For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers: Mike Dacey of Repeat Press

June was a pull-out-all-the-stops fantastic month for the Creative Somerville Series. Our speaker Mike Dacey, founder of letterpress studio Repeat Press joined us as a shining star in Aeronaut’s week-long celebration of their first year of business. Dacey was part of Aeronaut’s “Neighbor Night,” which he fit in with perfectly, given his role as a founding member of Fringe, a Union Square-based shared work space, hosting over 15 local businesses, and given his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process in Somerville.

Learning Letterpress

Mike’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. He got interested in skateboarding, and from there, with its graphic culture. He realized that someone was making the graphics that would show up on his board and got interested in graphic design.

CSS 061715 Mike DaceyThe college he attended, Hampshire, in western Mass, was by chance, located at a major hub of an almost lost art, wood type printing, due to the region’s historic paper mill industry.  took advantage of Hampshire’s open-ended curricular opportunities and sought out an apprenticeship with a local printer. “I think I emailed every letterpress shop in the valley and said, ‘Can I come hang out?’” he says.

Dacey was fascinated by the craft and he was ahead of the curve on the current explosion of interest in letterpress. He described walking into shops and getting looks from the middle-aged printers. “What are you doing here?” This is where old men hang out.”

Dacey eventually found someone to apprentice with (this mostly entailed putting letters back into their boxes, he says) but who let him play around with his own creations as well. And after school it was a no-brainer to continue the work and try to build a letterpress business. He bought his first press (being ahead of the curve meant he could afford it) and set up in South Boston.

Repeat Press and Fringe

Dacey found a space to set up his studio and started printing as a side hustle. He printed for local bands and honed his craft–including eventually adding contemporary letterpress using custom plates to his skillset, instead of just existing wood type blocks.

After a short interlude in Philly, Dacey returned to Boston and eventually moved over to Somerville motivated by friends and cheap rent. Business was picking up, and among other things, his band friends started to get married and ask him i he printed invitations. At some point, the workload was high enough for Dacey to quit his job.

When Dacey speaks about Fringe, and why it worked he speaks with passion and purpose, “A big thing that sets Fringe apart from other co-working spaces is that Fringe was founded because people needed space to work. It was never about making money. People have more ownership over the space. The community aspect is something very different from other spaces around.”

Fringe generates what Dacey calls “internal foot traffic.” Members not only pool resources and advice, but they’ve built a small ‘ecosystem’ in which clients who are brought in to work with one member, often find themselves being introduced to and hiring other members.

Dacey relayed the story of Cuppow, a product brought to life by the Fringe ecosystem. A drinking lid for a mason jar, the idea was architected by one member, who went to another for engineering and manufacturing advice and help. Soon, many of the Fringe businesses pitched in, helping with branding, packaging and more, thinking, as Dacey recounts, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.”

And while at the end of the summer, Dacey will be the only founding member of Fringe still in the building, none of the businesses based there have closed because they went out of business or grew out of the space, notes Dacey. rather, they moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them out of Fringe.

The Future of Fringe

When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey tells us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. They’ll have a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a multi-year commercial lease, which means a lot of uncertainty for the businesses based there. Part of Somerville’s creativity, he muses, was that its cheapness made it easier to take risks. “Somerville used to be a place where you could start something without a lot of money,” he says.

Dacey says in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He’s joined in as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square and the new green line stations to add in the perspective of the local maker-based business community.

Creative Juice

When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey is clear that its relationships, and not just craft that is driving him. As the excitement of letterpress and his own business have become more moderate over time, more of his passion comes from the Fringe community.

CSS 061715 crowdMore than a few local business owners see him as one of their core sources on business issues. During Q&A, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complements him on his business advising, and Dacey tells another audience member to be confident charging fair compensation for her work. “You shouldn’t feel bad charging for your time when you like what you do. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that, you should feel lucky.” If there’s anything he’d tell his younger self about running a small business, he says to not be afraid to make investments in resources or help. “Don’t be afraid to pay people for stuff you don’t want to do, like taxes,” he says, and after a pause, adds, “do your taxes.”

When asked about his dream project, he similarly says that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” citing his relationship with local branding studio Oat. What he’s most excited about in his life now, are his friends, many of whom he works with on a daily basis. And why he loves Somerville? “You have all things about a city but it feels like a community, a neighborhood.”

