The Questions | Jessie Storey

If you can make an award-winning movie, then you should also be qualified to help design the office environment of the future, right? After all, a good designer should be a good storyteller, too. Jessie Storey certainly has a lock on both.

APRIL 2008 - A native of Leesburg, VA, Jessie Storey began studying engineering but migrated to ID during her first year at Virginia Tech after figuring out that design was what she wanted to do. She completed her studies in 2005 and now resides in Grand Rapids, MI where she works for Steelcase, Inc.

To learn more about Jessie Storey, IDSA and her work, visit:

Can you tell us about your current position? What work of yours might people be familiar with?

I’m an industrial designer at Steelcase. I would imagine that many designers have heard of Steelcase, or at least on a subliminal level have seen one of their rainbow-colored distribution trucks driving around a city at some point.  So to give you my brief pitch, Steelcase is an international furniture company known for their research-based insights on how people work – and, among other credits, for their environmental leadership.

Steelcase is a large company with many subsidiaries; I work primarily for Steelcase North America, which is focused on the realm of contract office furniture.

What I think is interesting about the “contract office furniture” industry is that for all the working people in the world, office furniture is all around them – it affects their lives, the way they work -- it’s the very environment that they probably spend the majority of their day in. Yet how that furniture around them got there, who designed it, why it was designed, and so forth – these are provocations that the average person rarely considers.  So the contract furniture industry affects anyone who’s ever worked in an office, or sat in a reception area, or been through school.  It’s the invisible ether of all the furniture that most people don’t choose to have in their living rooms, but probably spend more time actually using.

It’s an annoyance to me that most people think of Steelcase, or office furniture in general, and summarize it into one dreaded thing:   the cubicle. Certainly that was the legacy, but the whole notion of the cubicle is an outdated paradigm.  As a society and as a culture, we don’t work now the same way we did in the fifties. Our workplaces are changing; the way we interact with technology, information, and even each another is completely different. Steelcase has extensive research on the behavioral, social, and psychological shifts within the workplace...people are collaborating more, they work in teams, they are mobile, and information is becoming ubiquitous. So the panel-walled, dehumanizing labyrinths of the past? They no longer make any sense.

So essentially, that’s what I do – I work on a team designing the office environments “of the future” – we come up with concepts that accommodate the generational, technological, and cultural evolutions of the workplace. It’s fun too, because we work while designing, and design while we’re working.

What disciplines other than ID do you have a background in? How does your experience with those mediums/disciplines impact your ID work?

I love this question because I strongly believe that divergent influences are critical to any designer’s process.  The very essence that makes us designers is one that gives us a shared curiosity about the world.  We see things differently. We see where and how things can be changed.  We challenge what are givens, the rules we have to work within, and the very way in which we do things.  We are encouraged to think about things from an entirely different set of perspectives, sometimes greatly different from our own as individuals. So ultimately, why would we be confined by the traditional approaches of our own discipline? The more skills we have, the more tools we have to articulate our ideas.  The more things we have seen and places we have been, the broader our view of the world, and of humanity itself.

I didn’t really understand what an industrial designer was until I was mid-way through my first semester in engineering. Having to choose one focus of study was difficult; I felt that with engineering I could at least become (what I could then only articulate as) ‘an inventor.’ But I felt that the larger, conceptual components of what I imagined it to be were completely missing from this discipline.

Luckily, I transferred into a fairly new industrial design program in the college of architecture at Virginia Tech, and realized that “design” was what I’ve wanted to do, and always had been doing in some way. And I was amazed to find that I had more in common with the other design students and faculty within the program than I could ever expect; I found people who thought about problems and the world like I did.  It was rather exciting.

In school I noticed that there were different types of design students – other students like myself who had come from the disillusioned engineering faction, and the more artsy students who wanted to do something a little more practical than making art. Later I realized there were more differences; some students excelled in shop work, but lacked good computer skills, and vice versa. It was the students who had both skill sets that seemed to have the most success. It seemed obvious then that the more skills you had, the more you could do, the less you had to compensate one thing for another where it wasn’t really appropriate.

