In both professional and personal capacities, Ian Rolston’s life has revolved around new places and experiences. A native of Barbados, Rolston’s family relocated to Toronto, where he would go on to work at Yabu Pushelberg and HOK, before relocating to Atlanta and working at HBA. After traveling the world and building a strong foundation in design, Rolston realized he needed a change, leading him to launch Decanthropy.
The Toronto-based innovation studio pushes beyond “human-centered design” to achieve “life-centered design,” as he puts it. This philosophy of equity is embedded into each layer of his firm—from the team to the projects they take on. “It’s critically important for our practices and our professionals to ensure that they are well and that they’re whole, so that [the environments we are] producing support wellness and wholeness,” he says.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Ian. Ian, thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?
Ian Rolston: I’m well, thank you, Stacy for having me.
SSR: Yeah, excited. Okay, so we always start this podcast at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
IR: So I grew up in Scarborough, in Toronto, Canada.
SSR: And were you a creative kid? What were you like as a child?
IR: Yeah, I think I was creative, but more the quiet creative type. But loved early on playing with building blocks, creating different worlds with my figurines and Transformers, and then later really found an affinity for just sketching and drawing.
SSR: Were your parents creative or did you have any early influences?
IR: Not at all. I think maybe creative in how they approached life and survival. I think my parents were genius at making things work for four kids in a new country and all those wonderful things. But in terms of the traditional arts, no. I don’t know where it came from. It just sort of happened.
SSR: Yeah. And when you say a new country, had they come to Toronto recently?
IR: Yes, from Barbados. So that’s my background. I don’t know why my father did this to me, moving from lots of sun and sand and sea to… Although yes, a beautiful country in Canada, but very cold at times.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. He definitely traded beach for winter.
SSR: Do you go back to Barbados ever? Have you visited there to see family?
IR: I do. Yearly we go back. We have a lot of family, a lot of love and a lot of connection to what we call the rock, the island.
SSR: Amazing. Amazing. Do you have any early memories of design or hospitality or anything? Did you travel as a kid? Did you go on road trips? Was there any early experience that might have hinted at forming an early love of what you do now?
IR: Yeah, I think mine really formed from making the connection between being able to create something on a page, which for me translated to I could think of things and imagine things and make them come alive on a piece of paper. And then I think slowly becoming aware of these spaces that we were occupying, places and people doing strange things. Hopefully this doesn’t sound creepy-
SSR: No, not at all.
IR: I think I was a people watcher early on, just sort of curious about why people were doing the things they were doing, why they sat in that particular place, or why were this group congregating? What was happening? What were they talking about? So I was really curious about what these people were doing in these places.
SSR: Yeah. Well, I think that’s really important to watch how people use space. So you were ahead of your [inaudible 00:03:36].
SSR: So did you end up going to school for design then?
IR: I did. Purely out of panic. My parents, like most immigrant parents, were very keen on me going into what is considered a professional career, which would have been for them, a lawyer or a doctor. And so when I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to go to art school, she got this very serious look on her face and she just simply asked, “How are you going to make money doing that? How will you support a family?” Which was her major concern. But I was really honed to be proficient in math and science, and my father really wanted me to go into some engineering field. And I just sucked at math. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t put it together. So I remember casting away all my art courses, English, and I focused my last year of high school on math and algebra and physics, and it just made me miserable.
So I wanted to prove to my father that, “Okay, I gave it a shot, but this isn’t resonating with me.” And I had a conversation with my art teacher at the time, Mr. Doyle, who really changed the trajectory of I think my life. He introduced me to an art college and said, “You know what? You should apply to this. But you only have two weeks to get a portfolio together.” So I don’t think my parents know this to this day, but I skipped school for about two weeks and just put together a portfolio and ended up getting into the art school. So I did a foundation year and then was accepted into the environmental design program.
SSR: Very cool. And did school help you secure your feelings for design? Did it help you kind of say, “Okay, this is what I should be doing.”?
