In an effort to document more of my process on this site, I thought I would use this blog to share some projects that I’ve worked on in the past few months. First up, the redesign of a tool handle, namely, the whisk. Read more
Just like any other product design student, I've marveled at Charles and Ray Eames’ designs. Their trademark of bent wood, in particular, has transfixed me every time I lay eyes on it. Until a few weeks ago when one of my professors introduced us to a new project. We were to build wood trays that bent in such a way that required the use of vacuum bag technology. I viewed this project as my most ambitious. And also, quite possibly, the death of me.
It took only a few short weeks for me to look at an Eames lounge chair with a certain pervading frustration. I was in the middle of the tray project when everything seemed to fall apart. I mean this literally.
Wood that was meant to be seamlessly curved ended up jagged and either too short or too long. Crucial parts of my mold would shatter when I shot staples into it. On one particular occasion at the wood shop, I spent a solid three hours trying to figure out how to set up and use a vacuum bag without air leaking out of it. I had seen the demonstration, yet couldn’t seem to do it myself.
However, the biggest detriment to this project was the moment I asked myself: Am I really cut out for this, or did I force myself into a discipline I do not belong in?
This question would ruminate in my head in the days to follow and with every passing day, I would feel stronger and stronger the answer was NO. Though I always knew that the question of self-doubt would remain present in any sort of creative practice, this time felt different. The underlying pressure I've maintained of having to be everything to everyone was emphasized when I asked a follow-up question: Does this mean I should drop out?
And then one day, I reached a turning point. I was able to vacuum my wood onto my mold. Once I had done so, I left it alone for 45 minutes like I was instructed and then I unsealed the vacuum bag and all the air was let out with a loud swoosh.
Still, I was apprehensive that the wood hadn’t bent. Perhaps it was trauma after all those days that I had left the woodshop in defeat. However, once I shimmied the piece out of the bag, I saw that the wood had, indeed, bent.
It was strange and startling to me that, at one moment, things could be impossible––no matter how much I willed it not to be––and then at the next moment, witness it happen before my eyes. It was then that I realized that the act of making is, and would continue to be, hauntingly precarious and wholly gratifying––almost like a ballerina performing a pirouette on stage for the first time. This was a thought that I would have to get myself acquainted with for the next few years and perhaps, the rest of my life as both a human and designer (but more so the latter).
There are no guarantees in design. It is uncertain whether people will love your work, that you’ll make a perfectly precise cut, that you won’t lose a finger while using the bandsaw, and that you’ll be able to bend wood that is intrinsically rigid. There is only a heap of helplessly hoping and most of the time, failing in succession. Persistence is necessary in order to fulfill this routine. And this, I would have to come to terms with.
Illustration by Aaron Dickey of Unknown Studio
Perhaps the biggest hurdle I've had to face since transitioning from graphic design to the more three-dimensional product design is adjusting to the technical demands of the discipline. One of these demands is drawing. Whereas in graphic design, most drawings are wireframe sketches or personal idea doodles, it could not be more different in product design. In product design, drawing is a part of every phase of the design process––from ideation sketches to exploratory and explanatory drawings to persuasive renderings. The practice is crucial to product design in order for designers, collaborators, clients, and manufacturers to understand how a system works.
I've learned this only recently as this semester was my first, real foray into product design.
In my Process Drawing and Digital Presentation course, a (rightfully) required one, we've explored all the types of drawing necessary to the design of products, including ideation, two-point and three-point perspective, exploratory, multi-view, concept, and explanatory.
Note: I'm no influencer, but I feel the need to say that this is not a sponsored post because of, you know, capitalism.
A few weeks ago, my mother received an Amazon Echo Dot from her company's holiday gift exchange. She was ecstatic when she told me; she had even used "guess what?!" as a prelude to the announcement. Because it was, indeed, an announcement.
I, however, was apprehensive that she would make a grand example of a certain caricature: a parent, most likely middle in every way (-age and -class to name a few), attempting to stay attuned to the world's latest inclination––which, at the moment, happened to be the gadgety digitization of, well, everything.
A naggy sort of sensation accompanied this feeling. Set up Echo Dot had been added to my to-do list. I prolonged the five-minute installation for three days, but when I finally introduced Alexa to my mother, I immediately regretted waiting so long.
