Best Jury Duty Ever: White House celebration of the National Design Awards

I had a remarkable trip to DC to attend the White House luncheon celebrating the 2009 National Design Awards. As a member of this year's jury, I was honored to be a part of the process, and learned so much from my fellow jurors, who are each experts in the various design disciplines recognized by the awards. So being invited to attend a celebratory event hosted by The First Lady was clearly icing on the cake. I'll share what I can remember from the whirlwind proceedings.

We congregated at the East Gate to clear security. The line was filled with a who's who of the design world: Francisco Costa, this year's winner for Fashion Design; Michael Bierut, last year's Design Mind Award recipient; Tom Kundig, last year's architecture award recipient; Lisa Strausfeld of Pentagram and a finalist in this year's nascent Interaction Design category. And the list goes on and on...

Here are a few of the specifics:
  • A mix of Presidential china (Bush, Eisenhower and Truman), a practice unheard of prior to Mrs. Obama. Here's a photo of the dish that served up my delicious dessert:

    Lovely dessert

  • Toy robots sat amongst the flower centerpieces; these struck me as an unusual choice, and at the event, no one gave any explanation as to their significance. I read later it was a reference to technology and innovation. In any case, they allowed us to take one home, and I snagged a lovely, red, "Lost in Space" model:

    White House luncheon souvenir

  • The portraits of all the former First Ladies were lovely to look at. Unlike the Presidential portraits, which feel more formulaic, these paintings of Presidential spouses seemed to truly reflect the tastes and unique character ad style of each subject. Here's my favorite, of Jacqueline Kennedy:

    My favorite of all the First Lady portraits

  • Members of one of the nation's military bands (ashamed to say I don't know which) offered a beautiful musical backdrop:

    Musical military

  • I cherished each small memento of the event, including my place card:

    My place setting

The First Lady sadly only stayed long enough to delivery some nice remarks about the importance of design in society and the role that designers play in firing the imaginations of the next generation. She was then quickly ushered out of the room as lunch was served. As I fumbled to get my camera, she walked by me in her striking yellow suit, and she was gone.

In thinking back on the whole experience, I must admit that meeting so many design luminaries in one setting was kind of overwhelming. Which brings me to the big conundrum of the event itself: when faced with a limited amount of time, does one focus on the people, or the extraordinary setting? Trying to take photos, meet every amazing person, and follow all the protocol required in such a setting, I didn't take much time to really soak it in and live it while it was happening.

But I did get to meet many remarkable people. And I did see many amazing sights and soaked up many of the details so painstakingly planned by The First Lady's staff. Below is a slide show of all the photos I took at the event. And if you're looking for great coverage of the foodie details, check out Obamafoodorama's blog post. Enjoy!

OMG Vivienne Tam HP MiniPC

I'm not sure I've ever had such a girlgeek moment as when I opened this amazing package from HP. I had given a couple of speeches to their design and innovation teams, and they sent me this as a lovely thank you gift:

Vivienne Tam HP MiniPC

The size is perfect; truly fits in your purse. And the red hardware is hot. I'll feel like a secret agent when I use it in cafes. While the red satin holder isn't particularly functional, I figure it could always work as a lingerie bag. HP, you really know the way to a girl's heart! Here are the rest of the photos....

How Eva Zeisel helped me lose 75 unwanted pounds on my 10th wedding anniversary

Favorite things: Eva Zeisel dishes, originally uploaded by margaretgouldstewart.
When I got married at the ripe old age of 24, I pretty much did what my elders told me. Part of the list of do's when you're about to say "I do" is to register for china. So I paged through magazines and settled on a very "of the moment" Wedgewood pattern called Clio.

We received 14 place settings of the stuff, and when I calculate how much money was spent on those dishes, I feel a bit ill. Years went by, and the china gathered dust. It was too fancy to use every day, and we didn't really have parties that seemed fancy enough to justify unpacking it.

After 10 year of marriage, during which time I had developed an allergy to unnecessary stuff, I horrified my mother by unceremoniously selling it all on eBay. Oh, and I sold the Waterford crystal, too. I hope that whoever bought it enjoys it for years to come. I used a portion of the proceeds and bought a set of Eva Zeisel Classic Century tableware, reissued by Crate & Barrel, and have never been happier.

Not only do these dishes elevate my cooking, but they work in every context. We use them for Sunday pancakes and dinners, for holiday meals, and even for weeknight suppers when we get our act together to cook a real dinner. They are timeless, lovely, and dishwasher-friendly. I'm pretty sure my grandmother would approve.

Audio books to the rescue!

I have three kids. They love stories, but they hate long car rides. And we haven't yet succumbed to giving them their own iPods or personal gaming device, even though they have threatened to call child services about this travesty of justice.

