MA Design Research social media editor Jenny Morris spoke with NYC-based writer, designer, researcher, strategist, educator, and D-CRIT alum Michele Y. Washington (Class of 2011) for our Alumni Spotlight series.
I’d love for you to identify yourself in your current moment.
I grew up on a barrier island in South Jersey. Going back three generations, my father’s family has, what is considered, one of the oldest Black-owned restaurants in Atlantic City. Growing up in a family where entrepreneurship was very important, you learn a lot about work ethic and the ability to tackle new challenges. I also have two uncles that were artists. I collect my uncle’s work and have several of his pieces that I’ve bought over time. Presently, I write about design and culture, and am developing a podcast and short doc series called Curious Stories Lab. The episodes will focus on BIPOC architects, designers, makers, futurists and innovators who are working beyond the boundaries within their disciplines.
I know you wear a lot of hats — as an educator, writer, visual artist, researcher and designer. How do you find ways to incorporate and draw inspiration from all these different roles in your work?
I like the idea of being intuitive. I don’t like being locked down. I enjoy making mind-maps and mood-boards to think through an idea. I have tons of notebooks that I’m constantly sketching or writing things down in. Sometimes, inspiration comes from music or books or shopping for buttons. Often, I’m reading two to three books at a time. In other forms, inspiration comes from museums, art galleries, long walks or bike rides around the greenery of the parks.
How has your intuitive nature guided the direction of your work?
When I was in D-CRIT, I always wanted to do something that my classmates were not doing. I didn’t need to look at the pretty, traditional architects. They get enough press. I had an interest in food design, because I felt there are certain foods that are designed ergonomically to fit into the mouth. You can look at sushi or chicken nuggets or those popsicles that have the three layers which, as you lick them, release different flavors. Food design is not that big in the United States, but it is getting more popular. I just feel you should never stop learning and exploring.
As a graduate of the D-CRIT program, what is it like for you to return back, bring your outside experience, and talk to current students as a guest critic?
The first time I was invited back was to do a review of student thesis projects. I found the topics really interesting and more timely in some ways. It was good to see the students and to see a more diverse student body, which means that you have different topics and voices. I was invited back a second time to sit in on Alicia Ajayi’s (class of 2020) final presentation. I ended up developing a bond with Alicia through her project. When I started working on launching my podcast, I asked her if she would work with me on it and she agreed. I like the idea that I have someone from D-CRIT helping me.
I really love to hear how connected the alumni network is with the current student body. We have so much to learn from each other!
I remember doing an internship with a food writer the summer going into my second year. And she said something to me like, “Every year I go back to something that I’ve written the year or two before and think, I can’t believe I wrote that.”
What advice would you give to young creatives trying to pave their way in blueprint-less careers?
I view myself as a lifelong learner. At a management seminar I once attended, one woman said that throughout your life, you may change careers three to five times. One of the things to think about is: What does design mean to you? What are the ethical considerations of what you are doing? My students ask me questions about ethics. They have questions about the words ‘diversity inclusion’. They don’t put a lot of stock in those words. They have issues around gender. I’ve been told by my students that a lot of their instructors don’t take these issues into consideration in their classes. What if you were designing this project for a transgender person, a queer person, or a family where it’s two men with kids or two women with kids?
Can you speak to a design project that you’ve worked on where those considerations came into play?
I am currently working on a project called the Tibbetts Brook Daylighting Project in the Bronx. Tibbetts Brook flows from up North and comes through the park. The whole process is to shift the flow of water, so it doesn’t go through the sewer pipes (which causes unnecessary flooding and industrial pollution). Once they change the flow of the water through the pipes, it will flow directly into the Harlem River. The Bronx is also known for being one of the greenest boroughs, but that’s not always the case in Black and Brown communities. There is a lot of noise and traffic pollution leading to high asthma rates and other health-related issues. Black and Brown communities tend not to be as green as White communities, so there is a push with the community board 8 to do a greening project along Broadway, to build more awareness. These are all things that I have to take into consideration.
Michele, I really enjoyed this talk and so appreciate you taking the time to do this!
About SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism
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