Ayse's Speech at Design Indaba: Designing a Meaningful Future for Yourself

The award-winning designer talks about applying design processes to our daily lives.

Ayse Birsel grew up in Turkey in a family full of lawyers. While she loved to draw, she often felt destined to follow in her parents’ footsteps. One day, a friend of the family visited for tea and demonstrated the elements of industrial design to her using a teacup.

“See how the cup has curves?” the friend pointed out. “It’s so that we can drink easier. And look at the handle; it’s so we don’t burn ourselves when holding hot liquid.” The young Birsel had never heard of industrial design before but immediately fell in love with the human scale of it and has been working in this arena ever since.

But Birsel is more than a designer; she’s a teacher, and the co-founder and creative director of Birsel + Seck. She’s also the author of Design the Life You Love, a strikingly illustrated and practical guide to building the life you've always dreamed of. Our lives are the ultimate design project, asserts Birsel, and what if we could apply processes of design to our daily lives?

It was from this thinking that the singular workbook emerged. Cognisant of the numerous constraints that hold humans back from pursuing their dreams, Birsel considered the qualities that made a good designer. She decided it was their optimism, empathy and inclination toward collaboration that helped them transform limitations into opportunities and set about designing a process that could be easily shared and taught to others.

“Are you ready to experiment with me?” Birsel asked as she stepped out onto the Design Indaba 2017 conference stage. She then guided the audience through the books’ four steps: deconstruction, forming a new point of view, putting it back together, and giving it form. This is done through doodling, drawing, visualisation, introspective journaling – activities meant to stimulate the right side of the brain, as well as the intuition and imagination.

Developed with non-designers in mind, the Design the Life You Love process is intended to be playful. “Because when we play,” says Birsel, “we’re like kids. We’re not afraid of making mistakes. And that’s exactly the spirit that’s needed to design the life you love.”

Birsel’s process provides an inspired yet simple way for anyone to navigate the challenges of pursuing a dream and serves as a reminder that the tools for success lie within each and every one of us – it just requires a little coaxing. “In design,” she says, “if you can visualise something you can make it happen.”

How to be a Champion Like Roger Federer

Roger Federer is an original. He has designed the life he loves, often doing what is counterintuitive to being a champion. He is a family man. He is too old to be a tennis champion. He is a calm, modest personality, even though he is the longest reigning No. 1 tennis player.

Federer walks to the beat of his own drum. He is driven by his personal values and this, in turn, makes him a different kind of champion. But how does he do it? Here is what I've determined -- and you don't need to be a superhuman to do them, too.

1. He stays true to himself.

Federer is perhaps the most elegant player in tennis. New York Times calls his game "languid" which is a beautiful way of saying he can seem relaxed and unhurried in the midst of all the speed and the intense pressure to win. Akash Kapur's description in the New Yorker of his style being reminiscent of a bygone era captures it beautifully--

"The talent--that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience--comes first. Federer's smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men's tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties."

And even though the game has changed--it is so much more about muscle power and equipment today--Federer remains true to his style and continues to win by being himself.

2. He is a constant learner.

There are 5 years between Federer's 2012 and 2017 Wimbledon Grand Slam. Anyone else would've given up. He didn't. For a long while he was under the shadow of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, but then he figured out how to emerge. He has lost many times to Nadal, his "eternal tormentor," as CBS Sports calls him, but Federer patiently learned how to play against Nadal and won. He is a constant learner.

"Federer has already proved that he can learn new tennis tricks at an advanced age, having come back from knee surgery and a six-month layoff, the longest of his career, to win the Australian Open in January. He has already proved that he can drive his single-handed backhand with new commitment and find an antidote to Nadal, having beaten him three straight times on hardcourts this year." -Christopher Clarey, The New York Times

3. He balances work and life.

Instead of competing at the exclusion of everything, Federer has created a work-life balance. When he had his knee injury, he spent most of his time with his family, traveling and being in nature in Australia and Switzerland. When he competes, his wife and their four kids stay with him, most recently at the Wimbledon village in 2017. In fact, he has said that he couldn't do it without his family. Tennis is important but it is not everything.

4. He puts the hours in.

Federer is not the best server in the game but he has the best return. At the speed the game is played, there is no time to consciously plan an attack. Federer anticipates his opponent's return, almost intuitively, before the brain can truly process it. It is as if he sees what we cannot see.

This is what Malcolm Gladwell calls "the feel for the game." It is the result of practicing endlessly which, according to Gladwell, creates a consistency. Psychologists also call this "chunking" -- our ability to combine things that go together and store them in our memory as one unit. Chunking might well be the secret behind Federer's ability to see his opponent's game and respond to it an almost superhuman way.

"What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do -- their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss." Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker

5. He exhibits joy.

Perhaps what distinguishes Federer from everyone else is the pure joy with which he plays the game. Watching him you can feel the way he loves tennis. Which in turn gives us joy. We want to be around people who are happy doing what they love. They inspire us by example to strive for a similar feeling and attitude in our own work.

An original life is one that's lived on a foundation of your own values. In that, Federer is a true original.

Do you know of people who lead original lives? I am always on the look out for them (I've even started a podcast about them) and would love to hear from you.

How to 'Steal Time'

I was listening to Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm, my favorite podcast about books, when his guest, Jim Gauer, the poet, venture capitalist and author of Novel Explosives, said something about getting up in the early hours of the morning to work on his book that caught my attention. "A kindred spirit," I thought, as I too had written my book Design the Life You Love by getting up 4:30-5am everyday, while my family was still asleep.

"The novel, so that everyone knows, due to mistakes that I made along the way, took 7 days a week, 365 days a year, 7 years to write. I made a terrible mistake late in the book, had to rip out a year's worth of work and it took a year and a half to replace it. But it was a daily, getting up at 3:30 or 4 in the morning to write."

