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In Conversation with the Speakers of DesignTalk: Research or Bust
DesignTalk is back in New York City this Wednesday at The Bowery Electric. As we build out our product and company, we’ve been spending a lot of time researching — interviewing marketers, testing interfaces, looking for trends in the industry. We know there are serious consequences to skipping the research phase — at worst, it could lead to less-than-ideal work that doesn’t hit the mark. That’s why we’ve assembled an all-star cast of designers to divulge their research processes and their long-felt impacts, at the fifth DesignTalk: Research or Bust.
Once again, here are our speakers:
Nitzan Hermon – VVVVVV
Nitzan runs VVVVVV, a technology and design practice whose clients include Wallpaper, MoMA, and The Ace Hotel. He is a member of the first ever museum-led incubator, New INC, in partnership with the New Museum.
Hannah Donovan – Drip
Hannah leads product design at Drip, a new music and culture platform that gives you access to the artists and collectives you love. Before Drip, Hannah was a co-founder of This Is My Jam, and lead design at Last.fm.
Rachel Gogel – New York Times
Rachel is a creative director at The New York Times. At the Times’ T Brand Studio, she leads a team creating branded content and ad products for clients. Before joining the Times, Rachel was Design Director at GQ Magazine.
Andrew Zolty – Breakfast
Andrew is the chief creative officer at Breakfast, a rapid product and prototype company that develops intellectual property. Most recently, they worked with Forever 21 to build Thread Screen, an image display powered by 6,400 mechanical thread spools.
Kate Oppenheim – M ss ng P eces
Kate is the executive producer at M ss ng P eces, a production and entertainment company inspired by storytelling, technology and the limitless potential of the web. Before M ss ng P eces, Kate was a senior content manager at Ogilvy.
Anthony Agrios – Percolate
Anthony is a product designer at Percolate, where he is helping to build the System of Record for Marketing. Before Percolate, Anthony worked on customer experiences as a UX designer at MakerBot, the 3D printer manufacturing company.
Because of the PechaKucha 20×20 format of the event, each speaker only has about seven minutes to present. And while that format makes for some very entertaining presentations, it does mean we can only hear so much from them. That’s why we sit down with our speakers before DesignTalk events to get to know them a little bit better. Here’s some of what they had to say this time:
How did you first become interested in design?
Nitzan: I moved to London to pursue musical interests. At the time I was DJing, and looking at writing reviews and setting up a little record label. I ended up starting a [Flash] blog, with the help of a friend. In hindsight I guess that the on-going interest in music, the desire to make something new and the tools that the internet gave me really melted all of this into my practice.
Hannah: I was lucky to grow up in a creative family. My dad worked in fashion so poring over look books and later learning the industry was hugely influential. To this day pattern and texture remain my aesthetic go-tos.
My mom is a writer, and her profession also had an effect on me; words and typography are a big part of my design process and style. We had a printing press in our garage and I remember asking if there was a job ‘for colors and letters’. It all kind of rolled from there.
Rachel: Actually, it started in high school. I was on the yearbook team and playing with Photoshop to cut people out of crazy backgrounds (remember the early Photoshop days?). We didn’t really use computers at my school then so it was really something I did at home, and I focused more on mixed media and collage in my early work. When I moved to the U.S. from Paris and went to UPenn, I took a Digital Design Foundations class and fell in love with typography and color. I actually declared my major early and focused on Communication Design until the end. Through summer internships and pro bono projects on campus, I learned a lot about what design could do for different industries and brands, but I had my heart set on magazines and print layout. Even though I graduated without a job offer during a tough time in the job market/the hiring freeze in 2009, I was determined to be immersed in a design community as soon as possible. I found the perfect fit: the School for Visual Arts was hosting an intensive two-week master’s program in Italy. It gave me the chance to interact with two legends in the field: Louise Fili, famed for her food packaging and restaurant identities, and her husband, writer and design critic Steven Heller.
My early days in New York were spent at a now-closed Borders, where I’d thumb through magazines, find the names of the art directors in the mastheads, and research how to get in touch with them. I ended up logging hours everywhere from GQ to Diane Von Furstenberg. I love going to museums and getting inspired from my travels. Now I’m a huge design nerd, embrace strategy and process, and run a team of creative unicorns who have all kinds of design-related passions. Everyone needs a designer, so my goal is to keep learning and expanding my skill set — these days, being a “Designer” can mean many things.
Zolty: Growing up, I always noticed the little details in the world. How the subtlest of lines, shapes, and asymmetry could have a profound impact on the “feel” of a room, picture, car, etc. It wasn’t until I happened into a design class in college that I realized I had been noticing design elements for years. It was like someone adjusting my focus slightly, and me recognizing my natural obsession for the first time. As I progressed through design school, I ignored what most people would point out as “good design.” Instead, I paid attention only to the things that caught my eye. At first, I found inspiration in random books and annuals, but then stumbled upon those paving the way designing on the web. The Chopping Block and GMUNK (circa the early 2000s) showed me opposite sides of a truly amazing and interactive spectrum of design.
