Arts & Culture » Art Feature

Erica Michie, the designer

'I think design can really have an impact—changing from design as an aesthetic to design as a problem-solving mentality'


Michie, 26, a graduate of University of Illinois's industrial design program, was most recently an intern at Streng Design; she soon heads to Shanghai, where she'll intern at the design firm CDi.

I think I was learning about Thomas Edison and how he invented the lightbulb, and I was like, "I want to do that! I want to invent the lightbulb!" But I didn't know what it meant to be an inventor, and it didn't seem like "inventor" was a job, so I kind of gave up on that for a little bit.

I went to the University of Oregon. I studied engineering for a year. It was cool to be able to do products, but I was failing physics. I got a C on a test, and I was proud that I got a C, and my friend said, "You know, if you're getting a C in one of the very beginning classes, that probably means you shouldn't do that as a major." I think that was kind of like the wake-up call. And I was like, "OK, I'm going to do something else."

Design was something that I knew I wanted to do but for some reason never pursued it. So when I had that oh-my-gosh-what-am-I-doing moment I decided to look into design programs, and I found the program at University of Illinois in Chicago. I applied, got in, and just up and left.

I'm an intern at Streng. I'm working on product concepts, which I can't really talk about. Typical design stuff—sketching, rendering, Photoshop, Illustrator. They've been to all kinds of furniture fairs, and they were featured in a Tokyo design fair in the late 90s. Paris Hilton totally supported one of their products. They were totally like, "Ugh! Of all people!"

I'm going to China for another internship. I'm going to be doing design research for a company called CDi. They're a design strategy and research company. It's focusing more on the front end of product development.

Sometimes companies don't even know what they want but they have a problem. They're like, "We have this product and it's not doing as well as other products on the market. We want to make it better. But we don't have anything else to say other than that." So design and research will go out and talk to people, and they'll find the pains people have, like, "Oh, I just hate how it does this," and those are the insights that we use to develop the design criteria.

Making something, taking it from just an idea and then creating this physical object that you can interact with is just really cool.

Outside of work I have a project I've been working on. It's a water-filtration project. It was actually a business challenge: create a water-filtration project for people who live off of less than $2 a day. We've gotten to a point where I finally feel like we've got something, so now it's just about refining the product and starting to do more of the business stuff. You want to make sure that the product actually cleans most of the contaminants out of the water, but then it also has to be cheap.

To me design is solving problems. People are designing more for the third world developing countries. That stuff wasn't focused on before. There were people who really cared and wanted to do things for whatever their project was, but I think now design can really have an impact—changing from design as an aesthetic to design as a problem-solving mentality.

I think people still have that mentality that design is to make things look good. It's a fine line, because it can be art. But design can also be on the way other end.

I read this interview by Mike DiTullo. He's a designer. He talked about how most people follow the herd, and that really works for society. People have roles, and they depend on each other, and they do what everyone's supposed to do. But then there's a small percentage that's the rebels. There are two kinds of rebels: there's the constructive rebel and the deconstructive rebel. So deconstructive rebels, those are the people who are criminals, who do bad things, things against the rules. Then there are the constructive rebels, and those are the people who go against the flow to create change that's positive. Mike DiTullo is saying that that's kind of what the role of the designer is.

I think having that frame of mind is really helpful. You get that a lot when you work with people who aren't designers, and don't understand the way that you think. That's the thing about design; it means something different to everybody. Even after having defined titles for different kinds of design—like, design equals problem solving—it's hard to define what design is. It's so ambiguous. —As told to Paul John Higgins

Add a comment