IR: Yeah, absolutely. I think what school did for me was, and I didn’t know it then, but there was an art to telling a story with design and I wasn’t really clear on the process. I just sort of knew that it happened. And so at OCAD, the Ontario College of Art & Design, they were really big on your conceptual thinking and understanding that what you put on a page and what you intended to become real needed to be steeped didn’t in some type of story or connected with something that was meaningful. So I think understanding that really unlocked my curiosity about design.
SSR: And then after school, you went and worked for a few small firms, just kidding. Yabu Pushelberg, HBA, HOK. I mean Yabu was one of the big Toronto firms. Was that something you aspired to do or was that something you were hoping to do coming out of college?
IR: Yeah, when I finished school, I didn’t feel like I got enough, quite honestly. So I spent about 11 months sort of putting together a, yet again, a portfolio of ideas that I thought would resonate with specific companies. Definitely Yabu was on my list. So literally, I created a magazine for my portfolio, which was all about the story of me. Really [inaudible 00:07:12] my ego.
SSR: Do you still have this magazine?
IR: You know what, I don’t know. I should try to dig it up.
SSR: That would be-
IR: That’s a good question. But I dropped it off at the front desk at YP, and after I had dropped it off at a few firms and they gave me a call back and called me in for an interview and I had an opportunity to sit down with Glenn actually and walk through my portfolio, talk about design, and a couple weeks later I got an offer to work for them. And wow, like drinking water from a fire hose. It was amazing creatively. I think Glenn and George, I had an opportunity to speak with them, maybe three years, this was pre COVID, and many years later after I worked there, and I’m still a little in awe of them and how many designers that they have actually trained for the world of design. It’s fascinating the impact that they’ve had both on the profession but also personally in the development of individuals. So YP was an amazing experience for me.
SSR: Yeah. What do you think you learned most from George and Glenn?
IR: So it’s funny, I always remember this vivid story. We would have these design [inaudible 00:08:40] with George, and we would sit around the table, he’d sit and we’d talk through concepts and ideas, and you’d have to present what you were thinking about a particular portion of a design in a space. And you knew immediately when you lost George, he would sort of lean back on his two legs on his chair and you just sort of look up at the ceiling. And it’s not until you began to understand him, it wasn’t that he was ignoring you, but he was waiting to hear something that piqued his interest. So you got really good at just flowing and thinking and riffing on design and morphing and changing the direction that you were going. And immediately when you heard something that resonated, he dropped his chair and then he would be back focused on your trace paper, and then the conversation would continue. So I think from YP, I definitely learned that design is not something that’s final. It’s not your first thought. It’s a conversation that evolves and makes itself visible in the process.
SSR: Very cool. And so you stayed there and then you went on to HBA, right?
IR: Yeah. So I made the move from Toronto to Atlanta. I actually had an opportunity to go to the LA office, but quite honestly, I was a little afraid to move to LA. LA seemed really big to me at the time. At this time I think I 26, 27. And with all transparency, that was my first time being away from my family because everything I knew my world was Toronto and Barbados. So the thought of moving all the way to LA just seemed a little daunting. So I chose to move to Atlanta and work there under Howard Pharr and Sandra Cortner, and Greg Bates. There’s a great team of associates and I think leading professionals in the industry that really shared and showed the craft of design, how you actually build design, not just do it, but the process that it takes in order to deliver for your clients at a high level.
SSR: What kind of projects were you working on?
IR: So I worked a lot in the Middle East and in China. We did some work in London. And I guess my North American project that was really formative in my understanding of getting from concept to building was the St. Regis in Fort Lauderdale, which has recently been, well not recently, this is maybe 10 years ago, became the Ritz Carlton.
SSR: Oh, right, right, right. And what was it about that project?
IR: Well, I actually got to be the guy that showed up at meetings on a weekly basis. So I think the better part of a year I was going from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale two, three days a week coordinating with the project team. So the architects, the engineers, all the trades, and to be problem-solving in real time was just fascinating to me. I remember we had to reposition the stair to the front entry. And standing there sketching an alternative and showing it with the contractor and the owner was there, and just being able to make decisions on the fly, I think was key. It’s the first time that I realized that there’s a difference between what you draw on the page and actually what shows up in your life.
