October 29, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Creative Mother-and-Son Time between Designer Joni Trythall and Ben

What are you working on—on the side?

I started Bologna and Ben a few years ago with my son. Ben took an interest in my work early on when he would catch me making things in Illustrator or planning animations on CodePen. One day, he got home from school as I was finishing up some icons and he began to replicate them on paper next to me at my desk.

I found the level of detail he picked up on incredible for a four-year old and it inspired me to start the project as a way to document these types of adventures. It was perfect timing since Ben loved drawing but couldn’t always think of an idea to put on paper. This provides him with a subject to focus on while he practices drawing and tries to match colors. I’ll show him some of my illustrations to choose from and we settle in at the kitchen or living room tables with snacks and music.

We do fewer posts these days because he has become much more creative than myself and simply doesn’t need the inspiration as much anymore. His friend recently had a birthday and Ben drew him a flying sausage because “his favorite color is red”; I could only dream about coming up with something so clever!

You can still find us at the table with muffins and mini-chocolate chips every once in a while on mom-and-Ben nights, and he gets new supplies each year on holidays. He most recently improved some design work I did for Soft Skills Engineering.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

This is one of my favorite side projects since it has always been super casual with no pressure, for it to be more than it is; it’s whatever we want it to be and it doesn’t matter if anyone else follows along. We will sit down together whenever Ben has the urge to do some drawing, but this creative time together has evolved to take on other forms as well over the years. For instance, he helped me design a “favorite” icon animation for work a couple weeks ago, describing a series of beating, outlined hearts. I built a prototype and made additional changes as I was instructed until it was just right. He also helped describe the perfect easing for a loading animation and is the first to say “This is OK but I liked the other thing better,” which is a level of honesty that is invaluable and difficult to get from adults.

Why have a side project?

I’ve had countless side projects over the years as a way to embrace what I love doing without getting burned out by only doing it in the context of formal work. I get to set my own constraints and don’t have to overanalyze anything, it can just be a thing because I want it to be, and it brings me and others joy.

My favorite projects have been in relation to kids. I’ve taught workshops to middle schoolers about web design and CSS animations. Later this year, I’ll be heading to an elementary school to show them some animations while they design their own on paper, followed by a mini-workshop for the same middle school about hand-coding SVGs. Kids possess a breathtaking amount of creativity and pick up on complex things so quickly, it’s such a pleasure getting to show them a small glimpse into a career most of them are not aware of. There are few things that light up a kids face more than showing them how to move something across a screen.

Bologna and Ben specifically has been a way to bring Ben into my work in a stress-free and relatable way. He knows about branding and logos, he selects smart colors, he draws thoughtful things for people as gifts. I have worked from home since he was born, the lines between work and home life just don’t exist, but I try as much as possible to make sure this overlap is fun, educational and nurtures his innate curiosity. 

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Joni Trythall.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

October 14, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Designers Miho Aishima and Kat Garner Founded Creative Space “Rye Here Rye Now” as a More Friendly, Less Formal, Gathering for the Creative Community

What are you working on—on the side?

We run Rye Here Rye Now, a creative platform based in Peckham Rye, London. We hold monthly meetups bringing together creatives from all areas of the industry. We’ve also run events with Tate Modern, the Great Get Together and Peckham Festival.

We started holding our monthly meetups two years ago because we felt that a lot of the design talks and events we were going to were quite formal and could be intimidating to people just starting out. We wanted to create a space where people can feel relaxed. We make sure to provide opportunities throughout our events for people to engage with each other and spark conversations.

Miho: When we started Rye Here Rye Now, I was freelancing and missed the kind of conversations that I would have at the pub with colleagues and other designers when I was in a studio full-time. We have met so many great people and have become a part of the creative community in Peckham in the last few years which has been wonderful.

My other side projects include: preparing for a group exhibition with some artists to open early next year and collaborating with a friend on an annual retreat for our group of inspiring women-designer friends.

Kat: One of the reasons I was excited to start Rye Here Rye Now was that working in a studio alongside a consistent team means there’s was less of an opportunity to meet new creatives, one of the best things about RHRN has been meeting and becoming friends with so many great people through these nights that we put on.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

Kat: We meet up and plan for Rye Here Rye Now a couple of times before each event to chat through the plan for that month. Now that we’ve been running it for two years, we’re quite prepared in terms of what needs to be done and when things should be publicised or posted on social media and how to divide up that work, because we do both have full-time jobs to get this done around.

Miho: It can be very difficult, but I often dedicate time in the evenings after work and on the weekends. Sometimes, I even have to take calls about projects during my lunch hour, but I think it’s definitely worth it. I think you need to put in the hours to build something meaningful and worthwhile.

Why have a side project?

For us, Rye Here Rye Now was something that we felt was needed and we were excited to provide a platform, bring together a creative community and provide a chance for people to meet and collaborate.

Miho: I think side projects give you the opportunity to explore ideas that may not fit into your day-to-day work. You can also try something without committing to it as a full-time job; however, it does mean you have to be a bit more organised with your time.

