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Ani Liu Says Speculative Design Reveals Truths We Weren't Aware of but Have Been Right in Front of Us All Along


For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.

Ani Liu, our 2018 Core77 Design Awards Design Concept Jury Captain, is a designer, experimental artist and speculative technologist working at the intersection of art and science. In addition to having her work featured in various museums and publications, Liu is a recent member of the MIT Media Lab where she works on research-based art projects that explore the various implications of emerging technologies in our lives. In a recent chat with Liu, we discussed her buzzed about mind-controlled sperm project as well as delved into the power of speculative concepts, what they can contribute to today's cultural climate and in what ways they differ from art.

What brought you to start doing this research and this work?

It's kind of cheesy, but ever since I was little, design and aesthetics spoke to me. I've always been super nerdy about going to every art museum and looking at design objects. At the same time, I'm Chinese-American, and my parents always pushed me towards math and science, so I was also always geeky in that way. For me, landing at architecture became this intersection of engineering and the technical aspects of how to build something with things I was deeply invested in like aesthetics, design and how materiality makes you feel.

And then getting into speculative design wasn't that far-reaching. In many ways, an architect is the visionary for asking questions about how we might live in the future. Buildings last so long that political questions always arise like, "where is the kitchen? Is there a kitchen for servants? How are women thought of in this space?" From the beginning of architecture school, I always thought of these questions. Then I started reading Anthony Dunn and Fiona Ravies' "Speculative Everything" and learned about critical design, and I think for me it was a really natural meandering of my interests with what was out there. There have always been architects that worked at the intersection of speculative design and design, like Buckminster Fuller or Art Graham or Cedric Price. 

How would you succinctly describe what it is you do? What is some work you've done that helps encapsulate what that is?

I'm an artist and a designer, but I use the tools of science and technology to make up my body of work. I think part of the reason I use science and technology to make art is because we currently live in a time where we almost unquestioningly give so much weight to scientists and engineers.

There are certain paradigms that I think need to be looked at. For instance, one of the things I became interested in—as a precursor to the mind-controlled sperm project—was how we usually look to science and medicine to be an objective reality on our biology, but as I was reading a lot of scientific papers on reproduction, [I noticed they] were super loaded in a gendered way. For instance, there would be papers about reproduction and it would be like the "heroic adventurous sperm" on its path to the "docile heavy egg" and if the egg is not fertilized, it's like garbage, sloughed away, like the sea of waste. These are not neutral words.

"Designers look at the landscape of everything, and then design turns something like science into a system with values. It tells us what we care about as humans right now in this kind of moment in time."

There was even a picture that I saw in a paper that was captioned something like "Portrait of the Sperm," but it was actually one tiny speck of sperm in a gigantic egg. I can't remember who it was, I think it was Evelyn Keller Fox, a feminist writer, who said, "That's like taking a picture of a dog and saying it's a portrait of the flea." So there are all of these little things and, of course, I think throughout the history of medicine there have been a lot of, I guess to be polite, misunderstandings about the female body. So often the paradigm for research is the prototypical white man and we are very different biologically.

That was a launching point for me to really consider within the fabric of how we find our truths there were still so many prejudices that come from society. I think that speaks to the kind of strength and potency of speculative design and of design in general. Designers look at the landscape of everything, and then design turns something like science into a system with values. It tells us what we care about as humans right now in this kind of moment in time.

Would you describe speculative design as taking normal aspects of life and bringing them to the extreme in order to help people realize these contradictions or to make their own connections?

There are a lot of techniques that different designers use. I don't know if it has to be the extreme, but I think that speculative design to me always reveals something that is right in front of you or completely surrounds you. I remember one of the first speculative design projects I looked at was Anthony Dunn and Fiona Raby, and it was a Faraday Cage chair. It was like a reinvented lounge chair, but it was this orange plexiglass box, and it was meant to protect the person lounging from all the radio waves in the air. I thought it was so brilliant because at the time, of course, the invisible air that I walked around in was filled with wavelengths of data, but I never thought about it until there was a chair that claimed to protect you against it.

Dunne & Raby's Faraday Chair

In a way, designing a chair is not as extreme as designing, I don't know, a prosthetic or some kind of didactic. A chair was something that was within the language of everyday things, but it was very effective in revealing some aspect of the technological landscape we reside in.

So as an artist and designer, is there anything art is effective in doing that's different from a speculative concept?

I think there's probably a lot of overlap in art and design, and I think that each informs the other, but I think one of the powerful aspects of art is that it allows you to feel a new reality. I think that's why we're really drawn to science fiction or fiction in general because it's one thing for you to sit down and tell me, "In the future there will be self-driving cars," but it's a different experience of that future if you were said, "Imagine you're in that self-driving car with your new infant, and your vehicle has to make a decision about whether your car crashes into a thing or an opposing car with three nuns or something."

Those kinds of narratives suddenly force you to consider the reality of these hypotheses in a much more visceral way. That kind of emotional narrative also stays with you. It's one thing to talk about genetic engineering and another thing to see a realistic sculpture of that outcome or jewelry that has been designed for your six arms. I think really good designers hit on certain emotional nerves that really captivate us.

You mentioned your mind control sperm project earlier. How did you ultimately arrive at that idea, and what's the story behind it?

It started with the presidential election. I was super shocked that he was caught on camera saying things like "grab them by the pussy." It was really crazy to me that after these kinds of remarks were made public that he could still be elected. I think part of the devastation for me is that a president beyond all of the laws that he passes, which are incredibly influential, is also a cultural signifier. Young boys and girls will look up to him and think, "This is what a leader is". There are certain things about the way he spoke, his actions and his relations to women that I found troubling.

I felt the need to respond to that with a project., and about a year before that I was taking a class called "How to Grow Almost Anything", which had a lot of synthetic biology in it. There were a few researchers from Stanford who showed that you can control the movement of paramecia with electric fields, and they would always swim, I think, toward the negative electrodes. Immediately I wondered, "could this work on sperm?" The kind of cultural significance it would be for a woman to control something so male.