Thank you Mike Dacey, happy first birthday to Aeronaut, and happy neighbor night to all.

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on July 22 with Mimi Graney and MaryCat Chaikin, founders of Relish Management.

Happy Graphic Accidents & Blog News

I’m working on a project for a client that’s really fun and graphically rich–I’m sure I’ll post some progress and finished work at some point soon–the project is just moving so fast. I usually believe in documenting while doing, but….hey sometimes you can’t live the ideal.

Sometimes, while mapping or rendering, or creating graphics for projects I’ll end up creating an object of beauty by happenstance. These ‘accidents’ trigger something in me aesthetically that I just love and I can see how they can spur other artistic possibilities and spinoffs for them.

Here’s a few images I created recently for this project. Stripped of their contextual information, they read a little bit like a John Cage drawing. I really like them, their proportion, movement, balance and color and I hope you do to.

(click on the images to see close ups.)

Happy Graphic Accident 3-01

Happy Graphic Accident 1-01

Happy Graphic Accident 2-01

On other topics I have two pieces of news:

  1. I will be scaling back my posting on this blog from roughly two posts per week to about one. I started this blog to put into focus some of the things I was learning as I navigated aligning my work more tightly with my values and interests. Happily, this has happened! But now I find myself with a lot more to do, and less time to write about it. Blogging has been invaluable to my process, though (and I’m pretty sure my mental health as well) so I will be continuing to write, just on a lighter schedule. In the coming months you can also look forward to more posts on client work, the things I’ve been getting up to that are keeping me busy.
  2. I am taking a social media fast. This post will go out on twitter automatically, but I am taking a week’s break from actively posting to social media. I used to be a social media hater (“how can you say anything meaningful in 140 characters”) then I became a social media lover (“I can find out the most interesting things directly from the people I find interesting.”) Lately, however, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time on social media, thinking a lot more about my posts and anticipating/waiting for likes. That was the sign that I needed to cut myself off for a while. I love social media, and I’ve connected with some wonderful people and communities with it, but I need a reset.

That’s it for now. See you next week and in the meantime enjoy the eye candy.

Hitting Fifty! Looking Back at Five Months of Blogging

When I began blogging in November I didn’t know what the process would have in store for me. I didn’t set out to start a website and build my ‘tribe’ and I didn’t even know how long I would be doing it for.

I only wanted a place to think ‘out loud’ and sort through everything I was learning.

But consistency has paid off and it’s played a strong but background role in helping me shape my interests and ideas into action.

Blogging has helped me give shape to ideas that were ambiguous and tighten nascent connections among my endeavors.

I wanted to take a moment of celebration for ‘hitting fifty’ by calling out five of the things that have shifted for me since I began blogging that I am really excited about.

#5: I Founded the Creative Somerville Series.


This speaker series, which I run with Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat features local creatives and entrepreneurs in an intimate Q&A format, that eschews the ‘fabulous life of…’ approach that a lot of lectures end up at. Although the series is young, we’ve been sold out for every event we’ve hosted, and it’s clear the series is resonating with people.

I’ve loved being inspired by our speakers, the founders of Aeronaut Brewing, Kate Balug of Department of Play, Erin Heath and Rose Mattos of Forêt Design Studio and Trevor Holmes of Wistia. I’m also meeting wonderful people (see item #1) and love working with Elyse and our slowly growing crew of volunteers. Want to join in? Check out our schedule here.

#4 The Build Yourself+ Workshop is Taking Off.

Build Yourself Workshop_Old Girls Club

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop, an empowerment workshop for women at the Boston Society of Architects for the first time this spring and it was absolutely fantastic. Evals that came back from the workshop are showing that the experience was life changing for many women.

I’ve always had plans for taking the workshop to the next level but a wonderful piece in Fast Company from a few weeks ago has expanded the workshop’s visibility and the workshop’s focus and challenge-based model is clearly striking a nerve. I’m looking at expanding the workshop to other cities and to other fields.

Want to join in the conversation? I’m moderating a panel at the BSA bringing together women in different fields this week, and next week I’ll be part of a National Endowment of the Arts webinar on women in social impact design.

#3 Issues of Impact Have Risen to the Top.

