Occupation: Designer. When I'm speaking to people within the design field I'll specify further: lettering, experiential design and a little bit of object design.
Location: Currently rural Alaska, but soon to be Rhode Island (for a teaching position at the Rhode Island School of Design starting this fall) and rural Alaska.
Current projects: I'm a bit splintered right now. Since I've gotten the teaching gig, I've been working on curriculum. Actually the act of constructing an experiential design course is kind of long-form experiential design itself, so I'm having fun with that. I'm also planning a giant studio makeover.
My practice after relocating to Rhode Island is going to narrow to outputting goods that spur or reflect the creative process. A good example is the retooling crayons I've been making. The goal was to encapsulate a beginner's approach to creativity and combine it with the designer, or artist's, tendency to fetishize tools and view them as sacred. I wanted to create an object that codes a question to users outside of the design or arts practice, that made them ask, Is this a tool to use or an object to keep?
Keetra Dean Dixon's ReTool Crayons, 2015 ongoing.
Mission: Unite my love of learning, making and teaching into a singular studio practice. In regards to teaching, to encourage the integration of R&D into more traditional graphic design methods. More generally and for self-authored work, my goal is always to facilitate or reflect social relation, to question understood patterns and standards, and to cultivate an openness with play.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I grew up in Alaska and I really didn't know what design was, nor did it occur to me that there was a design action involved in object-making. During undergrad I took an entry-level graphic design course as part of my foundational studies, and was introduced to Gestalt psychology and the general principles of perception. That's when I knew this is absolutely the thing for me! It was a relief to have this general set of guides to help me understand, in a more objective way, how other people were perceiving visual work. That was my first taste of what the deeper design methodologies had to offer. Gestalt psychology totally seduced me into design.
Visual foreword for Digital Design Theory by Princeton Architectural Press, Fall 2015.
Education: I went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design on a painting scholarship, and later changed my major to graphic design. For my graduate degree I went to Cranbrook and studied 2D design, although a majority of the work I was doing was actually three-dimensional and experiential.
First design job: At MCAD I assumed that I never wanted to work in advertising, but I had zero actual experience in the field. So I decided I should try it out before I ruled it out and I got an internship at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. I loved it! I was working with fantastic people who were really passionate about what they were doing, and who had a hyper-stringent, hyper-structured internal method. That's actually where I learned a lot of thinking strategies that I still use now. I'm super thankful for that job.
The Anonymous Hugging Wall, Ongoing series. First Installation appeared in Alaska, 2008.
What was your big break? After graduating MCAD in 1999, I moved out to San Francisco and landed a job with a group called Futurefarmers. They were making waves on the Internet as very early aesthetic form makers, by exploring interactivity in unusual ways, and by making new definitions of what was possible on the web. I had a crush on their aesthetic in general, so when I got a job with them it very much felt like I had made it.
When I started working there it was just three people including me, and the studio was really an extension of the founder, Amy Franceschini. At the time she was doing 50% client-based work and 50% self-authored work, but she wanted to transition into completely self-authored work. Essentially, my role became taking over all of the client work and emulating her in a way. She would invite me into her office and I would stand over her shoulder and watch her work; it really became this mentor-mentee relationship. During my process of learning the ways of design, I think I lost some of the playfulness and intuitive exploration that just comes naturally, before you've been trained into a method. Amy gave me permission to integrate all that stuff back into my way of working. And she gave me a ton of autonomy, which thinking back on it, was insane but incredibly trusting.
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Describe your workspace: My husband and occasional work partner, JK Keller and I live on 18 acres in Alaska. The land is on the top of the Chugach mountain range, just a bit above tree-line so we have a lot of low-lying bush, and because our house is built in the middle of a wildlife migratory pathway we get a ton of moose, lots and lots of eagles, and big beautiful cranes nesting on the property. The house itself is sprawling and ranch-style—way too much space for two people. I tend to live amongst my work with zero work-life division.
Drill press lathe experiment.
What's happened organically is that we've divided the house into rooms that are dedicated to different conditions for a range of processes. There's the desk area for computer work and sketching, with stacks of books and Post-it notes all over. Then we have a dry space. That's where all the fabrication happens, and sewing, there's a knitting machine, an embroidery machine, the photo sweep and lighting stuff, anything that needs to say clean and dry, and relatively organized—including our materials library. Then we have the wet space. That's for wet fabrication, so any kind of casting, melting, or painting. It's near heat and water and is well-ventilated, and stocked with tons of ingredients—solvents, resin mixes, etc. We also have a shop dedicated to heavy power tools and machinery. That's more messy. You get greasy; it's really loud and dirty. And we have two dogs that just run through everything.