Being a creative can be tough especially in a city that is so big, expensive and competitive like London. By creating Rye Here Rye Now, I feel that we are building a supportive place for all creatives to feel welcome and share their stories. That makes this side project worthwhile for me.

Kat: Generally speaking, I think it’s important to have side projects to exercise your brain and your creativity in different ways. Finding something that you can be passionate about, that is driven just by your interest in it, can make you feel more excited about the client-facing design work you do. However, I think too often people take on side projects because they feel like it’s a requirement, and feel obligated to constantly be posting work. There’s no benefit to burning yourself out for the sake of looking busy, especially if it’s not adding anything to your life or your practice. I’d say choose your side projects carefully—don’t feel like it needs to be something you have to show anyone or monetise if you don’t want to, and that way, it will be so much more rewarding.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Miho Aishima and Kat Garner—their joint portrait photographed by Matthew Pull.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

October 7, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Emily J. Smith’s Itch to Keep Writing Naturally Sparked the Founding of Matchmaking App Chorus—Her Tech Startup

What are you working on—on the side?

My main side project is my writing. I write essays, mostly, and I’m also working on a novel and a nonfiction book. I started writing about five years ago. I never studied it, or did it professionally; a career in the arts had always felt out of the question, financially. I studied engineering and then went to business school. My world was always numbers, not words.

I started writing on the side in my thirties. At first, I was afraid to admit that I wrote in my free time. I thought it would seem absurd or worse—cute—that I felt my thoughts were interesting enough to take the time to write down. So I did it in secret initially. But eventually, I started to publish a few pieces and, over time, it got easier to admit. Now I call myself a “writer,” but when I hear other people say it, it still feels strange.

My other side project, which has since turned into my full-time project is my company, Chorus. Chorus is a matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends (please sign up!). A lot of my writing has to do with relationships, dating and technology, and so I think about the dynamics of connection constantly. I had been shopping the idea for Chorus to friends for over a year and getting great feedback, and one day I just decided to go for it. I put together a business plan and a pitch deck, and found an amazing (all-female) team passionate about the idea. This summer we secured our first round of funding so now we’re full speed ahead!

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

When I first started writing, I spent all my free time doing it. I did it before and after work and on weekends. That sounds depressing, I know, but I had never given myself that kind of time and space to just sit in my own thoughts. The notion of writing had always felt too self indulgent or self-important. I hate to characterize it this way, but, to me, back then, the self-obsession required to create art felt masculine. But once I started, it was all I wanted to do. I was so used to thinking in response to others, to having others opinions and reactions influence my thoughts and feelings, and to just have the space of the page to untangle my ideas was addicting.

Now I can’t live without it. I get an itch to write if I don’t for a while. Like if your sink fills up with dishes—it happens, but at some point, you have to clear it out. If I don’t write, my thoughts clutter up in my head and I need to work through them to feel at ease.

Writing is kind of my side project again now that I’m working full-time on Chorus, so I try and clear my weekends to work on my book projects. Luckily, the two are closely related. I have to write a lot about relationships in service of Chorus. It’s a nice balance in many ways. I like having both creative and analytical projects to switch back and forth on. When I get stuck on a Word document, there’s always a spreadsheet to jump into.

Why have a side project?

I think it’s absurd that we assume we can or should only be one thing in life—like if we’ve worked as x, then we can’t one day be y. I think a lot of people, as they get older, are afraid to try new things even if they’re dying to do it, because it’s uncomfortable to be terrible at something and also serious about it. But the only way to start anything is to be bad at it at first. We develop an ego as we get older, like we should know what we’re doing with our lives. But even the most practical among us never really do, so far better to just admit it. Side projects are a great way to pursue an interest that we may not be good at, but that we actually enjoy.

The other thing is that side projects can lead to real projects. My side project of writing led, in many ways, to getting funding for my startup. After writing about the problems with dating, I built up a credibility on the topic. It’s strange, because at first, writing about dating and relationships felt like a liability with regards to my career, it was embarrassing to publish such honest material. But then I saw how people connected with that kind of honesty—even people I worked with.

Everything we do adds to our experiences in some way, we just have to keep following our interests. No matter how bad and embarrassing it may feel at first.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Emily Smith—her portrait photographed by Mae Ryan.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

June 17, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Freelance Graphic Designer Jess Lewis Took the “36 Days of Type” Challenge

What are you working on—on the side?

36 Days of Type, a personal project to animate all 36 letters and numbers of the alphabet with cities across the world. 36 Days of Type is a project organised by designers from Barcelona that invites designers, illustrators and graphic artists to express their particular interpretation of the letters and numbers of the alphabet. Participants are challenged to design a letter or number for each day, showing the ability to represent the same symbols simultaneously and from thousands of different perspectives. I decided to take part to try and force myself to experiment more with animation and push myself outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t end up finishing the whole series, due to work commitments, but managed to complete all the letters.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I originally started designing one animation per day. I quickly realised that if I wanted to finish the series, I’d need to get more organised, and so, started doing a couple per day so I could schedule them. Unfortunately, other work began to build up and I eventually ran out of time.

