Episode 24: Sara Hendren (Full transcript)

Jarrett Fuller: Hi, welcome to Scratching the Surface. I’m Jarrett Fuller and this is my podcast about design criticism and practice. Today’s episode is a very, very interesting conversation with Sara Hendren. Sara is a designer, a writer, an artist and a professor whose work centers around; adaptive design, prosthetics and inclusive design. She teaches socially engaged design practices and designer for disabilities at Olin College and is the writer of Abler, which is a site that collects examples of this type of design practice in the widest sense.

I’ve been following Sara’s work for a few years now and was really interested in talking to her about her own background and how she thinks about this work as well as the role of criticism and writing in her design practice. And then we’re also talking about using critical design to actually make change. She has this great point of view that design has this inherent optimism in it and I love this phrase that she uses in her conversation that “design is where ideas can live in things.” I am so glad that I got to talk to Sara and think that she brings a new perspective to the podcast and we get into some things that rarely come up in these conversations.

So, I’ve collected so many other things we’ve talked about in the show notes. If these subjects interest you, there’s a lot of further reading you can do both, uh, on the Scratching the Surface website, and of course, you should check out her site, Abler. I thought this conversation was so interesting and inspiring and I’m so happy I can share it with you, so here is my conversation with Sara Hendren.


Jarrett Fuller: I was really struggling, to be honest, with how I wanted to kind of structure this conversation with you because there are a lot of different things that I kind of want to talk to you about and so I thought a good place to start is just a little bit of your background and how you got started in design.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: I think, I read somewhere that, that you had some sort of history background or something, so let’s just start with kind of mapping that out a little bit?

Sara Hendren: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, sure, um, so my … I’ve had one of those very circuitous careers and I-I have a-a BA in visual arts. I was painting and drawing in college.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And the studio art program at … in college was good. It was very studio-based. I mean really kind of old school, so I didn’t have any sense of …

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But for me design was kind of like, “Oh, that’s for people who are commercial and want to make money.” You know.

Jarrett Fuller: (Laughs) Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And if you want to work on ideas then you’ve got to be doing this other, the gallery thing. So … And then I got … I spent a couple of years teaching. I got kind of dissatisfied with just the, um, language, the pure language of painting. And I think I was struggling for a rare, mature, new media integrated practice that was going on then, but, but I just wasn’t aware of.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Sara Hendren: And, um, then I got a job in education research and I thought I really want to know the history of these ideas. I was kind of thinking a lot about John Dewey and experiential education.

Jarrett Fuller: Oh, yeah.

Sara Hendren: And I just have these bigger questions about like, “Why did we assume what we assume?” So I applied to and got into a history program at UCLA in cultural, intellectual history, but not art history, just straight up history and got really into the history of science and it was something fantastic in terms of the course work.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And then like went overseas, like went to the Netherlands and did my dissertation research and, um, after-after the course work when I started kind of doing my own, kind of piecing together what’s going to be my dissertation and what am I going to specialize in, I started to have these nagging doubts about the output of academic writing.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And I would go to like academic conferences and I would think, “I don’t really want to go to dinner with these people. Not because they’re not great, but they’re not my people.” Do you know what I mean?

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah.

Sara Hendren: I’m not like restless and eager to continue this conversation all day.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: So that felt a little … And I remember in the Netherlands like actively doing my dissertation research and saying to my husband, “I-I got a bad feeling about this. Like I don’t think this is me.” And I said to him, “I think I want to be like a furniture maker and a journalist.”

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And this is like in 2002, 2003.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And what I was naming then, but I didn’t realize at that time was I want to do some thinking and some text, you know, logocentric work. I want to produce those ideas, but in an accessible form and I want to have a making practice.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: I want to do both those things. I didn’t think of it even then that that was possible that you could do that. Like you got to kind of pick and if you got to have a, you know, a recognizable profession.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: So, I dropped out of my PhD program. I, uh … and-and I freelanced or kind of cobbled together jobs and I started making painting again and had some more shows. And eventually discovered kind of public new media, new genre art work. And I thought, “Oh, this where ideas can live into things. Oh, right, I see, ideas and things.”

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And I started Abler as a way to realize now, it didn’t seem like it at that time, but, well, I just say at that time, I thought, “I’ve been doing a website for my work and for making campaigns or whatever, but I don’t want that my websites would be an online gallery. I want this website to be collegial and-and, you know find a community of people who are interested in these same kinds of things.” And how can I do that? And I was looking around like BLDGBLOG.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah.

