Can You Design Your Life?

In her new podcast, designer Ayse Birsel says yes

Written by: Aaron Britt

Artwork by: Nicholas Calcott

WHY Magazine - Can You Design Your Life?

Years ago, designer Ayse Birsel set the grand, if slightly facetious, goal of designing the life she loves. Her studio, Birsel + Seck, has worked for clients as varied as Herman Miller, Toyota, and Target, and today that goal has taken shape as Design the Life You Love, a book, series of workshops, and codification of her design process. Herman Miller is sponsoring her new podcast, aptly dubbed Design the Life You Love, and she’s working on behalf of her listeners to find out how some of the world’s most interesting and engaging creative people have organized their lives. She talks with guests like graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and brand maven and podcaster extraordinaire Debbie Millman to learn about how they solve problems and what everyday people can do to design their own lives. WHY sat down with Birsel shortly after the podcast launched to learn more about what it means to design a life and how far she’s gotten by designing her own.

What about design makes it the right lever to pull to arrive at a life you love?

Design is my life and my life is design. It’s my filter. To me design is a problem-solving endeavor, and life is full of problems. So, Design the Life You Love, the book, the podcast, the workshops, are all a way of thinking about life like a designer and showing people how to use design tools and processes. It’s about figuring out how to turn constraints into opportunities or to see the same things differently and with imagination. Thinking like a designer is thinking with optimism—having the conviction that no matter how hard the problem, you’re going to come up with a better solution. I love helping people get into that mode, that we’re going to figure it out with collaboration, with empathy, by asking questions.

Translated copies of Design the Life You Love

How did Design the Life You Love get started?

It was pretty serendipitous the way I got into all this. I was part of a women’s organization, and they had a workshop where we were asked to formulate our strategic intention in one sentence. My strategic intention was to design the life I love. I was the only designer in the group and I wanted to be funny. I confess that I wasn’t taking it very seriously so I made this grandiose statement. But that statement stuck with me. Years later, I met with one of my teammates who was starting the School of Life. Around the same time, I had really developed my own design process. She had not forgotten my goal was to design the life I love and got me thinking, “Now that I have a design process, can I apply it to my life?”

So does it work?

I’ll give you an example. One of my favorite design tools is dichotomy resolution. A couple years ago both of my parents got really sick one right after the other. And they live in Istanbul. I’ve lived away from them for many years, and I have a family and a life in New York, but the reality of being a daughter and living far way set in. What am I going to do? I need to move back to Turkey. I need to take care of them. But I can’t just pack and go to a life I left behind. So I realized that there’s a way to do it: if we have clients in Turkey, I can travel there, be with my parents, not as a vacation but to actually be there working on a project. So, we worked at it, and now we have clients in Turkey and I go there maybe even once a month. So that was my dichotomy resolution. I have a reason to live and work in New York and also in Turkey.

Ayse Birsel

“To me design is a problem-solving endeavor, and life is full of problems.”

- Ayse Birsel

Ayse Birsel’s studio

You’ve already written a book on the subject and you do workshops—I even took one—and you use this approach with your clients. Why do a podcast?

The podcast is a research piece, a structured research piece that might feed new connections. I’m an introvert at heart. I think I hide it pretty well, but my resting state is as an introvert. But this is a great way to have conversations with people, learn about their lives, and see how they work.

I want to learn what other people do when they’re faced with a problem. Some take a walk, some write in their journal. I’m very much in the habit of using design tools, and this podcast is about opening myself and others up to other people’s tricks and tools. I might not always learn what I’m hoping to. It’s a quest in a way.

Personal note to Ayse from Stefan Sagmeister

That all seems great, but c’mon, you and Stefan Sagmeister are both successful, seasoned designers who work for yourselves. What chance do the rest of us have to “design” better lives?

What I’ve found through Design the Life You Love is that most of us have similar problems. When you’re in a group talking about your life, you come to realize you’re not so alone—a lot of us have these problems. And a really basic thing that’s common to a lot of us is that we are often the thing that really stands in our own way. A lot of people come out of a Design the Life You Love workshop and their insight is: “I can’t believe that I’m the obstacle.” Talking about this realization is interesting to me. So if that’s something we all more or less share, how do we get out of our own way? We’re all fearful of things, of starting something, of creating something totally new. So when panic strikes, what do you do? It happens to me all the time!

Besides, ordinary people are extraordinarily creative and they connect the dots way beyond what you would expect. Often they put us and our clients to shame. Businesses could really learn something from the way people naturally design their lives. For so many of our clients, their focus is on their product. But for users, you know, everyday people deciding whether to buy something, they’re not as focused on every minute product detail. They’re focused on how this thing fits into their lives.

So have you fully designed the life you love?

No! Of course not. I’m like the cobbler who doesn’t make shoes for her kids. I’m very good at teaching it to others, and now I want someone to teach it to me. Maybe the podcast will help.

You can listen and subscribe to Design the Life You Love on iTunes.

Ayse Birsel, 2017