How does your research begin and end — what is the process?
Nitzan: It never ends, so I guess that it never really begins. I am realizing with time that research is not a reaction to a project, but rather a driving force in my work.
It fuels growth of a practice and often times sets its direction. e.g. should I go to this talk? read this book? is this piece of information relevant to me and my work? etc.
Hannah: It never begins or ends. It’s constant. I do a ton of anecdotal research – I always have a running list of questions that I ask people usually before they find out what I do for a living. I’m lucky the domain I work in (music and entertainment) is something that I can ask almost anyone about and learn something from. I talk to everyone. I observe people.
But you can’t just watch from the sidelines when you’re designing for desire. It’s so much more subjective and nuanced than designing for needs, and a big part of it is feel. In the field of music and entertainment, it’s critical to live that life, constantly experiencing. I throw myself in.
Besides my own primary research I’m constantly triangulating with market research, data insights, user testing etc. The more lenses you have to look through, the faster the picture comes into focus.
Rachel: To me, research never really ends. I use different methods while I’m in the creative zone and then once a project wraps, I just do it all over again. It all starts with generating an idea — through my travels, talking to people, going to cultural events, looking at what other companies are doing, random internet surfing, past work experiences etc.
My process is really a list of action verbs: Generate (an idea) > Observe (the insights and expectations) > Define (the goals and budget) > Discover (the data and possibilities) > Assess (the resources and facts) > Ideate (on the solution) > React (with the initial sketches and moodboards) > Share (for review and establish style) > Critique (and listen to the client, i.e. panic and pray they love it) > Refine (and prioritize) > Implement (the informed ideation) > Create (the assets and test it) > Review (again) > Develop (and produce, then launch) > Reflect (and look at areas for improvement; hear feedback and testimonials) > Analyze (the social actions and other metrics) > Compare (to other work) > Feel (great or require deep sleep) > Repeat (again).
In my opinion, research in my creative practice is not a prescription for ‘good design’ or ‘success’; it provides a fairly reliable framework within which human intuition, emotion and invention must come into play too.
Zolty: Thousands of tagged links. Pages of notes. Piles of ideas that have stacked up on random days when there’s no where to apply them. My process begins here – combing through the trail of thoughts I’ve left behind me. Sometimes something appropriate catches my eye, but more often, this sifting puts my head into my deepest creative place.
My process ends when I find myself back at the beginning, with a new challenge. Until then, there is always more to learn and improve on whatever came before.
When did you learn the importance of research — did it end in bust or success?
Hannah: One of my early jobs out of school was working for a creative agency that also had a research arm. I was fresh out of art & design school and (of course) entirely too wrapped up in “the concept”. It was a harsh but critical awakening to watch concepts I thought were great flop, and vice versa.
Rachel: Research is really important and it can only enhance a creative person’s approach to a project. It sounds silly, but I think being in the College at UPenn, surrounded by Wharton kids, made me think about design as an entrepreneurial pursuit vs. an artist’s craft. I’ve always been into process and strategy.
But even when the entire process outlined above is followed, things don’t always work out the way we plan them to—but that’s when we arguably learn the most too.
Zolty: In my final year of college I decided I wanted to major in Interactive Design. Only problem was, there was no one there to teach it to me. I was my own teacher in my senior year, and I learned the power that research could have. When you choose to research beyond those around you, you come out flying past the heard. Research and self learning are how you get ahead. Period.
DesignTalk began as a weekly meeting in which our design team shared inspirational work from a variety of disciplines: Architecture, illustration, product design and so on. What’s a recent piece of work that you found inspirational or striking?
Hannah: I recently went to the Frank Stella show at the Whitney with the Drip team. ‘Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]’ made a pretty big impression on me. Immersive textural experience FTW.
Rachel: I’m also really excited to go hear Frank Stella speak at The Whitney museum on December 1st! Also, not only do I love his work but I do love the new Whitney space.
Zolty: Love Hultén’s
At Percolate, we’re pretty into coffee. What’s your favorite coffee shop in New York (or any city– we’re expanding to other cities after all) and why?
Nitzan: Espresso at O Cafe at 12th Street and 6 Avenue. Strong, new world coffee.
Hannah: Saturdays NYC in SoHo! I love them for three reasons: the back garden is Manhattan’s best kept secret; the design in the shop is always inspiring; the baristas are rad. I have a Saturdays coffee canister I get them to refill with fresh grounds every week.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m serious. There’s nothing like a cheap cup of diner-style sludge. Oh baby.
Rachel: I’ve started going to Irving Farm Coffee on the Upper West Side lately. I also really dig Grounded on Jane Street. Grounded, I go to when I want to get out of uptown and just get off the map for a while—it has free wi-fi and is really cozy, I can work there for hours and the music is great. But I have to admit, I actually love ordering iced chais instead of coffee. I know, I’m weird.
Zolty: I just discovered the Vineapple Cafe in Brooklyn Heights. I’ve walked past it a thousand times and never even noticed it was there. It’s quiet, quaint, and hidden-ish.