Ayse Birsel on Transformation through Design

Ayse Birsel is a New York–based designer and the creator of Design the Life You Love. It’s the title of her book — and also refers to the coursework that teaches designers and non-designers how to create a meaningful life using her design process, Deconstruction:Reconstruction.

In this interview, Ayse and I reflect on:

  • Holism and the human scale of design.
  • How design is inherently optimistic and increasingly collaborative.
  • Why having a process matters for triggering imagination and channelling creativity.


Also mentioned in this podcast:

Full Transcript

Michael: Another episode of The Coaching Habit Podcast. How excited I am to be back. Excited to bring you one of my friends and somebody, I admire immensely. We are talking to Ayse Birsel, she is Co-Founder and Creative Director of Birsel + Seck. And this is an award-winning design and innovation studio who works with all sorts of big name companies from Herman Miller to GE to IKEA to Toyota and others.

Now, as many of you know I was lucky enough to be part of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches experience and I was not quite sure what was going to show up being part of that. Here is what shows up, just hanging out and meeting other awesome people. Marshall is a brilliant curator of interesting smart people.

And Ayse is one of those people I got to meet at the Marshall Goldsmith 100 project. So, as well as being a designer, she is the author and creator of Design The Life You Love, both a book and a program. Ayse comes from Turkey, from Izmir in Turkey and came to the U.S. in 1986 on a Fulbright Scholarship and since then has been based in New York with her partner, her husband and her design partner, Bibi Seck. She has been identified by Fast Company as one of the world’s most creative people. She is on the Thinker’s 50 radar as one of the people who are going to change organizations. She is a Marshall Goldsmith person of course and she has won a number of design awards as well. So this an accomplished, smart, cool woman and I am really happy to introduce her to you.

So Ayse, thank you for being here.

Ayse Birsel: Michael, thank you.

You know just that introduction was worth every minute … just keep on talking okay?

Michael: I will do that. Now you got such a fascinating background with the design work you have done and you gone from designing product, to just helping people design their lives, with your book and your coursework. But that’s the past. only part of the past and I am curious to know what you are up to right now. You know at Box of Crayons, we do talk about how do you help people do more great work, work that has more impact, work that has more meaning. So, what is your great work these days?

Ayse Birsel: My work these days has been and continues to be transforming peoples’ lives through design, whether it’s designing products for them or helping them design their lives, their work and everything through the lens of design.

Michael: I love that. So, I kind of understand what you mean by that, “through the lens of design” but, I don’t fully. So, tell me more. What does the lens of design bring to the experience of designing product or designing life?

Ayse Birsel: So, I’ve learned over time … I didn’t know this when I started becoming a designer. But, I’ve learned that designers think differently. And, first of all they are optimists. So, we think positively and we believe that no matter how hard the problem, we are going to come up with a better solution. And, I thought everybody thought like that but I’ve learned that not everybody is an optimist.

Michael: Oh, I love that. Right.

Ayse Birsel: And in a funny way, I come from a family of lawyers. Actually, they’re on the other end of the scale, their role is imagining the worst possible scenario. So, they are total pessimists.

Michael: Right.

Ayse Birsel: And by choosing design, I was lucky enough to choose optimism.

Michael: That’s such a great balance because you know I did a law degree. And I was saved from becoming an unhappy and not very good lawyer because of the way my life panned out. But, I love that framing, which is … the role of a lawyer is to be a pessimist but the role of a designer is to say whatever we are up against, there is a solution we can find for this.

Ayse Birsel: Yes, so … And then it also continues to, like empathy is a big piece of our thinking as well. We really want to put ourselves in the other people’s shoes and feel their pain so that we can truly think of how we could take away that pain or come up with something more pleasant. Also, we think holistically. So, we see the big picture and I talk about this in terms of understanding the emotion, the intellect, the physical and the spirit of things. And then, understanding that. And then coming up with when we are solving a problem, thinking about have we addressed the emotion? Have we addressed the physical? Have we addressed, like, is it comfortable? Does it make you happy and is it sustainable if that’s the spirit of it? And is it innovative, that is the intellect of it. That holistic thinking gives us a structure for how we think.

Michael: Oh gosh. There is so many good things going on in this conversation and we are 2 minutes into it. But, even just that insight around innovation, you know, doing things differently is the intellect of design but that’s not the wholeness of design. It is not enough just to be different for the sake of difference. You have to answer the other needs that are present there as well.

Ayse Birsel: Yes. Absolutely and then maybe if I could add one more thing?

Michael: Yes, of course.

Ayse Birsel: This I have seen change over time. When I first started design, design was more of one person’s job, the idea of star designer was really where people were drawn. So that, was the measure of success. But, in the last 30 years design has become incredibly collaborative. So it’s building on each other’s expertise and working with multidisciplinary people. And that’s part of the joy of design now is that you get to work with other people who know a lot of things in different fields. The designer helps curate that information and connects the dots. So that really makes what we do interesting and exciting because every day there is an opportunity to learn something new.

