you can see where you’d like it to go beyond what you imagined it to be.

Over the last 10 years, this idea of jewelry as lighting for the home seems to be a cliché tagline. It’s everywhere, as if this is the only thing that we all are doing now. Sometimes, when I’m looking at a lighting design, I think, What would I have done differently? My brain goes back to a jewelry mindset; what stone was used, how was the bezel set? That can help me visualize a small change I might want to make in the lighting concept. There hasn’t been much lighting that I have translated back into jewelry, but the thing that I’m asked the most by lighting customers who know that I make jewelry—and see me wearing the jewelry that matches the lighting at trade shows—is, When are the earrings going to light up? I get that question all the time! Why haven’t I done that yet? At some point, I definitely have to do that.

Q: Could you talk about the technological advancements influencing lighting design today, and how you adapt these into your products?

A: I have type 1 diabetes and always thought that my medical journey was separate from my product design life. I didn’t go into medical product design but I look back and it’s all interwoven. Now I find myself gravitating towards a lot of the science and health aspects of lighting. I was contacted by the Mount Sinai Light and Health Research Center, which is outside of Troy, New York. They were looking to use an existing Kovacs fixture in some testing on circadian rhythms, and they needed changes made to the product for the testing. They’d bought the product and made changes to it themselves, and they wanted to know if they could get these changes made at a production level. I jumped at the chance to go visit them. I’m a science nerd and, even if it didn’t work out as far as potential work projects, I wanted to learn. I got the full tour and was absolutely fascinated by circadian rhythms and how your environment, your non-sunlit environment, affects your ability to sleep. As somebody who loses a lot of sleep this felt so relevant and intriguing. They have trials in which they’re testing the saliva in somebody’s mouth to see how much melatonin they’re secreting based on the light experienced throughout the day. That’s just a general overview, they do much more. I thought, What if we incorporate this into the lighting we design? We’ve gone further and further into the development of smart homes. What if the lighting in your home could help you sleep better? That’s a real springboard for me. If there is a way to better the lives of people through lighting products, why would I not want to be involved in that? 

When I was in my mid-20s, I learned that I was losing my eyesight due to complications of diabetes. I was fortunate in that I had an aggressive treatment plan and I still have my vision. If there were products that could help me, lighting products that I need for my home but that could also help me preserve my vision…what an exciting possibility that is. I think about COVID and research seeking to test if lighting applications could benefit long-term COVID patients. There is a study about framing a doorway in Illumination in elder care, which helps center a person when they get up out of bed. If you shift that illumination, the person’s movements also shift. Think of all the possibilities with that. The same thing with vitamin D. Certain populations have low levels of vitamin D, and one of them is people with type 1 diabetes. I have extremely low vitamin D and I remember a doctor saying to me, You just haven’t had that much sunlight. I said, Look at me, that’s not it! I had just come back from vacation and I was as tan as can be. If vitamin D affects so much of your health, especially your bones, what if the lighting in your home could help you produce vitamin D?

As far as my lighting in my home goes, I am trying to get the least amount of artificial light in my bedroom at night. As somebody who constantly checks their phone, that is a real tough one to do. I am also conscious of the fact that my lighting needs are changing as I age.

Q: How do you balance the demand for timeless designs, especially given a heritage brand like George Kovacs, with the desire for innovation and experimentation in lighting design?

A: George Kovacs is currently celebrating our 70th anniversary. I have such a unique situation with him as a person. He took me under his wing—his wife, too—and showed me the world. I knew at the time how fortunate I was, especially compared to my peers starting out in industrial design. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize about Kovacs [the brand] is that George was not only a pioneer of innovation and technology but also a risk-taker, and some of those risks were failures. Those were his favorite presentations to give. When I first got to know him, he would do these slideshows and talk about his failed projects because, as he said, People like to hear about the screw-ups. They like to hear about what didn’t work and the risks you took, not just all the successes. It was entertaining and endearing, and became part of the brand story. There’s a lot of humor and playfulness in that. The names of the products were genius, too. The ‘Save Your Marriage’ was a lamp that was two lights above a bed. It changed a million times over the years but there was witty advertising that went with that. I hope that, in all the lives that the brand has now had, that wit and whimsy remains.

