A Life Designed

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Ayse Birsel will be speaking at HOW Design Live in Atlanta. Learn about her session and register today!

Ayse Birsel is co-founder and creative director of Birsel + Seck, a product design studio in New York City. She has developed a seminal book titled Design the Life You Love that teaches non-designers how to create a meaningful life using a unique creative process known as Deconstruction:Reconstruction™. “With this graceful, playful and human-centered perspective,” she says, “we design the products, organizations, work, services and experiences people love.” In this interview, she describes how design and drawing can change lives and loves.


What prompted you to do your book?My father is a lawyer who’s always been interested in what I do, even though I didn’t follow the family tradition of law. He’s been telling me I need to write a book since my earliest days as a product designer. It was like a leitmotif of our conversations, but I couldn’t understand why this was so important to him, and moreover, what I’d write about.

Fast forward to Design the Life You Love. People who came to my workshops started to ask me if I had a book, or if I was writing one. They wanted something to take home with them and, as importantly, to share with others—their husbands, wives, kids, parents. Suddenly this idea of writing a book didn’t seem so crazy (sorry, dad!) or out of reach.

But writing was a whole different story. I wrote the first draft in Microsoft Word, which was a nonsensical idea for a designer. It was so boring that I haven’t read it since. For the second draft I tried to write with a friend who is a brilliant writer, so much so that I could only hear his voice. That’s when I realized I had to do it myself or not at all. The third time was the charm, and I owe a lot of that to Leah Caplan, one of my oldest collaborators, who showered me with inspiration and examples of similar illustrative books (including Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, which I loved for its style and playfulness) and helped me find my visual voice. That’s when I started to draw my book, and then I’d write about what I drew. Drawing rather than writing was the turning point. You’d think that would have been obvious, but it wasn’t. It took me three years to find my voice.

Tell me why life can be reduced to a design problem.I think of my life as my biggest project. Life is just like a design problem, full of opposing needs and wants, constraints and challenges. You cannot have everything. If you want or need more, then you have to resolve some dichotomies, and design thinking is a great tool to help do this.

You know what is interesting though? Life deconstructed fits on two pages. Two! And that is a relief. Seeing your life on two pages gives you a sense of control—all that complexity, the enormity of life is actually manageable. It is not dissimilar to planning an incredible banquet and making a shopping list of what you’re going to need. The idea of the banquet is overwhelming but once you have your list you know what to do. Life is not that different; it feels massive until you break it down to its ingredients and see that you can hold them on two pages. And those pages become your ingredients for what you want to make of your life, what you need more of, what you need to leave out, and what are your essentials.


Can non-designers design their life?Ah! How much I love non-designers. Ordinary people are extraordinarily creative when given a design process and tools. Not only can they design their lives, they do it fearlessly (designing your life takes courage) and with gusto. Here it’s really important to frame life as a project within the context of design. Life is a complex problem and you need to think like a designer to get to something valuable: that means with optimism and empathy, holistically and playfully.

Over the years I’ve met some amazing people through my workshops. These people are often at a turning point in their lives and drawn to the idea of using design to reflect about what’s next. So they come to DLYL already with a personal challenge or problem set, which is a great place to start designing. No problem, no design. Their questions are universal: My kids left for college and I find myself an empty nester; my kids are little and my parents are aging, and I’m in the middle; I’m finishing college and I want to think about what’s next; I’m not happy at work; I’m retiring … what does the next phase of my life look like? My role is to share my process and tools with them, inspire them with great examples of creative thinking from art, design, cooking, fashion and business. They do the rest and they do it beautifully.

There are a couple tricks I have devised to make the process super accessible:

– Lots of drawings. What could be so hard about a book that has a drawing on every page?-Be playful and don’t judge your ideas. The right one will emerge eventually and you will recognize it when you see it. So go with your gut, with whatever comes to your mind. The good, ugly, weird and funny!-Draw and write to use both your right and left brain. Drawing and writing use different parts of the brain. You need both to design. That is why the book starts with a drawing exercise, same as all my workshops. Just draw something! I’ve learned over time that everyone can draw. You don’t need to be Rembrandt, you just need to draw. Stick figures welcome.-Gather inspiration. Every designer needs some inspiration to open up their minds to beauty and genius. The same goes for designing your life. In the book I ask you to think about other people who’ve influenced and/or inspired you. When it comes to life, look for inspiration in others. They inform you about your values, and you need your values to anchor your design. Let me leave it there but if you have the book, turn to the Heroes exercise and do it. Again, it is about serious play!

There are plenty of exercises in the book from people who have come to the workshops. They guide you alongside the process and show how you can design your life.

Will designing your life make you truly confident or falsely secure?I think that on the spectrum between truly confident and falsely secure lies the designer’s state of mind, energized and determined by the potential and power of your ideas.