Sara Hendren: And like people like Nicola Twilley and, um, uh, Pruned.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: You know and I just thought like, “Oh, these are people are who are looking at culture as an index of ideas, but they’re kind of focused on this area, but it’s like a super wide canopy, but like just constrained enough and just wide enough.” And I thought: I want to do this for prosthetics.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: Now, I’m leaving out that I had, uh, my first child in 2006 with Down syndrome. So, at that time, I was just starting to really migrate my practice between painting and like public arts and going like, “Is this what it is kind of thing?” And then my son’s birth and everything I discovered in disability culture.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: So, all of the wearables, all the gear. Then everything kind of went like this, like sort of locked together and I went like, “Oh, ideas, politics, stakes, convivial material culture.”

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: And that’s how I got into design like hung in the back door, like fine arts is really kind of my first training and love and I realized-

Jarrett Fuller: That’s so interesting.

Sara Hendren: Yeah and I realized that design was actually the super blurry house to be thinking about politics and symbolic languages and symbolic culture.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: So that’s like the, yeah, a short version definitely.

Jarrett Fuller: No, that’s so … it’s so interesting for a lot of different reasons. And-and as you were saying that, I was kind of just looking over my notes of the things that I wanted to talk to you about and you hit on all of those things. So, now I need to kind of figure out which of that I want to kind of pull from.

Sara Hendren: Sure, yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: The thing that I really like about your work and what you do is for me as a graphic designer and there’s this kind of strand, uh, of graphic designers that call themselves, you know or working in fields that they call critical design or speculative design or design fiction. And it all has a certain kind of look to it, a certain, uh, aesthetic to it, a certain kind of like feel to it.

Sara Hendren: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: And it’s all very much … you know it blurs that line kind of like what you were saying, it blurs that line between design and art and it feels like something that lives in a gallery instead of something that lives in the world which is kind of where design should be.

Sara Hendren: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jarrett Fuller: And that’s what I think is so interesting about what you do is I think your work falls under all of those things, but it’s also very real.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: How do you-how do you kind of think about-about that? I don’t know-I don’t know if I really even have a question in there, but how could you think about that intersection?

Sara Hendren: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I … within the early days, so like … and I have three children in five years, so this was in L.A., my son was born. Yeah and that was like a whole like, “Wow.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Discovering parenting and then the extra stuff going on for him and doctors and therapists and so on. And then another child and we moved across the country, so there was a lot going on. In other words, the online realm, digital realm and Twitter and stuff kind of became a lifeline for me to go like, “I’m migrating my practice right now and I’m trying to figure out what that is.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: So in the process of kind of researching prosthetics and stuff, I came across like the work of Wendy Jacob. She was super influential for me.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: She was working … at that time, she was working at the ACT program at MIT, the Art, Culture and Technology Program.

Jarrett Fuller: Oh, okay.

Sara Hendren: And she had been working on autism and she made these, she worked with Temple Grandin who is this very famous, um, autistic self-advocate. She’s, uh, in animal husbandry, written a bunch of books about the experience of autism.

Jarrett Fuller: Oh, okay.

Sara Hendren: And Grandin, um, has kind of sensory processing, a typicality, the way a lot of people-people who identify on the autism spectrum do. And-and Grandin had built for herself, um, a hugging machine. Like a chair, she would step into it at the end of her day that would give her a deep compression hug that a lot of people tend to get from other people, affection that she found overwhelming.

Jarrett Fuller: Oh, yeah.

Sara Hendren: She found human contact overwhelming, but she found this pressure machine to be like a great proxy.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: The New Yorker did a profile of-of, uh, sorry … the New Yorker published an essay of Oliver Sacks, um, who was … who had written a book, um, I think this is “An Anthropologist on Mars,” yeah, because it’s Temple Grandin who called herself an anthropologist on Mars, but the mismatch between her sensory organization and the built world.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And Sacks in this amazing essay describes that hug machine and this was in the late 90s in New Yorker. And I read that article too, it’s so funny. So, then I’ve discovered Wendy’s work. Wendy went to Temple and said, “I love this idea of a hug machine not just for you. Like I think there’s a clue there, like you’ve built this thing that’s just for your diagnostics, but what-what if-what if furniture did give you a hug. Like what if you could activate an affective affectionate furniture.”

