Getting into the field

The Bay Area is a global center of design activity, from Silicon Valley innovations to the urban manufacturing projects that marry craft and technology in San Francisco and Oakland. For Berkeley students, opportunities to explore this rich local ecosystem can powerfully complement their coursework, offering close-up looks at design concepts in practice. This spring, a pair of program series at the Jacobs Institute — Design Field Notes, a talk series that invites practitioners to share their work in a Jacobs Hall studio, and Design Field Trips, which allow students to visit professional design spaces — aimed to expand these opportunities, linking the institute’s student community with the Bay Area’s constant flow of new ideas.

The Design Field Notes series, which first launched in fall 2016, comprised nine talks over the course of the spring semester. Reflecting the series’ goal of offering insights into practices across a broad design landscape, speakers shared work in architecture, product design, design research, and a range of other fields. In an informal studio setting, their audiences, which included students from diverse departments, got an inside look at these speakers’ recent projects, often adding their own questions or ideas to the conversation.

Pearl Automation’s Jorge Fino and Tyler Mincey (left) were among the speakers; students looked at Pearl products (center). The talks drew wide-ranging audiences (right).

While the speakers’ backgrounds spanned a wide range of fields, common themes appeared across the talks. Many speakers touched on the role of cultural contexts in design, from 99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman, who explored the concept of “drift” as she traced how objects had taken on different meanings throughout their lifetimes, to Montaag principal Per Selvaag, who prompted audience members to think through their own cultural positioning and its effects on the designs they produced.

A number of talks also explored the hybrid processes that shape 21st-century practice, offering insights into areas like smart product design. Matter Global’s Justin Porcano, for example, walked the audience through the design processes behind two recent projects that linked industrial and interface design (a showerhead that tracks water usage and a wearable for Carnival cruise passengers), while Pearl Automation’s Jorge Fino and Tyler Mincey outlined how the tools they build for cars reflect a set of core design values that guide both software and hardware decisions. Beyond the realm of smart consumer products, this emphasis on linking physical and digital design emerged in a variety of talks, with practitioners offering their takes on navigating an increasingly hybrid design landscape.

For students hoping to get an on-the-ground view of this landscape, the launch of the Design Field Trips series offered a unique opportunity. While Design Field Notes talks bring discussions of real-world processes into a Jacobs Hall studio, the Design Field Trips series serves as the flip side of that equation, offering students a chance to see the sites in which these processes play out. “If you can actually go and see a design process, it’s a lot easier to grasp and be inspired by it,” says Amy Dinh, the Jacobs Institute’s student services advisor and the coordinator of the Design Field Trips series.

Students at the field trip to Cooper’s offices (photo courtesy of Haruko Ayabe).

Over the spring semester, students headed to three unique sites of design activity: the San Jose Museum of Art, to see the exhibition Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial; the new offices of design firm Cooper; and Autodesk’s Pier 9 facility. The three trips offered opportunities to explore both products and processes of interdisciplinary design innovation — and to contextualize these experiences in relation to their work at Berkeley. At the San Jose Museum of Art, for example, students saw works from wide-ranging design fields, from architecture to textiles, as a docent discussed the techniques and technologies involved in creating them. Particularly for students interested in novel intersections of design and cutting-edge technology, the inclusion of projects like 3D-printed glass vessels provided inspiring reference points.

Other reference points came in moments of interaction with practitioners themselves. At Cooper, students took part in a workshop, getting a feel for how design firm employees might approach a client project, before talking to Cooper team members — including a Berkeley alumna—about career paths within the field. “Going to a design firm, seeing people who are doing this professionally, was really good for students to see,” says Dinh. “They talked about the design process, the pathways to become a designer—all these things that students have a lot of questions about.”

For many students, the tangibility of these experiences added to their impact. At Pier 9, students made connections between the tools they use at Jacobs Hall and Autodesk’s more advanced machines, passing around project samples as they discussed different fabrication processes. For Emily Hill, a first-year student in cognitive science, these examples offered a look at how she might connect different interests. “Our guide showed us a model drone made with Project Dreamcatcher, a smart CAD system developed under Autodesk. Dreamcatcher solves design problems by optimizing design solutions based on given goals and constraints,” she explains. “I am passionate about both design and machine learning, and have always been looking for joint applications between these two areas. And Eureka! This is it!”

As both the Design Field Trips and Design Field Notes series continue to grow, facilitating these “Eureka!” moments will remain central to the programs’ goals. Both students and practitioners who have participated in the two series speak to the value of venturing beyond their everyday settings and exchanging ideas. For Olivia Ting, an MFA student in art practice, participating in field trips this spring fostered newfound “access and awareness of these places in the Bay Area design scene.” She notes that these experiences have had continuing influence as she develops her practice on campus: “[The events] that I attended,” she says, “offered me much inspiration for future projects.”

Work in design in the Bay Area? Interested in hosting a Design Field Trip or giving a Design Field Notes talk? Let us know — we’d love to connect!

By Laura Mitchell