It also seemed obvious that the more exposure to other fields you had, the more inspirations you could draw from. I was fortunate also to have professors who encouraged my explorations into other academic disciplines, keeping in mind a design perspective. So, balancing my design work, I took classes in things that tugged at my interests. I ended up with a minor in English and a minor in psychology.  But beyond just learning other ‘facts’ and gaining knowledge on other topics, I learned frameworks, methodologies, and system theories that I can apply to any design process.  I realized that everything is design… problem solving, ultimately, is an innately human proclivity. The broader your exploration of the world, the more you see how everything is interrelated, and that there are blurry lines that draw the divisions between different disciplines.

In an extracurricular sense, I had a great group of friends who encouraged one another to try out new things, from nerdy software to adventurous experiences. This mentality – this openness, is priceless.  One day, we were sitting around at lunch and we saw a flyer for a local film festival; the deadline was in one week. We borrowed a camera with little more than a rough concept of what we were going to do, ran around shooting silly scenes, and gave ourselves a crash-course in video editing. We threw together a crazy little film – and we ended up winning some awards. People who saw our ‘film’ had such enthusiasm in their feedback to us; they were engaged with our work on a much more emotional level than we were used to.  I know at least for me, it opened up a whole new world:  storytelling.

From there I also began to feel that a critical part of a successful design process was about the story-telling. Ideas and concepts live inside your head until you figure out a way to express them to another person.  Sometimes we try to get people to invest in our ideas by showing them something we’ve doodled in 2D, or rendered to look pretty cool in 3D, or maybe even made a real model of. But we’re showing them the end result, the thing itself; these representations don’t express anything about the intent of the thing, or why it is what it is, or a person’s experience with the thing.  To express complex and sometimes intangible concepts like these, you need skills that allow you to organize your ideas and to turn them into a stream of linear information that can be transmitted and received: communicated.  To write, or to make films, is to undergo this process. And sometimes, this process of organizing the story of a concept serves to help you as a designer better understand the initial problem in the first place.

I’m a fan of that expression, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I think the more tools you have, the greater precision you have to do what you need to do.  Not every design problem is the same one, so why would you try to solve every problem the same way?

It’s like with languages – the more languages you can speak, the more people you can communicate with, and equally, the more you are able to draw similarities between different languages and cultures.  You have more cognitive tools to work with. And you begin to see what is universal.

Today I work with many engineers, and being able to “speak their language” has proven absolutely necessary. Having interdisciplinary sensitivity and communication is by all means mandatory for successful product development. Building trust and having mutual respect between people of different disciplines is needed to have a successful collaboration.  And, as a designer starting to work on a project with an engineer, it’s best to begin with concepts that at least have some acknowledgement of the basic laws of physics.

What do you think is going to be the next big thing in design? Where do you see design going in the next 5 years? What should the design infrastructure do to help guide that future in a way that benefits the profession and those who practice it?

The major buzzwords pop into my head: china, sustainability, power, technology, interaction, ubiquity… But these are all on a shorter timeline than ten years.

It seems to me that design will be less about things, and more about experiences and interactions. Not to say physical objects won’t be relevant – I think we’ll always have an interest in having possessions and interacting with things. It’s how these “things” interact with each other and a network as a whole that will be changing.

Social networking as it is, the details and events that make up the fabric of our social lives seem to be accelerated --situations are expedited, decisions are made immediately. As individuals making up a larger neural informational network, we are getting faster and smarter; although we are still people, the systems we are bound to are evolving.

Even watching movies that were made only ten years ago, it’s crazy to see how characters interact with each other in certain situations – so many plot lines would be resolved in a matter of minutes with some ramped text messaging. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have a cellphone anymore; it’s like having a wallet, or a set of keys. It’s a part of your person, your leash to the rest of the world, however you want to look at it.  Our phone technologies are increasingly converging with other forms of digital communication and entertainment.

I think the notion of biomimicry and nature-modeled sustainability are the best things to happen to design – and the world - since this whole industrial revolution mess started.  But I think their applications reach beyond cradle-to-cradle products; I think it’s important to keep in mind the adaptability of nature.

The most important thing the design infrastructure can do to prepare a new crop of designers is to get them to see the world and all its sub-systems as a living organism that needs to be kept healthy. We all should be encouraged to be aware of and flexible to changes.  We all need to continually question the way we do things and to challenge why they can’t be done differently.

How do you explain your profession to those among your friends and family who have no knowledge of ID?

“Industrial designer” – sounds like someone who builds factories or something, right?

I’m always amazed at how “underground” industrial design is.  For a field that seems to be involved in the conception and production of nearly every object in our world, it has very little public recognition.