I’ve always intended to use my design skills in service of social impact, but blogging has helped me define a more sophisticated approach, language and set of strategies that I specifically use. Months ago, when I first started blogging I wrote this epic post (it was a manifesto of sorts) on how I thought landscape architecture could drive health outcomes.

That impact focus, driven in part by learning about lean startup concepts, has become a core part of everything I do, whether it’s the challenge-based model of the Build Yourself+ Workshop, or the strategy behind work I’ve been doing for clients. I’m currently taking an Acumen fund class on “Lean Impact Assessment” with my research partner Gilad Meron, and Katie Crepeau of the Impact Design Hub and am excited about how the class and our conversations. I’m excited to continue expanding my take on impact-focused work, and to investigate some instincts I have about how impact assessment can be more creatively driven.

#2 My Research on Social Impact Design Business Models was Funded by the NEA.

Social Impact Design Research Funding

Ok so it’s not really fair to include this one as a blogging-related outcome, since we laid the groundwork way back in the fall when our research group, Proactive Practices applied for the funding.

PrintBut this was my first self-initiated project in the realm I work in: The intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. I can say that I have used this blog as a platform to explore that intersection and draw out key connections and insight and direction. The blog has also demystified writing for me, and made ma a more confident, easy and fast writer, which I know will come in handy as we move forward with this project.

#1 I Have a Crew I Love Here in the Boston Area.


Most importantly, blogging has been a behind-the-scenes organizing force for me to learn, meet new people and get deeper into the city I’ve lived in for almost five years. Blogging gave me a place for reflection, a way of pacing out life, a week at a time, and a way to ‘file away’ thoughts as I met people. I’ve met fantastic folks in the area, and through events like the Design for Equity conference this fall, the Creative Somerville Series and the Boston Society of Architects.

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re surrounded by great people who you respect and admire, and they’re really digging each other? I am starting to feel that way in the place that I live and that’s a huge blessing.

I’m not going to conclude this post with a “and here’s to another fifty!” I’m going to conclude with a feeling of gratitude that slow steady progress can spiral into so much more. Here’s to so much more.

photo credits: featured image adapted from flickr user Elaine. Creative Somerville Series photo by Ben Holmes of Aeronaut. Build Yourself+ Workshop photo adapted from Nina Chase.

Mood-Enhancing Videos

I am known to be an earnest person.….And sometimes, maybe a little bit too much of a serious, almost literal person. I very easily slip into “Super-serious Mia.”

But it turns out, “Non-super-serious Mia” is just as smart as her serious twin and she’s way more fun to be around. And maybe even, a little bit more creative too.

So what do I do when I need to flip out of serious me zone? Do fun weird things (like fill water guns with margaritas and bring them to parties) and of course, listen to the right music.

Here are three music videos that I love with a passion. They are insane and colorful and hilarious in that really wacky sort of way that I like best.

Move Your Feet-Junior Senior

Great workout song, so can’t beat that. I just love that insane squirrel that wants to blow everything up at the end. I could watch him blow up the dolphins and the tops off of ice cream cones forever.

Sophisticated Side Ponytail-Brite Futures (formerly Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head)

Gabe Fine introduced me to this group and for that I will forever be grateful. They made all their music when they were in high school. The exploding glitter cat at minute 1:30 is my favorite. It occurs to me, as I write this that I may have a thing for explosions.

Dance Thief- Con Bro Chill

These folks are a former boss’s cousins and their friends. Just love the neon. How can you not? This song is also eminently danceable. I highly recommend their other videos as well. Especially the one in which they wear color-coordinated neon leisure shorts suits.

What strange loves spur your creativity?

The Story Behind the Build Yourself+ Workshop

Tonight I kicked off Build Yourself+ the empowerment workshop I founded for women in design at the Boston Society of Architects.

The workshop is one of those things I created that I didn’t really sit down to plan–I just knew one day it was something I needed to bring into the world.

It’s funny though, now that I’ve been practicing as a designer and researcher/activist for years, I don’t really believe in the idea of design as a ‘flash of inspiration.’ I think that when we look back, a lot of ideas and breakthroughs that seem like they came all at once were actually in the works for weeks, months even years. I like to think of them as individual beads. We’ve collected them but they are waiting for a project. In a moment, in a flash of insight, we suddenly string them together into a strand, and they acquire a new meaning, but that meaning could only be created because we’d patiently gathered what we needed to make it.