SSR: Yes, kind of a rude awakening.
IR: It was a rude awakening because you pour over your design, you’re looking at it through this sort of lens perfection of placement on the page or in CAD and that perfect piece of furniture that you’ve selected. And honestly, sometimes it just doesn’t work out when it shows up. So you have to be flexible enough to let it go and to make decisions on the fly.
SSR: Yeah, no, for sure. Letting go of all ego, right?
SSR: Not being too precious.
IR: Not at all. It’s funny, I just had a class yesterday, I’m teaching at a university here, and I told my students that perfection’s not the goal. It’s all about the process and you trying to make something a little bit better than it was before you arrived. And the look of relief on their face was a good reminder to me that I know sometimes in design we uphold these ideals, but it really is about the process and letting this notion of perfection go, because oftentimes the best things happen with the most imperfect intentions.
SSR: Yeah, I love that. And so you stayed with HBA for a few years, well almost a decade, right?
IR: Yeah, almost a decade.
SSR: Was there one project that you look back there besides the St. Regis that might have been career defining or something you learned the most from?
IR: Oh, there are a couple. For different reasons. I’ll talk about the Hyatt Changbaishan project where I had an opportunity to travel to northern China. We were working on a ski resort there, one of the first in the Hyatt family. And I remember showing up in northern China being the only Black person in this town and village, and literally walking down the street and having people come out of shops and stores and on the street stopping and pointing at me because I think they may have only saw someone like me on a television screen perhaps, but not in real life.
So for me, it’s sort of solidified this real need to connect and to collaborate with others that are different from you. But also that we do have an interesting language that we developed at design. And on that trip, I actually sat with a group of contractors and designers with the ownership group. I spoke no Mandarin, they spoke no English. And we conducted a three-hour meeting simply just using a lot of hand gestures and drawing. It sort of really impacted me just because there’s something about that, the power of a pen in creativity and a desire to communicate that allows you to tear down barriers and really allows you to have a conversation. So that was a really formidable experience.
Then I’ll talk a little bit about working on the DIFC in Dubai. It actually was the first product that I began to understand that our industry is connected with some pain.I remember walking the site and seeing a long line of migrant workers in blue jumpsuits lining up to board a bus. And I was struck by that because there just seemed to be this endless line of people. And in my mind I’m thinking, “Oh, they must be going back to their hotel. They’ve worked and now they’re going to take some rest and get ready for the next day.”
And it’s not until on my way to look at another site the next day that I saw where they were housed, that I began to understand that all of this glitz and glamour comes at a cost and that cost isn’t equal for everyone. So it really began to make me think more about the decisions that I was making as a designer and the purpose behind design, and it potentially having a broader scope of meaning for me, beyond just doing good work. But there was a human element that I had not been aware of until that moment.
SSR: Interesting. And how do you think that’s affected you moving forward throughout your career?
IR: Well, I think for me, there are two things. Being a Black male, I’ve always been aware of my difference in various settings. I smile now, but I remember showing up to a meeting, this was in Dubai, representing the mighty HBA/Hirsch Bedner, walked in the room and was just waiting for the meeting to start. And executives started pouring in, and a few of them asked me to get tea. So they were giving me their orders. So they thought that I was there to serve them, not that I was there to actually conduct the meeting. So there were assumptions that when someone like me shows up that are sort of shaped and formed.
IR: So it was sort of shocking for them to learn that, “Oh no, I’m not servicing the room, but I am here representing the company that you’ve hired to do a great project.” So I’ve always been aware of my difference. And I think in design that has served me well because you get to begin to understand, “Well, whose voices are not being represented in the conversation?” And that began to really shape a desire to be more inclusive in the design process and to develop tips and tools to try to work not only the conversation into the development process, but to really share conversations of why it’s extremely important to do so.
