The Questions | Ann-Marie Conrado, IDSA | University of Notre Dame

The next generation of designers will be increasingly deployed to various parts of the developing world to help solve problems associated with growing into the 21st (or 22nd) century. As that happens, they’re likely to act as teachers as well as designers. Ann-Marie Conrado is writing a blueprint for all of them.

JULY 2009 - The first recipient of IDSA’s Young Educator Award, Ann-Marie Conrado, grew up in Las Vegas, NV. The first leg of her career included a long stint at Insight Product Development. She followed that by founding an educational charity in Nepal and consulting for clients like Panasonic and McDonalds. Currently, she works as a professor at her alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. The new mother lives in South Bend, IN with her husband, Devi, and four-month-old daughter, Aria Jolie.

How did you end up working in design?

I always knew I wanted to work in a creative field but that I was not a studio artist unless early pencil drawings of Duran Duran members counted. It took me a while but after starting in engineering, I quickly realized that I would much rather design cars than carburetors. I received my BFA from Notre Dame where I was challenged to pursue industrial design because, in part, it offended my feminist side that even in the early 90’s, very few women were doing so. I spent much of my early career designing hair dryers, hot rollers, curling irons and mammography units, outnumbered by my male counterparts. In fact, I was the only female designer at Insight Product Design for a number of years, and worked actively to try to recruit women and make it a more estrogen-friendly environment.

How would you describe your design philosophy?

As a designer, I’ve always informally practiced “guerilla immersion” on whatever I was working on. Before it became trendy, it seemed to me a requirement to practice empathetic design; to immerse yourself as much as possible in the user mindset and the context of use. That put me in some interesting situations, like selling blood in inner-city platelet centers to gain insight into the low-skilled techs working there. And it ultimately catalyzed my interest in design research, and specifically the translation component of taking an insight into action.

Flashback to 1999, I was working pretty long hours at Insight, and decide to take a sabbatical to recharge my batteries and refresh my perspective. I left with a backpack and a loose idea of where I was going. Starting from St. Petersburg, Russia and ending up in Hong Kong nine months later, I traveled through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia by bus, train, ferry, camel, etc. It was an amazing experience. I found myself scaling the Pyramids at Giza at the exact moment an Insight colleague accept an IDEA Gold Award on my behalf at the IDSA 1999 National Conference in my hometown of Chicago. All that cultural immersion combined with my interest in design research finally led me back to graduate school and in 2003, I received my Masters in anthropology from the University of Chicago. But anthropology there is an ivory tower pursuit and “applied” was a four letter word, so it was up to me to integrate ethnographic research techniques with a design practice. For the last six years, along with clients such as Panasonic and McDonalds, I’ve specialized in applying design thinking to health care organizations, to design interventions based on ethnographic insight that increase patient adherence to medical regimens. While the medical establishment is quick to blame patients for their noncompliance, I try to figure out what might be actively preventing them from complying. This can range from the physical to the equally valid cultural barriers and I develop strategies for overcoming them, whatever medium that intervention might take. Though my current work is quite different from what is traditionally considered design, an expanded definition of what design comprises benefits everyone in the profession.

 What led you to choose to work in design education?

I think I was destined to be design educator, though it finally came about rather unexpectedly. I first flirted with teaching in 1996 when I volunteered with the Marwen Foundation in Chicago, an organization dedicated to offering high quality arts programming to inner city high schools. Together with a colleague, we developed and taught an industrial design course for high school students. It was a transformational experience working with disadvantaged youth struggling to survive difficult circumstances and it radically changed my understanding of design. One can challenge the status quo if one comes realize that everything in the world around them is the result of a conscious act of design, from the chair they sit on to the barriers they face.

