Good design starts with good insights. And designers should be able to understand what their target audience is feeling or thinking in order to create the right solution for them.
But how do you become more receptive to insights? According to our guest today, you nurture your perspective and point of view.
In this episode of the Thanks for Making It podcast, our host Beth Altringer Eagle welcomes Professor Khipra Nichols, MADE Faculty Co-Director and Head of the Industrial Design Department at RISD. They talk about the importance of insights for design, the difference between good and great design, and why design pushes you to go beyond your own expectations.
Thanks for Making It Podcast. Season 1 Episode 3.
Guest: Professor Khipra Nichols, Head of Industrial Design Department at RISD, and Faculty Co-Director of Brown and RISD's joint Master of Arts in Design Engineering.
Host: Beth Altringer Eagle, Professor of Design Engineering and Executive Director of Brown and RISD's joint Master of Arts in Design Engineering
[00:00:00] Beth Altringer Eagle: Well, hello! I am so thrilled to have you join us today, professor Khipra Nichols from RISD, who is also a co-faculty director of the main program. And, uh, I have so many questions already for you, but maybe we can begin with hearing a little bit about what you do today. So you, you know, in addition to knowing each other through the MADE program, you run the, um, industrial design department at RISD right now.
[00:00:32] So what is, what is that like? What's your day-to-day like? In that mm-hmm.
[00:00:37] Professor Khipra Nichols: My, my day-to-day. So, the industrial design department is, is a pretty large department. It, it's one of the largest departments at RISD, and we have about 340-350 students on average semester we've got a, between 40 and 50 faculty that are working. We have a graduate program that has, right now, about 45 students in it.
[00:01:00] So, it's, there's a lot going on, and I've been head of the department for two, two years. So, I started right at the beginning of, of COVID.
[00:01:12] And so it was, so I've had an interesting two years. I, my day-to-day is kind of a blur. So, I don't know if I could,
[00:01:18] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:01:18] Professor Khipra Nichols: but normally it would be that, I mean, we have, we have about 140 courses that we teach every, every year.
[00:01:28] So it's an intense and also dynamic space. So, but, um,
[00:01:32] Professor Khipra Nichols: I also graduated from that department, so I, in a way, it's, I'm
[00:01:36] making full circle, in where I've,
[00:01:38] Beth Altringer Eagle: Aha.
[00:01:38] Professor Khipra Nichols: where I've come back, you know? And, and, left, so I graduated in 1978, from the undergraduate program at RISD and immediately, oh, go ahead.
[00:01:50] Beth Altringer Eagle: can I back up a little bit?
[00:01:52] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yes.
[00:01:53] Beth Altringer Eagle: And then we can go back to that. So, where are you from?
[00:01:56] Professor Khipra Nichols: I grew up in Philadelphia,
[00:01:58] so, and I was the oldest of five children. And, when I was in Philadelphia, my, my exposure, like, as I was growing into design, my uncle was, is a, uh, an exhibit designer
[00:02:13] Beth Altringer Eagle: Mm-hmm. Oh, cool.
[00:02:14] Professor Khipra Nichols: And an illustrator. He was trained as an illustrator. So, as a young person, I, I watched, I could watch him doing acrylic
[00:02:21] renderings of different kinds of things.
[00:02:24] He worked. He actually worked in the army as an illustrator for the army.
[00:02:28] And so, I got to expose, so he was doing a lot of vehicle renderings and things
[00:02:33] like that.
[00:02:34] So, uh,
[00:02:35] Beth Altringer Eagle: And so, I mean, a lot of people, it's at least just from, you know, interviews so far, seem to have this, it's like at a pretty young age that they start to notice these things, so I just wonder, like how, how old were you at the time that you're kind of thinking of right now?
[00:02:52] Professor Khipra Nichols: I was about seven
[00:02:54] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:02:55] Professor Khipra Nichols: And, yeah,
[00:02:56] seven years old. I can remember that.