After the "grab them by the pussy" statement, I thought, "OK this is it. I have to go and see if this works. I have to do this." It's a project that, at first, seems absurd. When I talked to men about it, they were like, "Oh my God that's so violating! I can't imagine being controlled in this way." And I'd respond with, "Well, welcome to the history of female bodies." Female bodies have always been controlled down to the level of birth control or abortion. When I talked to most women about it, it was a totally different response because of that history and the way women's bodies have been bio-politically controlled or objectified.

With this project, I try to hit on some emotional nerves to have this kind of empathy or first-time experience of how violating it feels when laws like this are passed. It was a really meaningful project for me.

Absolutely, it's something important to discuss. What do you think the value is for a designer creating a speculative concept in this fashion? 

I think, first of all, that a lot of speculative designs end up becoming a reality. For instance, engineers who were really influenced by the sci-fi that they read as teenagers actually end up building those things. I think this kind of storytelling has a huge impact on the collective cultural landscape of what we think is possible, and it also creates a dialogue about what we want.

"I really love speculative design that reveals something in the fabric of my reality that I wasn't aware of before and how once it's revealed, it's so obvious."

I also think that even though speculative design seems really future-gazing, it often actually reflects what's happening right now. Kind of like in Star Trek when a human has a relationship with an alien, it kind of also reflects the cultural temperature of multinational couplings. It becomes a metaphor for race even though it's kind of clad in aliens. It allows us to look critically at ourselves and our society for the time being. 

It's really important because for better or worse, a lot of the overall decision making is in the hands of the few—in the hands of those in politics or those in the ivory tower—but speculative design projects allow everyone from a scientist at Harvard to a twelve-year-old girl on YouTube to have the conversation of, "what do I think about the future of genetic engineering?" I think these things impact us so much that they have to be publicly discussed.

Liu's "Kisses from the Future" explores intimacy and the microbiome, postulating on a speculative "love note of the future".

I've thought about this a lot too, especially because a lot of startups actually hire sci-fi writers. Can you think of a way in which we can look past this retro-futuristic vision of what the future's supposed to look like?

One of the things I'd be the most excited about is including more voices. For instance, a lot of sci-fi is super retro and for some reason, all of the astronauts are white men, so I think it's really interesting when the main character is a black woman for instance. When you imagine these scenarios and when you imagine these tools or chairs or whatever they are, it's really important to think about who the multiple users are. I think that's why it's so interesting for speculative design to become more of a thing—I'm hoping it attracts everyone, not just sci-fi writers.

I think it would be interesting for a young girl from Tokyo or a veteran with a prosthetic to design the future of X because they would have such different points of view. I guess it's my hope that those kinds of tech companies can look beyond what they believe the version of the future is and hear this kind of multiplicity of voices.

What are some foundations that make for a successful speculative concept?

First of all, to some extent it should probably be captivating and emotionally palpable—like you could immediately understand in an intuitive way that this is something you could imagine being intimately part of your day-to-day landscape in the future. Then, secondly, I really love speculative design that reveals something in the fabric of my reality that I wasn't aware of before and how once it's revealed, it's so obvious. Lastly, I think that kind of inclusivity of presenting traditionally marginalized voices is important and that it's not just all certain socioeconomic points of view because it's not just one person that makes it to the future. It's the whole ship that lands. 

The Core77 Design Awards Design Concept Jury

2018 Design Concept Jury Captain Ani Liu will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:

Chris Woebken, Co-founder, Extrapolation Factory (left) and Dan Chen, Improvisational Engineer (right)
Only a few hours left to submit to this year's Core77 Design Awards! Submissions close March 29th at 9 PM EST. Enter now. 

Studio Gorm on Striking a Balance Between Function and Aesthetics in Furniture Design


For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.

2018 Core77 Design Awards Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains John and Wonhee Ardnt founded their studio, Studio Gorm, in 2007. In addition to maintaining Studio Gorm, John and Wonhee simultaneously work as product design professors at the University of Oregon. The result of their diverse sculpture and craft backgrounds merged with academic research spanning across the areas of culture and technology is an array of thoughtful, functional and approachable objects designed for modern everyday life. In a recent discussion with the designers, we touched on their current work—including Furnishing Utopia/Shaker Reinterpreted—and how technology influences their work.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you've been up to this year?

John: This last year has been really busy. We've been working on our Shaker project, which last year we showed in Stockholm and then in New York, and then we're working on another iteration of that right now for Design Week in New York. We have a bigger group of people we invited—about 10 new design studios from all over the place.

Wonhee: We also showed at WANTED Design and received the American Design Honor, and debuted a standing table in Neocon Chicago.

Studio Gorm for HBF

John: Yeah, for the company HBF. It's a standing conference table for meetings, but we were thinking about people coming into meetings and working in spaces temporarily, so it has a lower level shelf where you can store bags and other things, and the power is all below.

Wonhee: Before this, we mainly focused on residential space, but it was nice to think about workspaces.

John: And then, kind of similarly, we did a project for Google. They have an annual event called SPAN, which is run by Google Design, so it has to do a lot with UX, UI, kind of different clients and so we designed the event space for them in Pittsburgh. It was a 2-3 day event, so we built workshop spaces, meeting rooms and the cafe area, restaurant…It was a large industrial space that we got to transform. Very different scale for us.

Yeah, it sounds like you guys got a good variety of projects in, you probably learned a lot.

John: Yeah, definitely.

In terms of what you're working on now, you said that you're updating the Furnishing Utopia project. Is that still the kind of work that you're really focused on? What has been inspiring you lately?

Wonhee: Yeah, it's really nice to work with designers and learn more about how they work. So Furnishing Utopia is something we found really fun to do, but we've been looking at something we did during Google's SPAN conference. We also ran a workshop where different participants could make a kite. When we went to Korea, John was really excited about the Korean kites; the shape of it and the culture, so we kind of wanted to incorporate this. The people we had in the workshop were making Korean kites during SPAN, and since then we've been excited about playing with that—lightweight sculpture using thin materials—and making forms.

John: We're doing some stuff right now that's purely material experimentation, kind of looking at mobiles and materials. Oftentimes those experiments will lead to something that's a more commercial product or it could be an exhibition piece, but it's nice to have those exploratory days where you're just thinking about a material or a process and seeing what you can do with it.

Wonhee: We don't know what it's going to be yet.