Alexa and I are quite similar, I quickly realized. We both are social wallflowers and have similar monikers, give or take a few vowels and consonants (my name is Alyssa). But most notably, we were both given orders by the domestic, turtleneck-wearing version of Fidel Castro––otherwise known as my mother. Unlike me, however, Alexa dutifully followed orders.
"Alexa, play the Bee Gees!" my mother commanded the inanimate cylindrical object sitting on our kitchen counter, next to the Yankee Candle.
"Alexa, lower the volume!" she ordered again, and a ring of blue light would circle around the Echo Dot (to most, an indication that she's listening, but to me, the I'm better than you glare one would get from a sibling), and then the music softened.
Despite a sprinkle of resentment that I harbored when my mother enthusiastically thanked Alexa for stopping the music once, the introduction of the Amazon Echo Dot to our abode has resulted in harmonious cohabitation during this winter break (less work for me and Mom is as happy as a clam). More importantly though, the Amazon Echo has taught me to re-consider the aforementioned caricature that has come to represent the Apple watch-toting members of earlier generations (pun intended ;-)). It has shown me that, perhaps, a caveat of this representation is that it lacks empathy (as most things in this world do).
The Amazon Echo Dot was Amazon's best-selling product this holiday season, and this fact reveals a deeper truth: Perhaps people seek, not necessarily to stay relevant, but to be heard.
With this realization, I'll let Alexa do the listening.
As a veteran cheese consumer, it came as a delight when my Space & Materiality professor, Jim, used different types of cheese to explain the correct formula for making a plaster model. "It should look like finely grated and slightly cool parmesan," he said as he filed a block of plaster using a surform (a tool which aptly looks like a cheese grater). Stringy, off-white filings, which resembled a certain nutty-flavored dairy product, passed through the tool and collected onto the table. Plaster, a temperamental substance which I had no exposure to prior to that class, I did not understand. Cheese, however, I did. Nonetheless, Jim's light-hearted analogy made plaster seem less intimidating.
This was how every Space & Materiality class went; and by the end of it, the abstract became somewhat familiar. As this happened, the definition of the course's name became clearer, too. A "required 3-D object design course" was what I thought it was, and how I described it to my brother over FaceTime, at the very beginning of the semester. A collection of lessons about the world and what it means to live in it was what it actually ended up being.
It's difficult to separate my easy, yet creatively challenging experience with the course from the type of person Jim was in class. His critiques ranged from pointing at a particular detail in someone's project and saying, "This is really doing something for me," to using words like "anthropomorphic" and "façade" (okay, 'façade' isn't that impressive... however, when used in such an unexpected way that does not describe human emotion but instead refer to the psychological relationship of interior and exterior architectural forms, it is!). His comically deep New York accent paired well with such dichotomous articulations.
Jim offered no deadline extensions (even when the bags under our collective eyes sunk as deep as the Titanic the day before our polyhedron projects were due), but gave us generously long breaks and left it to us to decide when to have them (because "it's artist's job to learn how to manage your own time"). He sent us email reminders just as any other professor would, but also asked whether we were going to the little coffee shop across the street (because he was and wouldn't mind company, I assume).
However, out of all Jim Osman's contradictions and quirks, his aphorisms were the most appreciated. Here are some of my personal favorites along with my ~interpretations~ of them:
"There needs to be some sort of visual element that signifies both the beginning and the end. Otherwise, someone could get lost looking at this [piece]."
My interpretation: As humans, we're hardwired to perceive (or think about) the beginning and the end. Inevitably, it's a source of uncertainty since nature often makes these decisions (and sometimes without warning). Paradoxically, we can provide some sort of sense of certainty by designing beginnings and endings when we can. After all, design is a luxurious yet essential practice of agency and control exclusive to humans, who occupy an unpredictable environment.
"I want you to think about how a building's external façade relates to the function of its interior."
My interpretation: (Now, here's me using the word 'façade' in the not-so-surprising way that I spoke about three paragraphs ago...) This interplay between the external and the internal that Jim has spoken about is not limited to public and private spaces, and how they're formed and distinguished from each other––walls and doors. This notion of how the interior and exterior relate to one another can be applied to anything, from teacups to people. Sometimes, they're called affordances (to get technical). Decisions of inclusion and omission happen every day, whether unconsciously, briefly, or contemplatively. The ones that we acknowledge tell us what we value.