Nichole Rouillac is a diehard believer in the power of design as an agent for change, and yet, she still sees much work to be done to improve the design industry's output and impact as a whole. As founder of her own San Francisco-based studio level, she strives to run a design studio that adheres to her own professional values, in the process gaining plenty of insightful takeaways on how to create products that more thoughtfully juggle functionality, sustainability and accessibility. She also has a fresh outlook on how design studios ought to run to create a more supportive and enjoyable workplace.
As one of the early leads of the highly influential Women in Design SF meetup group, Rouillac's work constantly aims to bring to light the importance of equity and bringing new, historically excluded voices into the design fray—We recently chatted with Rouillac, who will serve as the 2022 Core77 Design Awards Home & Living Jury Captain, about her work in and outside of level, and discussed why prioritizing solidarity is perhaps one of the most important things designers can do for their community in 2022.
Rouillac: As far back as I can remember, I've been building things. I would spend time creating little architecture models, making bike ramps–nailing wood together was my favorite pastime! I wasn't so into dolls, but I would make houses for them and even put wallpaper up, making furniture out of cardboard. In high school, I was constantly drawing and painting, building sculptures, but I grew up in a town on the edge of the cornfields outside of Chicago and nobody in my community knew design was a career– they'd never even heard of it.
My parents weren't super into the idea of me going into this field, they tried to get me to go into business, or nursing, or something that was a "stable career". But I knew this was everything I was meant to do. I went my own way and moved to California–that was over 20 years ago and I've never looked back. Here, I found my creative community. I studied in San Francisco and was so drawn to the positive mindset, the sense that you can innovate, do anything, build new things, and bring new products and experiences to life. There's an optimistic creative culture out here. I got sucked in and never left.
Can you tell me a little more about level and what you would say drives the work you do there?
Our vision for the studio is focused on products we believe encompass greater good. Some of the work we've been doing looks at inclusivity and accessibility–whatever we can do to help people who are often underserved and underrepresented in communities. In addition, we're working in sustainability and how we can design for disassembly, recyclability, reuse, or upcycling. We're doing a lot in these categories and urge our clients to make better decisions.
Health, wellness, and medical devices have all been key in our portfolio. Our ongoing work with Tempo has revolutionized the at-home health and wellness space. I love that it's helped people during this pandemic. AliveCor detects heart conditions and prevents strokes and heart attacks, by providing doctors with remote access to patients' data. These kinds of products use technology for good and represent how we want to contribute to the world. There's just too much tech that's not adding value to our lives or planet, and we now steer away from that type of work.
Tempo Move by level for Tempo is a compact gym unit seamlessly blends into the home environment and utilizes warm materials like wood and felt.
We are not naive in the way we approach projects. Sometimes designers chase crazy ideas that require lots of R&D, but when you work with startups you can really just burn through all of their cash. I spent 7.5 years working for an agency and being overseas in Asia for 1 out of every 3 weeks, going through a lot of manufacturing on the ground, learning the ins-and-outs of what it takes to make a successful product. I push our team to be flexible with how we gear the design to be manufacturable. We consider that aspect of the design from the forefront. Looking at design through the lens of materials and not using a shiny new material for the sake of it but really thinking about: "okay, could this design be made out of thin sheet metal? Is this a stamped aluminum part? Or is this a ground-up fiber we're able to compression mold in some interesting way?". We are thinking from the very first sketches around how to make a product, so we're not steering clients down paths of [showing them something beautiful] that we have no idea how to make.
In the more formal design process, where do you think industrial designers ought to be focusing their efforts in creating change that will have the most impact?
I would say it's definitely in the upfront, and being careful with material and manufacturing choices. Asking, what's going to further destroy our environment if we're not mindful?
"Design has had a long period of trying to make... 'ship-in-a-bottle' products where as a consumer you have no idea how it's made or constructed. But in order to do this, you're co-molding metals and plastics, or rubbers and plastics. You're designing products that are seamless and gorgeous, but at the end of life you can't fix or recycle them because you can't take them apart."