Instead, we have discovered the key to peaceful, happy road trips: audio books. Having tried a lot of them, I thought I'd share our favorites. And when I say "our", I mean both the kids and the grown ups get caught up in these narratives, and the miles melt away until we seem to magically arrive at our destination, our familial relations in tact. Hope they keep your family rolling along as well....

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (audio CD, downloadable)
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (audio CD, downloadable)
James and the Giant Peach, particularly delightful due to the performance of Jeremy Irons (audio CD, downlodable)
My Father's Dragon (audio CD)
Magic Hoofbeats (Book and CD)
Barefoot Book of Faeries (Book and CD)

Incidentally, any Roald Dahl title is sure to be a winner. His characters and their voices and dialogue are a pure joy to listen to, for kids and parents alike.

The wisdom of swim teams

Watching my kids' swim meet this past week, I couldn't help but wish that as adults, we approached life and the struggles we face like the 6 and under league. At a swim meet, there are the kids who are seemingly born to live in the water and can complete their cursory 25 meter lap in no time flat. And then there are the others who struggle, looking like they are half-drowning, who barely complete the race.

The remarkable thing is how the crowd responds. Everyone marvels at the naturals, whispering about Olympic hopes and at a minimum, college scholarships. But it's the kids who struggle...REALLY just finish the lap, who get the standing ovations. And rightfully so; do you know how much more effort it takes to swim THAT badly?!

What if we treated our adult-selves with a little dose of that enthusiasm and support. Instead of shying away from the things that are hard and don't come naturally, we'd embrace the struggle and recognize and reward the courage and tenacity it takes to do things that, well, we kind of suck at.

If you are a parent or a people manager (two activities which I can say from experience are remarkably similar), do yourself a favor and check our Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The title makes it sound like an airport gift shop "business optimization" snoozer, but in fact it's one of the more interesting reads about human psychology I've come across, and it's been highly influential in how I talk with my kids and my team members at work about facing and embracing challenge.

Of course, unless I want to be a compete hypocrite, this means I will have to face my own fears. Learn to use Excel. Take a statistics course. And agree to let my husband clean my clock in a game of Scrabble.

Mini-tent fetish

Mini tent fetish, originally uploaded by margaretgouldstewart.
What is it about the mini-tents that stores like Target and REI have on display? They are so tiny and cute. Maybe it goes back to our childhood fascination with the miniature; think Polly Pocket, mini tea sets, etc. As children, it's comforting to have tiny versions of things; it makes us feel big and powerful in a world where we are regularly told we are small and powerless.

Or maybe they are just tiny and cute.

Fondazione Prada sneak preview

While in Milan for Design Week this part April, I was treated to a private tour by Germano Celant, Director of the Fondazione Prada, of the Foundation's new headquarters, still under construction just outside the heart of Milan.

The space, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is extraordinary, as it transforms an early 20th century industrial complex into a state-of-the-art exhibition and performance space. The collections the space will house, are equally impressive: Prada's archives, visual art of all sorts, and space for performances and festivals. Looking forward to the opening....

Thomas Eyck's Flax Project @ Milan Design week, April 2009

Thomas Eyck’s latest offerings were featured at the Dutchness show during Milan Design Week 2009. Each year, a material is chosen; some humble, basic material that has served people in utilitarian ways throughout the ages. That material is observed, researched, explored, and reinvented by a chosen designer in a modern context. Past subjects include wool and pewter. Last year, Christien Meindertsma’s knitted poufs were coveted by many and picked up by Design Within Reach.

This year, the lucky makeover was given to flax. Meindertsma explored many uses of flax, from candle making to rope to fabric sacks, and created re-imagined versions of these quotidian objects that transcend the pure function to new levels of beauty. My personal favorite? The most evocative extension cord I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an interview with the highly personable Eyck, whose enthusiasm for his designers and their work made the installation even more enjoyable to experience.

And here are photographs of the work featured in this year's show...

Many thanks to Paul Thompson and Cara McCarty of The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum for providing me the opportunity to meet Mr. Eyck and many other luminaries during Milan's Design week. I'll be featuring additional interviews by Tom Dixon, Kenya Hara, and others in the weeks to come....

Ted 2009 Notes

I'm a manic note-taker and doodler. It's the only way I can ensure that I pay attention! So when I had the opportunity to attend the TED 2009 conference, I decided to fill a sketchbook (I actually had to start a second one because the first one got filled up!) of insights and observations from the amazing agenda of speakers.

You can access the whole set in my Flickr stream, including annotated links to all available talks on YouTube. The folks at TED were nice enough to feature them on their blog, too. If you haven't seen Ted Talks before, you are in for a treat. Carve out some time, prepare your mind to be blown and expanded, and enjoy.