Unless you’ve had some exposure to product design in some way or another, designers are the mysterious “they” that “come up with things”.  And unless you have a focused interest in making or changing the products of our everyday lives, you probably don’t give much attention to why things are the way they are, who made the decisions to make them how they are, how they’re made, and so on.

When explaining what industrial design is to someone, I normally start off a little vague and then gauge the reaction.  “It’s like architecture, but instead of designing buildings, it’s designing everything else you can imagine – from your shoes to your car.”

Sometimes that works, and I’ll go on to use obvious references like ipods and eames chairs, and try to summarize the role design plays in making useful, desirable products that make for delightful experiences that work seamlessly to improve the quality of our lives.

If I need to, I’ll point at something nearby and use it as an example. “See your cellphone? Before it was in your hands, before it was manufactured, before they figured out how all the parts inside of it fit together, there were some designers who came up with the initial concept of what that thing is, what it might look like, and how you might interact with it.”

What is the biggest challenge that every designer needs to overcome today?

From my experience, there are two different types of challenges – One is in how we design, and the other is why.

I’ve found that successful design is only partially about the actual design itself – synthesizing complex information and creating viable solutions.  So much more of the process is actually communicating and selling your ideas to other people- and not just to fellow designers, but to marketers, engineers, etc.  I think there are so many good ideas that get lost in the static because they’re not articulated clearly or put into the right “language”. We look at something we’ve drawn or modeled and we see our own intents as obvious, but we take for granted that someone seeing it for the first time will take as much from it.  It seems that you can never do enough to make sure the people you work with are aligned with you. I’ve found a great challenge to be communicating design decisions into a language that non-designers can understand. Otherwise, certain details are just dismissed as superfluous – details that for us could be absolutely crucial to defining a product as what it is.  It’s arrogant to assume that everyone will naturally follow the design rhetoric for why you’ve made certain decisions. Instead of being dismissive, you should encourage people to understand the design logic. Getting them to invest in your vision, or your design, or your details, is to have another teammate on your side. It can definitely be a struggle, but no one should design in a vacuum.  It’s the synergy between disciplines that I’ve found to be successful, and this requires an effort to do some interdisciplinary translating.

A larger challenge we face is to question why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It’s easy to get sucked into a job and into a pre-established system of doing things a certain way. But as designers, our job is to think of things differently, to emerge with better and more clever solutions to problems. We have a great potential for changing not just products, but practices and institutions themselves. So for me, the biggest challenge has been maintaining the tenacity to question how and why we do things a certain way. There are countless people who have an apathetic attitude towards everything – and they’ll have an answer for why some things can’t be changed, why it’s always been done a certain way, and so on.  The best challenge is to prove them wrong where you can, and to open up new avenues for change. I believe that’s also how the best design comes about.

What are your own personal design aspirations?

I would say that I have a definite passion for teaching, in one way or another. I don’t think this necessarily means I want to be a design professor; the most satisfaction I’ve had is being able to help people “in the field,” especially other young designers.  I know I’ll be attracted to any situation that allows me to help, mentor, and teach other designers.

My short-term aspirations are to learn as much as I can, and to take what opportunities come my way.  I don’t think I’ve ever articulated where I want to be in x-years because I honestly don’t know; there are so many different paths to take and I imagine I’ll figure it out as I go along.

But I do have some idealistic restraints, defined by what I know that I don’t want.  I know I don’t want to do something I don’t believe in doing. I don’t want to make crap that gets thrown away. I want to make things that make a positive difference in the lives of the people for whom they’re intended, and for whom they’ll affect. I want the privilege of using the resources that are available to me to implement a positive change.

I also know that I don’t want to be somewhere where my influence doesn’t make much of a difference, or in any situation where I start losing my enthusiasm for design itself.  I’ve seen some wonderfully accomplished designers who still have such a persistent enthusiasm for what they’re doing, and I know if I ever lose my enthusiasm or “lofty idealism,” then I need to find my way back to it.

Who are your design inspirations?

My official hero would have to be Richard Feynman, an “iconoclastic” quantum physicist who had a famously playful personality and sense of curiosity about the world. He wrote a few non-physics books that are widely popular - anecdotes from his life that reflect his adventures and exploits. He’s a guy I’d love to have met… Sometimes seeing the world through someone else’s eyes can be very inspiring.

