An Interview with Ayse Birsel

A&D senior Teshia Treuhaft interviews award-winning designer Ayse Birsel about applying design thinking to everyday life. Ayse recently visited A&D as part of the Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series; watch her lecture here.


Birsel + Seck: Teneo is a collection of storage, display and serving products for Herman Miller.

Teshia Treuhaft: In your talk, you spoke about a designing process you call Deconstruction and Reconstruction. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about how that works.

Ayse Birsel:  I've always been told that I think differently. A couple years back I had a chance to try and articulate this thinking process and that’s how Deconstruction and Reconstruction was born. I call it De/Re for short.

De/Re is really about deconstructing something, breaking it into its components. And in doing so, you break the links that are between things and break the preconceptions. It's really based on the fact that reality comes to us as a whole package, and we get used to thinking about things in certain ways. Deconstruction helps us break that reality so that we can create our own new reality.

Birsel + Seck: The Giada De Laurentiis Chef Collection for Target.

So after deconstruction, once you've broken something into its components, you have a sense of, well, are these really the pieces that I want in here? Am I missing something? Could I cross‑fertilize from other areas and get inspiration?

That is the beginning. Then the second piece of it is shifting your point of view. Because if you can see something from a different perspective, you can start to think about things differently. And that’s the seat of creativity. So I work on shifting your point of view or my client's point of view or my point of view using a set of tools.

For example, we're always working with constraints. But can we turn a constraint into an opportunity? Can we change the hierarchy of things? Can we take something that we think is the least important and make it the most important?

Dyson: Air Multiplier

An example would be Dyson's new fan air multiplier. It doesn't even have a blade. So, obviously, it's a huge shift in point of view because normally somebody who starts to think about a fan would say, "Oh, the blade is the most important thing" and then start thinking from that. You're already down a path of preconceptions there.

But Dyson, he realized that it's not the blade that is key. It's moving air. Once you think, "Oh, it's moving air," you can then generate different ways of moving air. Your point of view has shifted. In his expression of the fan, the blade, traditionally the most important part, doesn't even play a role. So it's that kind of thinking.

Once you break it down, then the reconstruction part is the other side. It's thinking about, well, what do I want in my new equation, in my new idea? And creating a hierarchy of what's most important. What’s at the center of my idea, at the center of our investment?

So, again, if I use the Dyson example, it’s this hierarchy. First I need to understand that my goal is moving air. Then I need to figure out the multiple mechanisms I can use to do this. Then I can begin to figure out which is the best one. I can house my mechanism in many different ways. So which is the most beautiful, the simplest, the most economical?

So that's the reconstruction. Once you create that reconstruction, there could be many expressions of it. It could be a strategy. It could be a research piece. It could be a product. It could be a service. It could be a manifesto.

That's great. Last night, you spoke a little bit about the lenses that we all have that come from either our background or our education. So where does that fit into the process? And what would be your advice to young designers about how to start thinking about their lenses and their point of views?

Resolve, a human-centered office system designed for Herman Miller.

So, great question. Your lenses are about how you see the world and how you see a situation. When you're designing, you have to be mindful of how you look at things, your own lenses. But you also have to be mindful of the lenses of your clients, of your market, of your user. It's this overlap of different lenses that you have to be aware of. How do you create coherence out of that?

If you're an innovator, let's say, and you're working with an innovative company, your two lenses match. If you're an innovator and you're working with a company that's more of a follower, those two lenses don't match. You need to be cognizant of that and either teach your clients or follow their lead or find a middle way.

But what I like about lenses is that they talk about empathy. Empathy for yourself, to know who you are. Empathy for your client, to know who they are. And empathy for your user, to be able to see things from their perspective. It’s important to know, too, that you can change your filters.

Birsel + Seck: Taboo is a line of furniture made in Dakar, Senegal, from 75% recycled garbage bags and plastic bottles. Designed by Ayse Birsel's partner Bibi Seck.

So one of your filters, for example, is one that both you and I have, actually, and that is the filter of our gender. We're women and we're adults. But that doesn't mean we can’t have empathy for a young boy or imagine toys for young kids, including boys, even though that's not how we grew up. Knowing that you can change your filters is key, because as a designer you have to have empathy, and you have to be able to think things through from other people's perspectives and then create coherence.

Yeah, absolutely. Hopefully designers always do.

Then the other part of coherence is trying to build coherence between your work and your life...and who you are as a designer. You can design things, but you can also design your life. That's what I call the Design Your Life part of things.

Could you actually describe the Design Your Life strategy and how it has impacted your process and ideas?

Design the Life You Love was a strategic intention I created about 10 years ago. I'm part of this Women Presidents Organization, and it brings together women who own their own businesses and women entrepreneurs. So we did this workshop on boiling down your strategic intent into one sentence, and mine was “Designing the Life You Love.”

This was said on the spur of the moment, but it came to define almost everything. It was the realization that if we are designers and we know how to solve problems, life also is a project. Why can't we apply design tools to think about life and have a vision about it? This doesn't mean that you're going to control everything. It’s just based on an understanding that if you can visualize something and if you can have vision, you're so much closer to realizing it.

Once I came up with Deconstruction/Reconstruction, the two philosophies came together. So I wanted to see if I could teach people to use De/Re tools to think about their lives. I'm not a psychologist, and I'm not trying to solve people's problems. I'm just teaching them design tools so they can think about their lives creatively – and begin to figure out how to have an original life – which I think would be a well‑lived life.

There has been a lot of interest in this idea because I think many of us think – how can we have a vision for our lives? People like you, who are finishing school, want some tools to imagine the whole unknown of what's going to happen. People in their 40s think, well, now that I’ve completed 20 years of adulthood, how do I figure out the meaning of my life?

Using design tools to do that appeals to so many people because we all have these questions.

One last question: what would be your advice for young designers specifically on what skills they should they develop moving forward into a professional career or into higher education?

What I would say going forward is to think about whether design is a calling. I really believe this. Because it's not an easy profession, and either you have it in you or you don't.

It is a beautiful profession but it’s not for everyone.

Birsel + Seck collaborated with Moroso to create new designs inspired by and manufactured in Dakar, Senegal, Bibi's second home.

Second, I think it's really key to understand that business is truly integral to design. If you want to have impact, you need to understand and speak the business language, which is something that most design schools don't really touch on. They really work the creativity side of things, but there's a whole left‑brain side to design that needs to be nurtured.

So whatever students can do—whether it's graduate studies or additional classes, or creating an opportunity for themselves—they should seek out the point of view of business people. Because you're going to be collaborating with business people, and you really need to understand and speak their language. That's one part.

What I’m also saying here is that design is very much about being a dichotomist. So, find your dichotomy. Design and business is one dichotomy but it could be design and cognitive psychology. It could be design and cooking. But design on its own is not enough.

Creating a new lens for yourself, in a sense.

Yes, creating a new lens for yourself. In a world where many people are one thing at a time, you see that the people who are leaders, people who succeed, are the ones that are more than one thing – they offer uncommon value.

Find a passion in addition to design that's complementary. What's lovely about design, is that it goes with everything. What's your other passion? Fishing. OK. Design and fishing, then bring those two things together. Design and going to Africa? Well, bring those things together. That's really what I would say, take advantage of these years to continue to build your unique path, and then know that this is your journey for life.

What I love about design is that you never stop learning and you never stop changing. That we have the tools and the creative mind to manage that – how lucky.

Yes, how lucky. Design the Life You Love really does sum it up.



I haven't read this yet, but I am so excited to and I just couldn't wait to show you and Ayse some love!

Posted by Taylor Ross on March 04, 2012





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