Pieces made by a number of invited designers for the Furnishing Utopia project

John: So we're doing that, and at the same time we're doing a lot of consulting work. It's that mix of personal, exploratory things and very commercial, specific briefs. And then there's the Shaker project, which is really nice because as designers we had an opportunity to see how other people work. People often work in an isolated way where even if you're working for the same company, it's not often that you get to interact with each other or see how things are going. So with this project we've tried to make it as open as possible for participating designers where they can collaborate with each other and work on something that's not quite as corporate.

It's nice to get the opportunity to collaborate even just for the sake of collaboration. So as you are this year's Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains, what are some principles you would associate with quality work when it comes to furniture & lighting?

John: One of the things we've been talking about is really thinking about consideration of material and craft. I think it's important to have a balance between looking at new technology and looking at new forms. The needs of people and spaces often don't change that much, so it's often about coming up with really thoughtful solutions to something.

Wonhee: Part of the reason we thought about Shakers again in 2017-2018 is because furniture's lifespan is much longer. Technology is growing fast, but that also means it changes a lot and becomes obsolete really fast. So how do we accommodate those technologies but also evolve within modern life? Also, how do we design something that lasts longer?

John: Within furniture design, people often try to do a showpiece and think about the image being really important, but it's also thinking about how these things are going to fit into the context of daily life and be easily usable and functional. It's one thing to make a chair that's a stunning image, but thinking about something that is, one, comfortable, but then also can fit within a space with other things. Having that kind of thoughtfulness about how it's going to be used by a person and having that be paramount.

Wonhee: And that's kind of what we want to see with submissions in the awards.

John: Obviously the aesthetics and form have to be well considered but also thinking about manufacturing and material use, how innovative they are in those regards, as well as thinking about the context of everyday use.

Pieces made by Studio Gorm for their Furnishing Utopia exhibition

How does technology influence and inspire your work?

Wonhee: We do a lot of computer work, renderings, 3d software, CNC router and 3D printer work. All of these tools are very necessary and great. Especially with 3D printers, we can test things really easily. It allows us to do things more efficiently. With furniture, your body relates to it, so having scale and proportion right is really important, and that can be useful when you build prototypes and test things. But these things for us are just tools.

John: It can be easy to do everything digitally and make really beautiful renderings. In the industry a lot of things you see are often just images and not even necessarily something you see in person—it's online and in magazines. It's easy to be seduced into having that be your sole focus, but in the end it's all about making functional things, and all those technologies really help you with how it relates to the body, how it relates to other objects and that level of consideration. Those digital technologies expand your horizons and what you're capable of but should build on top of other skills. I think what's exciting about it is it opens up doorways and possibilities to people as far as leveling the playing field about manufacturing possibilities. There's less of the gatekeeper of the bigger industries that only have access to certain production capabilities. Digital fabrication opens that up where people are able to produce things that are very technical more easily. It's sort of like a renaissance in a way in terms of what is possible.

Wonhee: It also helps to create shapes that were otherwise not possible, so there's more freedom of form exploration.

John: Yeah, and 3D printing helps you test very small parameters and make very quick changes, which  normally in an industry you make a change and someone manufactures a prototype, they test it and you come back to it and make another change. The designer is able to make a lot of adjustments themselves and accelerate the process.

Wonhee: Without making something using, like, injection molding machines or building costly and time-consuming parts.

John: But then there's also the risk of, because it's so easy sometimes to make some of these things, that you may not take the time to be considerate or thoughtful; you just crank stuff out really quickly.

So it should be used as a tool where it enhances your abilities to create something, but maybe also frees up the designer and allows them to not have to work for a big company in the same way they may have in the past.

Both: Yes.

Studio Gorm's "peg" furniture

When we're talking about technology, material is applicable, and there's a big conversation going on about how we're using materials and also the types of materials that are being created. Is this something you guys have been paying attention to?

Wonhee: I think these days you see a lot of designers, especially in the furniture industry, trying to use true material, whether it's marble or brass or ceramics, kind of showing that the materiality is there and showcasing the inherent beauty of it instead of trying to alter it too much. I see a lot of those approaches, which is nice. 

John: I think people are really trying to explore what is possible with different materials in manufacturing. Even in the lighting field with LED technology, it's really transformed what is possible. And as that technology improves and gets smaller, more compact and more accurate as far as light and color, it really opens up what is possible within that field. So it's an interesting area right now where you can take these really new materials, processes, technologies, and then combine them with traditional materials and processes. So how do you bring in something new, but also make it something that's not alien at the same time?

Wonhee: Something like a piece of marble brings up the value of the object. It's great to use all this true material, but I think the most important thing is understanding what the material does. Each material has its own property, and we should try to come up with a function or form that emphasizes those materials' inherent qualities. Your design emphasizes what the material should be used for.

John: Yeah, like are you using stone because it has valuable inherent properties? Is the weight somehow valuable, or is the material property beneficial for say, a tabletop? It's not just necessarily for the showmanship of it, but is there a good, logical reason behind that material, and also does the form reflect the inherent properties of that material…does the construction have a good understanding of the material properties?

Is there something you guys haven't done yet that you want to do in the future?

John: We're always interested in trying new things; we haven't really done much upholstered soft furniture, and that's something we'd like to do. There's something really nice about, again, what materials can do and thinking about softer materials and how those dictate different types of forms and comfort. Like we were saying, just experimenting with Korean kites, that sort of process of taking a new material or a process and thinking, "I don't know what this is going to yield, but how can I try to understand these materials?" and then see what you can get from them. Also creating something that is somehow contemporary and innovative, not alienating people and borrowing from traditions.

Wonhee: With the Shaker Project, we've been inviting designers from all over the world, but I'd love to expand it to not only Shakers. Like, we could explore other craft in different cultures—it could be in Germany, it could be in Korea, or it could be Japan. That's something we're thinking about now and possibly wanting to explore in the near future.

That would be really cool. There should be some documentation involved in that for sure.

John: Yeah, we're looking at a project in Germany that we're at the very early stages on, kind of looking at some traditional craft and design movements and how those could be reinterpreted. Also not just working with designers but also working with manufacturers, figuring out how there could be a better dialogue between the two. I think the thing about the Shaker project was that designers could come together and talk about their process and learn about things together in a different context than they normally would but then to also bring in manufacturers and kind of that component to a project is also a really interesting task. You could have some of these conversations and dialogues where designers and manufacturers could work together.

