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In Conversation with the Speakers of DesignTalk
Next Thursday, August 28th, we will be hosting our second DesignTalk event for the design & technology community in New York City. The night will feature design leaders sharing stories around challenges they’ve navigated throughout their careers as they’ve built incredible products, services, and spaces.
We couldn’t wait to meet our speakers, so we had a chat this week and asked them some questions about their life in design.
When did you first become interested in design?
James Cooper (Head of Creative, Betaworks): Don’t tell anyone but I’m actually not a designer, I am a writer. But hopefully I do the same job great designers do, which is solve problems creatively. The first designer that really had a fundamental impact on me was Tibor Kalman. He was a thinker first, designer second. Whenever I’m stuck on a brief I open up his book, there is usually something in there that sparks a thought.
Nora Abousteit (Founder, Kollabora): Since I was very little. It started with building and crafting. I used to make a lot at home with my parents, literally everything from building kites, crocheting, knitting, silk screening (we printed our birthday cards our selves), backgammon boards, to enamel jewelry. Thanks to my art teacher in middle school my eyes got more trained and I took any kind of graphic and product design and art course and extracurricular activity available.
Nathan Heleine (Co-Founder, Crush & Lovely): Music was my first love and my primary focus for 15 years. I first became interested in design as a means to promote my music. And since much of what I played consisted of unusual instrumental music, I thought design might serve as a comforting balm (to convey to others that the music was actually palatable). This approach mostly backfired because I was a pretty crappy designer at the time. Or maybe it was just the music. I’ll never be sure.
Rachel Nash (Product Designer, Etsy): Around my freshman year of high school, I started hanging around a sign shop downtown which was across the street from one of my friend’s houses. It handled a lot of carved, gilded, and painted pieces that would stand in front of historic buildings in our town. I was really fascinated by the craft of that work, and I finally convinced the owner let me apprentice there. I spent my entire summers there painting and typesetting, and by the time I graduated, I couldn’t really imagine myself going to college for anything else.
Tell us about a design challenge from early on in your career
James: I remember being interviewed at a digital agency and saying that I wanted to one day be a creative director and run a department. The guy interviewing me asked me how I thought that was possible when I wasn’t a designer. I never saw it as black and white as that. I was always optimistic about the power of ideas.
Rachel: Early on in design school, I had a teacher that gave us a 3-week-long project to redesign state websites. At the final critique, he looked over my work, deleted it, and told me to start over. The typography, colors, layout were fine, but there wasn’t any feeling to it. I think that’s simultaneously the most important and most time-consuming part of any design project — making sure your work really resonates with people.
Anne Foley (Product Designer, Percolate): As a student at Virginia Tech, I worked on a project with a group of undergraduate women who were part of an organization called IDEAS (Interior Designs for Education and Sustainability). At the time, they needed some brand identity and marketing materials to support their “Make the Switch” campaign, encouraging students, faculty and residents to make the campus more energy efficient by changing their conventional, incandescent light bulbs to more energy efficient lightbulbs. The challenge was to create a campaign that would get students and faculty interested and aware of the environmental and economical impacts of energy efficient bulbs. We looked to solve this challenge by working with the research that IDEAS had conducted around energy conservation. By surfacing the most interesting facts in our materials, such as “Just one bulb saves 60 pounds of coal per year,” we were able to create an impactful campaign for the organization. This was the first time I can remember working on something that would have an impact on my community.
What’s a recent piece of work that you found inspirational?
Dong-Ping Wong(Partner, Family Architects): One of the things that comes to mind is this gallery space on an island in Japan – the Teshima Museum (by the architect Ryue Nishizawa). Basically all it is is a really large concrete shell, with a hole cut out of it. What’s amazing about it is that it’s one of those spaces that is purely for atmosphere. It’s not meant to exhibit anything. It has no use in a traditional architectural sense. It’s not climatized, and there’s no enclosure to it, per se. It looks like a big concrete bubble. Our work usually has a use or function or agenda or purpose, so it’s always really nice to look at something that has virtually no purpose except a sublime experience.
Nora: About a month ago I visited the architectural biennial in Venice and saw Steve Jobs’ Yacht parked in front of it. That was truly striking.
Nathan: My current focus is filmmaking (though most of my film work sits within some kind of digital experience) and I’m currently obsessed with directors who employ extremely long, uncut takes. Two recent films that come to mind are Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour”.
Anne: Just last night our design team went on an outing to see the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. His work is definitely striking to say the least. I enjoyed seeing how the art evolved throughout his career. It makes you appreciate his more recent work.
Rachel: I got pretty excited recently about Electric Objects launching. It’s a subtle and beautiful monitor for art, animation, or any Internet-pulled datastream. At Etsy, I have a screensaver that pulls popular search terms from recent history and replays them as if they’re being typed live. It’s an awesome insight into the personality of Etsy’s market. I like the potential for more of that kind of subtle background data streaming through my life.
What’s your favorite coffee shop in the city and why?
Dong: We’re on Perry St in the West Village. We love Saturdays, on the corner. Mostly just cause everyone that works there is pretty awesome.
Nora: I love Everyman Espresso because they steep the tea for you, for the right amount of time. I’m a passionate tea drinker hoping that tea will be the new coffee soon.
Nathan:There’s a small spot near my home in Greenpoint called Homecoming (formerly Spina). It’s a flower shop but they also serve Blue Bottle coffee, without the long lines.
Anne:I always liked Irving Farm in Gramercy. It’s near my neighborhood and is located on the ground floor of a gramarcy brownstone nestled in between Bedford Cheese Shop and Friend of a Farmer Cafe. Good coffee. Nice block.
Rachel: Mmm. I’d have to go with Brooklyn Roasting Company, for the buzzing atmosphere, the super comfy sofas, and that drink they call the maple shay shay — espresso, maple syrup, and steamed milk. Totally honest, I’m a sucker for maple syrup in anything.
Thanks again to all of our speakers for presenting next Thursday, and for sharing their thoughts here today. If you haven’t signed up yet, register here and join us at the Bowery Electric. We’ll have a couple of beers and listen to these wonderful speakers tell stories about learning to hurdle.