Listening to Gauer, I realized that getting up early was a way of "stealing time".

Stealing time is creating precious time out of an already packed schedule to do something that is important to you. For me this was the hours before my kids got up and my work day started. To steal time, I trained myself to get up early.

NYTimes' Sketch Guy, Carl Richards, recently wrote about an epiphany he had about where time goes after his wife called out his habit of 'half-working'. He installed a program called Rescue Time that monitored everything he did on his computer. After tracking his activities for a month, he found that his wife wasn't so wrong after all (no surprise there).

"I spent 45 hours and 38 minutes on things I'd labeled unproductive. After I carefully reviewed all the inputs for errors and found none, I pulled out my trusty calculator and did some painful math: It was two and a half hours per working day in May."

Try Richards' technique and find your lost time-where it goes and how much. Once you do, you might want to heed to Beth Comstock's advice about making room for discovery. Comstock, the Vice Chair at GE, reserves 10% of her time for curiosity--to learn new things by going to conferences, taking time to ideate and to talk to people.

"Can I spend 10% of my time a week reading, going to sites like Singularity, TED, talking to people, going to industry events, asking people: What trends are you seeing? What are you nervous about? What are you excited about?"

There are other ways to "steal time" and here are a few:

- Simplify your life to save time. Minimizing choice helps recuperate time lost on decision making.

- Delegate work to others. Note to parents and myself, this includes delegating house work to your kids.

- Stay focused on one task at a time as switching from one task to another is a big time and energy drain. I use the Pomodoro app to focus my time on one thing at a time.

But if you'd like to see something really ingenious, check out this new product that my graduate student Jingting He designed in my class at SVA (School of Visual Arts). Called the Time Thief Clock, her timepiece comes with an app that steals 1 minute out of each hour, which disappears right in front of your eyes at exactly the 59th minute of each hour, and gives it back to you as 24 minutes at the end of each 24 hour cycle. Now that is a chunk of time you can do so much with.

How do you "steal" time and what do you do with it? I would love to hear from you.

Design the life and work you love!

How to Be a Designers' CEO Like Elon Musk

Elon Musk is doing right by design. In a recent interview on Y Combinator (often called the world's No. 1 startup incubator), Musk explained that he spends 80 percent of his time on engineering and design, developing next-generation products. He is what I call a designers' CEO.

Musk's optimism in the face of great odds (SpaceX, the company he founded "to revolutionize space technology," had a 10 percent chance of success at the onset); his belief that beauty is as important as the usefulness of products (from the Tesla door handles to his more recent aspiration to bring aesthetics to SolarCity tiles); his strong sense of empathy with others (feeling for every parent who ever put a child's seats into a minivan, which led to Tesla's falcon wing doors); and the humanity with which he goes after what designers call "wicked problems" (e.g. multiplanetary habitation) make him, if not a designer, a rare and much welcome enabler of ground-breaking design.

Here's what makes Musk a "designful" leader:

1. Proximity to creativity

Do you know of any other CEO today that can say they spend 80 percent of their time developing the next generation of products? Musk spends half a day each week at the Tesla design studio, sitting next to Tesla's chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen. There is an intentional physical closeness, a proximity to creativity, that is missing in most large corporations. Musk literally rubs elbows with design, which gives him a visceral sense of the problem solving and allows him to partake in the creativity that goes on in the design studio.

2. Having an eye

When Musk started SpaceX, he learned how to build rockets from scratch. He has a similar approach to developing an eye for good design, educating himself visually. He has a mental bank of visual references to help him understand what he's looking for in a design and how to communicate it to the design team. It is this eye that Musk uses to discern beauty.

Musk uses this to distinguish his company from competitors, transforming ugly products into things of beauty--from electric cars (Tesla) to home batteries (Powerwall) to solar tiles (this is in progress at the recently acquired SolarCity).

3. Lead, not follow

Great design takes guts. You're imagining the future based on what you know today, and that requires vision, intuition, inspiration, and leaps of faith in the face of serious risk of failure. Musk joins a small group of people with singular visions of what the world needs, and is not afraid to lead us there. Steve Jobs belongs in that group. As does mid-century pioneer George Nelson, designer and author. What Nelson wrote for the Herman Miller catalogue, as quoted in Ralph Caplan's book, The Design of Herman Miller, can speak for all three men:

You decide what you will make. Herman Miller has never done any market research or any pretesting of its products to determine what the market "will accept." If designer and management like a solution to a particular furniture problem, it is put into production. There is no attempt to conform to the so-called norms of "public taste," nor any special faith in the methods used to evaluate the "buying public."

4. Understanding humans

Perhaps what most makes Musk a designers' CEO is his capacity for empathy. Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and feel their pain, is design's guiding principle. Everything that Musk does, from creating affordable solar energy to founding the Boring Company to bring cities closer to each other, he does because he cares deeply about people. Musk is an advocate for people and aims to remove longstanding obstacles from our lives using design and engineering.

His approach reminds me of something Marty Neumeier talks about in his book The Designful Company: "For businesses to bottle the kind of experiences that focus minds and intoxicate hearts, they'll need to do more than HIRE designers. They'll need to BE designers."

If you know more design enablers, I would love to hear from you about who they are and their qualities. We, designers and our customers, need more of them.

Design the life you love!

How to Get Your Team to Think More Creatively

You've probably been in this situation. You need to get a group of people, your team or a group of customers, to think creatively. Perhaps you're going to brainstorm solutions to a problem or do a co-creation session. Everyone gathers in a meeting room, still preoccupied with the last meeting they came out of or a recent email that needs a rush answer or stressed by the effort of getting there on time.

You need to get this group out of their current funk in to a playful, creative, open-minded mode. How do you do that quickly and with success?

Show them a film.

Films that are beautiful to watch, upbeat and related to your topic in a loose, intuitive manner, can change the collective mood from humdrum to creative in a matter of seconds.