Michael: Wonderful. I think I want to rechristen my job as a designer because I want all of that. That sounds fantastic.

Ayse Birsel: Very cool.

Michael: So Ayse, you talk about and you mention that you come from a family of lawyers. I am always curious of the path that people have taken to end up where they are at the moment. Making impact in the world, making a dent in this world, doing it from a place of holistic-ness and optimism and collaboration and all of that good stuff you were talking about, and empathy. And I am just conscious of this idea of these kind of crossroad moments. These moments where you’ve come to a moment, a situation where you could have gone this way, you could have gone that way and you choose a certain way. And it kind of made all of the difference. So as, you think about your path to get you to where you are today, what have been your crossroad moments?

Ayse Birsel: So, I think have two very clear crossroad moments. kind of taking maybe the road less traveled. One is as we talked about in the beginning, choosing not to go into the family business and falling in love with the human scale of design. And, if we have time I want to tell you a little anecdote about that.

Michael: Oh, please. Yeah.

Ayse Birsel: So, I was this young girl. I think was 15 or 16. A family friend came to tea and talked to me about industrial design and he said “Have you heard about industrial design?” And I had never heard those words together before. And I said “No.” And he said “Look …” and we were drinking tea so he used the teacup and he said “You see this teacup, somebody has designed the teacup. You see how the edge of the cup is curved so that it can fit in our lips better. It has a handle so that you don’t burn yourself with the hot liquid. The saucer is there so if you kind of spill your tea, you won’t ruin your mom’s tablecloth.” And that was such a beautiful description of what design is and I totally fell in love with the human scale of design. It is connected to people in a very human scale. It’s something that you can hold, you can touch and you can bring to your mouth. It also … here is how you can avoid the spillage. And that’s when I decided to become … that was a turning point for me. And, I told my parents I want to become an industrial designer and they were like what’s that?

Michael: Yeah, we are never inviting that family friend around for tea again. He causes nothing but trouble.

Ayse Birsel: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Michael: That’s a great story. And what a wonderful reminder to all of us that … what might even fell like a casual throw away comment from us can absolutely change a person’s life when you give them a new insight, and a new path forward like that. Are you still in touch with this family friend? Does he know the impact of that story that he had on your life?

Ayse Birsel: You know I’ve tried to get in touch with him and I haven’t been able to. But, he is an urban designer, now retired living in Turkey. One of these days I am hoping that he will hear our podcast or one of these conversations. Because I give him credit for changing my life. I keep inviting people to tea. Now, I have kids who are 13 and 14. I hope somebody will come to tea at our house like that and will connect them with a passion.

Michael: That’s wonderful. So that’s a great story. But you said you had a second story as well.

Ayse Birsel: Yes, so the second story is kind of less happy, more dramatic. It’s really the 2008, when the economy crashed. That was turning point because Bibi and I were partners in life and at work. We had started our company, we had had our children together, our best product … so things were going very well. We had amazing clients and we were working like crazy and raising our family. Things seemed to be going so well. And I would have never thought that we would be affected by the economy like this. When Bibi and I had fallen in love, the idea of having our partnership was a very romantic idea. We were like “Oh, we are going to live together and work together!” What we didn’t think about, at the time, was that we were also putting all our eggs in one basket.

Michael: Right, right.

Ayse Birsel: Bibi was, before he met me, a car designer for Renault. He had designed four award-winning automobiles for them. When the economy crashed, I felt very responsible for uprooting him from his life in Paris, his great job and I was like we need that paycheck now. So that, was a big turning point. What happened was I found myself with a lot of time in my hands and I wasn’t use to that. That was really frustrating to me. And it was not until … Again this time one of my oldest friend’s, Leah Caplan, she came to my rescue. She knew me very well and she could see how frustrated I was. And she said “Look, I say you do have a lot of time in your hands and why don’t you use that time to think about how you think. Because, you think differently.” And that made a whole world of difference because I thought first of all, at least one person still believes that I think differently, which, is my understanding of what designers do. She gave me confidence and then I started thinking about how I think, which, is a very interesting exercise for anyone who’s interested. To think about what happens, what goes through your mind and for me how do I go from what I know today to imagining these new ideas, products and services.

Michael: Right.

Ayse Birsel: And out of that I was able to develop my own process, deconstruction reconstruction, which, then changed my life again.

Michael: It is interesting isn’t it? Now you hinted at but, did Bibi go back and take a job or did you decide to carry on the design partnership as you did through those tough economic crash years.

Ayse Birsel: He decided to carry on and we continued our practice, Birsel + Seck. The funny thing is, in this case Bibi was the true optimist. He thought, we’re going to get through this. I was the worrying partner. But I am glad we got through it and that we are working together.

