Terry Irwin: Designer & Educator

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Terry Irwin is a designer and an educator. Her creativity and imagination has paved a way for over 40 years of experience leading teams at international design firms as a Creative Director working with Fortune 500 clients, holding faculty positions around the world, and ultimately landing in Pittsburgh as the Head of School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. With a game changing curriculum to place design for society and the environment at the heart of the program, see how Terry uses Pinterest to curate mini-exhibitions and also for a final project in her classes.

 

Can you give us a quick background on your work, how you became a designer, and ultimately landed in education as a Professor at Carnegie Mellon?

Two things led to me to become a designer and educator: 1) My father was a typesetter at the newspaper in my home town, so I grew up around letterforms and printing, and 2) I love to learn and would stay in school for the rest of my life if I could. During my 40 years career I’ve tried to maintain a balance between practicing, teaching and studying design. This wasn’t easy or lucrative, but it’s been incredibly challenging and rewarding.

In my early career I worked for large corporate identity firms such as Landor Associates servicing clients like Sony, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Asiana Airlines and Hyatt Hotels. In 1992, during the early days of Silicon Valley and the internet, I co-founded the San Francisco office of MetaDesign with partners Erik Spiekermann and Bill Hill. Designers were just beginning to explore how they could shape digital environments and experiences. It’s amazing to have lived through the transition to today where we see digital communities like Pinterest bursting on the scene.

Since 1986 I’ve also been an educator. I have learned more about design from teaching it than I have practicing it. I’ve served on the design faculty of Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, California College of Arts and Crafts (CCA), San Francisco, Schumacher College, England and the University of Dundee, Scotland. I’ve taught a wide variety of courses including color theory, typography, letterform design, information and interaction design and, in the last ten years, courses related to sustainable design.

In 2007, while my husband and I were living in Scotland, I was contacted by the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and was invited to apply for the job as Head of School. It was one of those calls that come out of the blue, but looking back, it seems as if it was inevitable. I’d had almost 10 years to explore a new territory of ecological studies and my PhD work gave me the opportunity to think deeply about how I thought design needed to change and in particular, how design education needed to change. Since joining the School in fall of 2009, I’ve been leading re-visioning efforts and I’m excited to say that in fall of 2014, we will launch all new programs and curricula at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels.

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Over the years, you’ve probably seen a transformation in design. How do you keep up with evolving style, voice, trends and especially technology?

There has been a tremendous transformation in design just in the past 20 years, largely a result of new, emergent technologies. In terms of style, I don’t try to keep up with it. I think style itself holds more meaning and is more ‘fun’ when you’re young and learning to design. You’re trying on different styles, scanning culture, immersed in trends, even sparking trends. That’s one of the great and essential things about youth. You are learning what is meaningful to you (and others) and most importantly you are developing a vocabulary and ‘voice’. At some point I think one’s focus shifts. My vocabulary and voice had matured by the time I was in my 30s, but what I choose to apply it to as a mature designer is constantly changing and always exciting.

Trying to keep up with trends and technology is like running on a treadmill; you’ll never catch up and will eventually become overwhelmed. I don’t even try. I’m a naturally curious person and am interested conceptually in technology. I am deeply aware that for the first time in human history we are connected on a planetary level and have the ability to communicate almost instantaneously no matter where we are. In contrast, we are living in times that will demand that we become ever more mindful that we are always embedded in place and each place has its own distinct characteristics, boons and limitations. Some people call this awareness ‘cosmopolitan localism’; the ability to share information globally and apply it appropriately and responsibly through place-based solutions and lifestyles. I should add that I mean analog lifestyles—not solutions that only exist in the digital realm.

My interest in the long-term objective of how we design the transition to a sustainable society keeps me engaged in emergent technologies and design solutions. I probably wouldn’t stay as abreast of what is going on if it were simply to ‘keep up’…I would find that boring. As far as style for style’s sake goes, you might call me a dinosaur but I believe in form following function.

We noticed you’re an active Pinner with over 7k pins! Your “Now you don’t see this everyday” boards and “Multiplicity in Unity” boards are very captivating and organized. How does Pinterest fit into your inspiration and discovery process?

When I first started pinning I created boards on topics that already interested me: color, form, wire things, Living Systems and Boston Terriers (who as everyone knows are the world’s best dogs). Later I became inspired by the river of images that is the live feed, and was struck by the absolute absurdity of many things. That gave birth to my “Now, you don’t see this everyday” and “Creatures” boards.

I especially like my Creatures board because they are things living and non-living, representational and non-representational, vernacular and formal works of art. It’s the unplanned juxtaposition of images that makes the ‘whole’ greater than the sum of its parts. For example, an image of the back end of the Antares Rocket looks like a face and it sits next to a metal Anatolian Idol which sits next to a live Stone Fish on the sea floor and he in turn is next to a magnified image of a Black Vine Beetle. Where but on Pinterest would you ever see those things next to each other and have a relationship to one another? Because they have been decontextualized, or rather, re-contextualized, these creatures share a new, common world on equal terms with each other. When you enter the board you quickly suspend belief and see all of them as creatures with individual personalities. My Round Things board is similar. I have collected round things for years and wanted to see what a Pinterest board would be like. Round Things is a wild juxtaposition of anything round. I have intentionally not included many works of art because real and vernacular round things seem to create more unexpected and even delightful juxtapositions. I’ve had more traffic (and cloning) on the Round Things board than any other.

