Josh Owen Interview.

Owen’s vision of Design is advanced rooted in humanist culture spare and timeless.

– Massimo Vignelli.

A Creator & Educator.

Josh Owen is a designer, professor and the chair of Industrial Design at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. His work has been featured at the Venice Biennale and is in the permanent design collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Corning Museum of Glass, Chicago Athenaeum, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Taiwan Design Museum, among others.

Significant manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe produce his home/design, furniture, and office products, which are regularly featured in design books, periodicals and in critical design discourse. Josh’s “Build” and “Meta” design academic projects have successfully pioneered integrated practice pedagogy for the field of Industrial Design.

He is also an author of two books – Big Ideas/Small Packages published in 2005 by Woodsphere Press and Lenses for Design published in 2016 by RIT Press.

Today, Josh in conversation with designdaily.. talks about Design Education, His Process, Inspiration & his recent publication Lenses for Design.

– Josh, can you kindly share a bit about your Background ?

I grew up in a small town in Western New York State called Ithaca. It is a rural university town filled with deep gorges and waterfalls. I played in the woods a lot as a kid. My father is an archaeologist and was a professor during my childhood so I was exposed to a university context early on. I spent my summers on archaeological excavations which were very impactful in my developing analytical skills relative to the built environment and historical understandings in general. I drew a lot and I built things. I was exposed to different cultures and to hard work. As a teenager I played guitar in rock bands writing and performing music passionately. This lasted through college and beyond for a bit as well. I began my studies in anthropology and fine arts and discovered design towards the end of my college years when I realized that my two chosen areas sort of collided in design. After a short time off after school, I went back to pursue a masters degree with a focus on design.

– How would you describe ‘Good Design’ & What would be its essential elements ? 

Good design is intellectually elegant and does just enough but no more than is needed to address a problem. This means that the design-idea is thoughtful enough that it can only be executed in a certain way and respects the limits of its impact. The particular way in which a good idea is delivered becomes beautiful not because of a culturally-specific understanding of beauty but because it solves a problem or delivers an outcome in a way that is both useful and inspiring but employs restraint. Good design is being good at doing good without going too far.

– Can you tell us about your Design Process & are there any parts that you tend to focus on the most ? 

Problems are vastly different and require flexibility from the designer in order to find the best approaches to address them. Understanding the problem is always the most important part of the process for me. While initially that takes research, often the true understanding begins with a meaningful relationship with the people involved. Once there is trust and shared passion around a mission, design tends to evolve much more naturally into the usual iterative testing of ideas we are familiar with in the design process. 

– How important & essential, would you say, Sketching is as a tool of communication and expression for a designer ? 

Sketching is as essential for communication as speech, listening or thinking. Visualization is important but is only one piece of the toolkit we must employ to describe the value of ideas. Sketching is only as good as the thinking behind it and the way it is integrated into an overall communication plan. 

– How do you recreate your inspirations in your creations ?

I’m inspired by many things and by actions and phenomena around us in the world and beyond. It would be easier to say that it is one thing or another that inspires me more than others but the truth is that I am mostly just curious. I love to explore people, places, environment and history. I travel a lot and find that visiting different cultures and understanding how things have evolved over time can really expand my thinking about problems that we all have but that we all handle differently due to the idiosyncracies in our relative contexts. 

– What role, would you say, ‘Environment’ plays in the growth and development of a designer & student ?

Environment plays a major role in the growth and development of a designer as it does any person. I did not grow up in a design-centric environment but my parents were interested in history and culture and so the objects I was often around were full of stories. My father is an historian so he regularly decoded the historical artifacts we interacted with and that was of great value to me in shaping my respect for cultural output. I learned to understand materiality and value through the endurance of objects in this way. Designers are usually very sensitive to the built environment so I believe that it is very important to address all things equally, regardless of scale or application. This is why I have enjoyed designing my house, the things in it and the way that it sits within the environment that embraces it as much as the projects I take on for industry or academia. Design is all the same, just the constraints shift.

In your book, Lenses for Design, it says As designers, our job is to see what others do not – to make fluid and seamless connections between culture and commerce and to plant seeds that will grow. We are, in a way, the farmers of objects and systems”  

Can you kindly elaborate on this Josh ?

Lenses for Design began as a book that would share my experiences in solving design problems both professionally and academically. I realized in putting it together that I should probably split those two streams of investigation into separate volumes, so Lenses looks only at my professional projects to offer ideas to readers. I am currently working on the second book, Design for Study which looks through the lenses of academic works into addressing challenges. For the Lenses book, I wanted to make clear that there are many ways we can look at the world. Too often design is seen as a tool used only for creating clarity. While in the end, good work should be clear, finding that clarity sometimes requires expansive perspectives that favor the opposite. Farmers will tell you that the fruits of their labor are the results of cultivating many conditions. With the book I wanted readers to understand that the complexities of thought are what lead to clear outcomes, not the other way around.

– How would you differentiate between Design & Art ? 

Design and Art are related on many levels. Design and Art share process, materials, craft, message and meaning. Sometimes Design and Art share function and experience and even clients. Where Design and Art differ is usually in the category of service. Design tends to be a service-oriented discipline meaning that we do Design to solve problems that need answers for people. This means Design is a transaction and works within a frame. Art tends to push beyond a typical framework with its main imperative to inspire or provoke. Certainly todays world questions all of the boundaries between perceived categories so this conversation will probably continue. 

– It can be called unfair, asking a creator to pick a favorite among all his works, but if someone wishes to understand you through your work, which project would you point them to ?

If someone wanted to understand me through my work I would point them to my book, Lenses for Design. This book is a taxonomy of my most important projects (by my own measure). I selected the projects to feature carefully so that they would tell a larger story of how I see the world. I also consider the book to be a work of design. I worked closely with the photographers to craft the images and with the graphic designer to compile the text, illustrations and images in such a way that the feeling of the book as an object emotes the ethos of my approach.

– A good amount of professionals and students have been sharing their work on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. You have been quite frequent on these platforms. How has the experience been ?

I actually feel that I’m not very good at using social media as a platform. My students have encouraged me to use it and I have been trying to do so but feel I am not giving it the attention it deserves. So I do not feel that I am a successful or an experienced user. In some ways I like that I’m still trying to understand this medium and stumbling a bit to do so. It reminds me that I’m always learning, always a novice and always trying to do better. 


A piece of advice to all the students out there ? 

My best advice to students is to go the extra mile to get to know your professors and be open to the different ways of seeing the world that they can share with you. The truth is that the best students are the ones who are open minded and who never stop being curious. Students who listen carefully to the guidance that they are given and who are creative enough to marry it with their own goals will be the ones who succeed in a complex world. 


Get your own copy of Lenses for Design.



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