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And so she and Grandin kind of talked about the thing and then went, do you … because she said MIT worked with some engineers to create this like it looks like a club chair, it reaches up over you and will hug you and you pump it.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: It’s got this, um, pump, foot pump on the side, so … and like another person can like pump up that pressure and give you this giant squeeze with a chair.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And this time it was a total revelation like I thought, “Oh, my gosh, that product is therapeutic and poetic at once.” Like it’s doing-

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: It’s functional and it’s also doing this like incredibly the work has so much pathos behind it. And I thought that’s-that is my true north.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: Like I just discovering … and-and discovering like Natalie Jeremijenko or Krzysztof Wodiczko. People whose work was deeply issued by some political, but also playful and expressive.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And I mean I guess Natalie and Krzysztof are a little bit more in the straight up art world. Wendy’s work is consumed as art, but I was so taken with the idea that Wendy made these squeeze chairs, some of those chairs went to classrooms with autistic children in them as therapeutic objects and some of them went to galleries.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And Wendy is even more interested in those as art, but I felt like, okay, what-what if you could have a whole practice that walks that line so finely, you know?

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: Like, yes, it works and it attends to real constraints and real conditions and maybe half of its life is functional and then maybe half of its life is fictional and I’m making this hand gesture back and forth just like hopping a fence.

Jarrett Fuller: (Laughs) Right, yeah.

Sara Hendren: To me, that sweet spot is just like … And that’s what … and-and also hearing, um, I was also really influenced by, um, Alfredo Jaar, this Argentinian artist that I took a class with. I was at Harvard GSD, so that was all after Harvard GSD came-came later after my kids and kind of I went back to school.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: But Alfredo Jaar in this seminar talks about, um, use and poetics and that drawing those two together. If use and poetics and can live right there on the same lines or usually kind of, you know, at opposite ends of axis.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But if you can, you know, draw them, you know together, that that’s really where a lot of the sweet spot is. And that some of the work, you know that you make in your life can lean toward the poetic and some of it can lean toward use. And I think for me, my practice has been about insisting that one house can-can encompass both work that is useful and work that is …

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And not every work in the crit-critical design speculum, design sense, not every work has to look and feel the same. It doesn’t all have to be fictional.

Jarrett Fuller: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But it doesn’t also all have to be manufacturable, but letting both those things live together that’s been … that’s what’s motivated me. So, then I started down this path of thinking … Well, then I started down this path of collecting on Abler all the work that I loved that could be considered prosthetic. So, and I thought I’m just going to like, you know this giant, I’m going to be this giant filter.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And it’s going to be artists who are not even thinking about disability at all. It’s going to be very legible prosthetics; it’s going to be wearables. And of course the history of these objects is long and wide, you know so …

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And over the course of collecting that stuff kind of magazine style. And I had in my mind this reader, like this Wired magazine reader, this kind of like very techie Silicon Valley person on her lunch break with like a giant sandwich on her desk, like clicking around, do you know what I mean?

Jarrett Fuller: Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And I thought like, “What if I could get that reader to think twice about prosthetics that aren’t the kind of, you know myoelectric, super high tech robotic arms, but better this other thing.” And like … and so having that reader in my mind I thought, “What-what meaning can you make if you put all those things in adjacency?” But I didn’t know at that time, when instead I was trying to write myself into a point of view about working in design, about the making.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And it wasn’t until my friend, Jeff Goldenson who’s my colleague here at Olin said to me, “Well, this is what Koolhaas did.” He wrote his thesis on. Koolhaas.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: He said that he wrote early in his practice as a way of kind of …

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: It’s almost like psyching yourself up for going like I think I wanted to insist on both these things or I think I want to try to …

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: I want to bring these two things together and not sacrifice either of that, you know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And-and so now I’ve done a lot less writing, but I’ve done a lot more making. And I … I’ve realized, oh, my gosh that Abler was all about that. All about like revving up to a point of view and then being able to have a language to-to defend it, you know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. Uh, it’s … that’s really … it’s so interesting, I-I interviewed Michael Rock who, um, is a designer at 2x4 and he writes, uh … he has written a lot about design. He currently writes for New York Times kind of about design in-in a really wide sense, but he has this great phrase when I interviewed him where he said that, uh, “Design is just an elaborate form of writing,” uh, and it’s the same type of idea. And so it’s interesting that that’s kind of how your practice has evolved also.

Sara Hendren: Okay.

Jarrett Fuller: What’s the-what’s the relationship that you kind of see between thinking of yourself as a writer or thinking of yourself of a designer, where do those things really … do you even see a difference anymore kind of between those practices?

Sara Hendren: I mean I do, uh, I see … I mean design, what I love about design is that it’s the proposal of ideas and of course that is we were doing in writing too.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: It is the forward motion, the suggestion of a new way of being in the world. I mean the magic thing about design is that if you take it seriously and you really go like, “Wow, that’s, uh … that’s an altered future, that’s an altered universe. And if that thing can be undone and if that-if that-that case study is malleable, then maybe the whole world is unfixed and malleable.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. Right, right.