As designers, we study modern design. I studied architecture before I studied industrial design and I think back on how many different movements I learned about in modern architecture. It’s easy to say modern as a blanket statement but, to many, George Kovacs has always been synonymous with mid-century modern. Of course, there’s so much more than that. Playing up the mid-century modern roots has a place, and that’s something that cycles through, but it’s also important to be a risk taker and to have offerings that customers don’t expect. One of the areas we’re growing is portable lighting; task lighting, table lamps, and floor lamps. That was an area we got away from for a couple of years but it was a big part of the business when I came on board because we were selling more to furniture stores than to lighting showrooms. Now we’re bringing task lighting back and advancements in technology allow us to reassess things like, What if a task lamp were portable and rechargeable?  What does your task lamp really look like? How much space does your task lamp take on your desk? Is the lighting an object beyond just giving you light? Is it sculpture? Is it an object of beauty? Why can’t it be all of those things?

Q: Could you talk about how your podcast, Healthy by Design, came about and the stories you are telling with that platform?

A: Healthy by Design was a stroke of luck for me. Bruce Hannah was working with a production company on a podcast about Industrial design and we’ve been friends for a long time. I used to come to Pratt with George to do a lighting design show-and-tell and then be a visiting critic for lighting design projects. After George passed away, I continued doing it, and Bruce and I became friends through that Pratt connection. He’s somebody that everyone admires and he’s the Google of industrial design. He has a story for everything and you want to be around him because you just keep learning the whole time. So he was part of this podcast production, though he didn’t tell me that part, and he asked me to meet with the production team. I thought I was there to do an episode about being an industrial designer participating in clinical trials in the diabetes space. I did the interview and, when they walked me to the elevator, one of the guys said, You got the part, but I shouldn’t tell you this yet. I was confused because I didn’t know there was a part to get! When I contacted Bruce, he explained that they wanted him to have a design speaking sidekick and I was it. I kind of took a step back. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in the podcasting world. The podcast continued to evolve and landed as a  new concept, which was that Bruce would have a Design Mysteries program and the sister program would be Healthy by Design. That was just so exciting to me, not only the idea of the platform starting as my own story—of being a designer participating in clinical trials and using technology to keep me alive and thriving—but also the idea of talking to other incredible industrial designers who were creating products that improved  people’s lives and sharing  their stories.When I was approached about the podcast, one of the goals they shared was, We just want to do work that we’re proud of. That was so meaningful. I consider myself so fortunate and lucky to have my vision. There were all these people before me who tested laser technology for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy. In an effort for that treatment to evolve there were failures and people who continued to lose their vision. I saw Healthy by Design as another platform to pay it forward. I could teach a bit about industrial design and give credit to the people who are behind the scenes making the products that help others. I’m at a point in my life now where the question of purpose plays a bigger role in so many of my decisions. Not to get all mushy, but we’re all here for a limited amount of time. What are we doing with it? We have this training but, if we’re not learning empathy and bringing that to our own design agenda, what’s the point?

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!

Universal Design: A Brief History and Why it Matters

Universal design is design that can be understood and used by all individuals, regardless of age, size, ability, or disability, to the greatest extent possible. Whether it’s a building, product, service, or environment, the goal of universal design is to develop it in a way that caters to the needs of anyone who wants to use it. This isn’t a specialized requirement for a minority use-case but a fundamental aspect of effective design. The principles of universal design emphasize flexibility, simplicity, and a profound understanding of the diverse needs of users. While we see it as a critical aspect of contemporary design, the concept hasn’t been around all that long. In this Insight article we discuss key influences that lead to the development of universal design as we know it today and outline why it is an increasingly essential design approach.

Changing Demographics

Since the turn of the century, advancements in healthcare, improved living conditions, and the elimination of deadly infectious diseases have contributed to a significant increase in life expectancy. In addition, the aftermath of two world wars and medical breakthroughs resulted in a substantial population of individuals with disabilities. By 1994, over 20% of the U.S. population, around 53 million people, had some level of disability. Today, the U.S. population is the oldest it has ever been. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is forecasted to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million by 2050. These demographic shifts underscore the importance of addressing the diverse needs of an aging and disabled population, then and now.

Reading Braille on a medication carton.

The intersection of design and societal demographics has undergone a remarkable transformation throughout the 20th century, particularly in addressing the needs of older adults and individuals with disabilities. In the early 1900s, these groups were true minorities, facing challenges in a world designed without consideration for their unique requirements. Today, the landscape has shifted dramatically, with changing demographics influencing design philosophy and popularizing the concept of universal design.