After doing workshops with hundreds of people, I've learned that people are often anxious and ambivalent when they walk into a meeting where they don't quite know what will happen. They need a symbolic entry point to the creative space. A good little film acts as the window to such a magical place.

So next time you're going to do something creative, here is what I suggest--

Find a film. Something that distantly relates to your topic (see below some great suggestions). 2-3 minutes is ideal. Watch it together. Then all you need to do is bridge the film to your topic of conversation. Often this happens naturally--there's usually one person in the team that will say something like, this made me think this way about our project. You continue from there.

Here are my favorite films, Rotten Tomatoes-style, you can use for starters--

1. Powers of Ten

My favorite film is Charles and Ray Eames' Powers of Ten. It is a beautiful example of how you can see the same things differently depending on your vantage point and scale. If half of the room has seen it, the other half usually hasn't. And it is one of those films you can watch 10 times without getting sick of it. It is a great way to help people see something with a bird's eye, holistically, or come really close and see it under the microscope.

2. Cook This Page

Ikea's Cook this Page has captured our imagination since it came out. It is a great tool to show people how you can take something as banal as a recipe and totally reinvent it. It wows people and gets them to think playfully. As a visual thinker I also love the visualization of it all.

3. Chef's Table Episode on Francis Mallmann

These days we start Design the Work You Love sessions with Francis Mallmann from Netflix Chef's Table. Francis Mallmann is a renowned Argentinian chef who left the comfort of his famous restaurants to cook in the wild in Patagonia. He calls himself a "gypsy chef". It is a great example of someone who loves his work and sets the tone for exploring what it takes to find the right ingredients for our own work.

4. Kinematic Dress

When we need to inspire people (users, designers or anyone really) about the power of new materials and processes, we pull out the Kinematics Dress, a 3D-printed gown in motion. The suspense of what's going to happen and the transformation of what looks like powdered flour into a flowing dress is magical. Try it and you will see how ordinary people can come up with extraordinary ideas after viewing the film.

5. Ira Glass

Ira Glass of This American Life on story telling. Watch this when you're frustrated with the quality of what you're doing. Glass talks on video about the gap between your "killer" taste and what you actually do, a gap that can exist often for years. His lesson: do a lot of work to narrow the gap. Inspiring for anyone who is venturing on a new idea, like me and the team at Sound Made Public, as we start our Design the Life You Love podcast.

You can then watch play designer David Shiyang Liu's beautiful version of the interview set to typography.

6. The Happy Film

Stefan Sagmeister's long awaited The Happy Film is now available online. A beautiful and deeply personal pursuit of happiness by the maestro of graphic design. Steven Heller, prolific author and design critic, calls it a "atomic bomb of a film". Perfect to watch alone or as an after hours movie at the office, and to show excerpts for team meetings.

7. Abstract: The Art of Design

When you want to be in the company of creative giants, watch Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design. Illustrator Christoph Niemann is a favorite.

7.5. One of These Three Short (and Funny) Films

These are funny or beautiful (or both) films that are great for the after lunch slump, to get the energy back up:

- This from Bloomberg on the Good Design Issue gets good laughs.

- Fashion films can turn out to be little art pieces. Here is one from OMA for Prada.

- Volvo ad, ABC of Death, by Dorian & Daniel is one of our favorite pieces for laughs. It is also a great primer for our creative tool, wrong thinking.

I always believe that the mood of creative thinking, at least as you enter it, is playful. It needs to be because when you're playing you're not afraid of making mistakes. What better way to set a playful mood than a film.

What are your favorite films that inspire you? I would love to hear from you and watch them.

Design the life and work you love with the aid of some great films!

Thank you Rona Binay, Karen Vellensky, Selin Sonmez, Chris Rawlinson, Leah Caplan and Seda Evis for your favorite films!

How to Make Air Travel Less Painful

I've been traveling a little too much these days. So much that it has become a chore, something I need to do but don't want to do. This is not a great point-of-view, given that most of my clients reside outside of New York. I quickly realized that I needed to think about travel differently. In other words, I needed to redesign the travel I loved.

To me this is a design problem: what are my constraints and how can I think about them differently? So I approached the problem like a design project, starting with the step of deconstructing the concept of travel (the first step of my design process, Deconstruction:Reconstruction) to help break my own preconceptions.

Here is my deconstruction of travel across four quadrants--physical, emotion, intellect and spirit--and how it helped me shift my perspective from problem to opportunity.


Airports have lost their charm. They're what French anthropologist Marc Augé called non-places, transient spaces where people pass by in almost complete anonymity.

Shift in POV: As I write this, I realize therein lies also the beauty of airports--a passage way where you can watch all the people of the world pass through. Seen in this light, airports are rivers and I can sit at my gate and watch the river pass by--all the people with their weird haircuts, incredible tattoos; people who travel in their pj's with pillows alongside, in their saris, military uniforms, high heels and sandals; big people, tall people, little people, tired people, excited people; people who cry and wrench your heart at departures, and those who cry with happiness at arrivals.


The hardest thing about travel is leaving my family. Therein lies the disruption. As Paul Auster put so well, "Whenever I travel, I get thrown off completely. If I'm gone for two weeks, it takes me a good week to get back into the rhythm of what I was doing before." It doesn't help that airplane service is at a new low--any gate announcements looking for people to take the next plane due to full flights makes my hair stand on end.

Shift in POV: How do you get beyond all the negative emotions and anxiety? I complained to my friend Marshall Goldsmith that I travel too much. Goldsmith, who travels non-stop, didn't have much sympathy for me but shared his 2 travel tricks which I have since internalized--sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat, and be happy doing what you love doing anywhere. In other words, stop whining about travel if it lets you do what you love. Now when I travel, I do so with minimum complaining and a box my daughters made for me with little notes to make me laugh along the way.