Sara Hendren: Like that to me, it never gets old, like it never gets old, that feeling.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: That’s why I love design and that’s why I love design more than art even. I mean, I’m artificially hardening those boundaries, but you know what I mean.

Jarrett Fuller: I know-I know exactly what you mean.

Sara Hendren: That’s art. Design has about it a kind of optimism and I’m … small o … you know a kind of it-it is propositional, it puts forth. It is proposing rather than just unmasking and revealing.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: There was something about the gallery space that feels kind of static to me, where design is putting things forward. Now, writing of course is also putting things forward. I think, you know, I’m in a process of writing a book right now for the first time.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: And I-I feel like I do need not just in addition short form and long form journalism, but I feel like I need for myself the discipline of writing that is different from design. Like design can do and especially because the after life of my work in design is in images, right, that circulate in the digital realm as ideas.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But there are ideas that are like a juxtaposition, you know, a reversal of expectations, um, the documentation of an event that was an encounter in time.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But, uh … but writing can be now, it feels for me like a necessary discipline to go even actually hard questions. If I’m looking at the future of an inclusive world or whatever like … And if I take, for me, writing is at the highest kind of most urgent stakes that is indicated and maybe in my design work. And that is these … there are real politics here, there’s real neglect in the built environment for marginalized bodies, there are real rights issues. And I want to write about the way in which design makes those issues, you know manifest, but I want the accountability to go like, “No, black and white and in print, where does it come from, what do we think about it on the one hand, on the other hand? Get it exactly right.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Because that may be is my scholar kind of coming out again.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: It’s funny like maybe that has ran a little bit … Yeah, so like … I mean I’m curious about this proposition-this proposition of-of Michael Rock’s that they are the same. I’d like to hear about that, more about that actually.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. I mean, it’s-it’s, the … that’s … it’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to talk to you is because as somebody who has really only seen your work online. I’ve watched, you know videos of you giving lectures and we’ve communicated via Twitter, but as someone who, you know essentially is, you know kind of an outsider looking at your work, those seem completely seamless to me in the-in your output of them.

Sara Hendren: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jarrett Fuller: Um, and, uh, and-and it’s the same way that I see Rem Koolhaas also, is that, you know, his … he-he has kind of these ideas and these theories and sometimes it comes out in an essay and sometimes it comes out, you know in a building or a class and that’s how I see your work also and that it’s, you know sometimes it’s a research project, sometimes it’s an actual artifacts and you know now it’s a-a book.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: Uh, so, uh, so, yeah, I kind of see it that you have them all together anyway.

Sara Hendren: Well, it is true that I, you know, I think, you know, again, writing Abler, I was … I-I didn’t realize at that time that I was thinking, I’m going to try and put off having to decide between scholarship or writing and making. And I’m like a, I remember and, uh, I was very influenced by Tim Maly, I don’t know if you know him from Quiet Babylon, you’re doing it wrong on Twitter.

Jarrett Fuller: That sounds familiar.

Sara Hendren: So he-he early on, he … you know, he’s just done a whole lot of-a whole lot of writing, a whole lot of journalism, but also a whole lot of event wrangling and-and collaborative design work. And he just for the longest time I just watched him from afar and now we’ve become friends, but he … I just remember thinking like Tim is refusing to decide.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Like I’m going to do … I have a multifaceted practice. And I don’t like why it took me so long to feel like, it’s-it’s okay, you don’t have to be in one lane.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: I mean it’s actually a long history of people with a mixed practice, but I grew up, I don’t know, I just kind of grew up with this very earnest like, um, kind of obedient, (laughs) um, very, you know sort of keep your head down, you know kind of upbringing, like go on to your own learning, be careful with your ego and so on.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Yeah, right.

Sara Hendren: And, um … So, I think it took me awhile to feel like, “Oh, I … Yeah, luckily ideas kind of manifest in ways that they want to and you don’t have to be an expert to suddenly, you know, to, um, to-to decide it’s okay to make something.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: I mean I … I mean in general for a long time, I was also really influenced in the course of Abler and kind of starting my work by Claire Pentecost and that the idea of The Public Amateur.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: My friend Kevin Hamilton pointed me to her. And in Claire Pentecost was kind of critical in helping me think about taking an openly and transparently amateurs love and modesty towards stuff you don’t know. And I think so more than even just a form of writing or design for how I was going to output ideas.