Studio desk and dry space.
What is your most important tool? My first answer is the Internet. But half of my work is really led by learning a new tool, and I think my most recent crush is this old-school programmable knitting machine. I've been trying to figure out how to utilize patterns and repeats, almost like regressing in computational capability and finding innovation that way. The fact that I can pump out these giant blankets in a couple of hours is really inspiring. That's a recent crush but I don't know if it's my most important tool. I'd still say the Internet for researching and weirdly my iPhone for photo documentation.
What is the best part of your job? All the learning and innovation. It's probably the most difficult part of my job too, navigating all the unknowns of a new tool or a new medium, then trying to squeeze that new thing into a predictable timeline can be problematic. But that's where all of my motivation comes from; a new territory keeps me exited about the potential of my practice.
Layered Wax Type: Become. Collaborative work with JK Keller. Commissioned work for the 2009 US Presidential Inauguration.
What is the worst part of your job? The thing that I dread and that I never planned to have as a part of my job is public speaking. I think I went into design because it was less performative and I could divert attention away from myself. Now it's such a major part of the practice. I do get a lot out of the process, but I wish I could fast-forward through the speaking part and just reap the benefits of putting together a talk and meeting new people.
What time do you get up and go to bed? I try my best to get up by 8:30 a.m. I'm definitely not a morning person and I don't have a commute, so I can just fall out of bed, splash water on my face and start working. It's often difficult to get myself up in the morning because I'm an insomniac. A lot of the time I'll get to bed about 3:00 a.m., but that often doesn't stick.
How do you procrastinate? Just by doing more work. If whatever I'm supposed to be working on isn't holding my attention, then it's very easy for me to jump into a spin-off idea and start brainstorming. Before I know it I have a whole new project that I never intended.
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Swing Hall, Swing All, 2012 Commission for Northern Spark, MCAD Minneapolis Minnesota.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? When timelines will allow, I try to let myself follow what I'm compelled to be working on at the moment. I keep really big lists, so if there's enough flexibility and I'm not captivated by what I'm currently doing, then I'll pick the thing that I'm actually excited by and focus on that instead. Maybe I'm not into meditative form-making, but I'm excited to line up numbers on a spreadsheet; I can jump into something else and check things off my list. It's about productivity and happiness.
But that's where all of my motivation comes from; a new territory keeps me exited about the potential of my practice.
What is the best-designed object in your home? A toddler high chair that used to belong to my Grandmother. It has this little set of steps mounted to the stool base on a hinge, so you can flip the steps up and essentially transform the chair into a taller stepping stool. It's not a beautiful object, but that transitional moment of the steps swinging up and resting on the seat—it feels so good to use. Every time I flip those steps it just tickles me a bit. I altered it by stripping off some of the old foam—it was covered in red vinyl—and the fact that I made it a little bit less precious means I'm more likely to use it. It's such a simple innovation, I love using it.
Illustration for The New York Times Article: "Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee" by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg. Art Directed by Alexandra Zsigmond. 2015
Who is your design hero? I often get inspired by singular projects rather than a whole body of work, and usually I'm looking outside of design for inspiration. One of the most influential bodies of work and possibly a reflection of a way of thinking, are films by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, and sometimes Michel Gondry. Films like Adaptation, Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Being John Malkovich—that are this blend of familiar and surreal, sentimental, fantastic and mundane. Films that really utilize environment to heighten emotion, pulling theatrical devices into real world settings in order to depict moments that's aren't real, but that capture what it feels like to be a human in the real world. I revisit that idea or feeling again and again when I'm thinking of experiential work.
What is the most important quality in a designer? It's a tie between being obsessive and being curious. Curiosity implies that you're very attentive to your surroundings in some way, always seeking out new things, always asking why and seeking a deeper understanding. That's invaluable as a designer. Obsession compels you to dig deeply, to focus, and most importantly to persist through some of the arduous tasks that are involved in design. I think it's really important to be able to flex between the two sides.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? There isn't really a phenomenally consistent one, but perhaps the assumption that executing a simple or concise idea in a design results from a simple and concise process. If it's complex, it usually feels very comfortable and effortless in the way that it manifests, so it's easy to assume that the work flowed from its creator that way. But so rarely is that the case.
Codependant Douballoons for the LUFTMUSEUM e.v. AIR MUSEUM in Germany, 2015 Edition.
What is exciting you in design right now? I'm really ecstatic to see what is generally referred to as participatory design or conditional design become more common. Those methods have been around for as long as people have been constructing work and communicating with one another, but I think integrating them in a more controlled, intentional design process, is super rewarding—when you're a designer or an audience member.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.