The Barrier-Free Movement

The term ‘universal design’ was coined by the American architect Ronald Mace, a champion of accessible building codes, and made its debut in 1963 in Selwyn Goldsmith’s Designing for the Disabled, a U.K. text that pioneered access for persons with disabilities in the built environment and was revised in 1997 for a contemporary audience. Goldsmith famously created the dropped curb, now a standard feature of sidewalks across the globe. The idea that the environment needed to be accessible pre-dated Goldsmith’s text by about a decade, and is generally accepted as beginning with the barrier-free movement of the 1950s.  

In the 1950s the barrier-free movement arose in response to the large numbers of World War II soldiers who had been injured or disabled in the war and their advocates. Barriers in the built environment limited their opportunities for employment and education, and the barrier-free movement initiated a push for public policy changes as well as a reimagining of public space. National standards for barrier-free buildings were developed by the early 60s, though they would not be enacted until adopted by individual state legislatures as much as a decade later. The shift from barrier-free to universal design emphasized inclusivity, affordability, and aesthetics, recognizing that features designed for accessibility could benefit everyone.

Paving the Way

It’s easy to criticize the shortcomings of our current mandates regarding accessibility but it’s important to acknowledge the major legislative victories that have brought us to where we are today, and what a dramatic improvement they are on the guidelines of the past. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s set the stage for the Disability Civil Rights Movement, influencing legislation in the 1970s that aimed to eliminate discrimination and provide access to education, public spaces, telecommunications, and transportation. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandated accessibility for buildings constructed with federal funds, marking a crucial step toward inclusivity.

judge gavel on a desk

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a landmark civil rights law, prohibiting discrimination based on disability. The Education for Handicapped Children Act of 1975 ensured a free, appropriate education for children with disabilities. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 expanded coverage to include families with children and people with disabilities.

The critical turning point in federal legislation was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, a watershed act that triggered widespread awareness of the civil rights of people with disabilities. This comprehensive legislation addressed discrimination in employment, public spaces, services, transportation, and telecommunications, ensuring a basic level of accessibility nationwide.

From Rehabilitation to Mainstream Markets

While universal design sought to integrate individuals into mainstream design, assistive technology aimed to meet specific needs. Despite their different origins, both fields converged in the middle ground, addressing physical and attitudinal barriers between people with and without disabilities.

African American female IT engineer in wheelchair

The economic downturn of the 1980s impacted funds for the rehabilitation engineering research prompted by the injured veterans of World War II. At the same time, product manufacturers recognized the market potential of assistive products. In 1988, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art showcased “Designs for Independent Living,” featuring products that considered the needs of older adults and people with disabilities. The commercial world began acknowledging these demographics as viable customers. It gradually became clear that a universal design approach could attract buyers beyond the target audience. The success of OXO’s Good Grips kitchen utensils in 1990 exemplified this trend. The products, initially designed for people with arthritis, were appealing to all, not only for their functionality but also for their aesthetic appeal. This marked a shift toward recognizing the marketability of inclusive design. A prominent champion of universal design (and member of the OXO Good Grips development team) is Patricia Moore, an American industrial designer who spent her entire career pushing the boundaries of inclusive design, particularly in the field of gerontological design.

The fields of human factors, ergonomics, and human-centered design are natural allies of universal design, as are the fields of co-design and participatory design, which focus closely on the needs of a specific audience, soliciting and harnessing insights of that audience to develop the solution.

Maximizing Inclusion

The quest for independence and equal rights gained momentum alongside the growth in the disabled population. Baby boomers have embraced inclusive products, challenging stereotypes of aging and gradually normalizing the presence of these products in the market. Buyers of assistive technology now demand products that consider both form and function, suiting their specific needs and use cases. These buyers may be permanent or temporary members of the disabled population, or they may simply like the functionality of the product. The social climate is shifting toward recognizing and respecting the diverse needs of all consumers.

In the 21st century, with our increased life expectancy and our increasingly diverse population, the momentum to develop inclusive products and environments is growing. While ‘universal design’ was a term limited to specialists in design, user experience, computer engineering, architecture, and the like, it is gaining traction outside these fields as its principles yield fruit. Universal design provides a blueprint for maximum inclusion, acknowledging the diversity of the current generation as well as the need to consider the full range of that diversity when building a product, environment, or service.

The demographic, legislative, economic, and social changes that have shaped universal design are propelling the field into the future. When an environment is accessible, user-friendly, convenient, and enjoyable to use, it benefits everyone involved. Through considering the diverse needs and abilities of all individuals during the design process, universal design produces digital and physical environments, services, and systems that effectively meet the needs of people. In essence, universal design equates to good design.