I had to make piece with not being an engineer, not being in the sciences, not being, um … It’s like, I’m glad you’re asking me about this because I do think now I-I feel so much energy and creativity and freedom to kind of go like, “Maybe it’s a book, maybe it’s a performance. Maybe it’s a … ” But it took me a long time and it took kind of the permission and the words of Claire Pentecost to kind of go, “Uh, no, the outsider, the amateur.”

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: With humility and love, like has a role to play vis-à-vis big power structures, perhaps especially big science and big stem. I mean I did go through a long period where I thought … I mean two or three years where I thought maybe I need a PhD and I’ve got to learn how to code and like become an engineer to speak about engineering. And, uh, I realized in a certain point that I can do … I could work in this way based on other kinds of experiences.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And, uh … and it wouldn’t have to be a kind of domesticated complimentary way, do you know what I mean?

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, I-

Sara Hendren: The way the odds are often like the enrichment for the sciences or the illustrator of the sciences or the, you know, the … or auditor of the sciences or something else I think they are. There’s something more integrated and more rich and kind of like-like there’s another kind of adjacency.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And I realized in a certain point, like, oh, Pentecost was talking about the way she’s worked against kind of big, um, corporate agriculture. And the way that she brought and-and has theorized, you know about working as an artist and then almost willfully, uh, modest and naive way, but working none the less against big behemoth structures.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Um, and letting that be an artful form, you know. And so for awhile I felt like, yeah, that’s-that’s what I’m doing, I’m sort of, um, alongside and also then against when necessary, the kind of big medicalizing, um, logic of disability, but also the, you know just a kind of high tech-

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: The completion of high tech with innovation and all that. So, eventually I felt like, “Oh, no, um, now I’m of course very professionalized and academic.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Like I have kind of, so it’s a different-a different moment. But I feel now, in other words, just to circle back to your first query, like now I do feel like, yes, the design and the writing and that it all comes from the same kind of impulse.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And-and it’s … all I can say it’s-it’s great getting older because I feel more (laughs) …

Jarrett Fuller: (Laughs). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: I think really sincerely I feel more confident, I can to start to feel like, oh, yeah, I’m going to … even though if I’m not sure or if-if the new experience I’m not sure how to deal with what’s next, I’m going to take those first steps.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Uh, you know this-this podcast kind of at a high level is about design criticism. It’s about how we talk about design and, and what the discourse around design should be. And I’m … I have your website pulled up right now and on your about page you’ve list, you know that the spaces you’re interested in are adaptive and assistive technologies, prosthetics, inclusive design, accessible architecture.

And I was thinking about those and I was thinking about design criticism and I feel like so much of the things that I talk about on this podcast is that design criticism needs to kind of move away from the single artifact and how it looks and into the world and how it affects the world. And I feel like those things you have listed are like exactly the types of things that design criticism should be talking about.

Sara Hendren: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jarrett Fuller: And so I was interested in kind of your thoughts on-on the discourse around design and especially around these things that you work so closely in, um, and-and that discourse and how that’s kind of moving your work forward?

Sara Hendren: Yeah, I mean I think of this … uh, especially when I think about when I’m typing my book and, uh, it’s really not written for a design audience.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: It’s a-it’s a trade publication, but apparently in for the general nonfiction reader design books don’t easily sell.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: It’s still thought of as a kind of specialist enterprise, so I’ve had a lot conversations with editors about how it looks the entry point, how do you get people to understand the profound, the shaping of our lives that happens in design?

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And I do think — lately I’ve been thinking about design as the kind of the-the sensory entry point of wonder that’s is evident in the built environment, but is that-that the … that all the daily stuff that they tried as the handheld things, but also the shape of our rooms and our cities is packed with human values.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: It’s … they’re packed with unknown histories. They’re packed sometimes with really accidental and you know kind of arbitrary choices, and people don’t realize that either.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And if we start there with kind of like, wow, the wonder of how these things came to be considering how much we think of them as fixed and permanent, then again, we start to open that up and think like what else might we also tackle?

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And for me, that’s a kind of side door into what I also want to talk about which is the urgency around disabilities.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: I’m trying to do a couple of things, right? I’m trying to write about design differently. I’m also trying to write about disability differently, because disability as of in for the popular reader is just like an abysmal landscape right now.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And the popular representation of disability is just … it’s just awful.

Jarrett Fuller: Right, yeah.

Sara Hendren: There’s no … It’s either super sentimental or really heroic, an overcomer kind of stories or inspiration kind of like with just treacle and purple prose if you’ve just … it’s really bad.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah.