 During my travels, I also volunteered in Nepal, teaching middle school math and science and later, after founding a charity there, designing a program and curriculum to teach basic computer skills to remote Himalayan villagers. Three years ago, I received a call from my former professor Paul Down, IDSA asking if I would consider teaching and after visiting for a year, I accepted a permanent position at Notre Dame. As a designer and an individual committed to shaping a better world through design, I am seduced by the thought of exponentially increasing my impact by influencing future designers. And at Notre Dame, students arrive already steeped in a service philosophy and are eager to make a difference.

In what ways has Notre Dame’s ID program changed from the time you were enrolled as an undergrad to today? What are the advantages of teaching at a private university built on such a rich religious tradition? What are the disadvantages?

When I first returned, I was struck by how little some things had changed. Many of the same professors were still there and the facilities are still as tight as ever. But in other more significant ways, the program has made huge strides, especially in firmly establishing its place within a national university with a strong liberal arts component, all due to the tireless work of Paul who was recently inducted into the IDSA Hall of Fellows. It’s an honor to return and work by his side after having been so influenced by him as a student. As for Notre Dame’s unique Catholic character, ours is a community graced by a sense of purpose. In so many ways, the ideas encompassed by social design are an excellent fit with the mission of the university to utilize knowledge in the service of others. Being at Notre Dame has allowed me to pursue my interests in harnessing the power and potential of design to address humanitarian issues while building a robust ID program that is increasingly differentiated and identified by its emphasis on the tenets of social design. We are never going to be an ‘art school’ and I’m fine with that. However that same rich religious tradition can be a disadvantage in attracting and hiring potential faculty who may mischaracterize its influence on academic discourse and campus life. Good design educators may choose not to come to Notre Dame for fear of overt religiosity, a point emphasized by the recent uproar surrounding President Obama’s selection as commencement speaker, which was mainly generated by outsiders.

What's the working environment like at Notre Dame? How are alumni involved?

The industrial design program is fully integrated into the studio arts and art history. Our students benefit from taking courses across all disciplines and from interacting with the full faculty at various critiques. That painters, printmakers and art historians might be commenting on a students work provides a multitude of perspectives that enrich a student’s experience. My senior colleague, Paul Down, IDSA, is extremely supportive and has embraced the changes born of my consulting experience that I bring to teaching. We are a small program with high expectations and everyone pitches in to provide the best educational experience for our students, which often means late hours. Our alumni are incredibly active and supportive of our program. From the annual Alumni Design Conference that brings back alumni 10 years after graduation, or the frequent recent grad lunchtime lectures on entering the job market to the industry projects sponsored by former students working with various companies, our alumni are critical in supporting our program. The myriad of opportunities for current students to interact with alumni are vital to preparing them for the job market, and the vast Notre Dame alumni network has helped many students land design positions in larger companies. And close contact between alumni and students is extremely motivating. Just this past year, we had one alumni working at Weta discuss his Academy Award winning work on King Kong and another sharing a sneak peek at character development for an upcoming movie.

Notre Dame has enjoyed a lot of success recently competing for IDSA’s Student Merit Awards. Is there a secret to that success?

Hmmm, what’s the special sauce? First, our students enter Notre Dame with enormous potential, having gained admission to a university with a very selective admissions policy. Their incredible creativity combined with the strong desire to serve others results in a variety of student projects under the social design rubric that imbues their work with significance. Combined with a strong liberal arts foundation that prepares students to speak intelligently and articulately and a higher level of skill acquisition, proficiency and professionalism that comes from a long professional background, our students are leaving Notre Dame with excellent preparation to excel in our field. The Merit Award success three years running is an indication that we’re on the right track.

What are your own personal design aspirations?

Too many to list. I somehow manage to fit a lot in, so I aspire to do even more. But my dream is to, in collaboration with Notre Dame, develop and introduce a design program infrastructure in Nepal to educate a new generation in design thinking for social development.

