Six Questions from Kicker: Wendy Ju

Device Design Day speaker Wendy Ju has ridden the whole unpaved length of the Alaskan Highway; designed kitchen counters that teach people to cook; made tiny cheap personal computers for kids in India; and ridden untested prototype snow vehicles in the German Alps. Now, in celebration of D3, she answers our Six Questions:

Wendy Ju is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate Design program at CCA, a lecturer at Stanford University, and the founder of Ambidextrous Magazine, Stanford University’s Journal of Design. She received her PhD from Stanford’s Center for Design Research in 2008. Her current research in the areas of physical interaction design and ubiquitous computing investigates how implicit interactions can enable novel and natural interfaces through the intentional management of attention and initiative.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

Nothing jumps to mind. My iPhone is definitely the product I use most throughout the day, I would be miserable if I lost the watch I inherited from my mother, and I would be as good as blind without my glasses, but in general, I don’t cherish products. For me, they are a means to an end. I have many products that I appreciate, and I have fond feelings for the ones I’ve owned for a long time or used a lot, like my car. Still, it’s just stuff, and, overall, I would like to have less stuff in my life. The same goes for services. My favorite products and services are somewhat inconspicuous, even surreptitious in the way that they work. I like that I don’t have to think about them.

Books, on the other hand… I could fill volumes about cherished books. I think this is because books are meant to engage us cerebrally, to hold our focus for a long time. You give yourself over to a book when you are really into it. That’s not the kind of relationship I want with products, though. It sounds cruel, but I like to be able to alternately kick them around and ignore them.

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

The latest is this thing I picked up in Denmark, the Frans helmet lock, which is just a nylon sack and steel cable that secures and covers your bike helmet to your bike seat so that it doesn’t get wet or stolen. Even though I’ve read all the studies and am aware of how important it is to wear a helmet to protect my noggin, this niggling issue of where to stick the bike helmet was holding me back from wearing one all the time. I think the product is genius.

The other thing I’ve been inspired by, recently, is the Yookidoo Flow ‘N Fill Spout. This is a kid’s bath toy which is a simple water pump with different cups that let water flow through different ways. I love how this toy celebrates physical interaction, and how it is playful in such open-ended ways. My son is two, and since he has been born I’ve developed an extremely low opinion of the children’s toy market, which is an exploitative wasteland of cheap wood and plastic festooned with character properties. There are many things that he loves that I just tolerate with gritted teeth. This, in contrast, is something I look at every day and marvel at.

3. What excites you about being a designer? Why do you keep doing it?

Being a designer is my way of being an activist in the world, to try to make a positive difference in how things are. I am always amazed, in the research phase of every design project, how much I learn about how things in our lives came to be the way they are, and how easily everything could have turned out differently. This is my sunny way of saying that it disturbs me how much out there is badly designed, or not designed at all, and how much of an impact this has on the world. I feel almost a civic responsibility to do things better.

On a personal level, I deeply enjoy making things, I really like figuring people out, and I feel a deep satisfaction when things come together elegantly, so I suppose being a designer is a way of doing all those things at the same time. I’m not a huge believer in product, though, which is why working as a design academic–being able to focus on teaching, on writing about ideas and researching larger issues in design rather than making stuff for store shelves–has been really ideal for me. I would advocate it as a profession if my own path to this destination wasn’t so haphazard.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a designer?

My identity as a designer was really solidified when I was getting my master’s degree at the MIT Media Lab. I was collaborating with all these brilliant artists and inventors, who, despite their stupendously technical and creative abilities, just didn’t have basic designerly inclinations. It was astounding, after coming from a world where I was surrounded by talented designers, to be amongst people who were so bright and yet so clueless about design. They just didn’t see how other people would see the objects they were making–that wasn’t the way they saw the world. I think that the process of articulating my perspective and arguing for design considerations made me see design not as a thing that I did but as part of who I was.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned, and who taught it to you?

The most important lesson I’ve learned is to surround myself with really smart, interesting and talented people. I learned this from working with really smart, interesting and talented people–too many to enumerate here. I find that just being around great people motivates me to come up with cool projects for us to do together, and helps me to always be learning and growing as a designer.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

5) How to sketch
I can’t tell you how many designers I run into now that tell me that they don’t draw, and this I find to be unacceptable. They don’t have to draw *well*. But it’s bad enough that we have a huge problem in the interaction design practice where we haven’t figured out how to sketch in 4D–3D plus time. At the very least we should have the ability to communicate rapidly in 2D down cold.

4) How to pay attention
It’s nice for productivity to have an energetic and outgoing personality, but so much of the craft of design is about listening to people, watching for patterns, and seeing the details that need to be refined.

3) How to take criticism
I’m definitely not a proponent of critiques where people are reduced to tears. I feel particular distaste for designers who make a habit of eviscerating their students or colleagues. The fact is, though, that most people have something important to convey, but don’t know how to phrase their comments in a constructive and positive form. Being able to handle criticism in its harshest, most oblivious and ignorant forms really opens the range of people a designer can learn from.

2) A little history
It’s a travesty that people who haven’t the foggiest ideas who Henry Dreyfuss or Raymond Loewy were are permitted to call themselves designers. It’s annoying when people rebrand classic ideas as the property of their design firm. It is sad when design students who are angry when they feel some other design student “ripped off” their idea for interfaces that communicate hugs at a distance. These are signs that the field as a whole needs to take a little time off and study up on the profession, for goodness sake.

1) It is important to fertilize the soil
Architects have been more savvy than us non-sectarian designers at building community, creating journals, running conferences, and establishing schools of thought. It’s important to put in time and resources into adding to community discussion, sharing tools and ideas, documenting events, and generally contributing to the profession. I know a lot of people think this sort of thing is bullshit, but here is the thing about bullshit: it promotes growth.

Don’t miss Wendy Ju’s presentation on “Designing Implicit Interactions” at Device Design Day, August 20 in San Francisco.