Duration: Friends was founded on February 6, 2015.
Location: New York City.
Education: Experience designer Leslie Ruckman received her BFA in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MPS from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Art director Andrew J.S. was self-taught. Cofounder and chief strategist Miki Aso received her BS in service design and environmental studies from Parsons School of Design. Cofounder and chief technologist Joshua Tuscan received his BA in interactive design from the Art Institute of California—San Diego. Cofounder and chief creative officer David Mikula was self-taught.
Career paths: We all took wildly different paths to get here, but none of us started out as capital-D designers. It’s an ongoing search to find work that not only has the potential to create positive impact on the world, but also is fun and creatively challenging to work on. As designers, we’re accountable for what we create. The impact that design and creative decisions have on society is massive, especially in the “age of accelerations.” We have to balance that responsibility with opportunities to experiment and learn something new; otherwise, the pressure to make positive change gets way too heavy.
Cultural influences: Noam Chomsky, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jane Jacobs, Alexandra Kleeman, Audre Lorde, Isamu Noguchi and Alan Watts. Also, Bucky Fuller, who lived his life to “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” His pal Victor Papanek, whose work is even more relevant now than it was nearly 50 years ago—“Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical.” The badass that was Grace Hopper—“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” Dunne & Raby for provoking conversation around cultural and ethical implications of technology. George Washington Carver—“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” And the band Devo, which followed Mr. Carver’s lead by using pop culture to send messages to anyone who was listening.
We’re inspired by those who can step into the world of nonsense, from Dadaists and surrealists to everyday people with absurd thoughts; they challenge our perception of reality and are a constant inspiration for what can be possible. We’re also inspired by activists, community organizers and scientists who show how research and design can be inclusive and collaborative. We’re inspired by all the invisible labor of the people on the fringes who are moving the world forward. Those who believe that the world as it is now can be better and more. The ones willing to fight to make it so with whatever they’ve got.
Our current mainstream cultural moments have made us more committed to experimental approaches in our creative work—we can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it. We feel more self-aware than ever of our biases and that our particular perceptions of reality aren’t shared by everyone. Cultural perceptions of awareness, truth, reality and unreality are top of mind for us at the moment. It’s really important to bring these concepts into our processes as designers and creators of things, messages, products and services for the broader population.
Favorite projects: Our ongoing partnership with EQ Office, a real estate firm. It’s a massive endeavor to support an organization as it remakes itself completely from the inside out, from vision to a new approach to customer experience to brand building to developing innovative services. All of which puts people first. Such meaningful work for the real estate industry wouldn’t be prioritized if it weren’t for remarkable leaders like Lisa Picard, the chief executive officer of EQ Office. We continually push each other out of our comfort zones and, in the process, have become close friends.
Also, our signage work with construction and development company Skanska. It was an entire project focused on the well-being and safety of craftspeople and construction workers. We have immense gratitude for the often thankless and invisible work they do to build our cities and infrastructure. We spent weeks in the field with the workers to deeply understand the tension between safety and expertise, and their lives both on and off the job site. We also had a chance to speak with experts in analog fields to understand how equipment, environments and safety affect performance. In the end, we worked closely with tradespeople and the leadership team to co-create an ecosystem of safety to support their everyday needs—with 32 prototypes of signs to be piloted. Designing a signage system of this breadth was a designer’s dream; we got to use grids and great type to create signs that live loudly in the world.
Lab100 is a new hybrid clinic/research lab by Mount Sinai that brings patients and scientists closer together. Its work is especially meaningful because there’s a gulf between research and care. By closing that feedback loop, Lab100 hopes to radically accelerate the pace at which promising ideas become clinical practice. Our project—to envision the patient, brand and digital experience for Lab100—touched upon the expertise of our whole studio. Our design, creative and technical decisions were seen across the whole project.
Work environment: Our studio is in an old pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s filled with light, plants and people of all kinds—a community of its own. It’s always nice to come in and catch up on what people are working on. We eat nearly every lunch together and get dirty on natural wine now and then. We’re also a block from Transmitter Park, which gets a lot of use by our pup, Comet. The work we do is challenging, and we rarely do the same work twice, so our environment is nurturing—a place where self-discovery and curiosity are prioritized. We celebrate vulnerability and honesty. We laugh a lot, play a lot, work hard when we need to and create healthy air time when things get too heavy.
Approach: Our point of view on what we call “Design for Preferred Futures” is the purpose behind our work, which lives beyond meeting the needs of our clients and the people they serve. Also, we have an unbelievable connection and relationship with our partners. We’ve worked together for years, with many projects and adventures along the way, continually pushing each other to be better and bolder and becoming close friends in the process.
Aspirations: We’d like to see a new working model— that reimagines how creatives work with industries. We imagine organizations sponsoring work that is inspiring and motivating to people rather than putting requests for proposal into the world—which is what we hope to do with Sports in Space, our speculative project to bring sports to space. Hopefully, our team will also have launched its first product and be working on a second or third. A deep connection to the design community would be great too—, working together to make projects that challenge the status quo.
Ruckman: I remember the moment when I first started to see the world through design, and how it changed my perception of everything around me. Suddenly, I could pick up a random object and understand how it was made; touch a great piece of furniture and admire the thought process of how it was crafted for mass production. It was empowering, like seeing through the Matrix. That’s the power that design has—to shape the world around us not only physically, but also emotionally and socially. Within that power, I see a lot of optimism that our challenges can be solved. I also see a lot of responsibility; as creators, we need to be thoughtful about the impact of the things we put into the world.
J.S.: Think of individual perspectives or outlooks as a way to shorten the distance between ideas and matter made. Having a strong point of view can get you 80 percent of the way there; the technical side of learning tools and technique can be a part of closing the gap. Never let a steep learning curve stop you, and never take a failure as a death sentence. Make a mess before you make meaning.
Aso: Advocate for and work towards design that uplifts humanity.
Tuscan: As much as possible, don’t compromise on what makes you feel worth in your work. Given the choice, choose what keeps your interest piqued and your mind racing. Staying true to your intuition is part of what gives life, excitement and vitality to your work.
Mikula: Creativity can beat reality. To tackle the biggest issues of our time, we can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it. We have to create a safe space to think beyond what exists today. Without that space, rigorous creativity and vulnerability, we can’t create positive, radical and responsible change.