This is the quadrant that surprised me because I realized that the moment of travel for me is intellectually very rich. I love the bookstores at the airports and pass my time browsing through their books, trying to choose something I'd like. Half of the books I read are bought at an airport and often finished on airplanes.

Shift in POV: Suddenly moving through space in the company of my books doesn't seem bad at all. In fact, this is the time I am free of distractions to indulge in my favorite pass time, reading. Current book bought at an airport: Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Gene.


This is the quadrant that tripped me up because air travel seems soulless. What can I find spiritually redeeming here?

Shift in POV: I love thinking about this quadrant because it helps me to think of universal truths I might neglect otherwise. The spirit of travel is the people who are waiting for me at the other end, at my destination. Some are clients, some are friends who live where my clients are, some are clients who have become friends, some are people I don't know but who've accepted my invitation to visit while I am in their city. We are face to face, building trust, learning from each other and about each other, solving problems, laughing and talking about our life. They make the whole experience worth while.

This is design thinking or thinking like a designer, holistically and with empathy (in this case empathy for myself) applied to travel. It is intentionally shifting my point of view to turn constraints into opportunities when I can, and working around them when I cannot. With the hope the it will help you think about your travels differently too.

Design the travel you love.

How to Draw to Sell Your Vision

Have you ever drawn a map to show someone how to get to your house? Or how to get from your house to the park or the corner store? If you have, you know how to draw, how to visualize, and how to communicate a path in time and space.

These are the same skills you can apply if you are an entrepreneur trying to sell customers on a new product or service, or someone who helps others imagine the future. Draw a map to help people to get from here to there.

When your goal is to describe a vision for the future, information is not enough. People are up to their necks in information. What they need is a way to imagine their life after the change, and compare it with their life today. That's why it's called a "vision" and not a "plan."
--Marty Neumeier, author of The Designful Company

A vision map shows, economically, how to get from point A (where you are today) to point B (where you want and need to get). You can write about it and you should. But if you want people to understand you quickly and intuitively, draw it for them.

Now, I know what you're thinking -- you really can't draw. But remember, your drawing doesn't need to be great. Who cares if the lines are crooked as long as it gives good directions? However, it does need to be drawn by you, because when you draw your idea you create an abstraction in space and time. You show a path. And because only you know the path, you need to draw it for the rest of us.

Contrary to what you think, the ability to draw is not purely a talent. It is having a kit of visual symbols and icons, which is just like drawing a map. New York Times financial writer Carl Richard's napkin sketches are a great example. Alex Osterwalder, author of the Business Model Generation, is both a great visionary and visualizer, as you can see on his Twitter account almost daily.

To help you draw, I broke down my drawings into the visual symbols I most often use. Please feel free to try them out, borrow and adopt them.

My vision-drawing alphabet

Simple geometric shapes: Circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, and cubes are simple shapes that can depict an area or category.

1 circle with a word in it: Depicts something central to your idea or concept.

2 overlapping circles: Intersection of two ideas. The intersection is the "sweet spot." This is my favorite way of showing dichotomy resolution.

3 overlapping circles: Intersection of three ideas, or a trifecta.

2 lines drawn at 90-degree angles to each other: A graph. I use this to show the relation of one thing to another over time.

2 lines intersecting in the middle: Four quadrants. I use this to depict the emotional, the physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual.

2 words and an arrow between them: One thing becoming something else. Arrows can also depict direction, movement, or the future.

Infinity sign: I use this to show a continuous feedback loop, like "give and take."

Equal/unequal symbols: When used between two words, they summarize how things are alike or dissimilar. Other math symbols, like +, x, <, and >, are also useful.

A stick figure or a smiley face: A person. As simple as it sounds, adding a person connects the idea to users and humanizes it.

A stick figure in a circle: Depicts being user-centered.

Circle with a diagonal line over a word or symbol: Something that is banned or unwanted.

Simple icons: Heart for emotion, yin and yang for spirit, dollar sign for money, messy scribble for complication, etc.

Throw some of these together to express one of your ideas. Put it on Twitter. Email it to your colleague. Draw it on a white board. You will see that a picture is worth a thousand words.

If you already draw to sell your vision, I would love to hear from you and learn about your drawing tool kit.

Design the vision you love, by drawing.

How to Turn Boredom Into Inspiration

You might need to get out of the office to reengage.

Summer is here and although you may want to go on vacation this instant, you might not be able to just yet. Work is slow, you're feeling burnt out, and bored by doing the same things day in day out. Here is a simple way to find mental rejuvenation that will require one day of your time but will offer long-lasting benefits.

All you need to do is pick a topic you're interested in, and curate a day exploring that topic. Outside the office--I call this "knowledge tourism."

My most recent day as a knowledge tourist was inspired by our client the Kale Group, and I focused on the topic of the future of retail buildings. But this is the kind of thing you can also do without a client. In fact, I recommend it.

Here is how--

Have a goal

Make it your mission to be a knowledge tourist for a day. Get out of the office to come back with new knowledge, connections and insights to inspire your projects. Imagine you're a bee collecting pollen to make honey.


Block a whole day on your calendar. Pick your area of research--anything that interests you will work. Now you will plan a day around your research topic (just like you would plan a day if you were visiting Paris or Chicago).


Start with experts--people you know or people you know of. Connect via LinkedIn or Twitter with a brief description of your research. You will be surprised how many will be open to giving you an hour of their time. Go with 3 experts for one day. Once you have them scheduled, use the experts as your anchors and plan everything else around what they suggest.

I reached out to Guillaume Bazouin, the Director of Product and Innovation at architecture firm Bone Structure (he accepted on LinkedIn) and Tish Shute , who works at Huawei Technologies, to talk about VR, AR and implications of humans are merging with their tools (old friend, new conversation).


Check ongoing exhibits at museums, galleries, retail stores that relate to your topic. Plan 1-2 exhibits around your expert interviews. Be mindful of distances.

