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Interview: Aurelie Tu, designer at Nike
by Bob Parks

BOB PARKS: How did you get started in ID?

AURELIE TU: I was a cello performance major at University of British Columbia. My minor was in Fine Arts where I took drawing, painting, art history and theory classes. From the time I could hold a pencil I was drawing, and as a child I was constantly creating things; I'd design clothes, make books, craft objects or sculpt wood. A friend from the University of Calgary Environmental Design program first exposed me to the world of Industrial Design. When I made the switch from music to design, it opened up my world incredibly, from an analytical one of perfecting and performing pieces mostly created by composers of the past to a contemporary and future world that embraced everything around us--innovation, culture, technology, psychology, manufacturing, aesthetics. It involved being both theoretical and practical; being a musician, I create with my hands, so I enjoyed the fact that you were not just conceptualizing but also physically making things real, through sketching and modelling.

After finishing my masters degree in ID, following a brief stint at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, I drove down to Los Angeles, California, to work at an industrial design consultancy called Hauser, a firm that designed for the personal computing, consumer appliance and medical fields. That’s where I got a lot of my practical education, as well as my experience designing electronic and technological devices. After a year of being independent and consulting for Nike, among other clients, I accepted a job in the Timing and Techlab group. I’ve been working there for three years.

BOB: How do you get your ideas for new designs?

AURELIE: For me, the design process always starts with the intent to define things in a new manner, in a better way, and always for the user. Sometimes that comes from a functional requirement, sometimes it comes from a material or aesthetic quest. "How do we make this flatter, sleeker? How can we make a hard product soft, so that the user has a pleasant interaction with it?" The desire to marry progressive ideas with new technologies and materials is the best use of technological progression; it is the opposite of a previous world in which engineers created technology and then tried to force it into product that people didn’t need or want. Products you enjoy using and beholding stay in your memory and help you think about and appreciate them. If iconic enough, they can change your perception of not only the product itself but possibly entire genres of product or entire industries. In contrast with the attitude that industrial designers perpetuate proliferation of product that ends up in landfill, I believe what we do is imbue products with value, be it functional, ergonomic, semantic or aesthetic, and in so doing make this place a better world to live in.

BOB: What makes good design to you?

AURELIE: Functionality is always the primary requirement. If a product doesn’t function well, it should not be made. Industrial Design is a means to solve problems through physical form, through functional product.

Often there's too much focus on what people see at face value in current design. Inexperienced designers and an uninformed public will often focus on aesthetics and not understand that there are reasons why things are created the way they are, or should be. A lot of design doesn't address real problems, but simply puts a skin over them with an aesthetic mask. That mask, if compelling, contemporary and fashionable enough, is part of the reason why a bad product can still sell.

If something functions well and looks good, then you've satisfied the basics. If you go beyond, however, and put energy into a higher ideal of what the product is, it is possible to elevate people's perception of that object’s definition, what it represents. It could be the most mundane object, but it can make one think differently. If a bottle opener gives someone joy while they're opening a bottle, then it's good design. That may sound overly altruistic or even laughable, but its something I believe.

Being that the majority of products for women have been designed by men, I have strong feelings about products that are designed for women. Products should empower users, not enslave them. When I designed Panasonic’s electric shaver for women, I didn't want it to be condescending in any way, like a huge amount of product out there for this consumer. It was going to be something created specifically for this consumer’s needs and desires; it wasn’t going to be a men’s product coloured pink with gold graphics on it for that "jewelry" appeal.

I designed the shaver as something one could proudly display on one’s countertop without having to quickly hide when guests used the bathroom. The form was more of a small rounded sculpture on a pedestal than the typical brick with an angled head. I engaged in a huge research effort, the most informative part being direct user observation where we videotaped people around the country shaving, waxing, etc. in their home environments. Electric shaver users looked obviously clumsy and awkward, and were constantly shifting hands to turn the product around. From this I developed a product that fit well in the hand without slipping out, that one could rotate easily with one hand, that truly felt like an extension of the arm and that was effortless to use.

BOB: What kind of design work do you do at Nike?

AURELIE: I design and develop some of Nike’s wearable hard goods and technology products such as watches and monitoring devices, audio products such as the MP3 and CD players and their accessories, and sport eyewear. I also work on some packaging and point of sale displays; the packaging and store display for the Portable Sport Audio products recently won "Best of Category" in ID Magazine. We’ve recently gained recognition with a number of design awards from IF Hanover, Good Design, Red Dot Design Awards and D&AD for both the S-Series watches, the first watch with a curved LCD display, and for the Personal Sport Audio collection of music players. In both initiatives I played a principal role in the design and development.

BOB: Are your folks in design?

AURELIE: My parents emigrated to Canada in the late 60s. My dad taught mathematical economics at the PhD level at the University of Calgary after having completed 3 degrees in australia. My mother was a schoolteacher back in Vietnam. She went to work as a piping draftswoman for the oil industry, after my two sisters and I started school.

BOB: What do you do for fun?

AURELIE: I still play cello; I perform with a latin-based, Afro-cuban rooted band called Pink Martini who currently plays a lot of shows with symphony orchestras. We recently did a tour of Europe and the Middle East, among smaller tours in the US. Prior to that, I played with rock bands in Los Angeles, which eventually gave me the opportunity to open for the 1998 US tour of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

BOB: Does music have a parallel to design?

AURELIE: Music, both in definition and in practice, definitely has parallels to design. There's always a functional and an aesthetic goal, part of which is defined for you and part of which you have to find the voice for. You have to follow your own personal cultivated sense of what's good and what's not, what works and what doesn’t. This can’t necessarily be taught; more often than not it is innate and individual. Broadly speaking, however, the biggest parallel between the two is that the overriding goal of both music and design is to communicate ideas through a creation which is most meaningful to people.

Bob Parks (bobparks-at-yahoo.com) writes about industrial design, consumer technologies, and the outdoors for such magazines as Business 2.0, Outside, and Wired. He lives with his wife, Eileen, and son and daughter, Archer and Lucy, in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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