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Design the Life You Love with Ayse Birsel

Design the Life You Love with Ayse Birsel

Episode 12: Design the Life You Love, with Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel, Co-founder of Birsel + Seck, uses her design training and process to do much more than just build beautiful and functional things. She is the author of Design the Life You Love, a book that shows you how to use design process to change your point of view on all aspects of your life and really create a different, and more satisfying, life. In this episode, Ayse shares her career background, why she thinks design is so important and why more women should be in the field.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing The Face of Business. And now your hosts, Sallie Krawcheck and Kristy Wallace.


00:12 Sallie Krawcheck: Hi, everyone! It's Sallie Krawcheck, the Chair of Ellevate Network here with Kristy Wallace, our President of Ellevate Network, with the Ellevate Network Podcast. Today we are talking to Ayse Birsel, who is the co-founder of Birsel + Seck, and author of "Design the Life You Love". Kristy, tell me a little bit about the conversation y'all had.

00:35 Kristy Wallace: We actually had a great conversation.

00:38 SK: She's a big fan of yours.

00:39 KW: Yes. Well I'm a big fan of hers. She's a fantastic member. And for those that don't know, the women that we talk to on our podcast are members of the Ellevate Network. It just goes to show not just the depth and the amazing women that are a part of the network, but also their desire to give back and to share their stories with other women like you. So we're really excited to bring you all of these fantastic women and hear from them and their learnings. But we talked a lot about everything from this process that she's created, as the title of her book goes, "Designing the Life You Love". It's a very interesting process and something that's pretty easy to wrap your head around once you hear it and think about it. We talked as well about how she found her calling, and how she...

01:35 SK: So, hold on, back up. On the "Design the Life You Love", is that all new age-y?

01:39 KW: No. It is, how you can deconstruct your life, take it... Break it down to all the various parts that make up your everyday life and who you are as a person and individual.

01:53 SK: So, like the time I spend with my cat, I deconstruct the cat.

01:56 KW: Yes.

01:56 SK: Yes.

01:57 KW: Yes.

01:57 SK: Okay. [chuckle]

01:58 KW: Well, that is a part of something that's important to you, right?

02:00 SK: No doubt about it.

02:01 KW: I mean, come on, Kitty is amazing.

02:02 SK: I've never actually... My daughter whose name is Kitty, as it turn out, we're not really cat freaks like it's now sounding like we are, but actually, I don't think any creature in my life has loved me as much as my cat does. So cat's important, okay. And then time for husband?

02:17 KW: Yes. Husband...

02:18 SK: Spouse, partner...

02:19 KW: Work...

02:20 SK: Work...

02:20 KW: Even laundry, mowing the lawn...

02:21 SK: Yeah.

02:22 KW: I mean all the exercise...

02:23 SK: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

02:25 KW: What are all these parts of your life and how can you deconstruct them, and then shift your point of view to what's really important, what you need to do, where you wanna be in the future, how you wanna re-prioritize, and then putting it back together, giving it a new form.

02:42 SK: Hmm. Oh. It sounds interesting. Okay. So...

02:45 KW: Now that I've just given it all away.

02:47 SK: I know. Now you did the whole thing.

02:49 KW: Actually, she does it much better than I do, so...

02:51 SK: Now, talk a little bit about creativity. It sounds like that was part of... How does she bring her creativity to it? 'Cause she's a designer, right?

02:58 KW: She is. She's an industrial designer who really used that experience and that viewpoint to apply to other areas of her life and it's really interesting.

03:08 SK: So it's a design perspective and a creative perspective, not a new age perspective on reconstructing and designing the life you want. Okay. So Ellevate Network weekly poll, we asked them "How important is creativity for career success?" Something the two of you discussed. The answers were pretty tilted about... Just under 85% of the women said "Creativity is essential, it forces you to think differently." Just under 10% said "It's good to have." Only 6%, "It's only important for some careers." And a whopping 0% said "Not important all," so exactly nobody thought that. And someone even commented "It's essential, it keeps your soul from drying." Kristy, I cannot tell you how important it is to have... Oh, dying! [chuckle] I thought it said drying. I was gonna say, "Can you tell how important it is to have a wet soul?" So if your soul is not wet...

04:07 KW: You do not want it to be dried out.

04:07 SK: [chuckle] Alright.

04:09 KW: Onto the interview.


04:25 KW: I'm here today with Ayse. Thank you so much for joining us.

04:29 Ayse Birsel: Thank you, Kristy.

04:30 KW: And I wanted to start off first, asking you to share with us a little bit about your background. I know you're originally from Turkey. Is that correct?

04:39 AB: Yes, Izmir, Turkey.

04:41 KW: How'd you end up in New York?