Check out our even adaptive inclusive lingerie project to learn more about universal design, and 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 Inclusive Entrepreneur Marianne Weber

A Q&A with Inclusive Entrepreneur Marianne Weber

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has encountered many talented designers throughout her career, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Marianne Weber, the founder and CEO of the inclusive lingerie line Even Adaptive and a licensed occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Marianne worked with Interwoven to realize her empathetic vision, founding Even Adaptive in 2021 and launching the adaptive lingerie line in 2024. That our team contributed to Marianne’s incredible project, which won a Core77 design award in 2023, makes this a particularly special Spotlight feature for us. We asked Marianne about what inspired her to become an entrepreneur, the power of designing for a traditionally neglected audience, and what it was like to work with a design team. 

portrait of Marianne Weber
Photo courtesy of Marianne Weber.

Q: You had a career in occupational therapy when you became an entrepreneur. What inspired that transition? 

A: I’m still currently working as an occupational therapist and keeping up my license, so it’s a long, slow transition. I’m still providing people with what we do as occupational therapists: providing independence and helping them relearn how to do things for themselves. It’s definitely a career change, moving into a CEO and founder role and away from being a full-time therapist. But I feel like the change is necessary for touching more lives than I could in my occupational therapy role. When I had the idea to make this happen, I didn’t immediately think, I need to switch jobs. This has been a three-year journey so far, and I’m still doing both roles. 

The job I have is in acute care. What that means is that I come in when people are initially in the hospital or post-op day one. I’m seeing people at the most heightened and scared time of their lives, and it has to be taken very seriously every moment that I am working as an OT because one wrong step and I could seriously injure somebody. I’m not able to focus on being a CEO when I am at my job, I still have to be a hundred percent there and present. Then when I’m not there I can be 100% present as the founder of Even Adaptive. 

I think one element of the transition that changed my perspective was starting to talk to all of my patients about their engagement and their sexual health as well. As occupational therapists, we focus on making sure that everybody can complete their activities of daily life, their ADLs, and sex is one of those things that we have within our scope of practice. Before becoming the CEO and the founder of Even Adaptive, I was a bit more shy about asking those questions because my toolbox wasn’t full. But, through this process, I’ve done a lot of continuing education. I became more educated on how I can help people through the process of creating our products.

Q: You explain that confidence and sexiness are the pillars of your brand ethos, could you elaborate on that?

A: When you’re faced with these disease processes or you have a disability of some kind, a lot of society communicates that these people are not allowed to express themselves in any kind of sexual manner. They’re not allowed to date, and they’re not looked at as valuable in that way that other women can be when they have full function. The pillars of being independent and sexy go hand in hand for Even Adaptive. If we can make you feel good, and increase your confidence and your independence by providing you with something that you want to be wearing instead of something that was made for 75% of women out there, then we can help to drive change. Sexiness is not just about how someone else is perceiving you but about how you perceive yourself.

Q: Your brand focuses on a neglected target audience. Did anything about this audience surprise you? 

A: I don’t know if they’ve surprised me so much because I’ve been working with this community for many years now, but one thing that I was excited about was how willing they are to lift everybody up. In so much of the world, when you’re trying to do something new, you hear no over and over again. But this community says, Let’s make change. Let’s do this. Let me post about it. Let me share your website. Everybody is excited to be involved in the ambassador program and get their name out there and their story out there. They are used to being told no as well, so when somebody finally tells them, This is for you, they grab onto it and they’re excited to be a part of it.

I’ve got both sides of the coin. We’re looking for fundraising and venture capitalists are 98% men. You’re faced with talking to men about women’s bras and underwear but also about women with disabilities and underwear. It’s this far out concept to them. They think, Who out there would need this? No we’re not going to fund that. I don’t see how it’s going to make money. But when you give it to the people who need it, they’re extremely excited to hear about the product and want to know more and be involved.  As an entrepreneur, there’s one side that’s beating you down, but then the other side that’s lifting you up. There’s a balance.

I think my personal story into why this business came to be is a pretty powerful story and seems to resonate with a lot of people. It doesn’t resonate so much with men but whenever I can tell it to women entrepreneurs they get it right away.

Q: Could you tell that story?