Why have a side project?

Being a creative freelancer, I always feel that I should focus on client work over personal projects, so it was nice to spend time doing something different and having some time for myself. I don’t often get a chance to spend a big chunk of time enhancing my skills and it was really beneficial setting myself a personal daily design challenge.

• • •

Portrait and animation courtesy of Jess Lewis.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

June 6, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Designer Sarah Jackson’s Animated GIFs of Crime, Philosophy of Design and More

What are you working on—on the side?

Everything I do feels like a side project! What makes them “side projects” might vary, depending on what I consider to be that day’s “main project.” For example, I was working on my Master of Design full-time for the past two years which made my design work the side-project, perhaps?

Former side-projects include (but are not limited to): competitive salsa dancing, building a series of children’s books about jam, and creating/hosting monthly Philosophic Salons on a variety of topics. But right now, I guess I have three side projects on the go:

The ABCs of Crime
A series of GIFs that I’m illustrating and animating to go through each letter of the alphabet as applied to crime: A is for Arson, B is for Burglary, C is for Corruption, etc. You can find them on my Instagram (currently working on K!).

Philosophy of Design
This ties into my design-thesis work, but I’m very interested in the philosophy of design—why we do what we do and how we understand it. Furthermore, I’m interested if we can change what we like: how do you change designer’s tastes, aesthetics, what we define as “good” design? This side project currently doesn’t amount to much besides thinking about it, but I wholeheartedly believe it counts!

Can sleeping be a side project? I have a serious goal to get at least nine hours of sleep every night and not ever wake up before 10am. Ongoing endeavour.

I’m planning on starting a project about whales, because I think they are beautiful and majestic, and I’m worried about our oceans.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

With great enthusiasm! LOL. I am a master procrastinator, and these are the projects that I fill my time with when I need a break from my client-design work.

Why have a side project?

I’ve never had a side project for the sake of having a side project. I’ve spent my life pursuing things that stimulate my creative heart, things that bring me delight. Sometimes that’s design, sometimes it’s training as a competitive salsa dancer, sometimes it’s building GIFs about crime.

• • •

Portrait and animation courtesy of Sarah Jackson.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

May 29, 2019

Illustrator Cornelia Li Is Greatly Intrigued by Ideas and Emotions Through her Art for Books and Editorial Projects

I first discovered Cornelia Li’s work in National Public Radio Correspondent Allison Aubrey’s report “From Gloom to Gratitude: 8 Skills to Cultivate Joy”—for which Cornelia made a beautiful illustration (where the wonderfully drawn koi caught my eye). This led me to discovering her artwork for children’s books, like “Voyage Through Space.” In addition to the cosmic perspective, here she shares her perspective on becoming an illustrator, a creative discipline she is passionate about—and it shows in her art.

How did you arrive at the desire, ultimately the decision,
to become an artist who makes her art her life’s work?

My interest in being a visual artist stems very early in my childhood. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always used drawings to communicate ideas and emotions (such as cartoons of my dad’s teeth falling out or stinking when he didn’t shower for one evening). I am fortunate enough to have parents who supported me through this decision and have always encouraged my interest in art.

It wasn’t until university that I learned the concept of “illustration.” Immediately, I found the use of visual language as a means of problem-solving very intriguing. I like the idea of having a real-world application for my art, while maintaining my own artistic vision and voice, and being an illustrator just fell naturally in place for me.

Your work spans illustrations, murals and books. Which area of practice was engaged first? How did you get interested in each medium? How do you maintain practicing each discipline?

I started with and still predominantly work in editorial, as it is relatively accepting to new talents and was easier to break into for a new graduate. I enjoy coming up with visually interesting and meaningful representation for the variety of topics and the thrill of the fast turnaround time. The process of working on an editorial usually starts with reading the articles, which actually educate me on many topics I would not have actively learn.

Book illustration is something that I only got a chance to work on more recently. The narrative approach that many of the book projects require actually contrast nicely with the more metaphorical approach taken with editorial illustrations. It gives me the mental breaks I need!

What methods/activities did you activate to help you actually start working and living your passion?

Going to art school, being introduced to the art community, and constantly feeling inspired by the talents surrounding me definitely keep me motivated in both creating art—and learning to be better at what I do. Getting business advice from profs and design forums are also vital to being a sustainable illustrator, as you are not simply an artist but also the runner of this one-person business.

On a more day-to-day basis, my way of staying motivated is really just sitting down and starting to move the pencil (or Stylus), and my mind will settle into working mode.

What experiences do you carry with you that empower your work moving forward?

As an illustrator, I don’t think there are any aspect of life experiences that’s completely unrelated to my work. My work is the product of my mind—and my mind is an accumulation of different life experiences. In particular, I draw inspirations from literature, observations of people and nature, including past and contemporary masters. I also try to be on top of news relevant to my industry.