I stopped by a Sephora store to try their new VR make-up service (proud to say I stuck to research and didn't shop!) and the Target Open House to look at their new startup apps (very cool storytelling).


Plan a breakfast to review your plan for the day, your interview questions and to get your day started. Lunch is the perfect way to refuel and review your insights from the morning. Dinner caps your day and finalize your insights. If you're feeling adventurous, choose a meal spot that reinforces your research topic

I visited Eatsa, a cutting edge automaton diner. Good food, quick service, no bathrooms (because bots don't need them but we do!)

It will take you 2 hours (20min/day X 6) to curate this day. And you don't have to do it alone, you can take 1-4 people with you. You can also play with mixing meals and experts.


- You can write up 3 interviews with your experts for your blog (or for your team).

- Use what you learned to do a further deep dive on things you heard.

- Present an insights summary to your team and open it to conversation: what does this mean for us?

- How will you use this new wealth of information in your daily work? Make a plan.

- Stay in touch with your experts and continue to build your network.

- Share insights via Twitter, LinkedIn.

Now that you know my little secret for having fun and working, block a day on your calendar and start curating!

Design the life and work you love!

Why Work with People Who Are Better

I was listening to Sheryl Sandberg on the podcast Master's of Scale, when I heard her say, "You do want to hire people who are better than you are." When someone I perceive as an awesome smart woman says this, it gives you pause for thought. I paused the podcast and wondered why so many great leaders all give the same advice.

Hire people who are smarter than you.

It turns out the real smart move is intentionally not being the smartest person in the room. Rather it is inspiring, cultivating and bringing out the best in people who are better than you.

"I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way." Lee Iococca

Brown Johnson, Creative director of Sesame Workshop, had told me that her secret is working with people who are smarter than her. Johnson, who is known as the mother of Dora the Explorer, is my friend and I thought she was being humble. I was wrong. She was stating a business credo.

Even someone who is not known for being humble, Steve Jobs, gave similar advice: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

Here is why working with people who are better, more knowledgeable or more talented than we are, is such a big contributor to success:

They pull you up--Jeff Bezos says this about hiring: "every time we hire someone, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire, so that the overall talent pool is always improving." This creates an upward movement of talent pulling talent. You build on each other's ideas and pull each other up.

Proximity to greatness--I went to graduate school with Stefan Sagmeister, who for many is the best graphic designer today. Seeing Sagmeister in action, up close, I could observe how he approached new projects, feel his infectious enthusiasm, watch him at work, and then go to my studio and emulate him. I learned early on that when you build a team, you want to create that proximity to greatness.

Learning from each other--In design, you need to learn like a sponge and synthesize diverse information quickly with every project. Your team is your first and deepest place of learning, you learn from each other and you learn together. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, says not to hire "people you can't learn from or be challenged by." This is why.

Being different from you--people who are smarter than you are often smarter in different ways. I am great at visualizing ideas and thinking in systems. Couple me with coders, mathematical thinkers, great story tellers and people who are incredibly detail oriented, and together we go from great to amazing. You need the intellectual diversity to help you cross-fertilize from each other's knowledge and expertise. That is the formula for 1+1=3.

I love the way Michael Dell states it: "Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people ... or find a different room."

Design the life and work you love, with people who are smarter.

How to Manage Information Overload

A few weeks ago I wrote about simplifying our lives and that article got a lot of interest. That interest made me curious. What actually complicates our lives?

We put out a small survey with my team and asked our peers--entrepreneurs, designers, working moms, leadership coaches--the #1 thing that complicates their life. And what they do about it.

It turns out that the biggest culprit still is information overload. One of the survey responders called this, "drinking from a firehose."

Here are their tips for managing seemingly endless information flow and digital distraction, with some additions from me. And not to overload you more, I deliberately kept it short.

1. Turn it off

Deactivate Facebook. Turn off pesky notifications. Quit all programs except the one you're using. Use the app SelfControl which blocks your access to sites of your choice for time blocks you set up. Have windows of time where you're 100 percent off technology.

2. Reverse the direction of information

Instead of letting all and every piece of information come at you, choose to go after information of your choice. Whether it is for work or life, curate your own information deliberately and with care.

3. Look for inspiration in the real world

Go to a museum. Take a walk with a friend. Attend a workshop. Watch a documentary. Read a book. Then use them as jumping off points to explore things that interest you.

4. Put limits

Check and answer email in batches and schedule these in your calendar. Have only one professional (i.e. LinkedIn) and one social (i.e. Facebook) network. Clock your time on both. Know not to answer every email (i.e. all emails on which you're CC'ed). Select a number that is manageable for your photo albums (i.e. 100/month) and stick to that (this from a professional photographer).

5. Unsubscribe

Set a separate mailbox for mails that come with an unsubscribe option. Unsubscribe from all except 5 that bring you joy (a la Mari Kondo).

6. Separate work and life

Have a different computer for work and home. Don't check Facebook at work. Ditto for LinkedIn at home. Leave your phone in another room when you're having dinner with your family.

7. Go back to paper

Get the paper edition of your newspaper. Use a notebook for your notes. Create a printed photo album. Buy paperbacks.

Thank you to everyone who inspired me by replying to our Design the Life You Love survey.

If you have tools and tips to manage information overload, please send them in. We can always use more help.

Design the Life and Work You Love!

Why You Should Start Thinking in Dichotomies

Sometimes I think that life is just a series of contradictions. We want freedom, but we also want to be in a relationship. At work, similarly, we want autonomy, but we also want to belong. When shopping, we want luxury, but we don't want to spend a lot of money.

These contradictory or opposing factors are dichotomies, two things that are mutually exclusive or that seemingly cancel each other out.

Now for the secret--their resolution is one of the best ways to create unique, long-term value. One of my favorite design mottos is a case in point, "less is more".