Design: Creatvity in service of others

A few months ago, I served on the jury for the National Design Awards, an annual event organized by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Serving on the jury was one of the most exciting experiences and biggest honors of my professional career. It felt as though I got a free year of graduate school in just two days! I'm looking forward to celebrating with the winners, finalists, and fellow jurors this fall during the Museum's design week and gala.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post for their blog that I wanted to share here as well. In it, I shared some thoughts about the design awards, the process of jury deliberation, and the role of the designer as creative problem solver.
As a member of the 2009 National Design Awards Jury, let me first and foremost congratulate all of the winners and finalists. It was an exciting, exhausting, and inspiring process to review all the submissions and debate the merits and accomplishments of each. As a designer who has spent most of my career in the digital realm, I found it fascinating to delve into the categories that I am less familiar with as a practitioner: landscape architecture, fashion, and architecture. And my fellow jurors, each experts in their own fields, were so generous to the rest of us, sharing their insights into the peculiarities of their own discipline, and putting the many different portfolios into a larger context.

Let me make an admission: as a designer of software and products driven by technology, I have a bias towards functionality. Working at Google for a few years has certainly made that bias more pronounced. I enjoy intellectual design, and the kind of work that blurs the lines between art and design, but I also am fairly adamant that chairs should be comfortable to sit in; cups should have reasonably ergonomic handles; and shoes…well, I do love beautiful shoes, and in this realm I foolishly let go of my bias to favor style over comfort. But in most respects, and certainly in my work at Google and YouTube, I am a Bauhaus girl. So what philosophy is right? Does great design have to be functional? Is communicating an idea enough to make a product well designed?

There were certainly interesting exchanges about these timeless debates during our two days of deliberation: what distinguishes design from art? I’ve thought a lot about this since the jury convened, and I’ve come up with something I know to be true for myself. As a designer, my goal is to take my creative faculties, and those of my team, and use them in service of others. When I reflect on the impressive array of candidates for this year’s award winners and finalists, I was so inspired by the many ways these master practitioners have succeeded in improving the lives of people in so many ways. It could be through putting technology to work for humans, and not the other way around; creating spaces for living and working, both indoors and out, that bring out the best in ourselves and in each other; producing housewares that are a pleasure to hold and behold for decades; creating exquisite clothing that makes the wearer feel beautiful; taking complex issues of the day and helping us understanding them better through visual explanations; and finally, using design to prompt humankind to care for the fragile resources of our planet.

And what about beauty? The Shakers thankfully gave us the greatest lesson on how to marry design and art: “Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

I am proud to count myself among the community of terminally curious, compulsive problem-solvers that make up the design world. And I look forward to watching new designers emerge in the years to come who will brazenly tackle the problems that, though we may not recognize today, will undoubtedly impact our future.

Margaret Gould Stewart
User Experience Manager, YouTube/Google
2009 National Design Awards Juror

Maker Faire 2009

I was delighted to attend the Maker Faire preview, thanks to my friend Stuart Gannes, who works with the Maker crew. I brought my friend, Maggie, who'd never been before. I knew it would rock her world because she loves crafts and she loves geeks. For those you aren't familiar with the phenomenon that is Maker Faire, I often describe it as "Martha meets MIT", or "Like Burning Man, but everyone has their clothes on." In any case, here are some photos I took, and some even better ones by Maggie.


Bathroom math, originally uploaded by margaretgouldstewart.

I was at a school supply store buying chalk for our giant chalkboard wall when I came across this graphically hot Pi chart. There were other school room posters equally alluring, so get thee hence if you want to find cheap art AND brush up your math skills (or grammar, or history, or foreign language)....

UI Commentary: Pandora takes the blame

Pandora takes the blame, originally uploaded by margaretgouldstewart.
"I'm sorry, I had a small problem while saving your feedback. It's my fault."

Having too many times heard users in the usability lab blame themselves when they can't use a broken UI, I found this message refreshingly honest and reassuring.

Durability and anti-trend: the new sustainability

One of the big themes at this year's Milan Furniture Fair seemed to be sustainability. No surprise there; "greenwashing" is all the rage, with seemingly everything being promoted as "made from recycled", and firms and products broadcasting their carbon footprint to the world.

But a more intriguing angle is the sustainability of timeless, durable, and anti-trend goods which last, in terms of use and relevance, for decades. What's more green? Buying 5 different sofas made of "environmentally responsible" materials over the course of a decade, or a single piece that may not have a LEED pedigree, but that the owner uses throughout a lifetime? We'll never make a real impact on our consumptive ways until we get past our fickle, trend-obsessed, everything-is-ultimately-disposible attitudes and behaviors.

How did this manifest itself in Milan? Tom Dixon's self-described "plain" designs, Thomas Eyck's collections based on humble, traditional materials such as flax, and Royal Tichelaar Makkum's wonderful, homey cups and dishes that seem optimized for comfort food. Video interviews with each of these designers to be posted soon...