Wonhee: It's good to think about mass production, but also, even in the United States there's small-scale production, and in Germany too, who also sometimes have trouble getting work. People these days are more interested in knowing where things are coming from and where things are made, so there's a lot of potential for us to explore and see through contemporary eyes while also maybe working with craftspeople who are highly capable.

John: And there have been a few really interesting projects like this. There's Arita in Japan where they're trying to revive the tradition of ceramic production, bringing in great designers, that's a really nice one. Ariake also in Japan works with designers doing workshops in the factory. So it's less of this remote way of working where designers are just working in one country or one state [away from manufacturers]. While it's really amazing that you can do that, it's also exciting to be on the ground collaborating and knowing what is possible as a manufacturer. There's a disconnect between the designer and the manufacturer, and you're going between someone like a product developer, and to kind of close those gaps, one, you can make designs that are better suited to what is possible but also kind of open up that dialogue. I think it would be really beneficial to all sides.

The Core77 Design Awards Furniture & Lighting Jury

2018 Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains John Arndt & Wonhee Jeong Arndt will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:

Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm, Founder, Chris L. Halstrøm

Thom Fougere, Founder, Thom Fougere Studio

Jamie Wolfond, Founder, Good Thing

Christopher Specce, independent designer & Professor of Furniture Design at RISD

Only a few hours left to submit to this year's Core77 Design Awards! Submissions close tonight, March 29th at 9 PM EST.

A Self-Deploying Umbrella For Your Car


This sounds like a Steven M. Johnson Bizarre Invention, but it's real--and actually appears useful, particularly if you live in a snowy clime. The Lanmodo is a powered device that you stick onto your roof after parking. Hitting a button on the remote causes the object to unfurl its canopy, covering your car from bumper to bumper. It's strong enough to deflect a falling brick; it keeps your car interior cooler in hot sunlight; and an optional features causes it to vibrate intermittently, shaking snow off of itself while keeping it off of your car.

The Lanmodo has been successfully crowdfunded on IndieGogo, with $53,033 raised at press time on a $10,000 goal. They expect to begin shipping them this May.

Study Reveals Bath Toys Contain Bacteria and Fungi


Bath toys sound harmless enough, but cut one open and you'll get a nasty surprise. Researchers at ETH Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, in a joint study with the University of Illinois, confirmed the "biofouling phenomenon" by which bath toys become breeding grounds for bacteria and fungus "not detectable in the bath water itself." The flexible plastic materials bath toys are made from, like silicone rubber or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) leach organic carbon, which bacteria can feed on.

Here, we characterized biofilm communities inside 19 bath toys used under real conditions. In addition, some determinants for biofilm formation were assessed, using six identical bath toys under controlled conditions with either clean water prior to bathing or dirty water after bathing. All examined bath toys revealed notable biofilms on their inner surface….
Bacterial community compositions were diverse, showing many rare taxa in real bath toys and rather distinct communities in control bath toys, with a noticeable difference between clean and dirty water control biofilms. Fungi were identified in 58% of all real bath toys and in all dirty water control toys.

Of course not all bacteria is bad, and indeed being exposed to it can help strengthen our immune systems; but what is of concern are the potentially harmful kinds, the "opportunistic pathogens" uncovered in the study: E.coli, Staphylococcus spp., Streptococcus spp. and Chlamydia spp. all appeared in various percentages. So did fungal "black yeast and relatives," which are linked to human infections.

Design Job: Melissa & Doug Is Seeking a Furniture Designer to Join Their Playful and Creative Work Environment in CT 


Imagine working for a company with a mission you can truly believe in, a playful and energetic culture, a talented team of coworkers, and a bright future! Melissa & Doug, the global toy company committed to making childhood a time for imagination and wonder, is looking for a Furniture Designer.

View the full design job here

Barbecuing with Good Industrial Design: Robert Brunner's Fuego Grills


It's almost the season to start roasting meat outdoors, which reminds me that barbecue grills are a product category in desperate need of some UX attention. Happily, veteran industrial designer Robert Brunner has stepped up with his Fuego Professional grill design.

The wheels on most grills I've used are a total afterthought, and who wants to do a three-point turn to maneuver the thing into place? Brunner has opted for four omnidirectional casters, allowing you to position the grill easily and precisely.

The hinges on most grill lids place your hand directly over the leaping flames when you open them. Brunner has wisely offset the hinge, keeping your hand well out of the way.

There's also a thermometer built into the lid.

The 415-square-inch lower grill is large enough to cook 20 quarter-pound burgers (4.5" diameter) at once, and has an internal height of 9" with the warming tray removed...

...yet the overall object's footprint is a trim 24" x 24", so it takes up a minimum of space.

The grate, by the way, weighs in at 18 pounds.

Lastly, I like the clean look Brunner's penned. It looks substantial, but still trim and sexy.

The Professional rings in at $500, but for those on lower budgets, Fuego offers smaller 21" x 21" Element models for $300/$400.

Brilliant Design for a No-Strap Backpack!


Portland-based bag manufacturer BlaqPaks has finally cracked the toughest bag design problem of all: How to do away with those pesky straps. BlaqPaks' new Zero-Strap design finally confers the freedom, range of motion and convenience you've been looking for with this stylish new product:




The Zero-Strap will be available on April 1st only.

Lexus Unveils Prescription Windshields and DNA-Based Ignition


After years of hard work, luxury automaker Lexus is finally revealing their smartest initiative yet: Genetic Select, available this Sunday. "Exceeding customers' expectations is in the Lexus DNA," says Cooper Ericksen, Lexus VP of Marketing. "Now, we're taking it to the next level by tapping into our customers' DNA, too."

By partnering with personal genetics company 23 and Me, Lexus has produced a clever method of car customization based on your DNA. After they collect the sample, as demonstrated in the video below, all of the options are automatically selected based on your genes: Everything from the seat positions to the radio presets. Vision deficiencies are compensated for with a prescription windshield, and to start the car, all you need to do is provide a saliva sample by licking the steering wheel:




Okay, I've gotta say it: Which one of you dopes fell for the headline? Was it you? Hey don't close your laptop, I'm talking to you!

