Ayse Birsel: Design the Life You Love

BirselApplying design thinking is not constrained exclusively to client and self-promotion work. Ayse Birsel, of Birsel + Seck, knows you can apply design thinking and design processes to solve life’s problems.

When Birsel found herself on the recession’s casualty list, her next plan of attack involved looking inward. As a successful product designer and owner of her own business with years of a steady stream of clients, seeing all her clients leave for in-house design teams completely blindsided her and left her thinking “now what?”

Being the optimistic and uplifting person that she is, she turned misfortune into revelation. As she loves to say, “my life is my biggest project.” During this time, she developed the workshop, Design the Life You Love, which explains how to use design tools and processes for designing your biggest project — your life. The workshops found rising popularity. In fact, the increased demand birthed the idea of transforming the workshop into a book. And luckily for HOW Design Live attendees, you could not only read the book but see the workshop in action as she’ll be hosting one at the conference this year. (Register by April 1st for the best price.)

Read our interview with Birsel to learn more about how this book came to fruition.

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Ayse Birsel Discusses “Design the Life You Love”:

This year at HOW Design Live, you’ll be discussing your book, Design the Life You Love. Can you give us a little preview of your talk?

My presentation is going to going to be about life-changing design process. And how to apply the design process into your life, how to think about life like a designer. And how it could empower and enable us to create an original life, a life that is based on our values and that looks like us. That’s the theme of the presentation. And my goal is to help people who are there to think about their life playfully and with optimism using design processes and tools. And especially if they are at a turning point in their life.

After reading several interviews you’ve done and presentations you give, I’ve noticed the word “play” pop up frequently. How important is play in your life? And to be playful in your outlook in life?

What I like about play, is when we’re playing we’re not afraid of making mistakes. We’re like children. We’re trying different things on. When we’re being creative, the motive of being playful is really key to leave our preconceptions behind and explore ideas. Especially because sometimes the best ideas come from the worst places. And so, I tell people that the mood of design is playful and lead us to ask the “what if?” questions and to be open to possibilities.

In Steven Heller’s recent interview, you mentioned that people attending your workshops asked when you were writing your book. Could you explain what these workshops are?

The workshops are actually the beginning of Design the Life You Love, because Design the Life You Love started off as an experiment. A friend of mine, Shirley Moulton, started an Academi of Life – about lessons you don’t learn at school. And she gave me my first opportunity to do a workshop around Design the Life You Love. I had just developed my design process – deconstruction-reconstruction. I’ve always thought that my life was my biggest design project. With my life as my biggest project, I wondered if I could apply my design process to my life. Shirley was like “Sure. Why don’t you do a workshop around that?” That helped me come up with a workshop. A way of how I would actually apply design processes to life. I did my own exercises, I was my own first student in a way. Then one day, I found myself in front of a group of people, like 15 people, who were interested in this idea of designing their life. It took off from there, from word of mouth. And that’s why the workshop, and the people who have come to the workshop is the foundation of the book.

How many times did you host a workshop? Was it weekly, monthly, etc?

I’ve done hundreds of workshops. There’s no standard schedule. The workshops usually happen from September to may, they are usually once a month. Sometimes around new years, we do multiples because it’s a great way to end the year, and to start the new year thinking about new years resolutions in a very different way – creatively.

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Are you currently using any of your techniques, such as metaphor, from your book in a project? 

Constantly. Actually, everything in Design the Life You Love comes from my expertise and experience of years of designing products. And the metaphor exercises actually come from working from Herman Miller. When I started working with them, Jim Long, who was the director of research, told me about how they were using metaphors to talk to large organizations. They would basically ask large organizations to describe themselves as a metaphor. These are companies like Coca-Cola or GE or HP, so really complex organizations. They would say, “We’re like a beehive.” What’s interesting about that metaphor for an organization is when you think of a beehive, you think “wow they must be really disciplined, and very efficient, industrious and they create a beautiful product.” But it also signals that it’s an organization where everybody is working on their queen bee. What’s important is that the metaphor helps us understand complex things in relation to things we know. And how we think about that metaphor helps us understand different layers of information.

I’ve been using that in designing products for many years. We designed an office system for Herman Miller called Resolve. The metaphor for Resolve was theatre. The office system is like a stage for the performance of work. What really mattered was the performance, the people, and that the office system was simply a backdrop for their performance. It also meant that depending on what kind of performance, that the backdrop needed to be flexible enough and lightweight enough and inexpensive enough to change And to adapt and to support the play, the performance. You can imagine life is also a great place to talk about metaphors and it helps people to think about the complexities of their life. Very visually, very poetically, but then, create a model that they can understand and then also share with other people. It’s a long answer but metaphors, I love that you singled that out, because [it’s] one of the most powerful tools in the deck of creative thinking and it applies beautifully to life. My own metaphor is that my life is a tree, and I can explain life to the metaphor of a tree. And people come up with things like: My life is a dinner party, my life is climbing Everest, and my life is a river.