My Multiplicity in Unity board is something of a private joke. Most people will think it is just photos of collections of things that are similar. It is actually based upon a concept developed by the poet and scientist, Wolfgang von Goethe who developed a process and theory of the observation of how organisms change, grow and differentiate. Philosopher/physicist Henri Bortoft in his book The Wholeness of Nature discusses this concept in depth. For designers it is an interesting way to think about wholeness and the design of artificial form. I simply set myself the challenge of trying to capture this concept with images. I’ve even got photos of Goethe and Henri in there amongst the multiplicity of images.

I use Pinterest to curate mini exhibitions, I don’t use it like a bulletin board for my recipes or craft ideas like many people do and I don’t want to see those things in my live stream. I want my own boards and my live stream to be a river of inspiration and calm, not another source of static and ‘chaff’. That said, I do find Pinterest useful when I need to search for something. I often go to it before I’ll do a google image search or turn to a stock photography site.

What inspires you outside of Pinterest and your workspace?

Beauty. Mindfulness. Simplicity and clarity. The small acts of cooperation and kindness that are all around us if we look for them.

Watching things grow is a tremendous source of inspiration to me. The transformation of living form has much to teach designers. When we lived in Scotland our bedroom looked out at rolling farmland and it was amazing to watch the cycle of year: the brown freshly plowed earth, the first tinge of green as the wheat shoots broke the surface, the rippling waves of green, maturing wheat that would suddenly turn golden at harvest time. Watching that cycle kept us grounded. We all spend so much time at the computer in a digital landscape that we can become ignorant of and disconnected from these larger cycles and rhythms that we are embedded within. This disconnection is one of the roots of many wicked problems.

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I’m inspired by good science fiction and by found artifacts. My husband and collect odd ‘things’ from our travels as opposed to taking photographs. Our house is full of inspiring oddities.

In general I’m very inspired by visual form. That’s probably why I’m such an avid Pinner. I develop my boards to be visually inspiring—to me. Sometimes when I need a break from work I look through one of my boards. I’ve chosen each image very carefully so that each time I scroll through those images I feel inspired, excited and it feels like a place of respite and beauty.

We took a peek at your Design History board, which you use for the Carnegie Mellon curriculum, and we’re intrigued. Can you tell us more about using Pinterest in the classroom?

I taught a design history course last semester with 61 students and got the idea to use Pinterest because I had just become a user myself. I was very impressed with the educators who were using Pinterest, especially art historians who had scholarly captions for the images. This showed me that you could use text in a more serious way alongside the images. Because of the limited number of characters, it becomes an interesting exercise in being clear and concise, which is a good skill for design students to learn.

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To test the idea I created a board called the History of the Gas Light. Using about 30 images I wanted to explore how design was connected to the invention of gas light technology. I found images of gas light fixtures but I also looked at how the design of gas lighting influenced society through cultural norms, art, literature and music. I even found a connection between the design of gas lights and Jack the Ripper; he preyed on women in the poor and poorly lighted areas of the city. Neighborhoods that could afford gas lighting had lower crime rates, so socio-economic divides within a city like London were apparent at night simply by looking at the level of outdoor illumination. These are the kind of dots I wanted my students to connect within their Pinterest boards.

Creating a historical narrative on a Pinterest board is a challenge because you can’t change the position of the individual pins. To place pins chronologically on the board I and my students had to create secret ‘holding’ boards where we threw everything and then later were able to decide in what order the pins should appear. We had to pin the images onto the final board in reverse order. We created boards for 10 different eras and the students selected one design or invention that embodied that era. Students worked in teams of 4-5 people and made their final presentations directly from the Pinterest application. The students enjoyed the challenge of working in a new medium and because the majority of your Pinterest design team are recent alumni of our program, the students knew that they were working with an exciting new digital environment designed by people that had only recently been sitting in the same classroom that they themselves occupy. It was incredibly gratifying experience for all of us!

 

What is one piece of advice you have for designers looking to step into the professional world today?

You’ll probably be surprised at my answer because it has nothing to do with the practice of design but everything to do with designing one’s life. What I always tell young designers at the beginning of their career is ‘don’t get into debt’. You’ll have more choice, more ethical wiggle room and be able to pursue the unexpected if you don’t weigh yourself down with all the trappings of pseudo success. Ask ‘how much is enough’. Moreover, ask what constitutes success. And, keep asking it over the course of your career and lifetime.

 

Thanks Terry for letting us take a ride inside your imagination! If you want to see what Terry is designing or curating next, visit her Tumblr and Pinterest boards!