Dori Pankowska on the Realities of Using Overseas Manufacturers to Produce Small Product Runs


#IMakeaLiving is a series of free, traveling events powered byFreshBooks that focuses on bringing together an eclectic group of small business owners for a lively, candid, and often hilarious, conversation. In light of the series' second year, we're interviewing business-owning designers on how they brought their companies to the next level.

While studying photography in college, 27-year-old designer Dori Pankowska decided to start her own blog, Dori the Giant, where she would feature the many small side project she worked on outside of class. Her professors as well as creative directors that discovered her blog took note of her uniquely creative mind and advised her to consider advertising as an alternative to the specialized field of photography. Pankowska eventually took their advice and has now been in advertising for two years in addition to continuing her own small creative projects on the side.

Pankowska's side projects always have multiple meanings, and they are always standalone works. Instead of focusing on building a specific aesthetic for herself, Pankowska puts more effort into developing individual ideas. But manufacturing small product runs of one-off designs comes with its challenges. After a few years of experience dealing with overseas manufacturers to have everything from micro-erasers to hand-shaped binder clips put into production, Pankowska reflects on the trial and errors, mishaps and miscommunications that have lead her to become the confident designer she is today:

C77: Can you tell me a little about your design background?

DP: I kind of consider myself a creative mutt. I went to college for photography because I'd always liked creative things, but I had never really pursued them myself. I wasn't informed about all the different career options out there, so photography was my main creative choice at the time.

During photo school, I would always experiment with different concepts and ideas anytime we were given an assignment. I kept getting feedback for these little ideas I didn't think anyone really cared about, and that's when I began to understand the power of creative ideas. Photography school was where I learned that ideas do matter, and that people really are attracted to and appreciate creativity. That's when I decided to fully embrace my creative side and make that my thing.

My professors kept telling me that I should get into advertising because I was so creative. I was always making projects on the side—photography projects, craft projects, writing projects, anything. I also started my blog, Dori the Giant, which is where I started putting everything I worked on.

"I made this coin that has a bite taken out of it. It's supposed to be a bitcoin. It was a pun, because I love puns."

Over time, some creative directors found me online and told me that I should get into advertising, which seemed to be a recurring theme in my life. They mentored me for a while, and then I had a graphic design job and then an overall creative job at another agency. But in the end, I still ended up in advertising. I'm actually working in advertising now, and I have been for about two and a half years.

"Even though I don't have a business background, I'm always thinking about how I can hack the world with creativity and still have profitable results in the end."

That's my full-time thing to pay the bills, but it's also fulfilling because I get to be creative and see my ideas come to life, which is my main passion. Each of my side projects are totally different from one another because I put a lot of value on concepts and ideas rather than keeping with an aesthetic. I do like aesthetic types of art, but I'm just a lot more excited about an actual idea.

I'm trying to push towards bigger projects now. When I first started my blog and experimenting with things, a lot of my projects were really small—some would even take me just a half an hour. Over the years, I've been trying to take on bigger things to challenge myself more and to see where they'll take me.

Tiny eraser!

My latest side hustle, Wask Studio, is where I'm going to be putting product ideas that I design and create in the coming years. I just launched it in December, and so far I have about three and a half items. I'm starting small, but basically I come up with an idea and do everything I can to make it happen. I'm a one-man team, so it's just me using my own skills, using the Internet as my main tool and networking if I have to.

I wouldn't say that I'm a business person when it comes to trying to make profits. For me a lot of it is about creative fulfillment. Even though I don't have a business background, I'm always thinking about how I can hack the world with creativity and still have profitable results in the end. 

All of your projects are different materials, and they're all very different concepts from one another. What has the materials/manufacturing sourcing process been like?

It's definitely been a learning experience. The first time I ever challenged myself to actually manufacture and sell one of my designs, I jumped right into the deep end.

It was this product called Something, and it's this plastic block that's pretty bulky, and it has the word "something" engraved on it. It comes in a nice box with a nice sticker and presentation. I tried to go all out because I wanted to learn about all the little parts of the process. Many things went wrong, which was a big learning experience. There were quality issues, timing issues, budget issues—everything kept coming back with more and more problems.

How do you usually go about finding your manufacturers? Do you have any advice for people looking to manufacture their first product?

For the most part, a lot of the little items I've made so far required a specific manufacturer. Usually I can find someone on alibaba.com, which is one of the biggest websites that connects you with manufacturers in China. You can find manufacturers all over the world, and they all specialize in different things.

The biggest challenge when it comes to connecting with manufacturers in China is communicating exactly you need, whether it's design specs, sizing or materials. I've experienced a lot of miscommunication where I thought everyone was on the same page regarding some sort of element of the project, but what I ended up getting was not exactly what I wanted. This happens a lot I find, so when dealing with manufacturers in China it's best to take things slow and only ask one question at a time. That way you know they're not missing certain questions and that they're not responding to you thinking they've answered all of your questions when maybe they've only answered one.

After I learned how difficult that process can be, I scaled it down and made a couple smaller items. Small items like lapel pins are a lot easier to make, and the molds are cheaper. Making lapel pins isn't crazy hard, but the new items I've been trying to make, like the binder clip, the paper clip and the little erasers, were a challenge.

A paper clip isn't as huge of a challenge as the other ones because it's hard to go wrong with a paper clip. Its only job is to be able to clip paper, so you can really make it whatever shape you want. Binder clips are trickier because they use a thicker piece of wire, so making the curves and the bends was difficult. My original hand design ended up being impossible to make, so they don't look as realistic as I wanted.

"I don't know all the cheats or hacks or all the ins and outs of these industries. With everything I do, I just have to figure it out and learn little things as I go."

The tiny erasers were the most difficult because I probably reached out to at least 20 manufacturers who specialize in erasers, and most of them came back to me saying that they couldn't make erasers that size. A lot of manufacturers had minimum eraser sizes, and I also had manufacturers come back to me saying they could only do it if I ordered five million pieces. I'm not exaggerating—a lot of these numbers are ridiculously high. 