Being an indie creator, what does independence and growth mean to you?

Being a freelance artist isn’t just a job, it’s also a lifestyle. Going back to the point that every life experience contributes to my work, my mind is always engaged in searching for visual inspirations and possible solutions. On the management side, I try to keep a routine, even though I work from home; it’s easy to get wrapped up in work and forget to take breaks. I usually start the day at around 8:30–9 in the morning, dealing with the most challenging and thinking-involved tasks, then going down the to-do list. I try to end my day at around 6, go out for a walk, and make time to do other things such as reading and cleaning my place. I also have a cockatoo-studio mate named Charlie who perches himself on my desk top monitor and occasionally destroys a thing or two.

When you engage an editorial illustration project, can you walk through your process? For example, how did you realize “Quebec Science: Ordering Genes”?

Over the years, I manage to develop a pretty consistent process with editorial work. I usually start with reading the article, take notes on key concepts and points, then begin thumbnail on paper or on the computer. While the art director requires 3 concepts, I often explore many more, of different visual symbols and metaphors that can most effectively convey the article. Once the concept is approved, I move on to the final illustration. For editorial, I do the final illustration (below) almost exclusively in digital media.

Congratulations on launching the book “Voyage Through Space”! How did you connect with the writer-collaborator for this project? And how do you maintain, as Astrophysicist Neil Tyson puts it, a “cosmic perspective”?

Thank you! I was really fortunate; it was Quarto Publishing who approached me first after discovering an editorial piece I did (below) for the “Financial Post” depicting an astronaut harvesting stars. It has always been my dream to illustrate for books and I was so thrilled to get the email. After going back and forth with the author/editor, the wonderful Katy Flint, and the art director Nicola Price (who created amazing layouts!), we decided the book will be visual heavy with full spreads, starring a young astronaut and her canine companion who will accompany young readers during their exploration through the solar system. Together, they explore the sun, the eight planets, in addition to the astroid belt and Kuiper belt, finally arriving at a glow in the dark poster of the solar system.

The team at Quarto was attracted to the texture and colour of my work, and wanted to bring those qualities to the depiction of the planets and other celestial bodies. While it is important to maintain factual accuracy, I also took the creative freedom to accentuate the most visually stunning elements of the planets, with the goal to create images that readers can immerse themselves in. I was pretty happy with the final result!

Do you have usually a sketchbook on your person? What’s your frequency in making time to sketch? Is this one of the major ways you practice drawing and sharpening this skill?

I actually don’t work in sketchbooks but loose sheets of scrap paper. I find that while working in sketchbooks, I am always afraid to ruin them, which actually inhibits the flow of my creativity. Because my sketching process is an exploration of ideas, my sketches are actually quite ugly and illegible compared to artists who have beautifully rendered sketchbooks! That said, I do make chicken-scratch sketches quite often, as it is a way to keep my mind active. My current goal is to explore the analogue medium more, so perhaps I will return to a proper sketchbook soon.

What is your vision of satisfaction and growth, as it relates to your livelihood?

I like to further expand on the types of project I do. I am currently working on personal projects in hopes of expanding into the publishing realm further, to work on book covers and middle-grade novels. I am also hoping to collaborate with design firms to work on campaigns. Further down the road, I am also hoping to collaborate with a designer brand—and design scarves for them!

How are creativity and art coping mechanisms in these politically-charged, ever-turbulent times?

I don’t think art is a coping mechanism so much as a mode of discourse. The visual language allows an artist to express their opinions or represent certain standpoints in the discussion of these issues, and through these discussions, hopefully creates resonance in the audience.

What is the one tool that helps make your work more accomplished and pleasant, as a result, making your life good?

Photoshop. It’s a powerful program—and with Kyle Webster’s Brushes, continuously good at mimicking the analogue medium with the benefits of time efficiency and control+Z. That said, I do want to get back into the analogue medium more. As convenient as the computer is, it cannot replace the touch of the pencil on paper.

How do you get the word out about what you do? How do you attract people to your work and hire you?

Like many artists, I started out with sending out postcards and cold emails to art directors. With internet and social media, it’s a lot simpler to find contact information. Entering competitions and trying to meet art directors in person also really helps. These days, not all my work comes from direct promotion; my published work is sometimes discovered by art directors and leads to new assignments. While it is really important to actively and consistently promote your work, I think having a strong body of work is what ultimately leads to jobs.

Social media is also extremely important nowadays and an excellent way to form a long-distance community. Admittedly, I am still improving my usage of social media.

In running your creative business and managing all of those moving parts to live and keep yourself busy, how do you take care of yourself?

This is only something I’ve recently gotten better at! These last two years, I’ve been trying to freelance as much as I can while doing a full-time job. Earlier this year, I got very very sick from overworking. After that, I decided to quit my full-time job and give full-time freelance a shot. As I mentioned earlier, I have a more established work schedule now; I force myself to disconnect from work in the evening for reading and other activities. I’m also living with my parents at the moment, so I have the privilege of not having to cook!

