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Life: Your Most Important Design Project

By Pollyanna Macchiano

“My mission is to design the life I love,” Ayse Birsel, a cofounder of design house Birsel + Seck and its chief Deconstruction:
Reconstruction officer, once stated, years ago at a Women Presidents’ Organization meeting. Now, Ayse harks back to this statement in her Design the Life You Love workshops and really delves into what it means, so she can help others do the same.

A product designer by training, Ayse has become a cross-discipline design leader, thinker, and teacher. “I wanted to share how I think with other people,” she says. She calls the Design the Life You Love workshop “an intersection of my process and my life.” 

Design the Life You Love is a methodology at its core. Part soul-searching and part practical application, the workshop asks participants to “think like a designer” when considering what a life they love would look like. According to Ayse, this means thinking optimistically, empathically, holistically, and collaboratively, with an openness that designers possess when trying to solve a problem. In addition, she emphasizes playfulness as a key theme of the entire process. There are no mistakes—only insights and thoughts, which could lead to solutions.

In 2010, Ayse taught her first workshop. In it, she made use of the Deconstruction:Reconstruction (De:Re) process that guides her work, and she still asks her students to use it today. De:Re means breaking down something, analyzing its parts, and then putting it back together. Through this seemingly simple process, you can start to look at the familiar in a different light. 

This image of a disassembled camera was taken from the Design the Life You Love workbook—it represents Ayse’s Deconstruction:Reconstruction process,

This image of a disassembled camera was taken from the Design the Life You Love workbook—it represents Ayse’s Deconstruction:Reconstruction process, which urges people to take complex things apart, examine the pieces, and put them back together.

An image called

GETTING PERSONAL

I’ve had the unique opportunity to meet Ayse and participate in the Design the Life You Love workshop not once, not twice, but three times. Once at Adobe MAX in the fall of 2014, at the New School in New York in April 2015, and at Behance’s 99U Conference in 2015. And each time, I found something new.

At the start of the workshop, we’re asked to turn to our neighbor and draw him or her. You can imagine the types of reactions people have: from laughter to incredulity to terror. I heard people say, “I’m so sorry, I’m not an artist!” “Well, here goes nothing” and “Before I draw you, what’s your name and where are you from?” Ayse makes it very clear that this exercise is a critical warm-up—and it’s the perfect way to make new friends.

Ayse explains that in her first day of class at Pratt, her professor asked students to do the same thing. She ended up drawing Rodolfo Sanchez from Argentina, and they’ve been friends ever since. I distinctly remember the three people I drew, during each of the workshops, and I did actually become friends with one of them. There’s something strangely personal and intimate, yet also playful and fun, about drawing a complete stranger, and it made everyone in class relax a little more.

BREAKING IT DOWN: DECONSTRUCTION

“When you deconstruct something, you can’t quite put it back the way it was before,” Ayse muses. “Looking at the same things and seeing them differently is, in my mind, the heart of creativity.”

While I often find myself reading articles about the growing importance of creativity (something we all want and can’t seem to pin down), I’d never stopped to think what exactly it means. The way Ayse describes creativity makes you do a double take. If that’s what it takes to be creative, then anyone can stand to gain something from sitting down, taking out a notebook, and writing down all the possible angles of a single problem.

A drawing from Ayse Birsel's

“If you have the perfect life, you should leave now,” Ayse tells the whole class. I chuckle at this, not because it’s a clever rhetorical device, but because no one in the room moves an inch. It’s true, the word “perfect” is a misguided concept (is anything ever really perfect?), but it’s probably also true that most people want something more—something better for themselves. Ayse taps into this, and she offers no gimmicks; rather, she reveals a path to discovery.

We are asked to break down our life into four parts: emotion, physical, intellectual, and spirit. Ayse stresses that this should take only ten minutes: “Without constraint, there is no design. There is unique value in working within existing constraints,” Ayse tells us. Each section is essentially a box (constraint) with words you associate with these aspects, and how they fit into your life.

Ayse picks up my workbook and shows my deconstruction process. “Life is a complex thing, but at the end of the day, it fits onto two pages. By deconstructing it, we are making life tangible.”

Some of us find insights from the lack of content in these sections, too; one woman had a hard time pinning down the emotions of her life, while for me, the spirit aspect was much more nebulous than I expected. But even in this lack, there is information to be gleaned: What does this say about me, and do I want to change it to design my life?

After this exercise, we analyze each quadrant to find any standout realizations or opportunities to capitalize on.

THE VIEW FROM UP HERE, DOWN THERE, SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE

After looking at each piece individually, we are asked to take a whole new direction. When asked about why she does these classes, Ayse says, “I help people connect with their values. These are the constants in our lives over time, and a foundation for thinking about life. The shift from what you know to imagining what can be—a future vision for yourself—is crucial.”