I am skeptical of western designers crafting solutions for vastly different contexts without strong collaboration at the grass roots level in developing countries. Too many social design projects exist successfully on paper but perform disastrously in the field. I try to push my students to put their ideas to the test on the ground. For example, I worked with one graduate student to help prototype a refugee shelter to bring to Nepal and field-test with an internally displaced family who lived it in for almost two years, far in excess of his recommended six months, but a testament to the solutions durability and success. Another project I am invested in is my work with local disadvantaged artisans re-designing fair trade handicrafts for western markets to increase their market viability. I’ve been bringing Notre Dame undergraduates to Nepal to work directly with the artisans in revitalizing their traditional techniques with a contemporary design aesthetic.

But beyond these collaborations, there is currently no design education available for the Nepalese. We’ve tried massive amounts of development aid for poor countries around the world and in many ways, these countries remain as dependant as ever on a constant influx of money. Why not educate local people in the problem solving inherent in design thinking? Isn’t it time we taught them how to fish instead?

Is the relationship with the Nepalese unique? Do you intend to scale or repeat in other countries?

Right now the collaboration with Nepal is unique. My husband is Nepalese and together we founded and operate HOPE Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to education reform through design thinking. Some of our current projects include Himalayan computer centers with an innovative curriculum to promote computer usage for daily life with remote villagers and an orphanage with creative educational programming. Through HOPE, I can provide the logistical component to my varied design projects and student collaborations and ensure local participation in the design process. It’s my deep investment in the country and the culture that makes our projects successful. Though I would love to expand to other countries, I would want to move cautiously.

Have you engaged with the Nepalese government to begin developing the design program’s infrastructure?

I have actually started some groundwork. I have been in discussions with and acting as a consultant for HANDECEN, a collaboration between the Handicraft Association of Nepal (HAN) and the Nepal government to help the handicraft industry develop innovative, diversified, quality products and archive Nepal’s rich artistic heritage for future generations. Though HANDECEN is focused on handicrafts, it is the first sign of recognition, by both the government and the business sector, of the importance of design, and thus a good starting point to building local capacity. The biggest barrier is proving the validity of design to impact development and poverty alleviation in order to drum up support for such a venture. Ultimately, design education in developing countries will most likely have to be a joint collaboration between the government and the private sector to succeed.

From where do you draw your design inspiration?

I am a travel junkie, and to date, have visited 45 countries and counting. Travel has truly made the world smaller, and has given me a rich database of experiences and inspirations to draw from. I am personally inspired by the resourcefulness of people in developing countries, who are naturally creative under incredibly difficult constraints. Consider the woman who mounts a broken blade into a large block of wood to make an incredibly effective and speedy chopper, the child who improvises a rolling toy with a broken wheel rim and a metal rod or the man who creates non-skid stools by attaching recycled bike tires to the bases. It’s unfortunate that the school system there educates creativity out of people, something Sir Ken Robinson speaks eloquently about within our own society.

Experiencing the diversity of lifestyles and cultural artifacts has also opened my eyes to the myriad of solutions possible to the various everyday needs we all experience. That humanity can create vastly different methods and products to adorn themselves, to sleep, to brew coffee, to clean ones teeth, etc. is genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s a wake-up call when you feel like you can’t possibly come up with something new, unique or different on a project.

I’m also inspired just by daily life, and what I’m experiencing at any given time. My husband and I have just welcomed a new baby girl and she is an incredible source of inspiration born of necessity. I already want to redesign diapers, swings, baby clothing, etc as I discover things that annoy me or I can’t find what I’m looking for. As one’s focus and priorities shift throughout life, so do one’s inspirations.

What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?

These days my current website distractions focus on modern parenting and cool contemporary baby goods finds. Blogs I love right now are inhabitots (www.inhabitots.com), coochicoos (http://coochicoos.com), lilsugar (www.lilsugar.com), tinydecor (http://tinydecorblog.com), and ohdeedoh (www.ohdeedoh.com). I also like etsy, (www.etsy.com) for great nursery décor finds from up and coming artists and designers and hostessblog (www.hostessblog.com) for lifestyle ideas and entertaining. And I can’t resist the ramblingspoon (http://ramblingspoon.com/blog/), which combines a love of travel with a passion for food.