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Have you ever had someone hesitant to show their desconstruction-reconstruction map since it’s so personal?

I make sure that there’s space for people to contribute and share their examples, but it’s completely by choice. If somebody feels that it’s too personal, they don’t share. And that’s totally ok. But what they see as they share, other people start sharing as well, and then you have this incredible dialogue of hearing about other peoples’ lives. And from a very different perspective. It’s all framed in design, design processes and creativity. The conversation that happens is really a conversation of about thinking differently about your life and it’s embedded in optimism. I often say, look, I’m not a psychologist. This is not about me solving your problems. This is about me giving you simple and proven design process and set of tools, but you do the problem solving. And each person does their project – they do their life like a project.

From your workshops, what has been a particularly memorable moment? It could be seeing the realization on someone’s face, to hearing a story about how one of the attendees applied the process to their lives?

Oh yes. There are plenty of a-ha moments in the workshops. I think for me, the most memorable moments come after the workshops. When people send me notes, or I will run into them on the street and they’ll say your workshop has changed my life. The things say are things like “oh, because of your workshop I went back to school and I’m getting my MBA. Or I empathize now with my mother and I’m able to understand her and because of that we get along much better. Or my favorite is this one person emailed me afterward and said “Ayse, I went back home and talked the process to my wife and now we design our lives together every Sunday.” And to me, those are the things where I feel like, wow, designing your life does make a difference, in people’s lives. It’s interesting from the perspective of a product designer. The goal of product design is to have a positive impact in people’s lives through problem solving and creative thinking. With design the life you love, it’s the same process in creativity but it’s almost directly into people’s lives without needing products to make that happen. And I love that aspect of it.

Do you plan your life every weekend?

I live and breathe this idea. For my life, I do it at moments where I’m not clear about what’s next. And sometimes these can be small moments. Like one time when I was trying to finish the book, [during] the Christmas break, I felt anxious because I didn’t know how I was going to be able to work on the book and spend the holiday with my kids. So I mapped out a small deconstruction map where I made three circles. And I wrote down: complete your book, spend time with your kids, and eat good food. I gave myself three weeks. Just seeing that on paper and that clarity. That’s going to be my focus. I can’t do everything. Therefore, this is what I’m going to choose to do. I glued that behind my desk. And that’s exactly what I did for those three weeks and that’s how I finished my book.

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I read about how when the economy crashed, it really affected your business and it sounds like that lead to your deconstruction/reconstruction process. If it’s not too personal, could you talk about your deconstruction/reconstruction process?

Basically, all of our clients took their projects in-house. I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I didn’t know what to do with that time. You can imagine. My expertise was in designing products. And suddenly I couldn’t do that work. And yet I wanted to continue. So Leah Caplan, one of my oldest collaborators and friends,  said what don’t you use this time to think about how you think because you think differently. And that for me was a turning point. And like a lifeline. I ended up thinking about how I think and it was really about going deep inside of myself and trying to understand when I’m thinking creatively and solving problems, thinking about people, and how do I do that? How does one idea start and how do you break your preconceptions? And do you think differently and see things from a different perspective? Out of that, trying to capture on paper, mapping and sketching out and writing about that thought process, that internal thought process led to deconstruction/reconstruction, which is my four step process. It’s really the years of thinking like a designer and articulating that as you go from deconstruction to shifting your point of views to reconstruction to expression and this is how you do it. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have had time to think about my process if it hadn’t been for that moment where I suddenly found myself in this big void and didn’t know what to do. In a way, in design often opportunities come from constraint. I didn’t know it at the time, that moment in time changed everything in a way because Design the Life You Love comes from that. How we work today is very much how we work with our clients and how we design things with them is also very much about deconstruction/reconstruction.

Did this thought process lead you to where you are now with Birsel + Seck?

Absolutely. One, it now enables us to share our process with our clients and to work with them. Not so we are working outside of them. We deconstruct their problems or projects and reconstruct together what we call a shared foundation of creativity of where we want to go. In doing that together, and with different disciplines, they quickly establish a shared mental model so that we understand and we have the same vision. That has been the biggest shift being able to share our process as something tangible that we cannot only explain where our ideas come from, but also include the decision makers so that they also have ownership these new ideas and new values.

What would you like HOW Design Live attendees to take away from your presentation?

First of all, that they are courageous. A design takes courage to imagine the future based on what we know today. I find that people who are interested in designing their life are even more courageous because life is a very personal and complex project. But there’s hope because I can share with them a creative way of thinking about their life like a designer. And endure it with optimism and playfully. I hope that they’ll come and take part in this experiment. Another result, have this new set of tools to imagine their life, the life they want to live.


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