SSR: Okay, so taking all this into consideration, why did you decide to leave HBA and move on to HOK?
IR: So it was simply a life decision. It was time to move home. I had two kids in the US and my wife was really keen on moving back home because she grew up without having cousins and close family near to her. And she didn’t want the kids to have that same experience. We had great friends in Atlanta, but there was something about being close to mom and aunties and uncles that she really wanted the kids to have that foundation. So we decided to move back home.
SSR: Great. And what was it about HOK that intrigued you, or what was it about the opportunity that also helped make the move?
IR: So what was interesting is, so HOK is this sort of global giant in design. And having spent most of my career, in fact all of my career, designing retail or hospitality environments, it presented an interesting opportunity when I sat and met with leadership around infusing hospitality into other sectors of design. So that intrigued me to see how this really, I thought, exceptional sector could really impact the workplace or transportation or even stadium entertainment design. So to make the leap and to take all of this skill that I had learned in developing hospitality environments, to see how that could impact other sectors was an intriguing proposition. So that was one of the decisions. I also met a fantastic design leader in Randa Tukan, who I think modeled for me the best design leadership that I’ve ever experienced in the sense of understanding the connection between your life as an individual and the life that you are interjecting into your projects, and how those things needed to be in balance to do your best to work.
SSR: Amazing. And so what kind of projects were you able to work on at HOK?
IR: So we worked on a few airports, both in your city and in Toronto here, various workplace projects. I spent a good deal of time helping the team. We had great experts at HOK in workplace design. So I got to collaborate with a few offices, both in the US, in Hong Kong, also in Toronto, on shaping thinking behind the workplace. Also, some stadium work, which was very unique and interesting to me, very fun and a culture unto itself, which was great to see how design was built in that sector. And so yeah, it was quite a mix. Some medical facilities, it was really cool.
SSR: How did you take your experience? Because I feel like there’s such a blur these days, hospitality influences, stadiums and residential, and I feel like the last 10 years or so there’s really been a blurring of the lines. So how did you take your hospitality, your retail experience and try to put that into this new context that you were entering?
IR: Yeah, I found one of the things that you start with as a hospitality designer is the story and how you want that story to connect with not just the end user, but with the context of the project brief. So to bring that lens in creating how you are creating connections with different touchpoints within a project I think was unique to some sectors in terms of planning and approach. And I think it was, what I call, this idea of going slow to go fast. So building the right sort of narrative and story upfront that you could then connect your design decisions to in order to deliver an experience that is unique for the client.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. Was there one project there that you learned the most from, or was the most challenging? I mean they’re all challenging.
IR: They’re all challenging, but I think sometimes… I don’t want to name names or projects. But I think the process of getting design delivered sometimes for various sectors don’t necessarily allow for you to consider the human impact of your decisions when you’re thinking about schedules and delivery and metrics that the client has predetermined. Sometimes there’s not a lot of patience to rethink some things. So I found that on a few projects there you had to work extremely difficult to help your audience listen to how you wanted to position things. So being met with resistance made you have to understand other points of view besides just the end result of design. Creating a whole language around metrics and data triangulation and needs beyond just the aesthetic was critically important, even from a financing standpoint to understand the finance of the project so that you could speak in different stakeholders’ language was critically important to actually getting design decisions passed.
SSR: Yeah, no, for sure. Somebody was asking me, a student, what would I suggest that they go do to be more successful? And I said two things. I said, “One, go learn how to be a good public speaker. Take public speaking classes so you can be not the loudest but effective voice in a room.” And then I also said too, is learn the business side, because I don’t think… I mean you’re a teacher now, you’re not really taught the finance side of what goes into what you’re designing and ROI, especially in today’s world and climate, so important for owners. Is that something now you’re trying to teach others now that you’re a teacher or help them understand there’s a business side of things?
