How Designers Stay Productive While Working From Home

Our designs address the realities of modern living. But with modern life upside down, what’s a designer to do?

Written by: The Editors

Design at Herman Miller is an inherently collaborative activity. In a time of social distancing, however, how might designers continue to solve problems through a process so intrinsically social? We posed this conundrum to some of our favorite design partners. We’ll share their answers here as part of this ongoing series. Together, we’ll all navigate this strange, uncharted territory from our individual homes and home studios.

Finding the Good

with Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel often says that life is our biggest project. Working on that project in the midst of a pandemic and its resulting anxieties can be difficult, but the designer finds herself rising to the challenge. From her home in New York City (which doubles as the studio she shares with her husband Bibi Seck), the author, speaker, and designer is on a daily quest to embrace our current reality with optimism and empathy.

Ayse Birsel,Designer

On the Present Moment
If someone would’ve told us even a year ago this would be happening, I don’t think we could’ve even started to imagine this crisis. But, being in the middle of it and acknowledging how difficult it is for many of us on so many levels, I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for rebirth and transformation. In design, constraints are opportunities, so I think we need to put our designer hat on and think like designers. Currently, we’re very close to it, so it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity. But the world is going to change, and I would like to think that it’s going to change in some positive ways.

On Finding Calm
One thing that I noticed is that I’m very much affected in a negative way by the news. So I’ve been practicing what a friend of mine calls “media distancing,” which has helped me greatly. The other things that help me get out of my head—to forget time and space and the situation—are drawing and thinking creatively. I also find it helpful to take time out of your day to make a list of everybody you love and send them a note.

On Connecting
I’m part of this community my friend Marshall Goldsmith created, the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. As soon as the crisis started, he started daily calls for anyone and everyone of our community who’s interested to join and talk. He said one thing that resonated with me: “Through these calls, if I can help one person …” And I thought to myself, “Can I do that with my community—starting with Design the Life You Love?” And I also thought, “If I could just help one person …” So then it started with 15 people, and now we’re about 50 people who meet up every Wednesday at 5 for a Virtual Tea. I don’t know if it’s helping anyone else, but probably the number one person it’s helping is me. Because it gives my week and days a sense of meaning and purpose.

On Balance
I’ve had so many conversations with people who are making time for working out, making time for calling family, making time for reading a book, making time for themselves—whether it’s meditating or napping. They never really talked about those things, let alone practiced them. I see, there’s this incredible intentional approach to asking: Is my life balanced? Did I work out today? Did I read something that inspired me today? Did I call my friends today?

On Laughter
One of the things that I realized I needed more of was laughter, and a friend of mine suggested that I start watching stand-up comedy. I started with Dave Chapelle. And I think he’s a genius. He says, sometimes we’re too close to things. It’s like being in a room with an elephant; if you’re right next to it, you can’t see that it’s an elephant…You need distance between you and the elephant to understand what it is. And he tells this beautiful story of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement, and how if it wasn’t for this incredibly tragic happening in history, Civil Rights wouldn’t haven’t happened—or wouldn’t have happened quite the same way. He does a beautiful telling of that story which shifts your perceptions, and it makes you think. Right now, we’re too close to the elephant to see the good that might come out of this.

Moving into the Unknown

with Kim Colin and Sam Hecht

We reached longtime Herman Miller collaborators Kim Colin and Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility as they were both recovering from COVID-19. While their cases were relatively mild—culminating with an annoying cough and two weeks without taste or smell—the experience has already begun reshaping their views on the future. They predict a heightened awareness of health and well-being as design and society move forward.

Now that you’ve both recovered, what has been the biggest challenge for you as you transition back to work?
 Probably the biggest challenge is that our process is far more analog than one would imagine. I am not just talking about drawing things by hand, but we constantly need to physically make things, and that is an iterative process—gradually allowing a design to reveal itself. Like any craftsperson, we need a model shop with machines and 3D printers. This cannot be replicated working from home on a laptop. We need to make one mistake after another—until there is rough equilibrium of desire and function, long before a client even sees our intention. These are important steps in the process.

So, to address the crucial nature of our model shop, we implemented a rota-system whereby only one of us can be in the model shop on any given day. This protects all of us and reduces virus transmissions to the community, while still allowing this analog creative act to take place. I can’t deny that it continues to be challenging, but by supporting each other, it’s manageable.

How are you compensating for the loss of meaningful impromptu interactions between colleagues when only one member of your team can physically be in your space at a time?
 Impromptu interactions are important—absolutely. As Sam said, our process is often tied to mistakes. The mistakes reveal new directions and refinements. These sometimes remain mistakes until someone sees potential or even misreads them, and it’s not possible to replicate this so easily between people on schedule via video chat. Good ideas can’t be scheduled. I cannot think of one of our designs that has been created without lengthy, ongoing conversations. So at distance, working from home, we try to connect regularly and even informally, to capture some of the spontaneity that propels the thinking in the work through conversation. There’s a lot to talk about right now!