Design is a Drop of Beauty in the Slop Bucket

What Its Progressive & Dangerous Capacities Mean to Me 
Also published on Medium.


I’ve been a designer so long that I sometimes think I was born one. But that’s not true. We often reinvent our backstory as if a single path was carved out of it. It just doesn’t work that way.

I was always creative and curious, but so were you. That’s childhood. Creativity was just a way of life—not an outlet, a medium, or a craft. The idea of picking one field to devote your energy to eight or more hours a day confuses the hell out of me. I see how we may need some of that, but I think we’ve gone too far. We’ve assembly-lined the talents and aspirations of human beings.

“Working 9 to 5, just to stay alive
The 9 to 5, just to stay alive
All the people on the planet
Working 9 to 5 just to stay alive
How come?”

-Beyoncé
 

Beyoncé gets it. God is she everything. Her music videos are the art form of our time; not just beautiful, their aesthetics are political. Her music speaks of all that makes us sink and all that we hold onto. Her work bring us together. We’re all in love with Beyoncé.

Design interfaces with everything.

Some writers say they knew they were writers when they were 5 years old. Sometimes I feel jealous when I hear this. 

I took in and wanted to be—everything. Design became the mechanism for me to interface with as much of the world as possible. But I didn’t really learn about the world with the awareness that any single point of view is inherently misrepresentative, before setting out to “change it.” Interviews and post-it notes on a whiteboard don’t constitute an empathic perspective.

Design is not always pretty.

Some things can’t be made beautiful. The flaws and injustice of history are not something we merely inherit; we actively contribute to the good and the bad whether we’re aware of it or not. Ta-Nehisi Coates has helped me understand some of that. Reading his book Between the World and Me and not being black is like eavesdropping on a story I don’t deserve to hear, but want to. I’ve tried to reconcile what his truths mean to my own kaleidoscopic purview, how they translate to my life, my work, and the power or futility of design. The Dream, as he calls it, is invented but more real than anything. You know what brings about something that’s invented but powerfully real? Design.

Design is incredibly dangerous.

Concentration camps were designed. The incredible bodily violence of trench warfare in WWI was designed. A lot of bad things out there were designed that way. And some of the bad things happen because well-meaning designs fail. That’s a lot of responsibility. Yet we treat the term and the profession today like this light-hearted, optimistic, good-for-all given. A society for hedonistic coffee lovers and iPhone users. Like all that matters is that we want to make things beautiful. But nobody is “not a racist.” Nothing is objective. Damage to someone somewhere is waiting at every corner and always has been—to the black “race” way more than to me, but also to all of us who don’t realize we’re a complacent part of a system that condones this damage. So what do we do?

You don’t have to be black to interrogate your world, to do as Coates urges his son, to

“find some way to live within the all of it.”

This inherently means something different for each of us. For me it means bringing about better ways to learn. It means finding ways to help people be engaged, to share their voice and get their rights. It means we should use whatever works: an app, a movie, a book, a protest or a vote. It means we can change our mind and change minds. It means we should let ourselves be uncomfortable, and know that intention is meaningless. It means being conscious of the fact that we can never be aware of all the prejudices involved in the act of creation. But we can try.

Design is a tool for progress.

Most of all, I think we should know that progress—or a drop of beauty in the slop bucket—can’t happen with just individual people or projects. One app, one movement, one politician is never going to be enough. It’s not Twitter, it’s what people did with it. It’s not Bernie, it’s his honesty and his ability to bring people together around common, crucial interests. It’s his record of getting people out who never voted before. IIt’s that he encouraged people of his Conservative-leaning state to educate themselves about their farms and their cities and their schools and their health, and then that state realized it didn’t really want to be Republican after all. It didn’t even want to be Democrat. It just wanted to be heard and get legitimate shit done. People came together and did just that. That’s amazing.

Whatever your politics, that’s what we have to design for. My uncle Giannis in Greece keeps various slop buckets in his kitchen; he collects the water from washing dishes, the scraps and egg shells from his cooking, and he puts it all toward something good. The egg shells are baked slightly then used to nourish the soil. The cucumber peels feed the chickens. The water flushes the toilet. There’s a lot you can do with a slop bucket.

left: My uncle Giannis and me / right: His chickens feasting on tomato skins and fig peels

left: My uncle Giannis and me / right: His chickens feasting on tomato skins and fig peels

So go start a company or something.