Of course, I love reading/hearing your standard crop of inspirers. John Maeda, William McDonough, Noam Chomsky, Michel Gondry…

But I would have to say that these are all sort of in a passive “inspiration library” that I draw from occasionally. Actively, I’ve gotten the most inspiration from working with other designers on my team. It’s one thing to rally around another person’s images and words, as much as I love them. It’s another thing entirely to see someone in action, to see a designer who won’t take no for an answer, to watch someone out of nowhere come up with an amazing idea that silences everyone in their own thoughts.  Inspiration for ideas can be everywhere, but I’ve been inspired to be a designer by learning from and working with my colleagues.

What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?

My favorite original web diversion is the webcomic “Toothpaste for Dinner.” I’ve been reading it for at least six years now. He’s prolific – he draws a new one every day. It’s just so goofy and crudely drawn, but that’s what’s so great about it.  I guess it’s just about doing it, getting it out there, not worrying about making it pretty... Man, I just love it. It’s always there for me.

I check out all the typical design blogs fairly often, but it’s mostly to keep a pulse on the design world and to stay informed. I like looking at design stuff, but rarely do I find something inspiring.  If anything I get annoyed when I see some things because I’ve either had a similar idea myself or have seen it somewhere before… That’s how it goes though.

Lately my big kick is Stumbleupon… Before that it was Delicious… and I’m sure in six months we’ll have a whole new way of interacting with websites too. But for now, Stumbleupon is the ultimate new tool in information surfing. I love it.

Are you as active within IDSA as a working designer as you were during undergrad?

As an undergrad I was greatly involved with IDSA – I was my school’s chapter president and led several student workshops.  Today, I have very little involvement with the IDSA other than attending the last national conference.

Part of that is because, as a student, you’re very thirsty for exposure to design outside of your studio and classrooms; it’s like you want proof that it exists. The IDSA student chapter gave us a chance to network outside of our classes, and to supplement our education with other skills we needed.  It was an opportunity for us to share our enthusiasm about design in a non-academic way.  It also gave us a chance to meet design students at other schools, compare notes, check out other design programs.  It opened a door to knowledge and opportunities.  

Now that I’m a working designer, I spend most of my day actually doing design, working with other designers, with access to amazing resources.  I still have a desire to be connected to the larger design world outside of my industry, but haven’t found much of a pressing need for it.

The IDSA’s conferences are definitely fun. As a student, it was exciting to see so many new things and people. But now that I’ve been a designer, I’m a bit more skeptical and critical of those exciting things that don’t seem so new anymore.  I find the conferences to be a bit of a disappointing schmooze-fest, I don’t get very much out of them.  I still enjoy the lectures; they’re the reason I go.  I think the diversity of topics and different types of lecturers at the conferences have been commendable.

I was disappointed to see such an abundance of things that are featured because they’re flashy and cool-looking.  It’s like going to a fashion show for products.  It seems to me that there’s so much more to design… improving lives, making things better on a larger scale, that kind of thing. But these are such tiny undertones in the overall voice of these conferences.  I feel like the IDSA is behind.

What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?

I would like to see more ‘gravitas’ in the types of work that is being commended.  Green design topics are “trendy” now and everything, but why not celebrate good design that’s c2c certified? And be more critical of products that aren’t?

The world, as they say, is becoming “flat”. I realize it’s the ids-A, but so much of design is influenced by (if not dependant on) forces outside of the United States.  We’re not dealing with the Raymond Loewy 1950s design world anymore… we can’t ignore that design is international in a major way.  It was great having the conference last fall with icsid. I think more programs and resources should be set up on an international scale.

I know there are a lot of opportunities with the IDSA – at least I know that in theory, but I don’t really know what they are in actuality.  If there are any, I don’t think they’re very accessible.  I know there were those online lectures, but didn’t they cost a lot of money?  What kind of outreach is there?  IDSA seems to be kind of old-school in structure.  It’s still more like a fraternity.

The TED conference is pretty popular these days – the quality and scope of the ideas presented there could be something the IDSA could achieve.  TED’s free dissemination and access to these ideas are also something I think the IDSA could aspire to provide for designers.

It’d be nice to have an organization that organizes us. The IDSA is in a perfect position to build a stronger design community.  Make the virtual connection opportunities more visible.  Encourage interactions and relationships among different designers and their companies... Hold more lectures and workshops and allow people to pool and share their resources – and make these opportunities accessible to those of us who could benefit from them the most.