So here’s the true story. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. Maybe it runs in the family–my mom is a sassy, empowered social worker single mom. Apple, tree, whatever. I was arguing about patriarchy in religious classes at 12, and in high school, struggling with the lack of female role models in my youth group, I decided I would do an independent study with the school nurse on gender. (Way to narrow it down, Mia.) And yeah….I read The Feminine Mystique for fun. And then tried to set up a discussion group on it.

Early Threads

In my first year college, I took “FemSex,” an extra-curricular workshop that had been imported to Brown University by a UC Berkeley grad. FemSex, short for ‘The Female Sexuality Workshop’ was intense: Our work for the semester was framed as ‘me-search, not research’ and assignments included a a speculum self-exam, and writing an erotic fantasy. But the most intense classes of the workshop were actually the body image unit, in which every student made a collage that expressed how it felt to be in her body, and the night that we talked about moments our boundaries had been crossed.

founding the build yourself workshop-03I was asked to facilitate the workshop after my class ended, and went on to facilitate the workshop for a few semesters. In FemSex I saw people both pushed and encouraged (and often it was a little of both) to look at really tough, internal issues. I saw them do it on their own but in the context of a group of women (and a few men) who were on the same journey. I saw them struggle–and I believe sometimes we need to struggle to growbut they didn’t struggle alone.

Fast forward. I was about to start grad school, and somehow picked up the book Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever on women and negotiation (we initiate it less and ask for less when we do it.) It spoke to me and of course I gobbled up the authors’ next book, Ask for It in which they cover practical skills to up our negotiating chops.

In Ask for It, the authors include what they call a “negotiation gym,” a multi-week series of exercises that slowly ramp up your negotiating skills. You start off by asking for things you don’t really want, or by getting comfortable hearing ‘no’ by asking for ridiculous things you’ll never get, and move on to negotiations in which you have more stake in the game.

I loved this book. Why? Because I am a doer, and the researchers turned their insight and data into something I could actually do about it.

A Feminist Cheerleader

Grad school didn’t leave a lot of time for activism (it’s hard to do anything when a 12-hour day is on the relaxing end of the spectrum) but over time I became a bit of an unofficial empowerment coach for people in my class. I offered to coach classmates whose work I thought was stunning, but who were always flustered when speaking, and undersold their projects before their reviews. I just  wanted their presentations to give their work the credit I thought it deserved.

I found myself in my last year, at a winter break get together with a lot of the women in my class. We started talking about the year ahead, and a number of women, whose work I envied, talked yearningly of firms they would love to work at–firms they were convinced would never hire them.

My hackles went up: “Don’t reject yourself before Kathryn Gustafson’s office has a chance to reject you….or accept you!” I exclaimed, exasperated. And then I issued a challenge: I told my classmates that they were going to write cover letters to their reaches within the next few weeks, and show them to me. “And if you don’t do it, I will be very disappointed in you,” I told them.

founding the build yourself workshop-02I thought of myself as the ‘tough love cheerleader,’ but I guess sometimes even cheerleaders mope in the locker room.

My moment came later in the semester. I was working on an application for a prestigious fellowship. My idea came together at the last minute, and I wrote the majority of it the night before. It was a horrendous process, because not only was I low on sleep, but as I wrote every paragraph, I was convinced my ideas were terrible, underdeveloped and the selection committee would just know how bad it was and how underprepared I’d been. I came into school that day ostensibly to print my materials, but really looking for someone to let me off the hook for applying.

I spoke to the wrong person. Caroline James, one of my studiomates looked at me when I oh-so-casually mentioned just not submitting after all and exclaimed, “Have you ever read Lean In?” You’ve got to do it.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you wont, but you’ll never know if you don’t, and maybe it will even open other doors for you.

It was a call to action, but I was also secretly ashamed. Here I was, telling talented people, mired in self-doubt to go for it, and I was looking for an excuse to give into that same self-doubt myself.

I rallied, and edited, produced and printed like a maniac, and came back after the rush, to thank Caroline for the kick in the pants I had needed. It was then that Caroline suggested restarting the then-dormant student group Women in Design which went on (under Caroline and Arielle Assouline-Lichten’s leadership) to launch the famous Pritzker Prize petition to retroactively grant Denise Scott Brown recognition under her partner Robert Venturi’s 1990 prize.