In other words, if you can make any two opposites co-exist, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Let's start with nature. In his book The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee explains that you need exceptions or variants to a breed for that breed to survive and continue. According to Mukherjee, for natural selection to happen, "two seemingly contradictory facts had to be simultaneously true."

"For Darwin's theory to work, heredity had to possess constancy and inconstancy, stability and mutation."

Now let's think of something more mundane, like shopping. When H&M does celebrity collaborations, like shoes by Jimmy Choo, Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney or David Beckham, you get luxury at affordable prices. That is dichotomy resolution.

"Karl Lagerfeld was the first, with design greats like Rei Kawakubo and Alber Elbaz following in his footsteps, finding new ways to reimagine their haute aesthetics for the high street." -Steff Yotka, Vogue

One of the more controversial but riveting examples is author and sex-columnist Dan Savage's viewpoint on how to resolve freedom and monogamy, in the New York Times Magazine article, Married, With Infidelities. Savage calls this, "monogamish". The more accepted version in the States is serial monogamy, which itself is also a resolution of opposites.

In architecture, my favorite practitioner these days is Bjarke Ingels work. Ingels explains his work as "Hedonistic Sustainability", a contradictory phenomenon that he finds different ways to resolve. His West 57th Residences in New York, a metal pyramid with a rectangular cutout in the middle to create a garden, is a good case in point as he explains in Archdaily--

"...creating a unique shape which combines the advantages of both: the compactness of a courtyard with the airiness and the amazing views of a skyscraper."

Once you start thinking in dichotomies you start seeing them everywhere. The trick is looking for ways to make them co-exist. Here is a simple guide, using the great chef and author Julia Child as an example--

01. Find a dichotomy--If you grew up with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or still use her recipes, you are benefitting from her resolution of two opposing cuisines--American and French.

02. List the qualities of each--Before Child, American food was quick, practical and bland (imagine the 50's and 60's). French cooking was time consuming and elaborate, but exquisitely delicious.

03. Mash these qualities up to generate multiple ways to make them co-exist--Child's genius was to make the great taste of French food accessible and practical to Americans. She mashed up the strengths of both cuisines to make a win-win solution that is valued to this day, almost 60 years later.

"She decided that they had to start from scratch--rethinking, researching, re-testing--and with American ingredients, American measurements, and cultural translations (for instance, what the French call le carrelet, the British call plaice, and Americans, sand dab or lemon sole)." Laura Jacobs, Vanity Fair

Now that you're in on the secret, what are some dichotomies you are tackling with and resolving? I would love to hear from you.

Design the life and work you love, and resolve dichotomies to create new value!

Use Metaphors as a Tool to Manage Complexity at Work

Do you want to break your own preconceptions about your work? Recheck your cognitive biases? Gain insight into your team in a new way? Get out of your own head to reframe your organization in a new way?

Think in metaphors.

I first learned about metaphors from Jim Long, then the Director of Research at Herman Miller. Long had done research into organizations where he asked large corporations to describe themselves using a metaphor. People responded that they were a beehive, a circus, a theater, an emergency room. All highly descriptive, engaging metaphors. Let's take beehive as our example.

A beehive can be the best of metaphors--disciplined, hard-working and producing a sweet product that everyone wants. But it can also describe an organization where everyone works under a queen bee and where there is little room for initiative-taking and creativity. A place filled with drones.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of Happiness Hypothesis, notes--

"Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it's hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor 'life is a journey,' the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road."

One of my favorites is climbing Mount Everest. If you are climbing Everest, you'd need a mentor (your guide), have your goal within your sight (base-camp), train and practice your expertise with smaller projects (climb smaller mountains), wait for the right time (favorable climbing conditions) and have a plan for surviving unexpected events out of your control (i.e. avalanches). And beware that, if you fall, the consequences are dire, just like on Everest. I call this the CEO metaphor.

If you want to give this a try, here is a simple "how to" for using metaphors at work--

01. Listen for metaphors. We often talk in metaphors without being aware of them. Listen for them next time you're in a meeting. Make a list.

02. Try them on for size. Visualize the metaphor (you can look up images on Google images) and list its qualities. Which one rises to the top?

03. Now use that one metaphor to think differently about your work. What would you do differently? Below are some examples--

- If you work is climbing Everest, you're taking on a challenge very few people attempt, you need a guide. In business the guide could be a mentor. Do you have a mentor and how is your mentor accompanying you on the journey?

- If your work is a flying carpet, who wove it? You alone, or was it with your team?

- If your work is a high wire act, you need to fall often before you can perform at the top of your ability. What is your safety net so that you can fail without getting hurt?

- If your work is a band, you're creating music together. How do you riff with your team? Does everyone know the piece of music and when to improvise versus when to come back and play together.

- If your work is a tree, like mine, what are your seeds? What are the conditions and the tools that can help your tree to grow and give fruit?

Do you have a metaphor that you use in your work? I would love to hear from you!

Design the life and work you love, using metaphors!

How to Work With Your Friends, and Become Friends With The People You Work With


Success comes at a price. And it is often at the expense of your friends.

If you're working so hard that you don't have time to see your friends, I am one of you.

And we're not alone. The author and humorist, David Sedaris describes how our life is like a stove with four burners--work, family, friends and health--in one of his funniest articles, Laugh Kookabura. In order to be successful, he says, you need to turn one burner off. In order to be really successful you need to turn off two. And adds that, for him, the first burner to go was friends.

The lesson is that in life you cannot have everything. There is never enough time, energy and resources. That is, unless you can get creative and make sure that what you want and what you need can co-exist. This is called dichotomy resolution and it is one of my favorite design tools. It helps you figure out how to have your cake and eat it too.

So how can you work hard and have time with your friends?

Work with your friends and become friends with the people with whom you work. This is my motto, and here's how you can learn to live by it.