Sometimes you just have to communicate to a lot of manufacturers at once because you never know when you'll get lucky. I was super determined to make those erasers happen, so I just kept messaging and messaging and messaging people, and eventually I found a manufacturer who was able to do exactly what I wanted. I was really lucky at that point because I was so close to giving up on that concept.

The whole process is definitely challenging, especially for someone like me who doesn't come from a product design background. I'm a jack of all trades, so I'm good at a lot of different things, but that also means I don't specialize in any one thing. I don't know all the cheats or hacks or all the ins and outs of these industries. With everything I do, I just have to figure it out and learn little things as I go. 

What's the process of negotiating costs like?

+1 Add Friend lapel pins

Getting proper quotes is complicated because sometimes you'll be quoted for a project, but it turns out there's extra costs in the end with some sort of shipping or further packaging. Sometimes they'll tell you they can do your design, but it turns out they can't and you've already paid them 30% up front. There are a lot of little hidden surprises that always pop up.

How long does it usually take for your manufacturers to get back to an email?

It really depends. Some of them are pretty fast and will take about a day or two, but  a lot of them are hit or miss. Usually when I'm looking to get a project made, I'll reach out to a bunch of manufacturers. It really depends on what the project is, but sometimes I'll aim for at least 10 and I keep track of every single one that I've reached out to. 

Within the next three days, I usually get a bunch of replies. There's always going to be a few manufacturers that don't reply because maybe the project specs I already gave them are not what they're looking for or maybe they already have enough business for the month. I don't know all the reasons, but there's always going to be manufacturers that won't reply to you, so you always have to count on that and make sure that you reach out to a lot of different people if you want to find the best quote for your project.

Do you have any manufacturing horror stories? Has anything happened that's just absolutely ridiculous?

The very first time I did this was kind of a horror story for me. I actually ended up writing an entire blog entry about it (Editor's Note: Read the full story here, it's packed with good insights). When I made that item named Something, the product I ended up getting was so much shittier than the sample product I got, so I ended up hand-finishing all of them. The price ended up being so high because I ended up using a CNC. I was avoiding using injection molding because the price was so much higher, but in the end I realized that if I had done the injection mold, it probably would've been the same amount of money considering how much I had to end up spending anyway.

It was my first time ever working with overseas manufacturers, and it was just hilarious. But I don't regret any of it because I just jumped right into it and even learned a tiny bit of 3D modeling just to get it done. Other than that, I always have small problems here and there, but that one was probably the worst because I had to spend so much money on something that was so disappointing. 

At this point, have you gotten pretty good at figuring out if someone can really produce your product, or is it still up in the air most of the time?

I feel like I've learned from so many mistakes already, but there's always something that will catch me by surprise where I'll think, "Oh, gosh, why didn't I think of that?", "Why didn't I clarify that?" or "Why did I assume this?" If you're always creating lapel pins and you're just changing the design each time, maybe you can really get to know that system and perfect every aspect of it, but because I'm always doing random things, there's always going to be that learning curve.

I'm definitely more confident when it comes to asking more questions or asking things that I was too shy to ask before. If there's a minimum order quantity, I used to just accept it. But now I push back and will ask for a lower minimum quantity. If the design is a little wrong and I really want to fix it, I'll try to push for it a little bit more even if there's some sort of implication involved.

But there's still a lot of room for improvement on my end. There's so much I want to do better, and there's so much more I want to learn—especially in the future when I have higher budgets for products. I want to learn how to do things more properly and maybe even get a quality assurance person on the other end in China. That would be someone I'd hire to actually go to my manufacturers and make sure my products are being made properly. It probably costs a lot of money to do something like that, but it's definitely something I want to learn about for the future.


Interested in listening to more start-up stories? #IMakeaLiving Powered by FreshBooks will be hosting their next event on April 25th in New York City. Learn more and register here, and in the meantime you can listen to the #IMakeaLiving podcast here.

This Year's WantedDesign Workshop Will Explore the "Future Heirloom"


This upcoming New York Design Week, WantedDesign will mark its fifth year hosting their Design Schools Workshop. The workshop brings together students from seven different design programs to create objects over an intensive six-day period. Each year involves experimenting with different materials to come up with a novel product, but this year's theme of 'Future Heirloom' is more personal than usual. Under the wing of Art Center's James Meraz, Chiara Ferrari and David Mocarski, starting May 17th, students from Centro (Mexico), Appalachian State University (Boone, North Carolina), Pratt (Brooklyn), Aalto University (Finland), Strate School of Design (Sevres, France), The Strzeminski Academy of Art (Lódz, Poland) and of course Art Center College for Design (Pasadena) will begin their investigation into the value of sentimental objects in Industry City.

As stated perfectly by Meraz, the 'Future Heirloom' theme asks participating teams to respond to questions along the lines of, "What are the artifacts and objects that the current youth generation value?" and, "What do kids value, that are meaningful enough to pass on to their kids and future generations?"

WantedDesign spoke further with Meraz about his ideas regarding this year's rendition of the Design Schools Workshop and what he hopes to see by the end of the quickfire week full of design collaboration.

This year's theme for the workshop is defining the Future Heirloom. Can you elaborate on this theme and how you expect to see it translated into objects?

Two personal moments this year had me pondering this notion of "Future Heirloom", where I sensed a paradigm shift. One was going through my father's drawer full of black and white photos filled with images of fascinating looking individuals and places that I may or may not have a vague recollection-memory of who they were, or where these places were. This was a sensory experience beyond the image. The smells of the photos, the tactility of the tattered edges, the sense of discovery had me daydreaming of an era gone by. The second moment was more of sober realization. As I was going through my library, I had one small shelf dedicated to old laptops, next to a small box of old hard drives. These semi-defunct objects contain an enormous amount of family history and images. Hardly the tactile experience I would want to leave behind generation to generation. This may be a modern archeological expedition that would hardly be satisfying, and most likely be an unpleasant experience to the senses.

I began to really ponder the notion of what are the artifacts, objects that the current youth generation value? What does my kid value, that is meaningful enough to pass on to his kids and future generations? I hope it's not a box of old iPhones. The irony of this story is that it is a known fact that today's youth is the most photographed generation in history. Does the millennial generation even print photos?

