How did you get started in design? Growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist—a biologist to be exact. I moved to the United States to study biomedical engineering. Getting accepted to graduate school in such a competitive field was very important to me and my family, but it did not make my life more meaningful.
Then, trading in the security of what I had always imagined for myself for something as foreign as the undergraduate communication design program at the University of Connecticut (UConn) wasn’t a simple decision, but it was apparent that a change in direction was necessary for me. So, I emailed the design professors, met with several designers, visited several design programs, took non-degree courses for a semester and transferred to design. I’ve never regretted it since.
What is the creative process like for the design website Design Observer? At its core, Design Observer is only four to six people. It’s more like a supportive family in which everyone helps others however he or she can, and each one of us are trusted to do what we are experts at. The process of everything we do is very collaborative, and I work on the design part of every project that we have under the art direction of Design Observer's founding editor Jessica Helfand. In the final stages of the design, we share them with our producers, executive editor Eugenia Bell and designer Michael Bierut for final review. If it’s a larger project—for example, the quarterly magazine or other publications—we also share them with our main columnists and contributing editors before publishing the works.
What inspired you to start your weekly column about how we see now on Design Observer called “The Observers?” It was an unconscious decision that started at the University of Reading in England while I was visiting the typography department with a group of my classmates. I became so engaged with everything around me—looking at all the posters, type specimens, engravings and printed materials—that I easily lent my camera to a friend so I could experience everything firsthand. It was so great to concentrate on the work without my camera that I didn’t even think about taking pictures. On the other hand, some of my friends were actually looking at everything through the screens of their phones or cameras.
That experience made me think about how often this actually happens, and I realized that I could see the world from other people’s points of view, as if I were looking at their subjects from their standpoints and through their devices’ screens. This is important as designers can’t expect to have successful final products without putting ourselves in the shoes of the client and the audience.
I then started this collection in 2011 and called it “The Observers” on Tumblr. I was in London last November with Jessica, and I showed her my collection. She was very interested and offered to publish it on Design Observer as a regular column.
I continued it to remind myself that the way I see the world and look at things is certainly not the only way. I’ve been interested in learning about what other people find important enough to record and how they capture it. I hope it encourages others to think about these things as well to keep collecting whatever interests them.
Does perfection play a role in your personal design process? Sometimes I get so focused on perfecting the details that I have to remind myself to step away from what I’m working on and consider it as a whole. When a book is printed or a logo is delivered, you can’t change it anymore. So, I think that my work has to be as good as possible because most of the time, as soon as your design is living in the world, it’s out of your hands.
But I’ve learned that perfection is relative to the deadline, resources and many more factors. A lot of my perfectionism comes from working in genetics labs. For example, most genetics experiments have to be done within 25 centimeters of the flame of the alcohol lamp; otherwise, there could be mold or pathogens in the results. Luckily, it’s not always like that for the design process.
It’s through process that the designer can raise questions and find answers. Regardless of the project, I have learned to do extensive research about the topic, study it from various perspectives and perform multiple rounds of experiments. For me, developing the final product usually takes the least amount of time.
How do you stay inspired? I like following new scientific discoveries, reading the New Yorker and the Guardian, and watching international news every day. Simply put, I expand my world by reading about topics that are not directly related to design.
One of my main resources are the design books from publisher Unit Editions. Even if you close your eyes and pick one of its books, you’ll learn something new by reading it, not to mention that each one is beautifully designed. I love its books Studio Culture, Herb Lubalin, Type Only and Type Plus.
I also love the book How to Be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul by designer Adrian Shaughnessy as well as monographs of good designers—it’s like having 24/7 access to a gallery of the designer’s work. There are also interviews with designers, especially Design Matters with Debbie Millman. I’m more interested in learning about designers’ approaches and how they work and develop a concept than the final product.
What excites you about design right now? Design is now more of an interdisciplinary field than it has ever been. The line between design and science, technology, ethnography, communication sciences and business is less and less clear.
One of my favorite recent projects is The Halal Girls, a support network for Saudi women who return home after studying abroad. It is done by Haya Shaath, a Saudi design student at the School of Visual Arts. Haya did not only use design in its traditional form but also utilized her intimate knowledge of Saudi culture to design a platform that connects other Saudi women in order to help them with cultural transitions back to their home country. I know for a fact that it has been very helpful for many Saudi girls.
Design is not limited to its traditional form and approach, so there are new and inspiring projects developing all the time.