[00:02:56] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, and you are, it sounds like you were close with your uncle and you're kind of seeing him work and how it comes to life.
[00:03:07] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah. Yeah. And, I was fascinated actually, when I was a, an undergraduate student, one of my internships was working at his firm, which was in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was an exhibit firm, and they were doing, lighter than the, lighter than air hall of the, um, Smithsonian,
[00:03:25] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow.
[00:03:26] Professor Khipra Nichols: in Washington. So I got to work on that
[00:03:29] exhibit as a junior in, you know, in undergrad.
[00:03:34] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow.
[00:03:34] Professor Khipra Nichols: That
[00:03:34] was exciting.
[00:03:35] Beth Altringer Eagle: So cool.
[00:03:36] Professor Khipra Nichols: And, you know, that's, that really gave me a sense of what the potential was for,
[00:03:40] you know, being interested in design or drawing, you know,
[00:03:44] and being creative.
[00:03:46] Beth Altringer Eagle: And so, you were already in college at the time. Were you studying design then, or.
[00:03:53] Professor Khipra Nichols: Well,
[00:03:54] Beth Altringer Eagle: Have you yet decided to do that?
[00:03:56] Professor Khipra Nichols: In college, I, I entered college as a freshman planning to be in, in the illustration department. I wanted to be an illustrator like my uncle. The other thing that was happening while I was in high school and even junior high, I was working at my, my dad owned an auto repair shop.
[00:04:14] And so I grew up in the shop
[00:04:17] learning how to fix cars. And, um, and one of the things I noticed, which was fascinating to me was, in the office where clients, you know, the, the customers would be sitting and chatting and talking, there were, there
[00:04:31] was this very strong, now I'm talking about the sixties, 1960s, but I'm talking about, there was this very strong rivalry between Ford and Chevy.
[00:04:42] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow.
[00:04:44] Professor Khipra Nichols: so some people would swear by Ford, Ford's the best, blah, da, da, and then others, and they would
[00:04:50] almost get into fights about
[00:04:51] Beth Altringer Eagle: Right.
[00:04:52] Professor Khipra Nichols: But from my experience in the shop underneath the, underneath the bodywork, these
[00:04:59] things are all the same. They were, you know, I mean, they
[00:05:00] were using the same, everything was the same underneath the, underneath the skin.
[00:05:06] So, I
[00:05:07] was exposed to the sense that, of how, what, how design really fuels perception,
[00:05:14] Because the real, the reality was a lot was, was very different than the perception, but it was
[00:05:19] designed that was making that perception so palatable to
[00:05:22] people. So that was something
[00:05:22] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow, that is…
[00:05:23] Professor Khipra Nichols: to that, I saw at a, at a young age.
[00:05:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: That is such a cool set of like formative experiences for, you know, certainly an industrial designer. And then, of course, you know, uh, the intersection of design and engineering, right? How things are made literally in this kind of mechanical automotive way it's a complex system, maybe less complex than today's
[00:05:50] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, much less.
[00:05:50] Beth Altringer Eagle: cars, of course, but still very complex,
[00:05:53] right? And then you have, each of those parts has like its whole manufacturing story, and then they must come together to function in this, you know, obviously kind of safe and usable way. But also, as you're saying, you know, in terms of the perception and reflection of identity, that is part of what, you know, design has the power to create.
[00:06:18] And then as if that's not already exciting enough, you have your, what you're learning from your uncle and how something like illustration could be, you know, a lot of people think of children's books or something like that, but no, this can be something that's really powerful in unexpected places like the military. And then also to be designing within, you know, one of the greatest museums of the world, like at all by the time you're, you know, in your kind of early twenties, you're getting exposure to that. That's so cool.
[00:06:54] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yes, it was, it was amazing. I mean, I, you know, I, I only appreciate it looking back on it at the time, you know, I was young and I, I was excited about it, but I looking back, I can really see a path like,
[00:07:08] "How, how I ended up where I am today?"