What’s your inspiration diet like? Who and what do you recommend to help stimulate creativity, even help overcome creativity-block?

I think we are fortunate to live in an age where resources and information are so readily accessible. I follow a variety of designers, artists and publishers on various social platform whose amazing work I find extremely inspiring. I also look for inspirations in old masters from the golden age of illustration.

If an aspiring illustrator approached you and said, “I love to draw and want to become a working artist,” what’s your response? What are some initial must-do steps to help kickstart such a career as productively as possible?

It’s a wonderful feeling finding your passion in life! The most important thing is finding your own artistic voice, and finding the audience for your work. Think about if you want to work for a studio or be a freelancer. The freelance lifestyle can be lonely and challenging, and not immediately rewarding. Develop a consistent and sustainable work habit. Engage in the community and support fellow artists. It’s also very important to take care of your health!

How does the city of Toronto, Ontario, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large? Have you attended the CreativeMornings chapter?

I actually live in the suburbs outside of Toronto and don’t go to the city very often. That said, Toronto is a vibrant city for creative workers with an active network of designers and artists. There are many art communities and galleries, like those at 401 Richmond Street, which gives young artists the room to grow and explore.

Have you seen “Crazy Rich Asians”?

No. I read the plot summery on Wikipedia instead.

• • •

All images courtesy of Cornelia Li.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of 105 (so far) Interviews
with people who love making things.

๐Ÿ–๐Ÿพ Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is on Patreon!
Lots of hours and pride are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find inspiration from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a fun souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

February 2, 2019

Accountability by Design: Christine Gaspar, Community-Engaged Designer and Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy

Photography by Steph Goralnick

One of the most provocative and memorable talks at the 11th (and last) annual gathering of the Cusp Conference in 2018 was by Christine Gaspar, the Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy—“a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement particularly among underrepresented communities.” Here, she gives her opinions on her organization’s community-driven work that rigorously fuses research, design and activism, including her insightfully grounded lens on the overly advertised quality of “empathy” in the design community.

Since 2011, you’ve been a fan of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP)—how did you discover this organization and their work?

I first came across CUP at an exhibit at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in 2001. It was about building codes. I was in grad school for architecture and urban planning at the time, and saw a blurb about it in a magazine (maybe “Metropolis”?) So the next time I was in New York, I checked it out and fell in love with the combination of seriousness of the content (“Building Codes Save Lives”) and the playfulness of the presentation. I started following CUP’s work after that.

Fascinated by the fact that the Center for Urban Pedagogy states design as is: design. Not people-centered design, social design, civic design, among a great many other labels. Would you qualify the kind of design work you do? If so, how?

I love this question! I think we do modify it in various ways in different contexts, and I think the most common way I personally describe it is probably as “community-engaged design.” But I mostly think the labels are pretty unsatisfying and don’t quite get at the values we care about. At its heart, I believe that good design IS design that brings people into the framing and understanding of problems, and into the shaping of solutions. So in that way, design is adequate.

Center for Urban Pedagogy project “Figuring Out Health Insurance”—“illustrates how health insurance works, basic rights under the Affordable Care Act, and how to get insurance—including reduced price programs.”

Your talk at Cusp Conference 2018, Chicago, reinforced the importance of making the complex clear. Who, past/present, do you view as motivational examples of this human act? 

Personally, I’ve always had a fondness for children’s books and feel like the best ones can really convey so much with an economy of words and images. (One favorite that comes to mind is “Popville” by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud which has no words.)

I think an obvious precedent for CUP is the “Schoolhouse Rock!” series from the late 70s which used songs and animation to make opaque topics, like how legislation works, both understandable and memorable and maybe even a little fun.

The work of Otto Neurath (1882–1945) is an important touchstone as well. His ideas really resonate with CUP’s model, too, in that he saw his role as a “transformer” that would bridge between, on the one hand, the social sciences and the data they generated and, on the other, the public and its understanding of how that information affects them. He really believed in the power of images to convey meaning regardless of one’s literacy or level of education. He said, “Whenever the fate of individuals and communities is at stake, we need some comprehensive knowledge to help us make our own decisions. It is for this that I think visual aids are so important, especially when we wish to educate ourselves and others in citizenship.” I think I pulled this from “Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis” (2008) by Nader Vossoughian, published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute. That feels very aligned with what we do and why.

The composition of CUP teams—artists, designers, educators, activists, researchers—is awesome. What are some don’ts in managing multidisciplinary collaboration?

Don’t let your ego get in the way.

Don’t confuse interdisciplinarity with “we all do all the things.” There is this trap that some collaborations fall into. I also think it’s how some people unfairly knock participatory design processes, claiming that having untrained people do the design work weakens it. The trick of good interdisciplinary collaborations is to have clear roles and expectations, and to create a strong framework within which each person can do the thing they’re really good at, and contribute to moving the project towards its goals. You get more than the sum of the parts if you do it that way. And it’s important to question what we count as “expertise.” Often, people who are the target audience and can give the most important information about existing problems or how something should work are not seen as having equivalent expertise to trained designers—and that’s just not the case. Lived experience is real expertise, and no designer however well-trained can adequately solve a problem without the contributions of that expertise.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the mundane: scheduling things, following through, setting clear goals and deadlines, defining roles clearly. These are the things that you never read or hear about but they’re the things that make projects successful. They allow for the creation of trust and they make it so everyone can focus on their work.