1. Tap into your friends for talent

Imagine how much fun Beyonce and tennis star Serena Williams had dancing while filming a music video for her 'Lemonade' album. The trust between legendary photographer Irving Penn and Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake was such that Miyake never attended Penn's photo shoots. Friendship between Larry Page, Google Founder, and Ellon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space-X, encompasses Musk staying over at Page's home as well as Page's readiness to leave his billions to Musk so that his friend can continue to change the world. How much fun they must have together while inspiring and supporting each other's vision.

"I was looking for one person who could look at my clothing, hear my voice, and answer me back through his own creation. Through his eyes, Penn-san reinterprets the clothes, gives them new breath, and presents them to me from a new vantage point. He shows me what I do." -Issey Miyake

Enlist your friends in your next big project and suddenly you will have many reasons to talk, laugh and produce something meaningful together.

2. Fail in the safety of your friends

I do all my creative experiments with my friends. They're the ones who helped me refine and simplify my design process, Deconstruction:Reconstruction, before teaching it to anyone else. They were my guinea pigs for Design the Life You Love workshops and to this day, I will test my new tools on them (including a new seminar that I'm leading this weekend).

I say, better to fail in the safety of friends in order to succeed in the presence of strangers.

3. Go to the office to be with friends

My kids love school because it is where all their friends are. They work but they have fun, laugh, support each other in times of need and they collaborate.

Try going to the office like a kid going to school. To work for sure, but also for camaraderie and mutual support.

4. Promote your friends

One of the biggest lessons my friend the author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith taught me and my fellow 100 Coaches cohorts is to augment each other's successes. Goldsmith made us realize that when you are friends with people you work with, you're proud of their successes. So now when one of us publishes an article, gets a reward or gets a promotion, we are unabashed about bragging about our friends.

Be explicit and make a pact with your friends to celebrate each other's wins on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. They deserve it.

5. Be yourself, even at the office

When Sheryl Sandberg posted about her grief over her husband's death on Facebook, where she is the COO, she inspired 70,000 people to reply to show their support and share their own stories (more on that in Sandberg's new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,which she wrote with her friend, author Adam Grant).

When Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's CEO, talked on camera, very candidly and with great humor, about the challenges of being a mom, she made it ok for so many of us working mothers to acknowledge that it is hard no matter how hard we try.

Be yourself at work and in the process, inspire others to be themselves too. Because that is how we are with our friends and it is how we can make new friends.

You can't have everything in life. But you can have your friends and work with them too.

Design the life and work you love!

Design the Life You Love Inspiration Journal #11


This week we warm up your right brain by drawing without seeing. I love this exercise because it encourages concentration and self-trust. And it is about the process and experience, just as much as it is about the outcome—no masterpieces expected!

Also, my most recent Inc. article about simplifying our lives generated a lot of interest. This inspired me to ask about your tools and tips. Please share with me how you minimize choice and simplify your life by filling out our simplicity survey. It takes about 5 minutes to complete. Thank you!

Design the life you love!


How To Be Creative Everyday

Drawing Without Seeing

Find an object on your desk, like a stapler, a pencil or a binder clip. Now cover your hand with a paper towel or a large sheet of paper and draw the object without peeking. When you're done, remove the paper. Tada! You'll be amazed.

The opening animation was created by our intern, Meltem Parlak. After she was done, she noted how much she liked this exercise: 

"I think I did it 6 or 7 times and every time I draw a little bit better. I was looking at the object, but actually I was drawing it in my mind. So, sometimes I closed my eyes. It was like a mystery until I saw what I drew. And that feeling made me more excited about it." 

What did you draw? And how did it make you feel? Let me know at info@aysebirsel.com.  

I hope you'll also continue to share examples of how you're creative everyday on our Design the Life Love: How To Be Creative Everyday Pinterest page.

Please also remember to take a moment to help inspire me by completing our Simplicity Survey and providing me with tools and tips on how to simplify our lives. Thank you! 

Our Community

You can connect with us on Facebook @ Design the Life You Love by Ayse Birsel, via Twitter @aysebirselseck and on her website, aysebirsel.com. Design the Life You Love the book can be purchased on Amazon. 

How Watson Could Improve Your Health, Your Work, and Your Love Life

Did you watch Hidden Figures?

If you have, you'll remember the moment when they roll in the IBM supercomputers to NASA and the head of the team of "human computers" realizes that if they don't learn to collaborate with the machine, her team will go extinct. So they learn the machine's language and become its indispensable operators.

Something similar went through my mind when I saw Hidden Portraits, the collaboration between Watson, IBM's Supercomputer, and a team of artists--Artificial Intelligence is here and we need to learn to collaborate with it.

The project, Hidden Portraits, is about artists', such as Mark Knowles (Creative Director, Taylor James) and Sean Freeman (Typographer and Ilustrator) and Eve Steben (Creative Producer, of There Is), interpretation of Watson's insights about iconic figures, after analyzing vast amounts of data about them.

Based on Watson's research, the fabulous Josephine Baker was an introvert (Watson found her to be only 9.6% extroverted) in contrast to her image. Marie Curie, the scientist, saw her family as her priority even though the public's perception of her is that of a detached mother. Eleanor Roosevelt's speeches had a lot in common with Love songs of 2007-2008(with 95% relevancy). Nikola Tesla was 1/2 inventor, 1/2 artist (his writings revealed 93% artistic interest). Paul Rand, the designer of the IBM logo, was angrier than his work suggests.

We as humans can only get to these often counterintuitive insights and unexpected associations if we have the capacity to go through mountains of data (or a unique, hidden super power!).

Watson can do this vast and wide analysis, quickly.

So what do you do?

You learn to collaborate with Watson.

This is the vision of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.

"It is man and machine. This is all about extending your expertise. A teacher. A doctor. A lawyer. It doesn't matter what you do. We will extend it."