A: I was in graduate school in 2018 and it was finals week. I was having trouble with my vision and I was thinking, I’m going to go to the doctor and get really cute glasses!  The doctor thought something was strange, so he sent me in for an MRI. The MRI resulted with multiple lesions in my brain and my cervical spinal cord, and a very long diagnostic process led to a diagnosis of MS [Multiple Sclerosis]. So I was diagnosed with MS during finals week of grad school to become an occupational therapist. I already had my career laid out for me. I knew what I wanted to do, and it just happened that this was happening at the same time. The whole disease diagnosis process is fairly unpredictable with MS. Being me, with well-established anxiety, I was going through all the terrible things that could come from it. It was a very taxing year for me before I got on medication and was able to deal with it. In that process, I started working at Johns Hopkins in neurology. I was watching these women, who were dealing with a more advanced disease process than I had, not be able to do basics for themselves because that’s my whole job: to help people to be able to do those things again. These women couldn’t put bras on. Those were always the first things that women with neurological conditions gave up on, their underwear and their sexuality. They would just say, What? I’m never going to leave my house again, so why do I need to do this? But that doesn’t have to be the only option.

Even Adaptive was created from my own experience of going through this diagnosis and feeling like my self-worth was down in the dumps, and then watching women have this reaction over and over and over. I wondered, What is the thing that I can do to help these people? And the answer was to create an adaptive intimate line, because it was the one thing I couldn’t solve. I can teach anybody how to put on a shirt one-handed or a pant or a sock, there are tools out there for that. But nothing existed for these women that could lay the foundation of confidence and help them to feel good again. 

Q: Could you talk about your experience working with Interwoven? What was it like to have a vision realized with a design consultancy? 

A: When first I called Rebeccah, I remember her calling me back very quickly. She was immediately interested in the concept. Hearing that, I realized, Someone is going to help me with this! It was very exciting that she was able to see the vision, wrap her head around it, and know confidently that she could come up with a functional solution. It was so exciting to have a team of experts that had this portfolio behind them, that actually listened to what the product needed to be. I think Interwoven did a great job of taking the requirements that I knew that the product needed and creating something that has never been done before; to make it the best in the market and the only one-handed functional bra product that exists. The other beautiful thing that they did for me was to think about how the product was going to survive in the world in an extremely realistic way. They thought, We’re putting this work in, has this been created before? Has this been patented before? Are we going to be able to get a patent through? They did work to find out how it’s going to be manufactured, and they thought about the pricing. Interwoven thought about every detail, so they knew that the product would be viable once it left their hands. That was one of the most important things that they gave to me besides the clasp design. They wanted to see the project succeed, so they designed it with that in mind.

Q: What is something you experienced in the Even Adaptive journey that you didn’t anticipate? 

A: It was surprising how much attention went into creating this product. The multiple iterations and all the trial and error, all of the tiny little changes that Aybuke would make along the way…the product is highly fine-tuned and functional. When you’re not on the inside, you don’t think about what it takes to really create something like this. I was surprised at how much they cared.

Q: While awareness is growing, inclusive design is not yet a universal priority. What does the landscape of the inclusive market look like from your perspective? What are your hopes for this market? 

A: Since I started, I do see more adaptive companies. They’re starting to get funding and they’re popping up more and more often. I am seeing a big shift in the normalization of it. It’s still really slow moving. In terms of taking into account the look of the products and being fashioned forward, a lot of them are stuck on function. I do think that we’re going to move into a realm—and this is part of what Even Adaptive wants to help accomplish—where you don’t have to search endlessly online to find the thing that will help you get dressed after breaking your arm. You should be able to just pop online, already have a brand in your head, and order it up. There are a ton of inclusive designs that have been normalized in our homes, like all of the door handles that are levers instead of knobs. That’s an inclusive design option and we don’t think twice about it. It’s just in houses everywhere now. 

Hopefully that’s where adaptive clothing will go. It happened with baby onesies overnight. Somebody came up with baby onesies that have magnets and moms are like, Yes!  That’s a cool normalization, and that inclusive normalization is going to move up the line as long as we can make things that people want to wear.

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 Biomimicry Expert Ignacio Urbina Polo

A Q&A with Biomimicry Expert Ignacio Urbina Polo

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has encountered many talented designers throughout her career, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with design leader and biomimicry expert Ignacio Urbina Polo. Ignacio has his own design firm in addition to being the current chair of industrial design at Pratt Institute and the chief editor of di-conexiones, a prominent Spanish industrial design platform. He is known for his innovative initiatives across design disciplines and for his international collaborations with design schools in Latin America, Europe, and Japan. We asked him about the power of biomimicry, the importance of communication in design, and the connection between being a designer and being a musician.