Don’t assume everyone has the same reference points or understands the same jargon. Diversity of experience is actually a great thing. But if you don’t address it by finding a way to create a shared language and process, it can derail a project.

Based on your masters work, how does architecture and city planning feed/influence your work?

I’m not sure how to disentangle that from how my brain works! I also have a background in policy and I spent a lot of my undergrad education thinking about how policy gets written, why and then how it plays out on the ground. The combination of that with architecture and urban planning helps me think about the issues we work on at different scales, and helps me link the larger conceptual understanding of them with the more practical understanding of how things work in the day to day. My architecture education helped me develop ways to be creatively productive and not so precious about my work as I’m creating, and gave me a lot of practice at visual communication. My urban planning education helped me understand interdisciplinary collaboration and gave me lots of technical skills. But I think it’s my liberal arts education that helped me understand how to break down complex things and communicate clearly with words. My undergraduate program in Environmental Studies at Brown was also really grounded in the communities of Providence—and we did a lot of participatory action research and work with communities that to this day informs my understanding of how to work with communities you are not a part of in ways that are respectful.

I also draw a lot on my own experiences as the child of immigrants. So many of the projects I’ve worked on address things I saw happen firsthand to my family, especially to my mother, who was a domestic worker. I was often given complex material and asked to help her understand what it meant because I could read English better than her, even though I was just a little kid. That plays out in families every day and is the kind of context we really think about in our work.

I don’t mean to be overly critical of architecture, but in some ways I think architectural education’s biggest impact on my work is in giving me examples of the ways I don’t ever want to work. For a supposedly forward-thinking field, architecture is so regressive in its practices. It’s still so misogynistic, it’s still so white and privileged. I always struggled to find my place in it, and I was often made to feel explicitly excluded from it. But at some point, I realized that I just totally reject the idea of the heroic exceptionalism that contemporary architecture education is predicated on. I still have very strong ties to architecture, but most of them come in the form of working with other individuals who have gone on to shape careers in some form of socially-driven work and who have similarly shaped their practices as rejections of that model of practice. (I got to work with some of them to create this.) I do think architecture is an amazing field, and I really appreciate how it gave me tools to think about looking at the world and creating new things. I’m excited to see what it can do when it makes room for more voices.

Center for Urban Pedagogy project “What Is Zoning”—“the toolkit includes a set of activities that break down density, bulk, land use, and how proposed rezonings could affect neighborhoods.”

Stemming again from your Cusp 2018 talk, your push to replace empathy with accountability was positively provocative. Can you restate and expand on this dynamic? How can people, particularly designers, work in a truly accountable manner?

My beef with “empathy” is that I think it’s become distorted and used as cover for some pretty bad practices. In my talk at CUSP, I referenced an article I had just read in which a designer was arguing that a great way to build more empathy into one’s practice was to do this activity where you imagine what someone else is feeling in their day-to-day life. He gave the example of a barista. I know this happens to be an extreme version of this idea, but he was basically doing the exact opposite of what a practice of true empathy would ask of you. He is trying, within the limitations of his own experience and privileges, to imagine what someone else might be experiencing without having any interaction with that person whatsoever. There is a profound arrogance in believing that you understand another person’s plight, even if you do get the chance to speak with them about it, let alone if you are just imagining in your own head. I likened this to the moment in which many thoughtful, progressive men over the last year or so were shocked to hear about all the pervasive ways in which the women in their lives accommodate, work around, or otherwise have to live with sexism and sexual harassment in their day to day lives. They couldn’t imagine this because it was so outside the realm of their own experience. They had to be told and shown over and over again that this was a real thing. If we rely on our own experiences and perceptions, as this designer above suggested, we perpetuate our own biases but also our own blindspots.

I’m arguing for a recognition that empathy means something specific and that we don’t ever truly have “empathy” for another person’s plight. We should still work to understand it, though, and we can only do that by talking to or otherwise directly engaging with those people and learning about their experiences. We have to have the humility to understand the limits of our own knowledge and to recognize the strength and power of that person’s expertise about their own experience—and our need for that expertise to inform our work.

That means we don’t get to imagine their experience in our own bubble and then imagine how we might design to solve some problem we perceive them as having. It means engaging them in the design process, paying them for their time because it has value to the work we are doing, and understanding that you’re not going to “fix” it for them or “save” them, but that the best you can do is stand beside them and join your resources to theirs and work together to make change.