Doctors are already collaborating with Watson for cancer treatment, to personalize gene therapy. Soon it will help with your personal commute, according to Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.

As for me, walking out of the exhibit, I was very intrigued by Watson's insights on the lives of past famous people. What about present lives of everyday people?

Watson can provide you with unique insights, even things you might not know about yourself, based on its ability to read vast and diverse information. You can then take Watson's insights to design your life. Your work life, your health, even your love life.

What are different ways you'd imagine your life with Watson? I would love to hear from you.

Design the Life You Love Inspiration Journal #10


In this week’s journal we’re highlighting the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author ofEat, Pray, Love. 

Gilbert courageously lives an original life and is now helping others to do the same with her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and podcast,"Magic Lessons", where she advises people who are artistically stuck how to get over their fears. Very relatable!

Design the life you love!


Extraordinary Lives

Elizabeth Gilbert: "Do Your Dance"

In Eat, Pray, Love Gilbert journeyed from Italy to India to Indonesia as she looked inside herself, and at the influences around her, to rediscover who she was after a difficult divorce. In her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and podcast "Magic Lessons," she shares her process and provides insights into how each of us can tap into our own creativity. About her new book Slate magazine noted: "Gilbert comes bearing reports from a new world where untold splendors lie waiting for those bold and hard-working enough to claim them." Let's claim them!

You can also hear her thoughts on creativity and her process in her TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”  

We’re inspired by her fearlessness, desire to share, and incredible storytelling abilities. We hope you will be too. As she notes in her TED Talk, “If your job is to dance, do your dance.” So to all of you, go do your dance, whatever it is.

You can follow Elizabeth Gilbert on Twitter @GilbertLiz and learn more about her and her work at her website

Do you know someone living an extraordinary life? If so, please share their story with me at info@birselplusseck.com. We're always looking for new people to highlight to our community.

And I hope you'll continue to share examples of your own creativity on ourDesign the Life You Love: How To Be Creative Everyday Pinterest page. 

For more inspiration read my latest Inc. article: 7 Tactics Even Introverts Can Use to Become Confident Public Speakers.

Our Community

Want to connect with other DLYLers? Join our Design the Life You Love Slack Channel. Conversations are happening right now! 

You can also connect with us on Facebook @ Design the Life You Love by Ayse Birsel, via Twitter @aysebirselseck and on her website, aysebirsel.com. Design the Life You Love the book can be purchased on Amazon. 

Design the Life You Love Inspiration Journal #9


Paperclips are utilitarian items waiting for us to pick them up and play with them. Let's have fun with them this week as we warm up the creative part of our brains. I've done this exercise many times in the past and the results always put a smile on my face. 

Design the life you love!

Ayse Birsel

How To Be Creative Everyday

Exercise #9: Making Things With Paperclips

This week we're sharing another prompt from my 32 creative exercises Inc. article. Do you have paperclips on your desk? Grab a handful and let your imagination go wild. Make as many different things as you can with them for 5 minutes (or even longer if you want).

My advice remains the same, don't judge yourself and have fun! 

What did you make? Please share it with me at info@birselplusseck.com. And I hope you'll continue to share examples of how you're creative everyday on our Design the Life You Love: How To Be Creative Everyday Pinterest page. 

For more inspiration read my latest Inc. article: Your Organization Can't Afford To Ignore Good Design.


Want to connect with other DLYLers? Join our Design the Life You Love Slack Channel.

You can connect with us on Facebook @ Design the Life You Love by Ayse Birsel, via Twitter @aysebirselseck and on her website, aysebirsel.com. Design the Life You Love the book can be purchased on Amazon. 

The Secret to Achieving True Work-Life Balance? Minimizing Choice

In these complex days of sensory and information overload, I have become increasingly interested in how to simplify our work and life.

One way to simplify anything is to minimize choice (a la Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice). Designers often use decreasing variables and choices to save time and money, while helping improve the life of the user.

IKEA, for example, uses one screw as fastener for a whole collection, instead of 10 or 15. This simplifies engineering, manufacturing, supply chain and your ability to put their products together (which admittedly can sometimes be tricky). Amazon's one-click ordering simplifies the buying experience and makes it frictionless by minimizing steps in the process.

What about our life and work--what parts can we simplify to save time and energy? Here are 5 creative ways people have used constraints to improve their mental wellbeing.

Your outfits

Lucy Knops, a student of mine at the School of Visual Arts Products of Design Program, developed, "Nothing To Wear," one of my favorite simplicity projects. Knops minimized her wardrobe to one outfit, one color palette--a t-shirt, pants, shoes, socks, underwear--and wore it every day for 228 days, the duration of her graduate thesis. "We can add value to our lives through subtraction," says Knops.

Your meals

Marcel Duchamp, sculptor who turned everyday objects into art, ate the same food for lunch everyday, spaghetti with butter. Silicon Valley takes this to the next level with Soylent, the ready-to-drink meal (I am not sure I am ready for it, but you can try).

Your habits

Graham Greene, the novelist, wrote 500 words everyday, no more no less.

Twyla Tharp, the choreographer and dancer, developed a creative habit that she repeats everyday. She gets up at 5 a.m., jumps in a cab, and goes to her gym.

I wrote about both Greene and Tharp in 7 Habits of Very Creative People To Inspire Your Everyday Work.

Your phone usage

Tiffany Shlain, the filmmaker, has developed a technology sabbath, where she and her family unplugs every Saturday. They have been going tech free for now for 6 years. She notes, "It's all of the things you don't make the time to do when you have delicious screens in front of you."

Your time with family and friends

When my kids were small, I decided that my weekends would be theirs, 100 percent. I stopped working on weekends. This made for busier weekdays but simplified my weekends and made me be fully present for my kids.

I am interested in gathering more examples of less is more to inspire our readers. And to inspire my own life and work. I would love to hear from you.

Design the life you love!