We have to design things for disassembly, making things that are modular and easy to repair. For many years, all of that has been an afterthought, a "nice to have", or people saw this as a design sacrifice that would make the product less compelling. Design has had a long period of trying to make... 'ship-in-a-bottle' products where as a consumer you have no idea how it's made or constructed. But in order to do this, you're co-molding metals and plastics, or rubbers and plastics. You're designing products that are seamless and gorgeous, but at the end of life you can't fix or recycle them because you can't take them apart.
We should not design things that don't need to exist. In new client conversations we ask ourselves: "is this product solving a big enough problem–is it really worth the long term impact it's going to have on our world?". We only want to build products that are going to be better for life and society, and are helping in some way. We don't want to be making more junk going into the landfill. There's just so much out there that isn't necessary. We need to question consumerism and work on products that are going to last. We need to shift back to the mentality we had decades ago, where you would save up for something and cherish it.
Based off of your research, do you have any predictions in the near future of how tech hardware products are going to evolve?
I think we've already started to see a subtle shift with certain brands, and I hope we continue to see this. A long time ago, it used to be [all about] shiny black boxes with blue lights. Google's been highly influential in how we can do things differently, and we're getting some of the trickle-down effect and movement to products that feel more like a beautiful vessel on your shelf, and not just like a plastic box.
I love that we are seeing more and more natural materials coming into the space. I think clients, as well as manufacturers, are now open to looking at materials differently. In the home products should feel like they blend in with the aesthetics in your space. So, let's use more textiles and if you have to use plastic, utilize plastic that feels and looks richer and softer—less sci-fi and more of a warm and inviting future.
CMF prototypes for AliveCor, a pocketable heart healthcare device designed by level
I've read in interviews you put a lot of emphasis at level on developing a good workplace culture. What does that mean for level, and what advice would you give on creating a values-focused, healthy workplace?
I spent years at some good, and some less good, agencies. I learnt what I did and did not want to bring into my own studio. My last job before starting level was at a company called One & Co, and they were amazing. I really try to realize their philosophies and give level an atmosphere where you walk in the door and you feel a welcoming energy.
Our team is very respectful and kind. We take care of each other. It's not about the job but instead about what's happening in our lives, and how we make sure we're supporting each other so we can pick things up when somebody needs to take off. Designers often work really hard when they're solving something, and after this crunch of energy they should be able to take extra time to themselves–go do their thing. Taking care of mental and physical well being is really important.
I also learned to take the time to check in and have conversations with people—have coffees, have lunches. This makes sure you are keeping a close check on what's happening in their world. And when people feel cared about–when they feel like their voice is heard, and there's good transparency in the conversation–we feel like we're talking to friends. At least I try to make them not feel like they're talking to their boss! And then it just allows us to create a good culture, because there's a bond, and everybody has awareness and transparency.
One last thing that works really well for the scale of our studio is autonomy. Some people on my team are morning people and they go in early for work, and then some of my team just like to hang out at home, drink coffee, do whatever, and they come to work later. As long as they always get the work done—and they always do—I sort of just let them work the hours they want. They're responsible people who are passionate about design, so they will show up to the meetings, and they will have great ideas. With an eight-person team this is much more manageable. Let them do their thing, and then they do great work.
"I want to focus on projects we love. The more you grow, the more you have to take on projects that may not align with your values–you need to keep the lights on–and I don't want to have to get to that place. I clearly made the decision that I would keep our studio very tight, and really focused on our happiness."
Has the pandemic era significantly changed your practice and the way your studio operates?
I would say it was definitely a time of great reflection for me. We've done great, but there was so much going on. I had to really think about this small amount of time we're here on this earth: what is the impact I want to have, and want my team to contribute towards? I took a step back and decided I want to keep the studio small. You can make more money being bigger, but I wanted to maintain that creative atmosphere of great culture, keep myself sane, and to still be creative from time to time. I want to focus on projects we love. The more you grow, the more you have to take on projects that may not align with your values–you need to keep the lights on–and I don't want to have to get to that place. I clearly made the decision that I would keep our studio very tight, and really focused on our happiness.