I think that accountability can be built into the work. We try to do that in a bunch of different ways at CUP, and I think we could be (and are working towards) doing more. We have stakeholders from the communities we serve be (paid) jury members to help us select projects; we have criteria we use to select projects and we make that public so people know how we are selecting and can hold us accountable if we fail to meet those goals; we have a methodology that always brings members of impacted communities into the design process and we pay them for their participation; we have a deeply collaborative process that requires not just CUP’s sign-off to be complete, but also the community organization we’re partnering with and the designer; and we do evaluations of our process with our partners at the end of each project to make sure we understand how we could be doing better.

In a way, what I’m arguing for is for design projects that are socially motivated to have a clear articulation of whom they are accountable to and how. I see a lot of work that is about certain target audiences, but the way the project is funded and structured, and who gets to make decisions about it suggests that the design team is accountable to an entirely different set of people.

I remain curious about the term “design methods.” I admire CUP’s collective practice of them, from stakeholder interviews/workshops to prototyping—to drawing (more on this later). Though practiced a lot, it’s not popular to say, even claim, compared to the ever-popular term of “design thinking.” How do you select which design method(s) to use per project?

We think of our process as being a coherent methodology, with a bunch of interconnected parts, and then we make adjustments to the particular techniques we employ based on the specifics of the topic or our partners. For example, we usually do some sort of stakeholder research at the beginning of the project with members of the target audience, but in one project we do that through one-on-one conversations because our partner is a direct service organization and we’re joining them in their client meetings; for another we do it as a focus group because our partner is leading a training session; and for another we do it in small groups because the target audience is children in foster care and we need to meet with them with their caregivers. It’s really the specifics of the context that help us determine what’s appropriate, and then we try to work within those constraints.

Many of the techniques we use are ones that people associate with “design thinking.” But we don’t frame our work that way because we’re trying to frame it in around the way we work with our partners, which design thinking doesn’t take a stance on. For us it’s the accountability pieces and the relationships that are core to the methodologies.

One of my favorite quotes is by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” What are activities that you and your team do to maintain the relationship with clients after recommendations/results are made?

I love this question, too. I feel like we are really into maintenance. We have ongoing relationships with almost all of our former project partners, whether through our regular check-ins to see if they’re still using the project and what impacts it’s having, or through other projects with them, or through collaborating with the organizing networks they’re part of. Many of our partners use not only the tool we created with them directly, but other ones we crated with other organizations. So it’s a real ecology we’re part of. It’s another way we continue to be accountable to our partners. We keep seeing them, and we have to live with the reputation that our work with them creates for us.

How would you describe CUP’s work culture? How do you and your team keep your work culture going?

It’s very collaborative. In our projects but also in our decision-making about a lot of things, including how we hire. We have a lot of conversations about how we are doing things and how we could or should be doing them.

It’s a little weird and funny. There is a lot of laughing when we are together.

We take a high level of care in our projects. There are lots of reviews and revisions. Not everyone is down for that but it’s important to us. It’s not about perfectionism; but it’s about ensuring that our partners can trust us to get things right so they can really use them in their important work. We don’t take that lightly.

We’re always trying to figure out how to do better. We constantly tweak things and we regularly talk about what we got wrong, what we could do better.

It’s also a really sane place to work. Our work is hard and we are all pretty wiped out at the end of the day, but everyone goes home after 8 hours. We have an actual 40-hour work week. I’ve worked really hard to make that happen, and it takes real commitment to do it. We see it as part of how we can be a more equitable organization. You can work at CUP and have a sane life, a family, an outside art practice, things that keep you whole and sane and not burning out, and that also make your work stronger. We might get paid a little less than if we didn’t do that, but I think it’s important.

Center for Urban Pedagogy project “ULURP” (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure)—“the process by which major land use changes get reviewed and approved in New York City.”

In doing the purposeful, collaborative and interactive work you do in demystifying complexity in public policy, how do you keep fit your creativity, critical thinking—your sanity too?

The truth is that the thing I find most grounding and nourishing these days is spending time with my husband and our three-year old. I guess it’s a clichรฉ, but her joy at the smallest things and her lack of awareness of the worst things happening in the world are just really nice to get to inhabit if only vicariously. We read together a lot (see previous question about my love of children’s books), we cook together, and we go to museums. I don’t think I read as much of the didactic text as I used to at exhibits, but I really get to see them in a new light.

I had stopped reading anything non-work related for a while, but I’ve really come back to it and am enjoying reading fiction again. If I’m totally honest, though, my husband and I often drown our sorrows after a bad news day by watching “Nailed It” until we’re crying-laughing.

What’s your media diet like? Who and what do you recommend to help be aware of current affairs/culture/your community and the world?

I sill pay for a “New York Times” subscription and think having professional journalism is critical.

Like all of us, I’m feeling really ambivalent about social media these days. For me, it’s kind of a mix of hearing about amazing cultural things, getting intense local political news from friends around the country, and also for hearing opinions I really disagree with from people in my family and friend circles with whom I diverge politically in a pretty strong way. It makes me grit my teeth, but I try to stay out of my own bubble. I mean, the truth is that most of my Facebook feed is amazing, strong, hilarious, thoughtful women of color talking about art, social justice, or art and social justice. So that keeps me coming back. I also resisted Instagram for years but finally gave in and my feed there is 100% illustrators, and it’s kind of a soothing space for me. I pop in and out of Twitter, but mostly through work or things my husband forwards me about football.