If I were to ask you, “What are your values?” would you be able to come up with an honest, full list? The concept of values is amorphous at best, so they can be difficult to define. But if you look at values the way that Ayse sees them, the task is completely different.

In an effort to shift our view, Ayse asks everyone to write his or her heroes and why they admire these people (or animals or fictional characters) down on a piece of paper. I pride myself on being independent, so the concept of “hero” doesn’t resonate right away. Then I realize that I do admire certain people for different things, and I just run with it. I list actress Audrey Hepburn, artist Takashi Murakami, and author Haruki Murakami as my heroes (and draw a little icon next to each one, per Ayse’s instructions). 

A drawing of a superhero from Ayse Birsel's

Then ten more minutes pass. “Now, I want you to cross out their names and write yours,” Ayse says. “These heroes represent your values: everything you admire or see in these people is in you as well.” 

A collective murmur of wonder echoes through the class, and I notice some people are confused, while others are incredibly happy. Something has just been unlocked. I glance at my list. Honest, funny, artistic, insightful—wow, these are things that I am, too? I doubt I would ever say that about myself. There’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to describing yourself: you always exhibit some restraint. Well, I don’t want to seem arrogant or I’m not sure…can I ask someone else to do it for me? Ayse completely circumvents this filter by asking us to focus on people we admire.

When you think about it, it makes total sense: there’s a reason we chose these people. It’s not just because they’re awesome and we’re not—it’s because those wonderful traits are something we subconsciously strive for, hope to attain, or already have. What a wonderful moment of realization. 

The best part, in my opinion, is taking these concepts even further and going completely abstract with them: What metaphor or analogy do I want my life to become? And the next step is, of course, to draw said metaphor. This is another ten minutes of fun.

For the more literal thinkers out there, I can imagine that this task might not make a lot of sense: “Why bother spending the time on this fluffy stuff? A metaphor is just that, isn’t it—not something tangible, but something made up?”

This is precisely why Ayse finds this exercise so valuable.

“You use the metaphor to give you hooks, to then start to populate the design of the life you love with ideas, so that you can start to formulate what that is.” Ayse even goes so far as to say that the process of imagining your life as you want it gives you the future vision to carry through. “My life is climbing Mount Everest” and “My life is a circus” were examples she cites, and it’s at this point that my imagination runs wild.

An image taken from Ayse Birsel's

In a very optimistic and serene mood, I become drawn to the idea of sakura matsuri, or cherry blossom festivals. A yearly tradition in Japan, hanami (flower viewing) is an almost sacred, spiritual event. The blossoms are fleeting. These tiny, blush-colored petals often fill the skyline as far as the eye can see from the end of March to the beginning of May all over Japan, and even here in certain parts of the United States. A symbol of beauty, of new life, and also of the inevitable ephemeral nature of all things: this is what I begin to ruminate on, sitting in that classroom, and what I imagine my life could be compared to.

This is a timely metaphor for me: I have recently relocated to New York from California, it’s the middle of April, and there’s the annual cherry blossom festival around the corner in Brooklyn. I feel like celebrating life. And I want to make sure my life remains something to celebrate. Ayse mentions that these metaphors won’t be static. Indeed, you can have multiple metaphors, but our task is to focus on the present.

After gathering my thoughts on hanami, I begin to wonder how this all fit into the grand design plan. 

BRINGING IT TOGETHER: RECONSTRUCTION

Throughout this process, Ayse asks everyone to share their metaphors. This allows everyone to hear new perspectives and many other viewpoints. It’s the collaborative nature of designers, Ayse says, that makes the process so productive.

“Now, let’s distill everything we’ve just done and choose highlights—what are the things that matter to you the most?” Converging all the diverging thoughts and opinions we’d just expressed would prove to be the most difficult part. Four three-circle Venn diagrams labeled “Emotion,” “Physical, “Intellect,” and “Spirit” force us to choose the pieces we want the most. “It’s about making choices: We can’t have everything. Design is all about making choices and accepting that some things are going to fall off the chart.”

An image of Venn diagrams representing four primary life values, taken from Ayse Birsel's

CONNECT THE DOTS AND DRAW THE LINES

Finally, the culmination of our journey is putting everything into one cohesive message for yourself. The message may or may not be worthy of sharing, but it’s definitely meant to help you personally with grappling with the De:Re process and making a stand. This is the life I want to live. And here’s how I will get there. All of a sudden, the task doesn’t seem so daunting. Designing your life is an amazing exercise just in itself.

“I hope people learn that their life is their biggest project,” says Ayse. “It’s risky; you don’t know how it’s going to turn out—so why not design your own original life?” 

The cover of the

TAKING THE WORKSHOP HOME

Ayse’s first book is slated to be released in October 2015. In essence, it’s the book version of her process: “I want people to be able to learn the process themselves. The book essentially breaks down the workshop for the individual.” Design the Life You Love will be a guide for anyone looking to make a change in his or her life—using tried-and-true design principles. Pre-orders are now available.