I published an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor on my experience as an accidental catalyst of the larger campaign, and as a personal encapsulation of the larger issues at hand. I laid out some nascent ideas about the importance of personal transformation linked deeply to larger campaigns for public change.

Later that spring, I attended a Women in Design meeting in which everyone introduced themselves and their goals for the group and saw that my interest in transformation on the individual level wasn’t resonating in the formal context of the meeting. Most people wanted to talk about campaigns and publications.

Bringing it Together

And suddenly, some time that spring or summer, the idea came to me. It would be a workshop in which women took concepts from the literature on women in the workplace and turned them into actionable steps they could take. The group would be that ‘tough love cheerleader.’ We would struggle, because personal change and confronting our inner resistance is really hard–but we would struggle together.

And because I was trying to take my own lessons seriously, and I was trying to up my tolerance for risk taking and asking I decided I would turn it into a workshop and pitch it to the dean of students.

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop at Harvard for a year. It wasn’t the optimal setup: It was funded through the dean’s office, and thematically filed under ‘student mental health’ and while students have so many opportunities to ‘lean in,’ they are not the same set of consistent opportunities that someone in practice has. But despite the challenges, the workshop flourished. A vague idea about challenges-based learning turned into a robust educational structure, and my homegrown interest in empowerment skills turned into a well-researched curriculum.

I also just loved teaching the workshop.  I often entered the workshop with a million things on my mind–I was balancing design practice, research and freelancing, and I would leave with my heart singing, feeling honored to be a part of a transformation in womens’ lives.

After a year of teaching at the Harvard Design School, tonight I started teaching it at the Boston Society of Architects. We have a full and diverse class–architects from multiple firms and landscape architects and planners. I couldn’t wait to meet the women in the workshop, to teach them and learn from them. To see them push themselves and each other…..and support themselves and each other.

And while the workshop format appeared to me in that flash a few years ago, the workshop continues to grow, integrating new concepts and flexing according to the needs of the women who are currently in it. I continue to live it out not just in the classroom but personally–I have had moments where I literally “sat at a table” because I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s voice in my head (it was an important table to sit at and it changed my life) or made career decisions based on Brené Brown’s advice to “show up and be seen.”

I also continue to dole out challenges–and you know that we’ve gotten to be close when I hand you a personal challenge and tell you I want to hear back from you on it in a few weeks (and tell you to give me one as well.)

founding the build yourself workshop-01I also have finally come to recognize that my design work, my educational work and my personal growth are in many ways the same thing. That sense of challenge, that optimistic belief in the possibility of change, the idea that massive change moments and breakthroughs are actually just the very visible tail end of a slow and sometimes silent process of collecting the pieces–those are central to my creative process and how I live in the world.

With joy, excitement, and a sense of possibility, I look forward to to the rest of this workshop.

When an Obsession Goes too Far….and it’s Fabulous

It started a few weeks ago—well, really it started quite a while back. I’ve been thinking and learning a lot about pollinators and backyard wildlife lately. In a recent job, I was charged with designing the plant mix for a salt-tolerant wildflower meadow. It got me thinking a lot about non-human species.

species photo strip
Some Backyard Wildlife of Connecticut.

I followed this interest up with a custom holiday present for my niece and nephew focused on backyard garden pollinators and wildlife…. (more on this to come on the blog) and continued it through independent research and drawing projects on backyard wildlife.

I got excited about the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program which helps residents use simple interventions to turn their backyard into habitat, and has a self-certification program to incentivize making your property part of a larger pro-wildlife movement. I started reading books on bees and other habitat.

So when I had a costume party to go to a this week, the ideas were brewing…. I’d had my eye on the awesome “Queen Bee” look of Missy Elliot in her classic Work It video (that video is piece of art by the way–the movement, the color scheme, the abandoned playground….wow) and the pieces came together.

I didn’t quite have a name for it, so when pressed I came up with “Pollinator Celebrator…” (It didn’t quite describe the birds perfectly, and the butterflies were missing, but sometimes you gotta go with what rhymes.) I didn’t have the bees I’d hoped for (they ended up going to the wrong address, but hey, ants pollinate some plants too!) There was a healthy dose of Lady Gaga-ism, I must say… which I think is important in any costume–or in life maybe? (When my niece was a baby one of her grandmothers and I were severely tempted to dress her up in the cold cuts we were having for lunch, we thought she’d look really cute in her own “Baby Gaga” version of LG’s famous meat dress.)