IR: Absolutely. I think there are two key things that I think first, there definitely is the business, but there is also everything that business is connected to. So when we start thinking a little beyond just human-centered design to understand the impact of life-centered design to ensure that you are understanding that your decisions as a designer have implications that go beyond just your moment or just beyond the need of the client at the time to impact things that are critically important to ecosystems and the environments, people’s livelihoods, social and economic positions and challenges. We have to actually make better decisions as designers.
And through my studio now with Decanthropy, we say all the time that life happens in all the spaces that we create. So what we do as designers is critically important because I love the narrative that people meet and fall in love in a space that’s designed, you as a mother and a critical important part of your family provide care and insights and help to your family in a home that someone has designed. And when we finally cure cancer, it’s going to actually be in a space that is developed and design. So how do we as designers enable this critical work has to stay at the forefront of what we’re doing, whether it’s in a hospitality space or any other, there’s a very human responsibility that we have as designers to deliver good work.
SSR: 100%. And even more so today than I think in years past. So what made you decide almost five years ago to go off and launch your own firm, Decanthropy, that you just mentioned? It’s not easy to take a leap of faith, especially from bigger firms that you’ve been working at and having that, not comfort, but having that backing of a larger operation. What was it, and what propelled you to do to make that change?
IR: Right. I think, if I’m totally honest with you, I stopped believing in design in that context. It began to become something that we did, something that we delivered and was increasingly disconnected from the outcomes that I believe that we could drive as designers. Quite honestly, it was beginning to have a little bit of a negative impact on me and my life. We sometimes shy away from talking about the difficulties that designers experience within the industry. There’s great research, I think it was from Ivy Exec that besides EMTs and social workers, designers experienced the most burnout and challenges of professions in the world, which is shocking when you sort of look at that.
IR: So the decision to move on was to follow a core belief that I had that there is a better way to deliver this work and to do it. And it was my challenge and pursuit to try to do that in a way that was meaningful. And understanding that it meant having to understand how we arrived at this point in design, through getting more involved with education, and with understanding the process and the systems that feed into why we delivered design the way that we do.
SSR: So tell us about your firm. And taking that into account, what did you want to create? What did you want to design? Is it more of consultancy? Just tell us a little bit more about what you have created over the last five years.
IR: Right. So Decanthropy is an innovation studio that we are really focused on embedding what we call structural equity for people, processes and projects. We sort of liken ourselves to social engineers that are really beginning to understand systems that we’re designing for so that we can create better decisions that show up in the physical environment. So we do an incredible amount of thinking and changing how people view design. One of my key goals was to change how people think about design. So we spend a good deal of time with executive groups showing them the power of inclusive design methodologies and equity approaches as sort of a first primer to you have to see the world differently in order to do something different in the world and spaces that you’re occupying. So from there we then work through a series of strategy points that really, again, uncovers what we call really solving the right problems.
I have found that through my experience, it’s been great delivering solutions from a design standpoint, but we’re not always solving the right problems. So through our methodology and great collaboration tools and conversations, we actually pinpoint the correct problems to solve within the built environment. And then we look to actually support that within the physical environmental design of spaces. So that’s sort of what we do, but I think at the heart of the studio is to really impact what I would define as our accountabilities to design, because every decision that we make has an impact. And we have to be mindful that we’re in an industry that contributes to about 40 to 45% of global waste period. So we’re having a significant impact on the world that we are living in currently. So beyond sustainability, there are key elements that we are affecting in people’s daily lives. So we need to be mindful of that while still having fun and doing work that’s meaningful.
SSR: Right. And what kind of projects are you working on? Anything?
IR: So I’m currently working on reimagining what living looks like for adults with intellectual disabilities in a 250 unit tower and creating community. So the fantastic thing that we’ve been able to do with this group is through our lens just with hospitality and understanding systems, is that we’ve pinpointed the correct problem to solve. And it is addressing really stigma associated with these members of our community. So it’s been our charge to define and create pre-design strategies to help this team of developers to really position design thinking around how we can create better spaces to support and build a community, which has been fascinating for me. Then we also have a project in Barbados, we are looking at really to bridge the gap between elder care and childcare and what we would describe as a hospitality approach to creating community between these two groups.