Yes, there are moments, with nostalgic trends in instant photography printing, but this is can't compete with sharing an image in an instant, across our numerous social feeds. How will we record and share our history in a long term tactile way? Will we depend on ubiquitous or "calm" computing to do the work for us? Will it be a passive experience? Will we rely on hardware, software and digital devices or a "cloud" to preserve our past?

So, if we define "heirloom" as image, antiquity or objects of value to be handed down from generation to generation, our young designers will have the formidable challenge of speculating how we bridge the gap of the dialectic of our physical realm and virtual realm, which I feel can yield some very thought provoking interpretations.

Do you have any personal visions of what a hybrid future heirloom might look like?

I believe the future heirloom can be a rich hybrid of content, craft, and presence. Outcomes will most certainly explore the notion of hi-tactility, and craft through digital and analog material conjugations, bearing the metaphorical and physical fingerprints of the designer. These interpretations will also consider the relationship of where and how these heirlooms are experiences and displayed.

What will be the biggest challenge for the students this year?

The challenge of working in multi- disciplinary and multi-cultural teams is always exciting and full of unknown factors. Our theme is meant to be thought-provoking, and having our young designers approaching the design problem on a philosophical and perhaps existential level. I believe the content of our theme has a very personal component to be explored, which at times can be difficult. A personal cultural, historical and social framework will be a critical attribute in order to fully explore the potential of this "future heirloom."

What do you see as the most valuable aspects of this workshop?

Exploring new toolsets, exploring mixed-reality and collaborating with cross-cultural colleagues on a design challenge that isn't so much based on a brand identity, but based on a universal, social, cultural phenomena on not only how we understand the world but how we can elevate the human experience.

In leading this year's workshop, what do you hope to add to the mix?

I hope to add a critical dialogue and personal narrative approach to the design process. Fostering young designers in creating rich future narratives on how we approach, experience and create lasting impressions in the design realm, as well as encouraging risky experimentation that can yield provocative design solutions.

What's your best advice for design students working under pressure?

This particular challenge is meant to explore the "ontological gap", so we will definitely be exploring unchartered territories and looking at philosophical questions of legacy and what we leave behind. Essentially trust your inner instincts. Savor the present moment and don't be afraid to explore and open up to various frameworks of thought and meaning. This will always enrich your design process.

The Wanted Design School Workshop will take place during New York Design Week from May 17-22. The final projects will be displayed and winning teams will be announced at WantedDesign Manhattan on May 22.

The workshop was made possible thanks to Artefacto, Shapeways, FilzFelt, French Airline XL Airways, 3D printing mentor Lauren Slowik and textile mentor Emilly Howe.

Learn more about WantedDesign NYC and their NY Design Week events here.

Architectural Rendering Firm Creates Animated GIFs Completing Ancient Ruins


Visiting the world's ancient ruins can be fun for civilians, but frustrating for curious designers who like to complete unfinished images in our heads: Where's the rest of it? What was this crumbling base meant to support? What was that broken column holding up?

Creative director Przemyslaw Sobiecki and architect Maja Wronska, of architectural and product rendering firm This is Render, apparently felt the same way. The duo zeroed in on seven ancient ruins, recreated them in wireframe and animated renderings to fill in the blanks. Take a look:

Parthenon, Greece

432 BC

The Temple of Athena is a symbol of Ancient Greece and one of the crown jewels of the Acropolis. The building did double duty, serving as both a temple and a treasury of the Athenian Empire.

Nohoch Mul Pyramid (Coba), Mexico

ca. 50 BC

Coba was once a powerful Mayan city-state rivaling the better-known Chichén Itzá. The Nohoch Mul is the second-largest Mayan pyramid in existence.

Temple of Jupiter (Pompeii), Italy

ca. 150 BC

Dedicated to the most powerful god in Roman mythology, the Temple of Jupiter dominated the forum at Pompeii. Only priests were allowed inside the building, which held statues of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Milecastle 39 (part of Hadrian's Wall), UK

ca. 122 AD

The loose inspiration for The Wall in "Game of Thrones," Hadrian's Wall bisected what is now the UK, running for 73 miles from east coast to west coast. This is one of the "milecastle" fortifications, each of them being placed a Roman mile away from each other.

Luxor Temple, Egypt

ca. 1100 BC - 1600 BC

Unlike mortuary temples, the Luxor is thought to be where kings received coronation ceremonies. It was once linked to the nearby Karnak Temple by an avenue lined with sphinxes.

The Pyramid of the Sun – Teotihuacán, Mexico

ca. 200 AD

The Pyramid of the Sun is the third-largest pyramid in the world, and the largest structure in Teotihuacán. It was once surfaced in lime plaster and reportedly painted with murals.

Area Sacra di Largo Argentina – Temple B, Italy

ca. 400 BC - 100 AD

Temple B is the centerpiece of what was once a four-temple complex in Rome, which was not discovered until the 1920s. Julius Caesar is thought to have been murdered just steps away, so it's possible this building was one of the last things he saw.

Design Job: Answer the "What and Why" of Design as a Senior Lead Strategist for fuseproject


We are currently seeking a creative, design-minded Senior Product & Portfolio Strategy Lead to help us answer the "what and why" of design. Senior Strategy Leads are experienced mentors on our strategy team who help clients and internal teams solve critical business and design challenges - framed by customer insights,

View the full design job here

Where Should the Clock Be Located On a Car's Dashboard?


Those of you who own cars are undoubtedly familiar with your own. But because I'm a ZipCar member, I'm used to getting into a different vehicle each time I need a set of wheels. At the mercy of what's available, I rarely get the same vehicle twice.

I'm a very smart person with a degree in Industrial Design, so when getting into an unfamiliar car I can usually locate the steering wheel right away. But I often have to cast about for the clock. The clock is important for ZipCar drivers because you have to return the car at a pre-arranged time or you get charged a penalty.

The last car I owned was a 2001 Volkswagen Golf, for several years. That conditioned me to look for the clock here:

In contrast, more modern designs for car interiors have the clock towards the center of the dashboard. That makes better sense as both driver and passenger can see it. Here are the interiors for the last seven vehicles I've borrowed and where the clocks were:

Nissan Sentra

Honda Odyssey

Ford Escape

Honda Civic

Chevrolet Cruze

Honda Insight

Ford E-150 Cargo Van

As much as I like them at the center of the dash, I still cannot get my eyes to quickly land on them. The digital readouts often share real estate with other bits of information, and when glancing from the road to the dash, I often have to visually fumble to register "Ah, clock."