In the pandemic, I think it was what we needed to do too, because we onboarded quite a bit during 2020, and I was just feeling like I was stretched too thin. I was not getting to be creative enough. I thought: "I want to just get to the core of what I love, I want to work with good clients, and turn away things we don't feel are fitting for us". Remaining small allows me to be actively involved, and be able to hop on the phone, or meet up in person with my clients. The relationships are so much more important to me than the growth.
The Intelligent Assistant home security system designed by level
You've done a lot of work with Women in Design to promote equity in design when it comes to gender and race. And I think in recent years, especially during the pandemic, it's been emphasized how the heavy lifting is often put on the people who are marginalized, and we need to start bringing more people into the conversation who can help but aren't necessarily affected by discrimination. And so I was wondering if you had any advice for men, white women, etc. to be better allies to more marginalized groups within the design industry.
We need to listen more than we talk. We haven't lived the experience, so it's time to hear what the hurdles are and analyze, reflect on what we might have done in the past that wasn't so good, and how we can use our power to change things. If you're a leader in an organization you may have the financial ability to support initiatives, but always start with listening to people, and not making assumptions about what the problems are. Assumptions are not going to help us get anywhere.
As I was the chair of Women in Design in San Francisco ("WIDSF") I had experiences and conversations with male leaders in the industry who would suggest that they were very proud of the "work" they'd done in these areas, but it did not always seem like they were deeply absorbing it and understanding what needs to change.
You cannot do this work for the sake of show. Many companies and organizations that would reach out to me about collaborating on efforts [as part of WIDSF] felt very much like they just wanted to sponsor things for some marketing kudos, because it was currently topical. In those situations it did not genuinely seem like they wanted to help, they just wanted to put their name on something. I want us all to be authentic. People will naturally come to you if you're doing something that's influential and positive. Don't make it a PR stunt.
Do you feel like there are ways, specifically in the design industry, that hiring can become more equitable? How do we bring people in? What are those barriers, and how can we bring some of those barriers down?
Yes, our team talks about this and I think more organizations should have these conversations. I don't want to put things in a box, but I found there was a period where even some of the men on my team were getting subconsciously swayed to liking the portfolios with the fancy rendering skills and drawings, and I had to point out that there's not always a lot of substance and thinking behind those portfolios. I really push my team looking at the story, the work, what's [the thought] behind the design–why it existed, and how it was creative. These portfolios often show more initiative and talent than those with over-the-top polish. And it's not to say women and POC aren't making great renderings! But I was generally finding more of my male team getting unknowingly steered to other men's portfolios because they were very similar to theirs. We need to look for other skills. Many women have been suffering because they are better storytellers! Really! There's a lot of women I know who get pigeonholed into strategy or doing CMF because they are really good at it, but they are also still excellent at hardware, so they should be able to still be involved with this work too.
I don't like that because a lot of women [are so good at] thinking and analysis, they tend to no longer be involved in the actual physical product design, and they're getting steered into working on siloed areas.
You are serving as Jury Captain for the Home & Living category in the 2022 Core77 Design Awards. What do you think you're going to be looking for when you're judging? what type of projects are really going to excite you if you see them?
Again, [I'll be asking] why does this product need to exist? Is technology meaningful, and thoughtfully integrated?
Sometimes the humble, simple things are the best. It doesn't need a million buttons, and a disk, and a screen, and to be a Swiss army knife, to be a great product. Design can just be really thoughtful, really simple, with great materials, and something you will cherish for a long time. I would love to see products going into the home that you can keep for 10 years or more. We need to stop this disposable lifestyle and throw-away culture—there's so much stuff that falls apart. I would so much rather people keep things as heirlooms for generations. I would like to see pieces that I would love buying today and I can then hand-down to my 7 year old daughter– that would still be in style and usable by the time she can use them.
This interview has been edited down for further brevity and clarity.