Missy as Queen Bee in "Work It"
Missy as Queen Bee in “Work It”

I couldn’t find a good way to explain creepy long nails, but sometimes you have to go for the art and take some artistic license.

Anyway, this is one of the the things I love best. Mixing art and science. When nerd and pop culture collide. I call it eco-fabulous.

Creative Somerville Series: Kate Balug Talks Cities, Sci-Fi, Art & Play

Last week we had artist and urbanist Katarzyna (Kate) Balug, who cofounded the Department of Play, at our Creative Somerville Series–a series designed to highlight local creatives and entrepreneurs through intimate ‘fireside chats.’ We had delicious (and highly alcoholic) beers (I had to hold back on mine until I finished interviewing Kate to keep everything cogent,) and the twinkle lights at Aeronaut, and our youtube fireplace on loop were doing their thing to set the mood.

Department of Play is truly a unique organization that combines art, temporary installations and planning; they run “temporary play zones” (TPZs) that bring people together to think differently about ‘what could be’ in their cities. The Department of Play asks a simple but radical question: “What if, through play, we found other ways of addressing issues throughout the city?”

During her talk, Kate brought us back to a key moment in grad school when she developed the idea for the Department of Play, in a final for a course. It was “just a PDF” Kate said, but during her review, one of the critics threw out a thought that struck her, that this “could be your life’s work.”

For Your Life’s Work: Start Here
Kate joined the staff of artist Lauren Bon’s Metabolic Stuido after finishing her undergrad fine arts degree. During Kate’s time at the studio, Bon decided to introduce salary parity across the studio. Kate, one of the younger staff on the totem pole, got a huge jump in salary. So of course, Kate jokes, she did the absolute dumbest thing to do after getting a big pay bump. She was so inspired by Bon that she decided to go to graduate school in search of her own vision–so she could lead something that would one day empower others.

Kate in Mexico City.

Kate moved across the country to start an urban planning masters at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She never intended to go into planning the traditional way and she went keeping a keen eye out for that vision that could be hers. After presenting the concept for the Department of Play in her studio, she was connected to a group of MIT researchers interested in similar issues. After graduating and spending a year in Mexico City, experimenting with sci-fi-inspired public art as a way of engaging residents in envisioning change in their city, and working with youth, Kate returned to the Boston area and founded Department of Play, as it is today with cofounder anthropologist Maria Vidart-Delgado.

“No Neighborhood is Abandoned”
A social consciousness and insight into culture drives Kate. She spoke about her experience coming to the US from Poland as a child, being one of the “polacks” in her Chicago school. Her interest in ‘the other’ and cultures and peoples that get left out has extended to her view of the city: She firmly believes that “no neighborhood is abandoned.”

Kate’s work often focuses on youth. “They’re at that time in their lives where they find that everything is possible or nothing is going to change,” she says. Adults do partake of the TPZ’s (Temporary Play Zones) Kate and her team plan, and Kate enjoys seeing the moments of intergenerational cooperation that are developed in her TPZs. The Department of Play and its “players” has worked with a wide variety of materials –from fabricated building units, to snow to futuristic costumes–when asked what her favorite tool or material to work with, Kate tells us “a truck.”

The Department of Play is fluid when it comes to what format their work will take. Kate and her collaborators are now working in the south of Boston, planning a series of activities that will occur on the Fairmount Corridor. The Department of Play intends to use the windows of the train as a frame for radically hopeful thinking about the future by neighborhood residents. Residents will dream, brainstorm, plan and create what they might see out of their train window in a distant future, unencumbered by the politics of the immediate tomorrow.

The Hustle
Kate spoke honestly about ‘the hustle’ and balancing multiple jobs, while building your dream vision. She laughingly spoke about not being “a good employee” because she’s constantly dreaming up other ideas while working a job. Boston is a city that’s very focused on professional labels, Kate notes, and the organization she is cooking up doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s box. “My advice?” she says, “Find a friend that makes you feel not insane.”

The Vision
The Department of Play is a finalist for an Art Place America grant, which would be the organization’s first big funding win. Kate let the crowd know that if they don’t get the grant, we’ll be hearing from them soon via Kickstarter.