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Urbina Polo.

Q: You are known for your innovative biomimetic studios. Could you talk about how you became interested in biomimicry and nature-inspired design?

A:  When I did my undergraduate in Venezuela, there was a course called Bionics Applied to Design. At that time we understood that it was something related to nature, and we were trying to apply certain concepts from nature. It became more clear to me when I started working in the Brazilian Laboratory of Industrial Design  in Florianopolis, Brazil—a significant initiative launched in the early 1980s by German designer and theorist Gui Bonsiepe and a team of Brazilian designers—where I did a specialization with the Mexican designer Fabricio Vanden Broeck, an alumnus of Ecal in Switzerland. It became clear that getting interested in the complexities of nature can be useful for us as designers. I remember learning about notions of growth and notions of systems, notions of structure. I started to understand that for the projects we do—in the sense of designing objects and trying to create material outcomes—we need this expertise that is different from engineering. My school was pretty technological. We did math and physics and focused on structure and materials. But with bionics, because the term biomimicry came later, we began understanding how we can use nature to help us in our design work.

Q: How does a biomimetic approach impact the design process? 

A: When I finished my undergraduate and moved to Brazil to start working in the field of industrial design, the field concentrated on how objects communicate with people, how they function. It focused on the idea of structure and how we actually make pieces and parts and components. It focused on how we make those parts strong enough, and how those parts can be manufactured with machines. This was an engineering approach. The idea of aesthetics? We were barely touching it. There were just little flavors of it: This needs to be balanced, this needs to be in scale. We were focusing on how we construct. When the idea of bionics came along, there was a lot of thinking: What is the natural form about? How does it work? We were automatically more connected with beauty because beauty and structure: they came together. Without having to spend too much time, we were doing structure—trying to make components stable and working with the structure visually and physically—and the aesthetic was intrinsic to the natural building strategy, and came naturally out of the process. A bionic approach was solving all of the engineering problems and, at the same time, the aspects related to aesthetics.

Q: Could you share an example of a nature-inspired design or collaboration with nature that has inspired you? 

A: During my time at the Brazilian Laboratory of Industrial Design I had the opportunity to explore diverse areas. The LBDI’s key areas of focus included industry projects, design promotion, and educational programs. A highlight of my experience was attending the bionics course with Fabricio Vanden Broeck that I mentioned earlier. This course opened my eyes to the works of various designers, engineers, and architects, like Frei Otto and the renowned Italian designer Carmelo Di Bartolo, known for his nature-centric research and design.

One of Fabricio’s projects at Ecal was particularly intriguing. He focused on replicating the seed distribution and ejection mechanisms found in nature. His prototypes aimed to mimic the dispersal methods of airborne seeds. His goal was to apply these natural, random distribution patterns to the allocation of medicines and supplies in urban areas ravaged by earthquakes. This approach was not only about mimicking natural forms but also about applying complex concepts of natural growth and systems to solve pressing issues. This was especially relevant considering the significant damage caused by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Such innovative thinking demonstrated how biomimetic design could extend beyond aesthetic interpretation and tackle real-world challenges effectively.

Q: You and, by extension, your website, di-conexiones, are an impressive design resource. You have an extensive social media presence as a design thought leader. What are some of the things you enjoy about communicating about design? How does this tie into your position as the chair of industrial design at Pratt?

A: I knew that there was something interesting and important about disseminating design and talking about design. The more I talked about design, the more it enriched my own work. I wanted to see what was out there, and if there was a better way to do this or that. Communicating about design is something we need to do all the time. The platform di-conexiones started as notes to myself. Fifteen years later, there are more than thirty people writing and it is something that I still feel is interesting. I have my professional practice. I have my job as an educator. I work in an institution. But di-conexiones is an independent website, meaning I don’t have to answer to anybody to write what I write. I haven’t made it a business, partly because I have other businesses to take care of but also because I want that freedom. At least for now, I need to maintain this independent way of talking about design – that is why I enjoy it. It has to be for myself and for the community. 

I always have the idea, I need to write about this. I do free research all the time because I don’t have to deal with anybody, and this creates a space that is more interesting to research my own ideas. I think we need that for what we do.

Q: You’re also a musician, do you see a cross-over between musical improvisation and design ideation?

