Making abstract ideas tangible: Five questions with Purin Phanichphant

Purin Phanichphant is an artist and designer whose work spans broad areas: he has served as a product and interaction designer with clients from Levi’s to Genentech at design firm IDEO, led design efforts at speech AI startup Gridspace, and developed an inventive art practice that focuses on “creating things that are more simple, more playful, and more interactive.” While not juggling creative projects, Purin teaches Visual Communication and Sketching, an introductory Design Innovation course open to students from all majors, at the Jacobs Institute. We asked him about his work and approach to teaching.

Your background is quite wide-ranging. What common threads run through your work, across different contexts like a startup or an art studio?

If there are such things as superpowers, I believe mine is “making abstract ideas tangible.” I do this through hand sketches, physical prototypes, graphic design pieces, and visual stories. This particular superpower has contributed the successes of many projects I have been involved in.

However, when I looked back at some of my work from high school and early college years, I realized that I didn’t always have this superpower. Instead, I had acquired these skills over years of exposure to good design and practice. This is why I set out to demystify the notion that designers were born with innate gifts (talents). By reverse-engineering my own designs, I was able to extract tips and tricks that I have learned over the years and package them into gifts (presents) that I give my students.

Another common thread that I see is that in design, which I define as creative problem-solving for people, I strive for simplicity and user-friendliness. And as I develop my own independent art practice, which I define as my personal statements to the world, I find myself crafting interactive experiences that are simple and user-friendly. There are moments when I see this consideration for viewers and audiences as a disadvantage, because my medium doesn’t allow me to be as expressive as, say, abstract painters. However, I’m slowly coming to terms with how my unique background in design makes my art work mine and only mine.

Your work tends to be collaborative. Have your experiences with creative collaboration had an impact on how you approach teaching?

In the context of design innovation, collaboration and teamwork are extremely crucial. My advisor, David Kelley, once said that there was a time when design was an individual sport, like running or swimming, where the spotlight often shone on rockstar designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, or Karim Rashid. However, in the current climate, design is more of a team sport, like soccer or basketball, where designers, engineers, and businesspeople need to collaborate effectively to have any chance of success. Having had first-hand experiences at startups, consultancies, corporations, and even creating interactive art pieces with collaborators, the latter analogy cannot be more true.

And with collaboration comes communication, particularly visual communication of ideas and concepts. Brainstorms can build enthusiasm and quickly generate a portfolio of options; concept one-pagers help you communicate your ideas to teammates and clients; and visually stunning slide decks always beat poorly designed ones, even when you are presenting the exact same content. In my course, I cover topics like how to create good post-its that captures the essence of an idea using the fewest lines possible, how to amp up an otherwise mediocre concept one-pager to look like you had spent four years in an industrial design program, and how to create slide decks as if you had a professional graphic designer do the work for you. Having these “hard” skills on top of “soft” skills like interpersonal communications, giving and receiving feedback, and time management all add up to better design innovators who can help solve the increasingly complex problems of our time.

At the Jacobs Institute, you teach a course, Visual Communication and Sketching, in which many of the core tools students might use are “analog” tools, like pen and paper. At the same time, much of your background has involved areas like human-computer interaction and new technologies, and the Jacobs Institute itself is positioned at the intersection of design and technology. How do you think about digital technology in relation to sketching or other creative processes?

Both analog and digital tools have their advantages and disadvantages, and I teach my students to be mindful of when to use which. Sketching offers speed and flexibility, allowing you to express your ideas extremely fluidly and at lower fidelities. In the beginning stages of design, it is much more time-efficient to grab a pen and a piece of paper or post-it and start sketching out ideas (as opposed to jumping into digital tools, 3D modeling programs, or code right away). With the tips and tricks I teach in my class, students can easily turn mediocre sketches into something that might wow their teammates.

Digital tools, from Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch to Fusion 360, Premiere Pro, and AfterEffects, allow you to further refine and polish your ideas, but significantly slow down the creative process. In my class, we utilize Keynote, PowerPoint, and iMovie, all with gradual learning curves, to quickly and effectively create professional-quality visual communication pieces.

A good analogy might be cutting a piece of wood: there are scenarios where using a table saw or even a hand saw would be much more time-efficient compared to using a laser cutter or a CNC router, and there would be scenarios where the computer-controlled tools are worth painstakingly setting up the files and the settings for. Ultimately, being mindful of the process and knowing which tool to use is a skill that is acquired through practice over time.

What do you most hope your students take away from Visual Communication and Sketching?

Ultimately, I want my students to see any visual communication tasks (sketching, designing a slide deck, designing an app, or even making a product video) and say, “Of course I can do that!” Good visual design is not rocket science but rather: one, following simple rules and shortcuts (such as lining visual elements up); two, knowing where and how to find the right resources (hint: Google); and three, practicing. I want my students to believe, as I do, that visual communication is 1% gift and 99% learnable, and that these skills are extremely valuable in all aspects of life.

I can proudly say that even though the semester hasn’t come to an end, I have witnessed the transformation in many of my students: they have significantly improved their abilities to sketch, redesigned bad posters into something visually stunning, and made compelling product videos in a matter of hours. Seeing these transformations is very addictive, and that’s why I enjoy teaching so much.

Outside of your work at the Jacobs Institute, what’s a current or recent project that you’re excited about right now?

I’ve been super busy lately: on the art front, I’ve recently curated and participated in a group pop-up art exhibit titled “Artificial Intelligence,” at a venue in Mountain View in early November. Among many pieces shown were my collaborations with computer scientist friends to create a 3D projection map of an artificial brain scan, an interactive font map organized by A.I., and another interactive piece that reveals how messages get lost in Google’s machine translation algorithm.

I’m currently curating and organizing another group show coming up on December 9, titled “Interactive Statements,” in an empty warehouse in Richmond, CA, with 10 participating artists. For this show, I will also be showing a new interactive piece that I’m working on, titled “The Medium Is The Message.”

On the design front, currently I am freelancing at MasterClass, giving product design directions, developing a coherent visual design style guide, and helping foster a design culture at this rapidly expanding startup. Last week, we launched seven new classes with Stephen Curry, Alice Waters, Ron Howard, Thomas Keller, Marc Jacobs, Helen Mirren, and Wolfgang Puck.

Last but not least, I have another side project designing a website to promote connection and dialogue among stakeholders of an economic approach to climate change. Last week, we launched — an index of companies and projects mining carbon from the air.

More of Purin’s work can be viewed at Follow his process and what inspires him at his Instagram account:

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

By Laura Mitchell

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