Aside from running TPZs, Kate and her cofounder have their eyes on a much larger vision: They point out that the city of Boston doesn’t have a master plan (‘this city is too complicated for that’ they were told when they asked.) The Department of Play doesn’t buy that. They envision a “living master plan,” not just a document that sits of a shelf–but something interactive, an exhibition, a sci-fi graphic novel, something yet to be designed, that can help the city work as a larger entity, as more than just a series of neighborhoods.

Amidst dispensing advice on career paths (meandering paths might be unavoidable if you want to do innovative interdisciplinary work, but Kate advises getting a solid disciplinary foundation) Kate mentioned that just that morning she had a little extra time before a meeting. She pulled out her journal and used a very Department of Play trick and wrote a diary entry for herself in 2020–five years in the future. In it were dreams for her personal life and family (she has a few kids,) and for her organization, which has a secure funding stream, is affiliated with at least one university and is actively working in communities.

“Uh yeah I guess now all that stuff has better come true,” she says.

photo credit: Aeronaut’s own very talented Ben Holmes.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

Tickets for our next event on 3/19 with Rose Mattos and Erin Heath, of floral styling and event company Forêt Design Studio are going fast! RSVP here.

Experience Design 2: Personas and Archetypes

I’ve been thinking about the last blog post I wrote about landscape design as experience design all week. It’s been kind of a theme, the Creative Somerville Series speaker this week, Katarzyna Balug also touched on the topic: Her dual training as an artist and urban planner has led her to develop some really interesting perspectives on how creating temporary play installations can actually open up new possibilities for community engagement and dreams about the future.

It brought to mind another project I did in school while in a studio from the planning department. The site we were working on was a severely environmentally degraded plot of land in a very poor part of Mexico City. My studio partner, Laura Gilmore, a planner focused on transportation and streetscape and I proposed a jobs incubator program that would focus on environmental products and services.

Using “Personas” in Design
We wanted our project to not just meet the needs of multiple populations, but to actually weave those needs together, developing new ‘mutualisms’ that tied together the different populations of the area in growing through supporting the other.

personas diagram

We developed a diagram with ‘personas’ of the kinds of people who would use the incubation hub, what they would get out of it, and most importantly, how they would encounter and work with each other.

Diagramming ‘personas’ or archetypes, is, I’m sure, a common enough drawing in planning, or in product or information design, but I think, just like storyboarding, it is underused in architecture and design.

The problem is, that the way public space design is often taught, students are taught to think of “the public” in a monolithic, unquestioning way, and that way often defaults to a standard white, middle class perspective on who that community is.

I don’t believe in such a thing as “the community.” I do believe in communities. As Kate Balug said in her talk on Wednesday, there are multiple communities and groups in every place, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. The construction of personas, especially when they are backed up by qualitative research and interviews with people, are a way of putting the focus back on the specific wants and needs of those communities, and taking it off the generic person we’ve all installed in our mind’s eye as the ‘average’ user.

Product and Process
What’s great about using personas, is that focusing on the “who” more specifically, and understanding the jobs they’re trying to get done in their lives, opens a designer up to thinking about not just the end product of a design intervention, but the process by which you get there. MASS Design Group is the firm that comes to mind that does this the best, they specifically made design decisions on their Butaro Hospital in Rwanda that would allow them to employ and train locals. They’ve even developed an in-house diagram to think through the impacts of design decisions they make upstream, to look for further opportunities to empower people through the process.

As the landscape designer in this studio project, a major job of mine was to develop formal expressions of the building and landscape interface. That concept of ‘weaving’ multiple identities and a focus on work, turned into an idea of flexible workspaces, open to the street, with integrated wetland channels, which handled the ecological ‘work’ of processing rain on the site, and created a unique public space experience.

Original Streetscape Concept Sketch
Original Streetscape Concept Sketch
Final Streetscape Design
Final Streetscape Design

When I teach, I talk about continually moving your design perspective from the systems level, to the human level and back–whether you’re designing a landscape, a business, or anything. Each perspective is a powerful way of thinking, but they each have their blind spots. Often people are better working intuitively on one level, and not the other. With practice in other ways of working, through specific drawing and research exercises to bulk out your other “muscle” I think you can learn to move fluidly and constantly between these ways of thinking. That’s what you need to produce things, places and experiences that succeed, and that people love.

