"Digital Talks" is a new interview series from IDSA-San Francisco with local designers who are making an impact. Read on for their interview with Elan Hawkins, an industrial design student at the Academy of Arts who recently created a Maya Angelou-inspired footwear line and appeared as a presenter on the TV series "California by Design: Innovations."
IDSA-SF: Tell me briefly about you and your background.
Elan Hawkins: I am 21 years of age, half African-American and caucasian, and have currently been enrolled in the Academy of Arts in San Francisco for the past five years as an industrial design student, specializing in footwear. Art has always been something that has been a part of my life, especially as a young girl. There was an amount of time, however, when I was repeatedly told that art could not be a successful career path. After constantly being reinforced with these ideas, I started to believe it.
It was only until junior year of high school that I started to think differently about creativity and how we can apply it to generate emotion, design, story, and so much more. I had worked my whole life to get into schools such as Stanford and UCLA, but I ended up choosing the Academy of Arts. Art was something I flourished at and I wanted to see how far I could go with it. People ask me to this day why I chose art school when my grades were so good. I only answer why I had not thought of the idea sooner. I love design and would not change it for the world.
Why did you choose to develop a socially involved project at such a young age?
I chose to develop this project as a statement for many black women such as myself who deal with society and many of its injustices that occur, even to this day. When I was younger I struggled with issues surrounding my identity. To most people, I was judged by my complexion rather than my actual heritage. I had no one to identify with. My white peers only saw me for the color of my skin whilst black peers only saw me as someone who acted white, also known as being whitewashed. I think I would have been able to cope with these challenges a little bit better had known more about people such as Maya Angelou who dealt with similar challenges. I created this project to inspire young women into creating a better future. Creating shoes inspired by historical figures can remind us of where we’ve been and show us where we can go.
Where did you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration from this project grew from my own personal experiences growing up. For a long time, I was perturbed about what I was, how I could be, who I was not. I lost sight of who I was in the process. Over time I met people along the way that would lift me up. I wish to do so for other people as well. This design project was dedicated to people who are struggling to find themselves. Lifting up our younger generations will only facilitate the future of our world as they will be the ones to eventually run it.
What is the concept you want to communicate with this project?
I wanted to communicate Maya Angelou’s story, not just for her ability to write, but her ability to overcome adversity. I wanted to personify her strength through a product that is fairly small but generates a huge influence, especially in today’s market.
Why do you think that design for a certain niche is so meaningful today?
Our current industries surrounding product design are so large nowadays that a niche market can somewhat be as a blessing. Sometimes I feel when things are produced for a mass market you lose the initial emotion and intention of the project. There is beauty in things that require a lot of time and energy. Take for example victorian houses; hand-carved flowers that decorate the external walls of the house, small detailed golden paint trims that accentuate the house’s overall structure. Today’s current architecture revolves around simplicity and modernity. Just like niche markets, the value can sometimes be found in the artistry and story.
Did you expect that one day the Black Lives Matter movement would become so predominant to even influence important political and socio-economic goals?
Black Lives Matter has always been a factor, especially in the black community. Injustice has been happening for ages. People have turned a blind eye for a long time because, on the outside, it may seem like those issues have long been resolved. It took a pandemic for people to sit down and realize that these issues are still very relevant. BLM has come with full force this year. In order to progress as a society, we need to have outbreaks such as these to address the issues. I am glad to be able to be a part of it.
This has put your project under the reflectors. How did you react to this?
Honestly, I am happy with the positive feedback and recognition I received on this project. Overall, however, I am not as surprised. The timing of release for this project could not have been more aligned with the events that were taking place in our current world. The Black Lives Matter movement could not have been stronger. I am grateful for all of the support that I received and hope to keep up with making stronger statements in the future.
What are you up to now and what are your plans for the future?
Right now I am working on starting a career in the footwear industry. I have only just started my journey to making an impact as a designer. I believe in the quote “live a life that outlives you.” What this means is that you were able to share your influence beyond your lifespan. How can I be a positive influence on generations to come? Only just recently have we recognized the small number of black people, especially black women, working as designers and other higher positions. This has nothing to do with our ability to work but the opportunities that we are [lacking]. I may be pursuing a career in footwear, but I will not stop until I have made my own significant impact on society.