Sara Hendren: So, I’m trying to figure out like, for me, to get people to think about disability with-with their wonder intact to be interested and to be adaptive human body and in the interdependent way all our lives are structured and that all bodies have kind of openings and possibilities. And yes, closures of things that they can’t do. Just be interested, right, and then the-the urgency of that will be evident to you. But how do you get interested? Not in kind of like eat your spinach way. Well, design is a way to get there.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: But I’m also fascinated by good design writing as such and that … and-and there I go back to like BLDGBLOG or like Alexandra Lange or Alissa Walker.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: These people that I was watching who have all the complexity of good histories and attentiveness to detail and you know tracing those trajectories, but also we’re writing resolutely for the general reader.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And I thought what these people do is to take the built environments and take what we can sense in some, one of our five senses or more and to use it as index, uh, sort of iceberg style, you know, uh, of culture and of politics and of-of interconnectedness.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And I think … So, I’m really excited about and I-I feel like there’s just too little I suppose design criticism that takes us kind of into deep reportage.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. Right.

Sara Hendren: Right? When deep reportage kind of values on, um, who were the people behind these things and how are people kind of circumventing ordinary design. And there’s just so much that’s fascinating and in my field alone, you know like architecture for dementia, you know and, uh, um, a whole labor force in Japan and India that’s, uh, a vocational training program for people go blind in old age and they become massage therapists.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And so what happens then around like service design that accommodates difference in that way or depth space long ago the … I mean that just in kind of architecture and services, but like the OXO Vegetable Peeler that has its recent … right?

Jarrett Fuller: Huh. Right. Right.

Sara Hendren: It’s like maybe people know that story, but it’s one of many. And they’re not just simple plucky stories about like universal design and it’s like edge cases that then affect everybody. That’s one.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: But it’s more that like if you just start to look at the built environment, describe it, but ask what else is going on there and who are the people behind it.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Looks kind of great. What is this? What is the design actually activating and like impossible? What is it …

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: How does the design return us, actually, to our lives? Like for instance in my book there, it’s going to be a chapter about this man named Steve who lives here locally in Boston, he has advanced ALS. He was trained as a landscape architect and he designed a whole residence for himself and for people with MS who, um … And with simple software mounted on his wheelchair, he can summon the elevator and open all the doors and, uh, transfer himself from his bed to his bathroom, do the fans and the HVAC and the media in this room, all this kind of stuff.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay.

Sara Hendren: And-and, um … But what’s interesting to me is that there are also people who live with Steve who feed him and who make his dinner and who do all kinds of bodily care for him. And I’m interested in saying, here’s the design and the technology and we can talk about how interesting this looks and all the clever ways that he made extra firm grass and exteriors that it takes the weight of a wheelchair not getting stuck. Yeah, that’s stuff is interesting. But what’s really interesting is that Steve orchestrated the technology and human interdependent care, like to build a community, you know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: That’s what’s … it’s returning you to life, not just sort of … it’s not an object for contemplation only. We can be really fascinated by it’s form and it’s function, but I’m as … I’m just as interested in what does this make possible and that’s-that’s a thousand little invisible behaviors until you in good long form, reporter style make it visible.

Jarrett Fuller: Okay. Right.

Sara Hendren: Yeah, that’s what-that’s what’s exciting to me.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah and I’m curious to how you-you work at a school also and you teach these things, how-how do you do that? Uh, that’s a big question, but, you know what types of things are you teaching to your students kind of about all of these subjects? How-how do you kind of share that-that knowledge?

Sara Hendren: Yeah. I mean how that-that, this whole thing about, um, Claire Pentecost and The Public Amateur and the not thinking only complementarian terms, but, um, more like smashing together disciplines. I … When I finished at Harvard I pitched to, um, there is a digital and media department, this class called Investigating Normal.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: For me, it was … and I said, “You know, what I really want to do is see if I can kind of experiment style, see if I can teach students who want to build gadgetry in a kind of problem solving paradigm. And also, mentor some students who want to make art and like, “Can I take all this stuff that I’ve learned from Abler and can I say to them, “You can do one of two things, but we’re going to do it in the same house and we’re going to look at each others work and we’re going to call it all one thing, which is this investigative practice, you know.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. Wow, yeah.

Sara Hendren: Yeah, yeah. And then from … And I didn’t fully know that I can do it and in fact some-some of the chair then, um, as the new media department, the digital and media department said, “Let’s cross list it with industrial designs and this is perfect, right? Like people who are really into function.”

Jarrett Fuller: How interesting.