Landscape Design is Experience Design

I’ve recently had cause to explain to more than a few people why I decided to study landscape architecture. Most people have no clue what landscape architecture actually is, (is that, like, landscaping? Like backyards and stuff?) and what you actually do with it.

What We Learn
In school I learned about plants and planting design, but the smallest scale I ever worked at was a small urban park in my first semester–and then we never looked back. I learned how to do large-scale mapping and visualization, including using GIS (a ridiculously powerful spatial mapping and analysis program,) learned 3D design and rendering programs, and even a few programming-like tools such as Grasshopper, a ” graphical algorithm editor” that integrates with 3D modeling. (Yes, it will blow your mind.) I learned about some of the complex technical details that allow us to create ecological and infrastructural systems in our environments–from constructed wetlands that can clean toxins, to the newfangled engineered soil mixes that help urban street trees survive in the ‘wild wild west’ of our hyper-engineered cities.

And….Not in the Curriculum
I was lucky to be at Harvard for my masters, because I made sure to wander out of the design school and check out the offerings of the other schools. I found my way to a class that was incredibly formative for me, taught by Dr. Beth Altringer who is part of the innovation effort within Harvard’s engineering school.

In her classes I was introduced to the concept of “human-centered” design. HCD is a bundle of design methodologies that include user-centered observation and ethnography as a source of design insight, and an iterative, rapid prototyping process. (For a great resource on HCD look at IDEO’s HCD toolkit.) While qualitative interviewing is usually a cornerstone of HCD research, researchers will often observe users using a certain product or having a certain experience that the designers are trying to improve on, getting a sense of the larger context of that product and experience.

Landscapes as Systems
I chose landscape architecture because I was attracted to its focus on systems thinking–while a product or building can be viewed as an object or a system, it’s much harder to think of a landscape as a discrete object. And because it’s hard to see where a landscape starts and where it leaves off, there are major limits to ‘full control’ of your system–seeing your work as part of its context is unavoidable.

That context is also not just spatial, but temporal. A landscape is a sequence of moments a user experiences. You don’t have full control over the order, but you do have control over the adjacencies.

Walden Pond: Cultural, Spatial, Ecological System
In my last year of school I was in a studio on Walden Pond–my favorite studio of my my whole program. The mandate of the studio was so very cool: To use Walden and Thoreau’s writings to investigate changing notions of the concept of ‘nature.’ On that theme, we were to propose a landscape design for a capped landfill, as our ‘Parallel Walden’ just across the street from the famous pond.

Immersed in my introduction to human-centered design at the time, I started my design process with interviews with people–from friends to randoms off the street–about what ‘nature’ meant to them. When I came into studio with interview takeaways, my studio critic didn’t seem too pleased, perhaps it wasn’t an ‘artistic’ enough start, but hey, process isn’t always pretty, and the exercise focused my attention on the classic American experience of camping.

Walden Filmstrip
Click image to view larger.

One of my core project drawings–a 24 hour ‘filmstrip’ view of a potential user’s trip to Walden was a a new drawing type for me. Inspired by a friend’s suggestion and my exposure to the HCD process, I decided to frame my project, which was a uniquely ecologically managed campsite, as a new part of the classic Walden visit.

This drawing became one of the core arguments of my project: Normally a visit to Walden means a jaunt around the pond, with the requisite stop to the Thoreau cabin replica and a gift shop visit. This drawing argued for an expanded experience, including images of the campsite topography which facilitated other forms of outdoor recreation, the nighttime campsite experience, and the outdoor shower I was proposing in my design.

Bookending my proposal was the full experience of the visitor–from deciding to get on the road to Walden, to savoring the memories of the trip. I was thinking about a Walden visitor’s experience in its larger logistical and cultural context.

What I really created was a storyboard. Storyboards are used by writers and film producers, but they are also used by user experience designers. They are used by some spatial designers (see Northeastern’s healthcare studio research) but they should be used by them more often.

I chose landscape architecture because I was attracted to systems, not objects. Those systems are not just physical, they’re also psychological and cultural. A visitor comes to your space not only through its spatial context, but with cultural context and expectations. That system you’re designing is not just in space, but it is part of the system of someone’s life, of their existing perceptions and frameworks. You have very limited control over that system… but you know what? That’s part of what makes it beautiful.

Want to view the rest of my Walden Pond project? Click here.