Design Knowledge by Jessica Corr

Last summer, during her last week fulfilling an internship with tzelan, a bright, young Parsons student asked me a direct question: “How do you know all this stuff?” I thought about what she had just gone through during her 2 months with us that might help me decipher exactly what she meant.  Her work had been normal product design tasks; building full-scale paper and cardboard models, rendering iterations on a specific component, scaling and printing drawings so that we could have design work sessions, and some material research.  But because our studio is an open space with shared partnerships of interior design, lighting design and branding, she was also subject to some very passionate (and often loud) discussions about things like how the scale of the artwork on our porcelain dinnerware affects the entire perception of the guest and therefore the whole strategic experience for the hotel!  Or whether a particular chair should be made in Brooklyn or Shanghai, and what that means to the material choices, how it affects the aesthetic, cost, our brand values, and our client.  The intern clarified by pointing directly at a piece we were discussing- how did I know whether it should be machined or cast, welded or mechanically connected, how did I know that it should even be metal?  And how did I know it should be steel and not brass, or aluminum?

The directness of her question has stayed with me all year.  How do we know what we know?  As faculty at Parsons, I am in the practice of constantly working on the second half of that question as well: "how do we communicate what we know to others?"  How do we disseminate this knowledge to our students in a way that is applicable and meaningful to them?  


"How do we communicate what we know to others?"


 In my practice, as creative director of tzelan, we often think about our work as a collaborative knowledge exchange.  We have the joy of making products for hotels and restaurants all over the world, which leads us to the joy of working with artisans from all over the world.  Our designs are not top-down, but constantly in flux during the development process.  What can we learn from an artisan or factory?  How do we take that knowledge and transform it into something new to give back?  Our design process is like story telling.  We tell the story of our intent to our fabrication partners.  In turn we learn about their story; What makes them unique, what is their position in the history of place or culture?  What new story can we invent together?


"What new story can we invent together?"


As I began writing this, I was in the midst of teaching the course, “Design Thinking”, in the Integrated Design Program at Parsons.  Teaching this course was a challenge for me as a designer with a rigorous commercial practice because “Design Thinking” is often portrayed as a series of neat methodologies, but actually, the design process is quite the opposite.  It can be messy, organic, and very intuitive.

A year after she asked the question, I propose an answer to our intern through a series of stories by designers, artists, craftspeople and creative visionaries.  Instead of a strict interview form, I’d like to use a more organic process, like design itself.  I will ask those who helped shape me as a designer to name those who helped shape them as designers, and so on.  I hope to ignite a chain reaction of stories about people we’ve learned from, what we’ve learned from them, and how it shaped our design knowledge.

I will start the first post by telling the story of five different people that were significant to my knowledge of design principals or practice.  In return, I will ask each of the five to write their own story identifying three to five people who changed their way of thinking or practicing design.  Each person who contributes a story, will be linkable from the last story, so this project will live as a growing archive of design knowledge- continuing to evolve and craft a new story about design today.

Stay tuned for my first post and enjoy!