Michael: So, part of what you are pointing to in the journey is understanding how you think, how you think yourself. Taking that meta-knowledge and I am a big believer or at least this is maybe just me projecting that as I get older and maybe a tad wiser as I move through life, it seems to me that I am not trying to learn every lesson but I am actually trying to learn a few lessons over and over and over again. Because, it’s the same patterns that trip me up. It’s the same things just in slightly different situations, maybe in a slightly more subtle version but it’s the same stuff. I am still working on my same stuff.

Ayse Birsel: You too?

Michael: Yeah, exactly. So, I am curious to know as you reflect on your journey because I’m always interested to know the scars and calluses people have picked up on the way. What’s a hard lesson you’ve had to learn or maybe you keep having to learn in the work that you do?

Ayse Birsel: I love that question. The lesson that I keep learning again and again and sometimes it feels like every morning is, you have to work at it.

Michael: Right.

Ayse Birsel: I always wish that something came easy. But, you just have to sit at your desk and do the work and think it through. And there are no … there are magical moments but they come at the end of a lot of work. Again and again, I wake up, I go to my desk, I open my sketch book, I look at it and I fear, like what am I going to think today? It really is … I don’t know … You think it becomes easier but every time it is like empty page where do I start. Once I start drawing or writing or something, once the pen hits the paper I feel better and work starts, basically.

Michael: Yeah, I love that. That’s beautiful. It is beautiful call to show up at the start of everyday going, once again you got to do the work.

Ayse Birsel: Yes, and in doing the work that the ideas come. But, I always think that for other people the idea just drops on their lap or something happens. And I’m like I want to be that person and I know that’s not true.

Michael: And yet.

Ayse Birsel: I wish I got that call like somebody called me without me calling them.

Michael: I mean I have a variation on that which is trying to learn that nothing is going to be the breakthrough moment. It’s like as soon as I do my Ted Talk or as soon as I get this recognition or as soon I write a book that sells more than X thousand copies, when that happens it is going to get really easy because I am going to be at that next level. And I’m like, it turns out that that next level is pretty much the same as the current level, it is just as hard, it is just as difficult. You have other mountains to climb and it is a variation on that same insight that you just shared.

Ayse Birsel: Exactly. My thoughts every morning. But I have gotten use to that. That is my morning mood and actually I try to have this regular habit of just open your sketch book. And my other trick is I put on Pomodoro, this app, that sets the timer for 25 minutes and I try and concentrate on one thing for 25 minutes. That does make a difference.

Michael: I love it. Actually one of the … You’ve talked about and how you figured out how you think about thinking. You build the deconstruction reconstruction process from that. You have written this book Design The Life You Love and you have a program around that. So you have helped people process and move things through their life. You may not consider yourself exactly a coach in the traditional way, but certainly the work you put out into that world is being coach-like. I am curious to know is there a favorite tool or a process or a model that you have that you find yourself using or recommending or working with people more than others. One that you’re like, this is an old favorite of mine.

Ayse Birsel: First of all, I would say having a process to share and to guide people with has become my favorite thing because through it I have learned that people are actually extraordinarily creative but they do need a process. I have worked with so many people from so many different backgrounds and ages and disciplines. As soon as we give them a process and walk them through the process and show them… let them learn the process by doing it, it’s like a miracle every time what it does to people and how it helps them think creatively with great imagination. And also optimism and playfully. So the process is definitely a key piece of it and to demonstrate to people how creative they can be because there is a lot of reticence about creativity for some reason. As kids, we are super creative. Look at any child who is 4, 5, 6 years old. It is almost like the education process kills our creativity.

Michael: Right, right.

Ayse Birsel: To give that back to people and say that you know you still have it. You just need a tool for it and here is my tool and here is my process.

Michael: Yeah, yeah. I love it. It is beautiful. It is a great insight. In some ways you can get overly hung up on tools. It’s like here is the tool you need to use now. But in some ways its like what’s amazing is know that you need a tool and pick a tool and try it out and see where it takes you. It almost doesn’t matter which one you use. There is a bunch of good ones out there in the world but have a process and try something out to make progress on whatever the journey is that you are walking.

Ayse Birsel: Absolutely.

Michael: Ayse, it has been wonderful to talk to you. You are the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Birsel + Seck. You got the book, Design The Life You Love out there in the world. So there is going to be a bunch of people wanting to know how to connect with you and find out more. Point them to a place on the internet or wherever that they can find out more about you and the work that you do.

Ayse Birsel: Oh, wonderful. I would love to be connected with your listeners. They can reach me at … well my email. It is a long one. Ayse@birselplusseck.com. So its Birsel which is my last name plus written out and then Seck which is Bibi’s last name.

Michael: Perfect. So Ayse@birselplusseck.com. Great. I am assuming that means birselplusseck.com is the website where your work is featured.

Ayse Birsel: That’s the website where my work is featured. And then in Twitter is Aysebirselseck, my twitter handle. That is another good place.

Michael: Aysebirselseck. Ayse this is awesome. I love talking to you, you know that. But thank you for talking to me whilst we get to record it and share the podcast and your wisdom with the world.

Ayse Birsel: Michael, thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.

Box of Crayons helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led.