A: There are many parallels we can make between music and design, though they are very different as well. The first difference is that we perceive them with a different sense. So the acoustic space is the territory of musicians and, as designers, we don’t often work within the acoustic space. Another big difference is that music is a performance art, meaning you play and then you hear it.  As designers we create before you see the outcome. We create and then we see. Where I see connections between music and design is in the design process.

I tell my students that there are three aspects that are interesting to consider in design, and the same three aspects are important to a musician. When we learn to play an instrument, there are three elements that we need to figure out. The first is physicality, meaning that I need to understand the physical instrument; how to play the notes, the technique. We need to develop that technique. We need to get good because the better we are at the instrument, the more we can hear the nuances of the sound. It is the same in design. The more we do models, the more we draw: the more we see. 

The second part is the content of the music, the form. The music tells you, This is rock, this is  jazz. Music, because it is a language that you can write, you can learn. The music has a structure that you can play, there are typologies. I can play rock because the rock has a standard form that I can recognize. The more I study the history of music, the more genres I can recognize. We can think of design in the same way. What is the typology? What is the form, the history of the art? All of those things are within the content. It can take a whole career to understand these things. So one part is the instrument, the technique, the second part is the content, and the third part is the sensibility to get involved. 

If you’re a good musician, you can play the instrument and you know how to play certain kinds of music, but you have to develop a sensibility to create music that nobody else can. The moment you play, there needs to be an energy—a sensibility—that makes you not only a good technician and a good musician but also a good performer, who can communicate with the music. That’s why we connect with certain musicians and we don’t connect with others. 

At Pratt we have a 3D methodology that teaches how to observe and create the phenomenon of form and how to talk about that. That is close to what we do with music. We work with eyes and hands in design and with hearing in music, but we are also trying to communicate and create a connection. This is a special thing you need to work on that is the third part of the design process as well as the music process.

For example, we can talk about the song of a birthday party; it has three notes and the form is very simple. We can also talk about a Beethoven suite that has many parts, and each part has a momentum. Both of these demonstrate the three aspects I talked about; How do you play it? What are the notes? What is the feeling? In product design it is the same. You can design a flower vase that is very simple. It can be one material, one gesture. Or you can design a car that has 7,000 pieces. The designs still need to answer the same questions. 

Because design is different from music, the response happens later. There is a timing gap. When people actually get the product is when you confirm the response. With music, you feel it right away. The way you play music, that will be the way you design. This is not mathematical, it’s more qualitative, and this is something that you learn. It could be thought of as a designer’s voice but I could even go back to more basic things. Part of what you contribute as a designer is not even conscious. The big musicians are not saying, I’m good. They just do their thing. It’s the same with good designers. They just do it. 

This is part of why it’s difficult for me to talk about innovation. Every time we talk about innovation, it seems like we are saying that we are going to innovate on purpose. In reality, innovations often happen later, when somebody recognizes, Oh, there is an innovation there. But you weren’t working on that. If you do good work, there may be an innovation in there somewhere. As designers, we are close to innovation because we have that thing that innovates. 

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!

How to Facilitate a Co-Design Workshop

Co-design is an approach to design that actively involves end-users and stakeholders in the creative process. In co-design, the people who will ultimately use the product, service, or system are brought into the design process as active participants rather than as passive recipients. It can be an incredibly powerful method for understanding your users and creating products that speak directly to their needs. A co-design workshop is a classic tool for practicing co-design. In this Insight article we’ll outline how to facilitate a co-design workshop. Whether you’re diving into design-thinking, human-centered design, or UX projects, these tips and tricks will ensure your workshops are not only productive but also fun, dynamic, and actionable. Be sure to check out our list of resources at the end for some wonderful kits and tools to help you with your next workshop.

Photo: Jason Goodman

What is a Co-Design Workshop?

A co-design workshop is a collaborative and interactive session where diverse stakeholders, such as clients and end-users, come together to actively participate in the design process of a product, service, or solution. The primary purpose of a co-design workshop is to harness collective creativity, knowledge, and perspectives. The workshop aims to generate innovative ideas, solve problems, and create user-centered solutions. During a co-design workshop, participants engage in a series of structured activities, discussions, and brainstorming sessions. They share their insights and needs, working together to ideate and refine design solutions. This collaborative approach ensures that the final outcome reflects the input and preferences of all those involved.