I’ve been working the past couple years as Head of Product at a startup that might be folding soon. I gave my heart and soul to our product—an iOS app for young parents to get relevant advice from other parents. I put in everything you have to put in for a small, new thing to have any chance at life. But I also saw myself as more than this work. With a crossroads on the horizon, I took a hard look at all my different work as a designer and formalized it into a practice called Wolf Dog Design. I named it after my dog, who looks like a wolf. His name is Bandito. “Bandito Design” was taken.

I wanted a unifying direction in my work. I wanted to articulate the belief that design should happen in a thought-heavy, strategic, multi-layered way. I wanted to prove that design is so much more than the salaries on AngelList that are always less than the developers’. I wanted to set something down on the table so other people who see their work in similar ways have a reason to come sit with me. Maybe we could even make stuff together.

Launching a company seemed to be the way to make that happen. In all actuality though, all I did was reserve an LLC name and make a website. On Squarespace. No big accomplishment there. But people from all corners of my life poured out their loving congratulations when I announced it this past Monday.

They expressed a desire to see my future unfold and I thought,

“Wow, maybe I’m a fraud.

…All these people believe in me, but what am I really doing for anyone? I want to probe, I want to write. I want to make things happen, not make things pretty. I’m talented, but so fucking what? What does my life add up to?

So I sat, I thought, and I wrote this. It’s my bio for Wolf Dog, so it’s all “I this, I that” and not a lot of “we.” But it’s the story of how I got to hoping for what The Imaginary but Nonetheless Powerful Collective We can do together. It’s about what matters regardless of whether I end up being a designer for life, or morphing into the writer that’s constantly tugging at me from the inside. It’s what I’m up to and why:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Wolf Dog Design

Wolf Dog Design grew out of my desire to morph my work into a formal strategic design practice that takes as its starting point a keen awareness of social and cultural conditions.

I work on sculptures and writing in tandem with design. I think writing is the noblest of dedications, the most human way to spend our time. Design should aspire to the level of gestation, critique and invention that good writing is so adept at producing.

My sister is a maternal fetal medicine specialist, an obstetrician gynecologist with an expertise in high-risk pregnancies. I think that’s a pretty noble use of her time, too. There’s a lot of shit that can happen to you or your mother before you're even born. She makes sense of it all and does her best to bring life to things. Symbolically I'd say that’s a worthwhile pursuit for any of us.

I was born in Greece, grew up in Texas, and have lived around the world. I’ve always had a lot of identities to sort out. I’ve always loved it.

In the last few years of designing apps from the ground up, I’ve been working on methods to apply multi-variable, multi-scalar thinking to every aspect of product design. I’ve never designed something without tying in the big picture purpose to the individual interfaces and interactions of a mobile community. Things should be beautiful, intuitive, sure — but not only that.

I believe our collective efforts should be oriented toward societal awareness, education and community engagement. I don’t believe in a false narrative where a single product or person can “change the world.” I think the most important thing we can work on is teaching how to know what’s going on.

I’m proud to be a Marshall Scholar Alumna. After my undergraduate background in architecture, I studied urban design at University College London, and developing world urbanism at the London School of Economics. I’m forever grateful to the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission for those two years and all they led to.

When I went on to the Doctor of Design program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), I thought a lot about the relationship between culture & aesthetics in various media. My advisor was K. Michael Hays (no relation), a man of unparalleled intellect and creative openmindedness with a genuine love of his field. He understood me when I attempted to string together fuzzy ideas in words while scribbling out diagrams that communicated them. He guided me to go further, make it clearer, think more. I absorbed countless sources of inspiration, cherished the intellectual community, and savored the freedom to devote myself to thinking, wondering, questioning. I carry that on into my work today.

During my doctorate and after I graduated, I taught at Northeastern University. I loved my students and the idea of a class as a collective thought project in conversation with the whole history of the Humanities. And yet, l felt somehow outside of things: a misfit in a system with its fair share of constraints. I wasn’t sure I could use teaching to make something remotely as valuable as my advisor and other role models had done.

So I turned to technology as my field of hope: hope to continue thinking in multiple scales, to investigate the world around me in past and present, and to be free enough to design things that get made — beautiful things that might just spur some awareness, perhaps even some kind of social good. And if they don’t — if our design efforts are aspirational but flawed and mobile technology turns out to be unequipped to bring people together toward progress — well then, there’s always still something to take in. There’s always something to write about.

And that’s where I’m at now.