Innovation and design is now the competitive differentiator in business. So how do you stand out from the crowd? This 6-part series, created in partnership with Autodesk software, which has helped designers, engineers and visual artists imagine, design, and create things for more than 30 years, features interviews with incredible leaders and innovators in these fields. They share their inspiration, process, and predictions for the future of design.
Becky Stern is the Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit. Each week she publishes a new do-it-yourself craft+tech project tutorial and video and also hosts the YouTube Live show “Wearable Electronics with Becky Stern.” She’s been combining textiles with electronics since 2005, and helps develop the Adafruit FLORA wearable Arduino-compatible product line. She’s been shooting video since age five, and sewing since age eight.
How crucial is design to who we are today?
Becky Stern: Design is about a pathway and goal to make things better in some way. Anything can be designed, from physical objects to processes, and I think it’s crucial for creating positive change.
Where do you get your ideas?
BS: I find inspiration everywhere, but it’s through chatting with colleagues that turns the inspiration into project ideas—I really need to talk it out! Since some projects are aesthetically oriented while others are hidden or purely functional, ideas are just as likely to come from streetwear fashion as they are from Sci-Fi and just playing with circuits to see “what if…” I keep a big running list of project ideas and let the most “urgent” ones bubble to the top.
How do you find focus?
BS: Focus comes naturally when I’m passionate about something, but can be a struggle for me at other times. I tend to incentivise myself by stocking my desk’s bin of treats and telling myself I can have them when I finish the task at hand. I also relish distraction and try to maximize its positive effects by being fast on email, open to inspiration at any time, keeping up on social media, and multitasking. I also make a lot of paper to-do lists, and crossing off items feels so good. My advice to others would be to find your “carrot” and dangle it in front of yourself.
What’s the biggest barrier women in your field face?
BS: In my experience, women are rarely judged solely on the quality of their work. Communication style and other social/visual cues play a bigger role for the success of my projects than it seems to for men in my field. The work needs to be really good and how I present myself matters, so I try to be five times better. My advice to other women in tech is to accept that while it’s certainly not fair, this disparity can and should be used to your advantage.
What place inspires you the most?
BS: The perpetual energy of New York City drives me forward constantly. There is always so much going on that it keeps me working quickly and efficiently, all the while feeding my face with amazing food and my soul with incredible cultural events. The serenity of my home provides a nice counterpoint, and I try to cultivate an atmosphere that alleviates stress and promotes personal expression (like singing loudly in the shower).
When you find yourself creatively blocked, what do you do?
BS: Phone a friend! My colleagues will let me know what they’ve been wanting to see in the DIY wearables space, identify gaps in our project catalog, and just generally act as a sounding board for brainstorming. Taking in some culture like movies, art exhibits and& museums, and peoplewatching also really helps get those creative gears turning.
What does your design process look like?
BS: We use a lot of high-tech tools to collaborate. I’ll frequently take quick videos and upload to Instagram and share the link with colleagues whose help or input I need. Since we make open source projects, we’re not shy about publicly sharing ideas that are in development or otherwise “coming soon.” There are a lot of moving parts to my design process across many mediums there’s electronics hardware, textiles, computer programming, as well as educational curriculum development through text, photo, and video. I take a holistic approach to my tutorial projects and try to first identify a target audience and learning objectives, then let those guide further decisions.
What, to you, is the future of design?
BS: William Gibson said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” What folks are doing in their spare time on weekends now will be what designers devote their careers to soon. Last week I saw a kid on the subway with cool plastic graphics on his baseball hat, and a few days later we re-created something similar with 3D printing graphics in a flexible material. It’s not all that different from custom embroidery.
What is your ultimate goal with design?
BS: My goal is to inspire and teach creative people how to harness the power of technology for their own creations. If I’ve done my job right, my audience will feel motivated to try something new, knowing they can rely our guides and support forums for help. It makes me really happy to hear stories of parents making lightup princess tiaras with their daughters, who will grow up with the confidence to make technology their own.
What advice do you have for the next generation of inventors and innovators?
BS: Iterate quickly. Fail faster. “Perfect” is the enemy of “finished.” Break apart your ideas into components and research them concurrently. Don’t let the haters get you down. Surround yourself with positivity and people who amplify and elevate you. Say no to most requests/opportunities that will draw you away from your focus and/or happiness. Eat protein at breakfast.
Photos: Courtesy of Becky Stern