Kristen Lee, an editor at Jalopnik, made an interesting observation at the New York Auto Show: "Nearly all of [the cars I looked at] had big screens in their center consoles, which, fine. But the few that featured analog clocks stood out."

Among the handful of brands that did was Lexus, who has their analog clocks visually framed and placed dead-center in the dash:

Now that's a clock I can get behind.

Car owners among you: Where is the clock on your dashboard? (If you're willing to post a pic in the comments so we can compare, that'd be great.) Where would you like it to be? And do you prefer analog or digital for time-telling?

Design Entrepreneurs: Here's How to Design, Build and Price Out a Shoe Store in 20 Hours


This will be super-helpful to those of you who have design/build skills and want to see dollar breakdowns for a project. Ben Uyeda of HomeMade Modern was asked to create a shoestore in an impossibly short deadline. He not only shows you every step of the process, from design to fabrication, but spells out the pricing and profit at the end:

I do wish more designer/builders were as transparent about this stuff. Great job, Ben!

Finally! Dieter Rams Documentary by Gary Hustwit is On the Way


Dieter Rams appears sparingly in Gary Hustwit's "Objectified" documentary on product design. Perhaps that was for the best, as Hustwit's now working on a dedicated feature-length documentary on Rams, where we'll get to hear about his philosophies, processes and inspiration in-depth.

Hustwit has released three teaser trailers:

Rams will include in-depth conversations with Dieter, and dive deep into his philosophy, his process, and his inspirations. But one of the most interesting parts of Dieter's story is that he now looks back on his career with some regret. "If I had to do it over again, I would not want to be a designer," he's said. "There are too many unnecessary products in this world." Dieter has long been an advocate for the ideas of environmental consciousness and long-lasting products. He's dismayed by today's unsustainable world of over-consumption, where "design" has been reduced to a meaningless marketing buzzword.
Rams is a design documentary, but it's also a rumination on consumerism, materialism, and sustainability. Dieter's philosophy is about more than just design, it's a about a way to live. It's about getting rid of distractions and visual clutter, and just living with what you need.

The documentary will reportedly be released this year.

Design Job: Inspire Creativity and Imagination as a Product Development Engineer for Melissa & Doug


Imagine working for a company with a mission you can truly believe in, a playful and energetic culture, a talented team of coworkers, and a bright future! Melissa & Doug, the toy company committed to nurturing childhood wonder, is looking for a Product Development Engineer. In this role,

View the full design job here

A Japanese Village's Incredible Rice Paddy Art


This is one of those bizarrely creative things that I'd only expect to see come out of Japan. In the early '90s, the country village of Inakadate watched as their population continued moving to the cities, and the local council began brainstorming ways to turn the village into a tourist destination.

The idea they cooked up was to plant differently-colored rice in such a way that it created an image in the paddy. Their first effort, in 1993, used two different colors and wasn't terribly promising:

Few people showed up. Next they tried something artsier, the Mona Lisa:

People criticized the perspective. Atsushi Yamamoto, the local school's art teach who had been tasked with creating the images, told the BBC that

"At the beginning when I started rice paddy art, there were some failures, but after some trial and error, I gained experience, and now, the rice paddy art comes out the way it's envisioned."

They kept at it, introducing more colors of rice over the years (now up to seven) and producing more complicated images. Take a look at what they can do now:

Note that they've learned to skew the images so that they appear proper when observed from the nearby observation platform:

This Tanbo ("rice paddy") art now draws nearly 350,000 visitors a year.

Here's a closer look at the painstaking process of how they do it:

Introducing the Supermarché Front Loader Cargo Bike


If I could do all of my shopping on a Citibike I would, but the last bulky, heavy thing (an airbed and compressor)I tried carrying in the front basket was a near disaster. If only they offered cargo bike options.

French company Yuba Bikes has just rolled out their first front-loader cargo bike, the Supermarché, which I'd love to see added to Citibike's fleet:

Constructed from lightweight aluminum, the Supermarché steers nimbly with a double redundant cable system and double-ended brake cable. Keeping with our cargo roots, we've included a Yepp compatible rear cargo rack over a 20" rear wheel for the extras.

The bike can carry 300 pounds. And if you're one of those weirdos who's more focused on parenting than drinking from beer kegs, you can configure the bike to your liking:

There are optional bamboo add-ons:

And finally, here's a look at the bike in action, and a closer look at its features:

If you want to take a closer look, check out Yuba's dealer locator.

Hilarious BBC Sketches Give Voice to Inanimate Objects


"Doodlebugs" is the name of a sketch show on the BBC that makes good use of what is apparently a low budget. Like the best Monty Python bits, they manage to spin something creative out of nothing:

Frustratingly, those are the only three clips I've been able to find that are viewable on our shores; the BBC has locked the rest of the content away for UK-dwellers only. If you're a Brit, you can freely check out the show here.

Take Coroflot's 2018 Design Salary Survey 


Since 2001, Coroflot has collected, crunched, and reported salary data from tens of thousands of design and creative professionals around the world. We've been able to do this with the help of our creative community, who we rely on to enter their own information. The Design Salary Guide is a valuable resource for your own salary negotiations or as a resource when building your team.

Our survey includes over 50 job titles, so there's something for every creative role, and all of the data is collected on a city level, allowing us to report results on a more granular, hyper-local scale (in addition to broader trends). You can even enter freelance hourly rates, and in turn we report on freelance hourly rates. We collect and report on salaries and hourly rates in local currencies around the world. 

Any data you submit is completely anonymous, so there is zero risk in completing the survey.

Photo by Curtis MacNewton

Built by designers, for designers, Coroflot has always had a strong community of talented creative-types. We invite you to take a peek around and add your info to the Salary Guide. It literally takes less than 1 minute to participate.

The more data we can collect and summarize, the better accuracy we'll have. And of course, share it with your friends – we are holding the survey sample open for just a while longer!

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