Key Aspects of a Co-Design Workshop

There are a number of priorities to keep front and center when developing a co-design workshop. Doing so ensures that the participants are comfortable, empowered, and respected, and that their voices are at the center of the experience. These priorities include:

  • Inclusivity: Co-design workshops involve a diverse group of participants, ensuring representation from various perspectives and backgrounds.
  • Empathy: Participants empathize with the end-users, striving to understand their experiences, challenges, and aspirations. This empathetic approach is fundamental to creating solutions that genuinely meet user needs.
  • Creativity: The workshops encourage participants to think creatively, explore unconventional ideas, and push boundaries to develop innovative solutions.
  • Iterative Process: Co-design workshops often involve iterative cycles, allowing participants to refine and improve their ideas based on feedback and collaborative discussions.
  • Hands-on Activities: Participants engage in hands-on activities such as brainstorming, sketching, prototyping, and user testing. These activities facilitate active participation and idea generation.
  • Shared Ownership: Co-design workshops promote a sense of shared ownership among participants, fostering a collaborative environment where everyone contributes to the design process.

The ultimate goal of a co-design workshop is to create solutions that are not only functional and effective but also resonate with the end-users on a deep level. By involving stakeholders in the design process, co-design workshops enhance the quality, relevance, and acceptance of the final product or service, leading to more successful and user-friendly outcomes.

Facilitating a Co-Design Workshop in 12 steps

A co-design workshop is a big undertaking, and requires a lot of planning and development. Plan well in advance and create the agenda with care. Here are 12 steps to help you facilitate your co-design workshop with success:

1. Define Clear Goals: Know what you want to accomplish and communicate these goals clearly to participants beforehand.

2. Set the Stage: Create an inspiring environment with ample natural light, colorful supplies, and engaging materials. The ambiance is a powerful tool to create a comfortable, save, inviting atmosphere. Offer food and beverages. Seek out a pleasant venue that is easy to access.

3. Craft a Story: Design your workshop activities like a story, such that each exercise builds on the findings of the previous one.

4. Create Structure: Give exercises a clear beginning, middle, and end. Participants should feel comfortable, understand what’s expected, and see the purpose of each activity. Signpost progress so the group is with you every step of the way.

5. Embrace Creativity: Get creative with exercises, adapting them to your specific needs. Unique activities keep participants engaged and challenged.

6. Give Clear Instructions: Provide step-by-step instructions, but reveal them gradually to prevent confusion and keep participants on track. Providing copies of your instructions in writing can be useful for your participants to reference, either on a shared whiteboard or presentation, or on handouts you share.

7. Allow Breaks: Incorporate breaks for participants to process ideas, mingle, and recharge. And get snacks!

8. Intermingle Teams: Keep energy high by allowing participants to switch teams or seating arrangements, encouraging fresh ideas and perspectives. Activities that involve movement can be great for this as well.

9. Idea “Parking Lot”: Have a designated space to capture valuable but off-topic ideas. This ensures participants feel heard without derailing the main discussion. These ideas might be revisited at a later point in the workshop.

10. Attention Grabbers: Use timers, chimes, or visual cues to regain participants’ attention and guide them through exercises. These signals can help create structure in your workshop.

11. Be a Timekeeper: Stay on track, cut off discussions if needed, and respect participants’ time. Flexibility is key, but end the workshop punctually.

12. Effective Wrap-Up: Summarize achievements, ask key questions, and ensure participants leave knowing the next steps. You may want to conduct a feedback survey to get immediate insights about the workshop experience. Follow up with a thank you message and a summary of the workshop outcomes.

We also highly recommend having a dedicated notetaker and photographer and/or videographer for your co-design workshops, provided your participants agree and sign release forms as needed. Documenting your process is powerful and can lead to additional insights when you debrief with your team. It’s also a wonderful way to share the story of your workshop with others, and capture the assets created.

Facilitating a workshop is an art that combines structure, creativity, and empathy. By mastering these techniques, you’ll not only become a proficient facilitator but also a driving force behind transformative and impactful co-design workshops.

Photo: RF Studio

Co-Design Workshop Resources

This Co-Design Kit includes useful case studies that demonstrate the principles in action.

A third of The Convivial Toolbox, a book about generative design research, is dedicated to methods and strategies, with the rest of the book discussing the nature and importance of co-design.

This co-design web resource conveniently sorts activities and strategies into the stages of the design process. A great place to find activities for your workshop.

This co-design toolkit is specifically targeted to workshops around disabilities but is so wonderfully organized that it is useful for any workshop facilitator.

This co-design web resource has a number of excellent suggestions for both structuring as well as facilitating a co-design workshop.

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!