Sara Hendren: So I got half grad students from industrial design and half from digital media. And it worked, it went so well. And I … And so I thought, “Oh, my goodness, maybe I can do this even deep in the heart of engineering so I came to Olin and, um, that was kind of part of how I pitched my role to them.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: I mean so-so what I do with students is very much tied up with Abler and my practice, which is insisting that disability studies and visibility culture and the-the language of, um, the symbolic and expressive languages of identity that are tied up in art-artifacts and art forms can live along side good engineering.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And that we can … if we take seriously, um, some critical theory and some good strong criticism about, uh, how we talk about each other in the humanities, we can-we can have that, but not in over the ethics seminar.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: We can have it in our studio, in our studio space.

Jarrett Fuller: Well said. Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Yeah, but I mean doing that just feels like, okay, this is an integrated education. So, of course, it’s challenging. I mean it’s more challenging for engineers. I mean I’m at a school where all the students are studying engineering. They do get arts and humanities stuff. But it is, for many of them an introduction to critical theory, like just to talk about the constructed nature of identity and the self and you know like that’s, that’s probably new for them and they’re all undergrads.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Sara Hendren: So, but still in general, I’ve got people every year, who are making art work and people who are doing like super legible assistive and adaptive technologies with outside collaborators. You know and-

Jarrett Fuller: Interesting.

Sara Hendren: Yeah, so like insisting on doing it together has been … that’s been, for me, that’s the animating force.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah and I was curious, I have just a couple of questions I know that, you know, we’re starting to get short on time, but that was something that was interesting. You said you are kind of embedded in an engineering department. I think that just highlights this notion that design or the idea of design is something that’s moved from the end of the process or something that’s like decoration or surface. Just something that’s truly at the beginning of a process now and is integrated throughout the whole thing. And I think being in an engineering department is like perfect example of how that is true and is changing how we think about design.

Sara Hendren: It’s true and I must say at Olin. Olin is a particularly … I mean I think a lot of places are thinking more about design at the front end and human-centered design and so on in [inaudible 00:35:20] now.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: But Olin has also would say it has a design led engineering curriculum. And what do we mean by that? That it’s design disposition toward questions, right?

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: Where, we’re asking reframing problems regularly that we have a kind of nimbleness in the face of what our assumed first you know impulses are for choices and then we kind of … we can have it penned afterwards.

Jarrett Fuller: Right, right.

Sara Hendren: And we can commit with the hold in the provisional. We can, you know envision to being human-centered and collaborative in what we do. So I’m lucky that I work at a place that also values those things.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. I, uh, I-I … This is not something that I was planning on asking you, but as we were talking, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about the past couple of days and actually seems like something that I would love to get your opinion on. I’ve been thinking about how there are all of these terms and all of these subdivisions for design.

And we’ve just, in this conversation, have said, you know, social design, human-centered design, adaptive design, inclusive design, critical design. And-and, uh, part of me of wishes and part of me thinks that, you know, uh, robust critical discourse that eventually all of those things can just be designed. And they don’t need to be seen as this like small thing that a couple of people do, but that’s just how design happens.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: Um, what do you … Uh, this is something that I’ve just been thinking about recently, so I haven’t fully formulated it, but what do you … does that kind of prompt anything for you?

Sara Hendren: Yeah, I mean I-I agree in a sense that, uh, um, you know people get hung up on, uh, and we can be talking past each other, right?

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: To be using, uh, and to be separating all of these categories of design. And right, there’s something really nice about reminding people, design is just the arrangement of elements for a desired end.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: You know, it’s, um … So, uh, I think, but I do find working in an engineering context, but I need to indicate people which pole of design am I sort of landing on or not?

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And because in engineering design, remember, it can be kind of like, you know clever problem solving by a different fix, better mousetrap style you know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah.

Sara Hendren: And so, I mean, I know critical and speculative design is coming and they’re on fire for various kinds of reasons. And maybe part of that is just the nomenclature and-

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Um, and probably that’s kind of warranted, but in an absolutely sense, I think you’re right. I mean, right, right, I do. Uh, but I also see compared practical use of things too.

Jarrett Fuller: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. That’s kind of … that’s exactly the way I’ve been picking up at it too, where I really do see it … I see the value in it, but I also see how that just puts up divisions that, you know maybe don’t need to be there and can make, you know discourse better and make it so, you know a graphic designer can learn from the things that you and your students are doing.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: Uh-

Sara Hendren: I mean one of my colleagues would just say, uh, I got, um, … What do designers do? They represent-they represent ideas.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: So they’re-they’re un … they’re un … they’re discontent with ideas in the abstract and in your head or in bullet form or equation, they need to being represented, you know and/or referencing it off that.

Jarrett Fuller: Oh, we’ll said.