I always remember, this is more of a family story, in our family our elders pour over the young ones. I always remember my mom being astonished at the care and patience that overflowed for my kids, that I didn’t get when I was a kid. The candy, the juice, the, “You can have anything you want.”, sort of mentality that happens when older people are in the presence of kids. There’s this great sort of human exchange. So could we use that as a perspective to design a space that would help support aging in a more human way?
SSR: So taking everything you’ve learned from the past couple of decades, what have you pinpointed that really works as the solution for creating this community, right? Because I feel like a lot of people talk about it, but what are you doing to really infuse this and rethink how this living complex should be?
IR: Right. So I think one thing that hospitality definitely does really well is it talks about the journey and the customer journey. What I’ve been able to discern from that through my experiences and with Decanthropy is that that journey is defined differently across different groups. We just call it the spectrum of humanity. So once you understand that really the journeys are unique to lived experiences, and we call that really representational design, that you can have better conversations when you position people and what they need as individuals first. Secondly is what they need in terms of their groups that they identify with. And then third, the collective, how those groups fit within wider groups and communities. So being mindful of those needs both as an individual level within the groups and collectively allows you then to think about how you position opportunities within space for connection, collaboration, perhaps even conflict resolution. So it’s that journey that I think in recognizing that it’s different for people across the spectrum of humanity that’s critically important to designing spaces that are effective.
SSR: And since launching the Decanthropy, has the joy come back, has the love of what you used to do been reignited?
IR: It absolutely has. And I feel at times as if I just don’t want this to end. You’re faced with and there’s the realities of running a business and wanting to do the right thing. So it’s this balancing act of really wanting to do the work that impacts people in the way that you feel is meaningful without compromising to the degree just for the sake of profit. And I don’t say that to be disparaging, but it is a real struggle. And I understand for business owners and companies, we start businesses for profit. That’s why businesses exist. So we can’t remove profit out of business. But I think if we can align purpose with the profit in ways that are more equitable, that I think that we can do better work.
And we like to say that building humanity is better building, so we try to focus on that. And in all the spaces, whether it’s hospitality, whether it’s a retail space, or whether it’s trying to find solutions, oddly enough, that are at the sort of periphery of design. For example, food waste, how do we address that? I’ll tell you a quick problem that we’re trying to solve specifically in Barbados, there is a 40% uptake in food waste showing up in landfills at the peak of tourist season. But there’s an enormous amount of food insecurity on the island. So why is that? There’s a hospitality issue that we need to solve. Because when a hotel shows up in a place, it’s not always good for the people that are there. So even rethinking our development models is something that we’re very keen on doing so that we’re developing and creating experiences, not just for those to come and experience our hotels, but we’re also enriching the lives of the places that our hotels sit in. I think that’s a critical important part of the conversation as well.
SSR: Yeah, there’s so many big challenges in this industry, like you said, sustainability, food waste, equity, how do you as one firm slowly tackle those? For those that are trying to do similar things that you are, what advice would you say in trying to start making change? Because it can be very overwhelming.
SSR: How do you focus and one step in front of the other to make a difference?
IR: I’ve I think stolen this term, I heard it once and didn’t know what it meant, but don’t boil the ocean. You have to really pinpoint through good slow analysis of where you think you can influence or impact an issue. And oftentimes I tell designers, perhaps start with the products that you’re specifying. When you look at the ecosystem of the finance for design, we have an enormous amount of influence over the product that we’re picking, how it’s made, the resources that are used to make it, how far it travels to get there. So we can make better decisions by simply understanding the nuances of our specification process and simply making different choices.
I also say to at least try to make one significant change in whatever you are doing or responsible for on a daily basis. Just try one change, one small tweak in the process that can actually speak to inclusion, can speak to equity and see what happens. I also share that I lose a lot during the day. I hear no far more than I hear yes. But it’s my desire to get to the yes that keeps me just… Going back to the story with Glenn, I think that was formed there. You just keep having the conversation until you change someone’s mind. So yeah, one win, one small win at a time.