04:43 AB: Good question. You know sometimes something pulls you and you don't know where it's coming from, but I had this very strong belief that I needed to live in New York even when I was a kid, and I ended up here. It was stronger than me. But I should add I had an art teacher who was a graduate of Pratt Institute, New York...

05:07 KW: Okay.

05:08 AB: And he had just come back, he was a young man who had studied industrial design here. He had come back. And I think he definitely influenced me, I just didn't realize it. But then years later, when I did come to Pratt to do my master's, I realized that his teachers were my teachers, and the things that he was trying to teach me in high school, and half of it I didn't understand, were really the basic design teachings that you learn at Pratt. So that's the connection.

05:44 KW: So you wrote a book called "Design the Life You Love". And I wanna first get into a little bit of the background behind that, which is your professional experience. So share with our audience a little bit about your professional background.

06:00 AB: So I'm a product designer, or also called industrial designer, and that really means that I can design anything and everything that we use in daily life, and in designing it, try and make it easier to use or more fun, beautiful, and really think about the user. And I've design things from toilet seats to automobile interiors to office systems to kitchen products. And so, that's my background, and I've been doing that ever since I graduated from Pratt Institute.

06:40 KW: In terms of entrepreneurialism [06:41] ____ and I know that you are the co-founder and creative director of your own company...

06:47 AB: Yes.

06:47 KW: And in building companies, it's a similar process because you wanna think about how do you approach maybe a problem differently, how do you develop a unique solution, how do you create something that's very true to what you believe in, but true to the product as well. And so, did you employ something similar when you're building your business?

07:10 AB: My company that I co-founded with my husband and partner Bibi Seck, that was really co-founded on love. We met, we fell in love, and then we wanted to work together [chuckle] and here we are. So, in terms of a design process, there was not much design process but more a desire to work together. But definitely now with deconstruction/reconstruction, when we're struck, we apply it to ourselves and try and think from the outside and kind of get over our preconceptions. But for a lot of our corporate clients as well, this is something that we share with them. The advantage of having a process is that you can teach other people and then you can use it together. And so for many years, I used to have a very similar design process, but it was intuitive; it was inside of me, and I would just go in my sketch book and do it again and again, but I couldn't articulate it.

08:17 AB: But once I had it as kind of this process with steps and exercises and examples, it became something that I could share not only with designers but even more so with non-designers, and to get them to think creatively and then really identify, "What are your values? And how can you make your company, your team, your goals, coherent with your values?" And so, whether you're a company or a person that's very similar, the process remains the same. But I think its strongest element, its strength really is to get people from today to tomorrow, optimistically and with empathy. So this could be having, in your own life, having empathy for yourself. It's something we lack. [chuckle]

09:10 KW: It's good. I know. We tend to be very hard on ourselves.

09:14 AB: Exactly. And if it's an organization, it could be having empathy towards your organization or your organization having empathy for you, or it's empathy for your users. But it's really that transition from what we know today to what we can imagine tomorrow; I think that's really the goal.

09:32 KW: It resonated with me this process so much. I'm very linear in my thinking, and so when I approach problems, it's much more of a list and it's very linear and pros or cons. And your process, it's much more organic and fluid, and it's almost walking around the problem and looking at it from different perspectives, and it's not always this linear path, but it's more of a journey towards having a better appreciation for what is it that you're looking at. And in the case of your book, it's your life and what's it composed of, what's it made up of, and how do you then start to take that and create some order and create a different way of looking at it. And that's not how I traditionally go about it, but then looking at your process, it makes sense!

10:24 AB: Oh, good!

10:25 KW: That makes total sense! Why I am not doing this? And it does... Have you gotten that type of feedback?

10:30 AB: It's interesting because there is a lot of logic to it. First of all, it has four steps, and then you could go from this to this. So there is a lot of logic to it. But then those leaps of faith, if you would, come from thinking creatively between or inside those steps, so often design, it's not direct; it doesn't kind of just go, "Okay, let's make a to-do list." It first goes like, "Okay, let's look for inspiration and then let's do a to-do list," then while you're being inspired, you realize what matters to you. I love using metaphors; metaphors help you visualize things, and then when you visualize, you imagine. And then... But let's converge on what matters too. So it's that combination of... I often say it's like the combination between logic and intuition that propels you forward. People come back to me after the workshops or the book and tell me how it has transformed their lives, and to me, that's really the power of the process because they're transforming their lives by thinking differently.

12:02 AB: And I often joke about like, I've been designing products for so many years, but nobody has stopped me on the street to say "Oh, your product has changed my life." [chuckle] I didn't start it this way, but it has given me this wonderful opportunity to use design process; something that I really believe in. But there's not... The product isn't there. So there's this direct connection with the user, and as a result, people find that this thinking like a designer and using design process improves their lives, and they see results.