Sara Hendren: That’s very super, super distilled.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And I think … and if I was to say like, right, what is my-what is my kind of like restless impulse is to say impose form on that thing, like have that idea out in the world. And sometimes it needs to be unresolved and kind of like rough around the edges and like meant to get under your skin. And sometimes it’s meant to kind of really suggest a new pathway like and, and to really alter the way world, the inherited world is, but and it’s represented. I have to get it from here out here and that’s the process. I don’t know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, no. I love that. That’s … I have never, I’ve never heard that definition and I … and so, yeah, that’s great. I-I really, I-I have never heard that before and-and I’m all over that idea. Uh-

Sara Hendren: It works, I think, yes.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah. My last question is something that kind of just encapu-encapsulates everything that we’ve been talking about and-and I-I-I almost hesitate asking because it almost feels reductive after all of this, but I’m really curious about how, you know your background and just kind of studying, you know the history of ideas and critical theory and, and these sorts of things. What is the … just like very simply, what is the value of having that type of knowledge?

I … So, I’m, you know I’m getting my MFA now and it’s in graphic design, but I’m getting a concentration in-in critical theory and so I-I, you know I agree that it’s important, but my undergrad education was none of that, it was all very formal and very about how to make things. Uh, you know, what’s-what’s the value in-in that that you see to kind of incorporate that into a design process?

Sara Hendren: I don’t think that’s reductive at all. I think that’s, um …

Jarrett Fuller: (Laughs)

Sara Hendren: I mean I am wrestling with this right now and I’m realizing, so I can decide whether to say that my career path has been circuitous or whether or instead that it has been actually, uh, a really zigging and zagging wide, traverse over a lot of disciplines.

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And from that, I am drawing from a really wide trough now.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: You know like I’m really … I am able to kind of recollect and the readings that I did … I get far outside my fields and … of my fields in the sense of disability. Like I’m-I’m really working with … I’m lucky that I got liberal education, you know.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And to … So, uh … I mean the thing that I … I’ve just wrote an email to engineering students this morning saying, you know Austin Kleon, you know that [article] “output problems are input problems.”

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: And just most designers and engineers, I think, if anything they suffer from input problems and I don’t mean reading like, you know …

Jarrett Fuller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Hendren: And gadget and those … like those obvious things.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: I mean really trolling wide, wide, wide and-and setting up deliberately on adjacencies and stuff like that. I just think you have to be, um, numerously curious. I mean, to me, that’s like a … that’s like a most important thing to be a good designer.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah, yeah.

Sara Hendren: I think to me, it supersedes everything else. Like a kind of deep, deep curiosity about the world and literally in-in every way, because that’s, you just have no idea where good ideas are going to come from. I mean I have a writer friend who says that curiosity is a holy thing.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Like you should-you should always pay attention to it. Like if you’re just passing by the news stand and like stuff on the magazine cover that you’ve never bought before is calling out to you, you should like this just … just like don’t question it, just like go and kind of idly … So, uh, I’m lucky that I … I mean it took a lot of, again, zigging and zagging and some of that was inefficient and I was underemployed and whatever for awhile.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah (laughs).

Sara Hendren: But I also feel like, wow, I had a lot of … But when I was in college I did a lot of staring at the wall like a lot of reading poetry, a lot of-a lot of-a lot of input, you know, so I feel lucky that I’m benefiting from that now and I think not to sound like an old, you know like it’s only the humanities in the old form. It’s not bad.

Jarrett Fuller: Right.

Sara Hendren: It’s like, you know it’s the truly-the truly cosmopolitan and global culture. Um, but I-I must say I’m more and more, I’m less about skills and more about, um, philosophical nourishment, you know, historical form of nourishment.

Jarrett Fuller: Yeah.

Sara Hendren: Yeah.

Jarrett Fuller: I love that and I-I feel like that, you know, really does kind of embody how I see your work and how I see the work that you’re doing

Sara Hendren: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jarrett Fuller: And so I really, um, appreciate the work that you’re doing and I love kind of seeing what you’re working on. I’m looking forward to the book and I really loved this conversation, I thought it was so great and so interesting. So, thank you so much for, uh, talking with me.

Sara Hendren: Of course, yeah, yeah, a pleasure, a total pleasure.


Listen on iTunes, Soundcloud, scratchingthesurface.fm, or download an mp3. Links from this episode can be found here.

Scratching the Surface is a design podcast about the intersection of criticism and practice hosted by Jarrett Fuller. Each week, Jarrett interviews designers, writers, critics, educators and those that operate between these fields about how writing, criticism, and theory informs individual practice and the graphic design profession at large.