SSR: Baby steps. Baby steps.
SSR: All right, so couple of quick questions before we wrap. What part of the process do you love the most?
IR: Honestly, I believe looking at what we call the human factors. So this is connected to stakeholder analysis, but understanding where failure happens in systems of design from a human perspective. And we miss that as a critical step in a lot of our design practices because we are a people business. Nothing gets done in design without people. And if your people aren’t well, they tend to design from that perspective and your designs don’t really meet and serve the purposes that they should. I know that from personal experience. I know what it is to design when you’re not well. And I think it’s critically important for our practices and our professionals to ensure that they are well and that they’re whole, so that what they are producing is reflective of that position so that it can support wellness and wholeness in the environments that they’re designing.
SSR: Yeah, love it. And then has there been one memorable trip or travel experience or hospitality experience that has changed your mindset or has stayed with you?
IR: I remember this was another trip to China, I was working on a project designing a Chinese restaurant, and I just sort of thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m a Black man from Canada, from West Indian heritage in China trying to design a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people. Something’s wrong here.” So for me, it is about understanding that the processes of design is about sharing knowledge and designing together, and that there isn’t one perspective of design. It’s critically important to understand, and this may be a little controversial, design is a construct. Design has happened across every culture on this planet, through every people, throughout all time, from Paleolithic to present day, design happens. When we’ve defined it as interior design, we’ve created sort of a metric or a framework of what good design looks like in interior design. And I think part of our new challenge as designers is to call back into design the other influences from other peoples and cultures to inform it in a way that can actually speak to a broader spectrum of just humanity.
SSR: Yeah, no, 100%. I couldn’t even imagine, how did you even approach that? Did you just get other people’s opinions? Did you do research? Do you remember how you approached it?
IR: Yeah, I remember admitting that, “I don’t know how to do this.” Which I think is difficult for designers to do because we’re trained to have solutions. So to confront the fact that you don’t have this was difficult. Because at the time you’re working for very powerful firms, in the room with people that have made it to the top of the profession, and you are the one that’s supposed to know. So to try to take a step back and say, “Can we actually incorporate some more voices and perspectives into this to inform this work?”, is a bit humbling. But I think it’s necessary when you’re designing for people that just have a different experience from you.
It’s only now that I know that from a cultural and design standpoint, our brains are actually formed very differently from culture to culture. We literally see the world differently. Whether I am an African man or an Asian woman, my brain literally has been shaped and formed differently. So we have to understand how other people see the world and through their lenses. And we can only do that through collaborating with people that are different and have different experiences, lived experiences. So it’s okay as a designer not to have all the answers.
SSR: But it is, it’s hard to swallow that and then realize that more voices usually turn out to have a better outcome.
IR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
SSR: Tell us one thing about yourself that most people might not know.
IR: I secretly really wish that I could be a bass player in a funk band. I’m trying to learn the bass now. I’m horrible. But the bass player to me is what I want life to look like because the bass player, he’s the one in the band, she’s the one in the band that is always having the most fun. So I definitely want to be the bass player in the band of my life.
SSR: So we always end the podcast with the question that is the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?
IR: I think the more of yourself that you put into your work, the better the outcomes are. And I don’t mean in the sense of working hard or working tirelessly, but I think just your authentic self that expresses care within the decisions that you’re making as a designer will change the directory of your outcomes and processes immensely.
SSR: Well, thank you, Ian, for such a thoughtful and inspirational conversation. I loved spending this last hour with you.
IR: Stacy, you’re the best.
SSR: Well, thank you. So are you. I hope I get to see you in real life soon.
SSR: And have a great rest of January. I don’t know how it’s January, but-
IR: I know.
SSR: Yeah, well hopefully I’ll see you soon. And if not, keep in touch on all you’re working on please.