Vicki Ha is an architect and former computer scientist, an adamant believer in a technologically-enhanced future, and a dreamer of future human-computer interactions. Her day job is as an Architect and Design Manager at DLR Group in Seattle, and this is her fifth year participating in the Seattle Design Festival, progressing through the roles of Bystander Participant, Installation Designer, Block Party Organizer, Festival Chair and Board of Directors.
Q: POWER in design is…
Q: What are three implications of design power that you have encountered?
A: I think this answers questions 1 and 2:
A designer has the POWER to affect their design in 3 ways by deciding, consciously or subconsciously:
1) Who is being empowered by the design and who is being left behind
2) What is the “power capacity” or strength of the design to affect the above
3) What source of energy powers these designs—a sustainability and responsibility to the Earth discussion
As an architect and a sometime computer scientist, it is becoming increasingly clear to me how much power a designer can hold. A simple example is that designers have the POWER to design their environments to suit their personal needs by building their own furniture, making their own clothes, coding their own automation scripts, or growing and cooking their own food. This kind of empowerment is striking because I believe that these are things that humans have historically known how to do, but have forgotten over the years. Mass consumerism and compartmentalization have created specializations in society such that one is only expected to know one aspect of sustaining oneself—outsourcing and purchasing the rest.
Q: When have you had powerful impact through design?
A: I suppose this is not really design impact, just simply impact, so maybe the question can be tweaked.
I believe that success and powerful impact are measured by the ways one’s designs can allow others to reach their full potential—i.e., one’s designs should empower others. Showiness and grand schemes are the antithesis of this—the paternal forcing of people to conform to what you have bestowed upon them.
I aspire to lead by serving, and to ensure that everyone has the right information to do their best work. This is how I lead my teams at work and in organizing the festival. As for the impact of my style of leadership, I leave that to others to decide.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: Captain Kathryn Janeway, USS Voyager, United Federation of Planets. I watched Voyager as a child and took Captain Janeway as a female leadership role model. She is headstrong but listens to the advice of those around her. She carries the responsibility of guiding a lost ship on a 70-year journey home, all without losing her sense of optimism and adventure. She was an intelligent scientist and explorer, but was not without fault. As a child I wanted to be her. As an adult I realize how childish it is, but there’s something about her strength of character and leadership style that still holds my imagination.
Q: Tell us about a project that you completed that you are most proud of.
A: I worked pro-bono with an Aikido school last year to design a kamiza (frontispiece, non-religious altar) for their dojo (training gym). Aikido is a martial art that emphasizes the transference of force from the attacker to the receiver, such that the receiver becomes the attacker and vice versa. Learning to be an effective uke (receiver, or the person who falls) takes years of training, perhaps as much training as learning the technique itself. This give-and-take ideology was something I ignored as a child at Aikido classes, but it resonates with me now as an adult learner.
I knew that the dojo was looking for a kamiza but it did not have the resources to design one, so I offered my services. Obtaining my own client, working through the constraints and client’s aspirations, leading the client based on my knowledge of Japanese tradition yet modernizing it to fit with the context and time, and guiding the construction of the piece as a solo designer was incredibly gratifying and made me proud to know that I was empowered as a designer to create something beautiful that the client loved.
Q: How did you get into design?
A: I was a researcher in Human Computer Interaction at Dalhousie University and I realized that decisions were being made about future ways of interacting with technology without understanding the people being designed for. It was essentially A-B testing by scientists, not designers. I decided that if future technology was going to serve humans, it had to be designed by those who understood aesthetics and ergonomics. Steve Jobs put the human touch in computers by putting a smiley face on the startup icon for the Mac. I decided that I had to learn to be a designer.