Design is essentially a social process involving problem-solving through study and interactions. Can an intensively collaborative activity such as design adapt to the challenges of a remote working environment, social distancing and isolation necessitated by the pandemic?

Since design responds to the realities of modern living, how are designers adjusting to an environment that’s constantly in flux, and navigating this strange, uncharted territory from their individual homes and home studios? Will the dynamics of design evolve to accommodate the new realities?

Herman Miller posed these questions to some of their favourite design partners, whose answers will be shared in this ongoing series, ‘How designers stay productive while working from home’.

Finding the Good with Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel often says that life is our biggest project. Working on that project in the midst of a pandemic and its resulting anxieties can be difficult, but the designer finds herself rising to the challenge. From her home in New York City (which doubles as the studio she shares with her husband Bibi Seck), the author, speaker, and designer is on a daily quest to embrace our current reality with optimism and empathy.

On the present moment

If someone would’ve told us even a year ago this would be happening, I don’t think we could’ve even started to imagine this crisis. But, being in the middle of it and acknowledging how difficult it is for many of us on so many levels, I also think it’s an incredible opportunity for rebirth and transformation. In design, constraints are opportunities, so I think we need to put our designer hat on and think like designers. Currently, we’re very close to it, so it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity. But the world is going to change, and I would like to think that it’s going to change in some positive ways.

On finding calm

One thing that I noticed is that I’m very much affected in a negative way by the news. So I’ve been practicing what a friend of mine calls ‘media distancing’, which has helped me greatly. The other things that help me get out of my head – to forget time and space and the situation – are drawing and thinking creatively. I also find it helpful to take time out of your day to make a list of everybody you love and send them a note.

On connecting

I’m part of this community my friend Marshall Goldsmith created, the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. As soon as the crisis started, he started daily calls for anyone and everyone of our community who’s interested to join and talk. He said one thing that resonated with me: “Through these calls, if I can help one person ...” And I thought to myself, “Can I do that with my community - starting with Design the Life You Love?” And I also thought, “If I could just help one person ...” So then it started with 15 people, and now we’re about 50 people who meet up every Wednesday at 5 for a Virtual Tea. I don’t know if it’s helping anyone else, but probably the number one person it’s helping is me. Because it gives my week and days a sense of meaning and purpose.

On balance

I've had so many conversations with people who are making time for working out, making time for calling family, making time for reading a book, making time for themselves – whether it’s meditating or napping. They never really talked about those things, let alone practiced them. I see there’s this incredible intentional approach to asking: Is my life balanced? Did I work out today? Did I read something that inspired me today? Did I call my friends today?

On laughter

One of the things that I realised I needed more of was laughter, and a friend of mine suggested that I start watching stand-up comedy. I started with Dave Chapelle. And I think he’s a genius. He says, sometimes we’re too close to things. It’s like being in a room with an elephant; if you’re right next to it, you can’t see that it’s an elephant… You need distance between you and the elephant to understand what it is. And he tells this beautiful story of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement, and how if it wasn’t for this incredibly tragic happening in history, Civil Rights wouldn’t haven’t happened – or wouldn’t have happened quite the same way. He does a beautiful telling of that story, which shifts your perceptions, and it makes you think. Right now, we’re too close to the elephant to see the good that might come out of this.