There are three emotional states in design:1. Bound by what you know. This marks the beginning of the creative process where your preconcep
tions are still holding you in current reality.2. Freed by what you can imagine. This is the middle of the process, helped by inspiration, rich with possibilities and potential ideas. The process swells.3. Energized by what is possible. This is towards the end when your logic kicks in and you start to make choices and converge towards the big idea.

When you have a good idea, you become excited by it and you see the possibilities. You know that inner, intuitive feeling you get when you know you’re onto something. You’re past the initial moment of inertia where you are bound by what you know and feel stuck. You’re in that moment of convergence on the IDEA, the one that is just right, the one that rises to the top and says, pick me!, the one that gives you the courage to share your idea with others and bring people along to help you realize it.

That to me is the state of mind of designing your life. Confident enough to prototype it and secure enough to share it with others so that you can collaborate together, but also honest enough to know that, like any designer, you need to protect and nurture your idea until it’s strong enough to stand on its own. And even then you need to continue to evolve it over time.


What about serendipity or unforeseen events—can one design around them?I see serendipity and unforeseen events as Catalysts, and they’re one of the tools in my design toolbox. Catalysts are things like having a child, a catastrophic event like 9/11, falling in love, or moving. They help us shift our point of view to see the same things differently. When I design I list Catalysts and try to predict what effect they’ll have on the design. Will it speed things up or slow them down? Is it an opportunity or a constraint? If it’s an opportunity, how do I take advantage; if it’s a constraint, how do I go with it or turn it into a positive. Acknowledging Catalysts goes a long way and helps us see the big picture.

You do this as a lecture. Do you see yourself as an inspirational speaker? Or is there another job description?I am a designer who draws, writes and speaks. In that order. I express myself and my ideas best through drawing. I need to write about my drawings, so that others can follow my thought process. And I speak about what I draw and write mostly to teach and share: my process, ideas, experiences. It becomes more inclusive the more I do this. I think I’m an inspirational drawer first and foremost.

Obviously, there is something very optimistic about this process. Is there room for pessimism?We as designers are an optimistic bunch who think we will always come up with a better solution, no matter what the problem. And this optimism drives our passion. The process is optimistic because design is optimistic. But design is also courageous. It takes courage to take what you know today and project yourself into the future. This is even more true when it comes to life. People who want to design their lives are courageous because it is their life they’re imagining and it is deeply personal. Design’s optimism is necessary in the process. Paired with being playful. When we’re playing we’re like kids; we’re not afraid of making mistakes and we try stuff. And sometimes the best ideas come from the weirdest places. How are you going to know that if you don’t play?

How do you know you love something?You know you love something when you don’t mind doing it very early in the morning or very late at night, giving up your sleeping hours, weekends and vacation time, and doing so freely, of your own choosing.

When you love something you lose yourself in it, you get into a state of flow. It’s like a dance. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. And you’re happy, often even elated, by both.

I fell in love with product design and its human scale when I was 16. Since then it has become a way of life. I don’t mean that I’m surrounded by beautiful objects, but that I think like a designer, about life, about solving problems, about things I don’t know and want to learn about. It is what gets me out of bed, it is what I fall asleep with (trying to solve design problems is better than counting sheep) and I do my best work on vacations.


Have you used your own method?Yes. When I first started Design the Life You Love, I needed examples to show others how it can be done. I was my first student out of necessity. It’s not easy to be both teacher and student! I would try my own exercises to make sure they were doable and to see if they’d lead to something useful.

One of the exercises is about Metaphors. I’ve used metaphors in design ever since I started working with the Herman Miller, maker of office systems and contract furnishing. Their research director Jim Long showed me how they were using metaphors to better understand large organizations that were their clients. Years later when I designed the Resolve Office System I used the metaphor of theater, the office system has an adaptable backdrop for the “performance” of work.

Transferring metaphors as a tool to design life came naturally. It’s a playful and very effective way for people to visualize the life they’re imagining using something familiar.

When I tried it first, I settled on my life as a tree: My roots and past are in Turkey, where I grew up, and my trunk and my present are in New York, where I matured and built my practice. So what about my branches and my fruit? The tree metaphor made me realize that my future is “the world” (where else after New York?) and that the next phase is all about having fruit, planting seeds and helping other trees grow, which helped me embrace the idea of a book literally as a seed—a way for me to grow design beyond myself into a larger context and greater sharing.

This is what I have learned from using my method and from the many people who have come to my workshops: Design is finding coherence. Designing your life is finding coherence in your life: coherence between who you are, your values and what you do. It is this coherence that helps us find simplicity in the complexity of life.

Postcards From PRINTPRINT magazine, one of the world’s most revered graphic design publications, turned 75 in 2015. In celebration, Steven Heller curated a collection of 75 postcards, each featuring an iconic cover of PRINT magazine straight from the archives.