12:42 KW: That's very interesting. I think from my experience, I try to do too much, so then I'm always like, "What are the hacks? What are the ways that I can get all of... I can accomplish all of this?" And then it's evolved recently into, I do too much, but I don't do enough for myself, and how can I make this something that is more impactful for me personally? Meaning more fulfilling for myself personally, as well as getting everything done. So part of it is being a little selfish and thinking about what's important to you and how can you get that?

13:17 AB: Yes. And what's interesting about designing your life is, because design is always user-centered. When it comes to designing your life, the user is you. So it really is, like you said, giving yourself permission to think about what matters to you, what you want out of life. And sometimes people ask me, "Well, but what about the other people in our lives?" And it's not like, "Yes, of course, we have other people that we care deeply about. It's not about leaving them out, but it's actually first figuring out what matters to us, what our original life looks like, but then enlisting all the other people in our lives in making that come true." And so it's also a great tool to converse and connect with and collaborate with your partners, your family, your friends.

14:11 KW: Yeah. I can see that being a great conversation; thinking through relationships and partnerships and lives more creatively.

14:20 AB: Yes. If I may, one of my favorite stories is, the head of innovation at Procter & Gamble came to one of my workshops, and he came because he was interested in design process. But then after he went home, he taught the process to his wife and sent me a beautiful note and he said, "Now we design our lives together every Sunday."

14:46 KW: I love that.

14:47 AB: Yes.

14:48 KW: That's great.

14:48 AB: And I was like, "Okay, I need to do that."


14:53 KW: I love that. So, what's the hardest problem you've tried to tackle or create a solution for?

15:01 AB: The example that comes my mind, the one that was most challenging to me is also one of my favorites, and it was the toilet seat that I designed for TOTO. Because I lived in Japan to design it, I was in my early 30s, and I was young, I was a woman, a designer, and a foreigner. And so it felt like everything was against me in that project, and really, it's one of the most innovative products that I've designed. But to get it there, I had to fight teeth and nail or tooth and nail. And that to me, I think I learned a lot from that project. I've also, with age, I find that I've softened, but then I was a force to be reckoned with and... Now I'm a little bit more tactful, but... [chuckle]

15:57 KW: Yeah. Are you like that with all your projects? I mean you have to 100,000% believe that this is the right way to go, or is it always an ongoing fluid process?

16:09 AB: I think now it's more an ongoing fluid process because with time, you learn that sometimes you need to let go of things and sometimes you need to really hang on. But having kids also taught me a lot that you can't always have everything that you put in your mind. So it softened me. And it's very meaningful to me also to talk to you in an Ellevate podcast because I believe that in design, there are not many women, and it's really important to be a role model and show them, yes, you can. Design is a great creative profession. Women are great at it. We bring people together. We're great collaborators. We think out-of-the-box. We adapt. A lot of enhanced qualities are great for design and it's always been a mystery to me why there are not more women designers. And in terms of professionals like you, you can lead your company, lead a team, have kids. And in a way, I want to shout out to all the young women out there and say be creative, be a designer, or think creatively like a designer in whatever you're doing and go for it.

17:43 KW: So I heard an interview with you when you talked about a... It sounded like a very pivotal moment when someone exposed you to industrial design. And can you share that story with us? Because that's I think part of what you're getting at here is just someone shining a light on an opportunity.

18:04 AB: Yes. I grew up in a family of lawyers and I thought I was going to become a lawyer, but then I love to draw, so I thought, "Okay, architecture. I can do architecture." Until this family friend came to tea one day, and when he heard that I wanted to do architecture, he said, "So, have you heard of industrial design?" And I had never heard those two words together before. And he said, "Well, look, this tea cup," and we were drinking tea, "this tea cup, you see how the edges curve so it will fit our mouth better? And then it has this handle so we can hold hot liquid in our hands. And it has a saucer so if we spill our tea, we won't ruin your mom's table cloth." And that was such a magical description of what industrial design is. I fell in love with just the human scale of design. And I thought, "That's what I want to do." And that changed my path. And so, I think those serendipitous meetings and conversations, we all need them, and, you don't know.

19:17 KW: You don't. And even just hearing you describe that story, something I'm looking around the room, the functionality and the beauty of so many things that until someone opens your eyes, you don't... You said you don't know, so that sounded like a very important conversation, and one that I hope you and I and others listening to this can continue to have those conversations with others around us and future generations to open their eyes to all the possibilities that are out there.

19:49 AB: Exactly. You make me think that I should just naturally, every time I have tea with young people, just go like, "Look at this... "

19:56 KW: "Look at this tea cup!" [laughter]


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