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The best way to convey a design idea? Merge the digital and the physical

Emily Conrad trained as a sculptor. Then she realized she could “sculpt” entire environments—from museums to educational spaces—using the magic of interaction design.

The best way to convey a design idea? Merge the digital and the physical
[Image: courtesy Emily Conrad]
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Emily Conrad is cofounder and president of the architecture and digital design studio Tessellate Studio, which is rethinking how children learn through interactive experiences, like a traveling biology lab. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

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Doreen Lorenzo: Tell us a little bit about what you do.

Emily Conrad: Tessellate is an integrated design and technology studio. We think about design for museums, exhibit spaces, and how visitors are going to interact in physical space in ways that are meaningful for them.

Emily Conrad [Photo: Jesse Winter]

DL: How did you get there? Where did your interest in design begin?

EC: When I was growing up in Ohio, my dad was a salesman. That meant that we had boxes and boxes in our home packed with glassware, ceramics, clocks, and gadgets. As a kid, fewer things are as exciting as opening up these surprise boxes, but what I would love to do is open them up, look at the objects inside, and think about how they must exist for a meaningful purpose. You attach emotions to them, and that evolves into making up stories for each of these objects that was going to be sold. Every so often, my dad would invite me to the factories where the objects were made, and I’d see the process from start to finish. It was like a magic show. What my 9-year-old self loved was this eureka moment when I realized everything that exists around us today started off as an idea.

That interest led to me eventually moving to New York to work as a sculptor for many years, but then something really poignant happened in my life when I walked into the Whitney Museum and saw their bitstream digital media exhibit on display. I was fresh out of undergrad, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was this myriad of light, sound, sculpture, and energy, and it made me feel like I had entered this parallel world. It sparked an interest in technology and interactivity, and I started to think that the sculptures I make could really come alive in a different way. That interest was fulfilled when I went to ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program [at NYU] where I learned to unearth the power of technology to move people. ITP was founded by Red Burns, who was an amazing influence on me. I will never forget her pulling me aside into her office and telling me, “Emily, I want you to know something. As a designer who is understanding technology, you’re going to be faced with a lot of engineers and people who are going to tell you that something can’t be done. You just have to look them in the face and tell them that it can.”

DL: Your realm is not only the digital but the spatial. How does that impact user interface design?

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EC: We’re often tasked with designing a whole space. Someone comes to us with a short brief and a mission, then it’s our job to determine what the master narrative is, and that becomes the conceptual blueprint for the project. My personal favorite part of the process is finding the connections between different concepts and figuring out how you can relay those and bubble them up, so that your audience feels and understands those connections as well.

It gets more tactical when you’re designing the best way to convey and teach an idea. That breaks out into the multiple disciplines, and that’s where interactive design or digital design plays a key role, which is what I lead up in our studio, as well as the overarching experiential design. Then my business partner, Joseph Karadin, trained as an architect, takes on the physical design part of it. We’re always working collaboratively, making sure it all comes together along with our visual, narrative concept and content designers.

DL: How do you work with your team? What does success look like for them?

EC: For us, what’s important is that we all work well together, and I feel so very lucky to work with the people I work with on any given basis because they’re so incredibly talented. We all know that we have to bring something to the table in order for it to be a true collaboration. What needs to be innate in any team member is an inherent desire to get the job done, and to get the job done right. When there is a personal sense of responsibility, desire, and interest, they’re going to bring their best selves to the table. And that’s not just the senior designers, but that’s something we cultivate in our junior designers and anyone who we work with.

Something I’ve also learned is when to be a leader and when to pass the torch. Every project is unique and requires a unique skill set, so you need to be able to pass the torch to someone who has those skill sets. The way we work is very fluid. It’s not hierarchical, and that’s been successful for us.

BioBus [Photo: Andy Cribb/courtesy Emily Conrad]

DL: How do you give your team confidence and make sure the clients love the work?

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EC: These aren’t big teams; we’re usually three or four or five people, but the collective energy helps motivate them to introduce these unusual ideas to the client. Whenever you’re introducing a new idea to a client, we’ve considered the different aspects of it, and then how it will result in a better experience for the visitor. Every project has competing priorities of what the client wants, what the design team wants to present, and what’s best for the visitor. But if we as the design team can work really well with the client team on what those goals are, and how to craft and create them, that’s the golden client formula. It’s having a common vision and common goal in the service of the experience for the visitor and user.

DL: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that your most proud of?

EC: In general, the projects that I am most proud of are the ones where we’ve been able to bridge theory and practice and concept and execution. BioBus is one that stands out in my mind for a number of reasons. They were our first real client, and their mission is so simple, and that is to bring the thrill of scientific discovery to kids. The way they do that is by creating buses equipped with high-tech powerful microscopes that travel around to New York City public school systems that don’t have that kind of equipment in their labs, so the students are exposed to an experience they typically wouldn’t get in any classroom. The BioBus is about discovery, about finding things that you can’t see with the naked eye, and these kids were just absolutely thrilled about it.

BioBus [Photo: Andy Cribb/courtesy Emily Conrad]
Mobile Food Lab is another one of my favorites because for a while, Joe Karadin and I talked about mobile museums and exhibits—not just traveling exhibits, but actual museums on wheels. This idea we’ve dubbed is the decentralized museum that can travel and meet people in the communities where they are. We were really excited when the Mobile Food Lab came to us with this challenge of creating a local classroom that was going to travel around underserved areas of New Jersey and teach kids about food literacy. For this to succeed, it was going to be through participation and having the students take out of context the things that they knew to be true. For example: the bus itself is a school bus. It’s a familiar form, but when you walk inside, it’s completely different. It’s like a greenhouse. There’s a little cozy nook, there’s a laboratory, the sun’s coming in, and it’s not the kind of place that you would expect. Creating environments where someone first walks in and their imagination is already active, that’s the goal. That’s the spark you want to have.

Mobile Food Lab [Image: courtesy Emily Conrad]

DL: What advice would you give young designers pursuing a similar path to your own?

EC: One of the main things I’ve learned is the importance of mutually nurturing relationships with people who support you and your successes, because you truly never know what’s going to happen next. Those relationships are way more valuable than any future possibilities will be because whenever uncertainty arises, it’s always good to know who you are, but it’s also really good to have people around who are going to support you.

About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.

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