I also read a bunch of newsletters regularly, some local New York City neighborhood based stuff, but also Nonprofit AF, AIGA Eye on Design, Next City and the newsletter from the Furman Center at New York University (a roundup of recent news about planning, land use, real estate), Grain Edit, among others.

I’ve gotten into podcasts in the last year (after my husband started hosting one and I kind of had to get with the program). WNYC’s investigative series, like “Caught,” “There Goes the Neighborhood” and “Aftereffect” are amazing and tell really important, complex stories that intersect with a lot of the work we do at CUP. I love “Still Processing,” “2 Dope Queens” (I’m listening to the Michelle Obama interview on repeat), “Ask a Manager” because I’m always working on that part of my skill set, “Respectful Parenting” because I’m also always working on that part of my skill set, “99% Invisible,” “The Vocal Fries” (about linguistic discrimination; I highly recommend the “They/Them/Theirs” episode), “Dr. Gameshow” for laughs, and the “Splendid Table.”

With being in these politically-charged times, how are you coping and channeling what’s happening into your design work?

In some ways, I think it’s easier to process what’s happening for folks who already work in social justice spaces, partially because all of the things that are happening we already saw happening, they’ve just intensified; and partially because going to work every day feels like a way to fight these things happening.

That said, the work we’ve been doing has gotten a lot heavier for a bunch of reasons. We’ve been working on projects for audiences like parents at risk of deportation trying to set up guardianship for the kids, or children who are victims of crime and have to testify in court. It’s a lot. One of our goals for this year is to learn more about vicarious trauma and how to process it. It’s something that people in direct service fields like social work have been doing for a long time and that we can really learn from.

In terms of channeling it into our design work, I think we’re increasingly more conscious of the ways we collaborate with folks and the ways that design contributes to or disrupts oppressive ideas and narratives. For example, we see a lot of stereotypes often unthinkingly perpetuated in illustration. It’s something we talk a lot about in our projects; things like how racial or ethnic signifiers might be presented or how illustrators often default to one body type/size/proportion, or how ideas about gender are presented. The assumptions that get packed into design work can be harmful if they’re not interrogated.

In your creative work-kit, what are your go-to tools, the ones you love using because they prove reliably effective?

I don’t know that I have really good answers here. I love a notebook and a pen. I am an obsessive list-maker.

Naming game: what’s the non-erudite version of the Center for Urban Pedagogy?

Oh man. I wish I had a good answer for this one. I think I’m too close to it. I don’t know how many times I’ve told someone our name and they’ve just said, “That’s terrible.” But the thing that’s really won me over about it is that, when we talk to community organizers, they almost immediately make the connection to Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970) and it helps ground our work in something that’s relevant and meaningful to them. I think it buys us credibility in a way. And then when we work with community members, they really just think of us as CUP, and what’s more accessible than a simple household object?

How does New York City contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

Well, we work at the intersection of design and social justice, and in New York City we have access to so many incredibly skilled designers who want to collaborate on meaningful projects. At the same time, we’re in a city with an incredibly rich and robust community organizing culture. There is so much important organizing history here and a real sense in the communities that we work with that organizing matters and that it can lead—and consistently has been the thing that has led—to meaningful social change. Our work exists in support of organizing work, and without that, I don’t think we’d have been able to develop this model.

Speaking of New York City, congratulations to you and CUP on your partnership with the Drawing Center in participating in their annual Winter Term series of creative programming in 2019. How did the relationship originate between CUP and the Drawing Center? How is drawing critical to CUP’s continued success?

The Drawing Center reached out to us last year about participating in Winter Term, and we were really honored and excited. I think almost everyone on staff was already a fan, and because we spend so much time in social justice and community organizing spaces, I think we’re always genuinely surprised when folks in the art world recognize our work as part of their world, too.

It’s also exciting because we got to overlap with some folks from The Drawing Center last year when our organizations were both participants in an initiative to help introduce more anti-racist practices into arts organizations—The Race Forward Arts Lab. Knowing that both of our organizations are committed to those values made it even more meaningful to be collaborating with them.

Opportunities like this are not ones we usually seek out (mostly because we don’t have the time or resources to), but they’re really important for us. They help us tell our story and share the work that we do with broader audiences. We’re a little bit like that saying “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.” We work with all these organizations to create visual explanations of really complicated issues, but we’re pretty bad at doing that about our own methods! This exhibit is an opportunity to do that and it helps us keep reaching out designers who will want to collaborate with us on future projects, as well as helping to share some of what we’ve learned along the way with other folks who want to work in similar ways. It’s not the kind of thing you can apply for a grant to do, but it can have major impacts for us as an organization.

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All images courtesy of Christine Gaspar.

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