Self-help has become a nebulous activity; a term that almost anticipates failure. But what if we were to literally “design” our own lives? Increasingly, designers like Ayse Birsel of Birsel + Seck have been drawing a clear connection between the pragmatic creative process and the amateur creative—between extraordinary design and ordinary life. In July, Birsel began interviewing accomplished creatives for a monthly podcast, Design the Life You Love. Her subjects have included graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, branding guru Debbie Millman, MoMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli, and entrepreneur Amit Gupta. By September, the podcast had jumped to no. 2 on iTunes’ design list.
Produced by Sound Made Public and sponsored by American furniture icon Herman Miller, Birsel’s step-by-step guide began as a workbook, Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future, published in 2015. Filled with her own drawings, the book offers common tools from design practice, gives examples of their use in her and others’ work, then provides templates for exercises that teach the use of each.
“We are looking for people who lead original lives,” says Birsel. “What can we learn from them? How do they deal with their constraints and failures?”
“My life is my most important project,” says Birsel, who teaches at New York’s School of Visual Arts and runs a successful studio with husband Bibi Seck. “When I decided to apply my design process to my life, I had to test the idea, so I developed my exercises and then tried them out. I became my first student.” She envisioned her life as a tree with roots in Turkey, where she was born; a trunk in New York, where she lives; and a future of bearing fruit and dispersing seeds in many forms: books, podcasts, and classes taught at universities and workplaces like Nike and Tiffany & Co.
“We are looking for people who lead original lives,” she says of her podcast. “What can we learn from them? How do they deal with their constraints and failures?” She mentions Sagmeister’s unorthodox practice of taking a year-long sabbatical every seven years to avoid boredom and complacency. On the podcast, Millman points out that courage enables us to take risks and find confidence, not the other way around, and Gupta, who survived leukemia, advises Birsel’s listeners to “make lots of mistakes.” In the design field these are called iterations, and they result in a better product. If you’re not prototyping, testing, failing, and iterating, you’re not getting anywhere in life at all.
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