On the print front, my favorite design books are not design books at all.

Really? What are they then? How does an educator manage to eschew books?

Ha ha. Of course I peruse design books and often times will recommend certain books to students for their own personal library. Two excellent sketching books have recently come out, filling a gap, Sketching by Koos Eissen and Roselien Steur and Drawing for Designers by Alan Pipes. And every designer should be thinking about the issues raised in Cradle to Cradle or Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.

But my favorite books are those that offer compelling new perspectives and voices on the important issues of our day that nevertheless impact my perspective on design. A "non-design" take on sustainability and the environment is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. After perusing Design Like You Give A Damn by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, or Design For the Other 90% by Cynthia Smith, check out Deep Ecology: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben or Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen.

As a pretty new mother, what new design opportunities have you identified? What products that are commonly deployed in early childhood are just begging to be improved?

Well, the biggest need is good design at a reasonable price. Outfitting a nursery is ridiculously expensive. Secondly, clothing that can grow with a child is a huge opportunity. Our girl Aria Jolie, is now double her birth-weight in just three months. Simple, inexpensive design details could allow an article of clothing to stay with a child longer. And lastly, more design attention needs to be paid to developing products that reduce the amount of waste generated rather than increase it. Diapers genies that individually plastic wrap a diaper to contain odor is adding even more waste upon an already enormously wasteful process. Instead, we use Bum Genius 3.0 and Swaddlebees Eco-nappi organic cloth diapers and a simple stainless trash can with waterproof liner that is washed along with the diapers.

Where do you see design going in the next 5 years?

I see it going even more mainstream. Right now design is getting a lot of press, built on the success of design-driven brands like Method and Target but for all that, designers and the design process are still relatively unknown. Far too many students still arrive in industrial design as refugees from engineering and architecture, and far too many people still have no idea that we exist as a discipline and practice. We’ll know we’ve arrived when a character in a movie just happens to be an industrial designer instead of the ubiquitous architect.

What should the design infrastructure do to help guide that future in a way that benefits the profession and those who practice it?

Ensure that our profession, our practitioners and our successes receive more mainstream media attention, not tucked away inside the home and living section or our own design magazines. Push more ‘product’ placement in other media venues. Reach out to high school educators and counselors to expand our high school presence beyond shop class and ensure we are represented at career days. We need to attract the best and the brightest who should come in knowing that they want to be a designer. How many stories of ‘how did you get into design’ are permeated by a sense of chance? How many great future designers are falling through the cracks?

What have been your biggest and best take-aways from your IDSA experience?

As an educator, I see first hand how students truly benefit from their involvement in IDSA, and how a strong student chapter can invigorate a design program. The district and national conferences are excellent networking opportunities for professionals and students alike and I come away feeling rejuvenated by what I’ve seen and heard. And strong city chapters make for great community. Many fantastic parties were had and good friendships were forged through the vibrant Chicago chapter.

What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?

Gripes? That the national conference IDEA Party ticket is NOT included in an educator package. We like to party too! That said, my biggest gripe is that at times in my career, IDSA conferences and dues can seem a pricey business expense for the immediate benefit received.

What would you most like to see IDSA do differently?

Offer freelancers and start-up consultancies general business advice. I know many full-time freelancers/consultants who, for example, don’t know that they have to pay self-employment taxes, let alone how they might benefit from incorporating. IDSA could offer valuable basic recommendations based on common situations so one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I for one would immediately subscribe to a newsletter or podcast on the actual "business" of design.

IDSA could also promote a more active and dynamic online community that enhances the local experience. Chapters are great entities, but too often, they revolve around a small core group of active individuals. Promoting local and national online social interaction could expand chapter participation and provide excellent synergy.