[00:07:12] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we all, it's all your experience is sort of all, you know, right. So, but it is really interesting because, you know, when we think about who finds their way to design or engineering, or, you know, the intersection because this intersection is not very well defined, most of us are kind of finding our way there through the examples around us, which of course, aren't equally distributed and kind of the missing parts.
[00:07:47] You know, filling in the gaps between those examples like automotive and illustration. Well, these and your, your mind is like imagining what these two things might be able to do together. That's so cool. All right. So then, then what? Then what happens?
[00:08:05] Professor Khipra Nichols: Well, then came RISD and, uh, coming in as a freshman and, you know, freshmen at RISD are all doing the same curriculum. It's not divided by
[00:08:14] discipline yet. And so I was still thinking that I would be an illustrator when I was a freshman, and, but when I, it was time to make, sophomore declarations, like what, what department do you wanna be in?
[00:08:26] And what discipline do you wanna be in? I started to work where I saw how big the illustration department, it's still the largest department on campus. And it was then, too, back in the seventies.
[00:08:36] And I said, you know, I was starting to think like a, I was trying to strategize my
[00:08:40] career and say, you know, if I go into something like architecture, which wasn't
[00:08:45] as big as an illustration, I might have a better chance of making it in, in something like that. And I like making things more than just drawing things. So, I, I switched into, oops, sorry. I switched into the, uh, architecture department, but I could see that there was an another department down the hall.
[00:09:03] It was the industrial design department and I would, I would peek into what they were doing, and I
[00:09:09] really felt more attracted, yeah, to the kinds of the scale that they were working at. You know, architecture was very, is very different. These two disciplines are very different, but one of the things that I was surprised by was the calculus. I mean, we were being taught
[00:09:27] calculus, as a part of being able to prepare a site for a
[00:09:32] building, you know, and I thought, you know, I'm not really that much into math, and I, you know,
[00:09:37] so I, I, went to, so I switched into industrial design as a mid-semester, mid midterm in my sophomore year. And that was my place. I was much
[00:09:47] happier there. So I was happy that I was close enough to see what they were doing,
[00:09:52] because without that, I may never have discovered what was going on there. So...
[00:10:00] Beth Altringer Eagle: It just seems so perfect and then, you know, the rest is sort of history, right?
[00:10:03] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, the rest is
[00:10:04] Beth Altringer Eagle: Amazing.
[00:10:05] Professor Khipra Nichols: Um, yeah. I
[00:10:07] can go on and...
[00:10:08] Beth Altringer Eagle: I would like to hear more about that history but I mean, that's a, that itself is an incredible story from, you know, student in the department to heading the department. but we've had some conversations specifically about
[00:10:24] designing toys. I wonder if you might share a little bit more about that period of your life?
[00:10:33] Professor Khipra Nichols: Well, one of the things that my faculty taught, told us as students was never work for a toy company. so
[00:10:44] Beth Altringer Eagle: Haha, yeah
[00:10:45] Professor Khipra Nichols: so when I, so I graduated knowing that I had two weeks left in my, on my lease of the apartment that I was in. And I knew that I had to find a job in two weeks or drive back to Philadelphia and, you know, live at home.
[00:11:00] And during the two weeks, I did some job interviews and nothing was clicking, and with three or four days left, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was interning at Hasbro toy.
[00:11:11] And she said, you know, why don't you come in for an interview? And I was like, well, they told us not to work for toy companies.
[00:11:18] And she said, she said, what have you got to lose? I mean, you're about to go back to Philadelphia, right? And I was like,
[00:11:23] yeah, I'm, I'm starting the pack now. And she said, well, just come in for an interview. So, I went in on a Friday for an interview. I didn't really have a portfolio 'cause I wasn't prepared for this.
[00:11:32] It was just out of the blue, but they hired me right there on the spot. And they said, can
[00:11:36] you start Monday? And I'm like, yeah, I can start Monday.
[00:11:41] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, I guess so...
[00:11:41] Professor Khipra Nichols: Um, so,
[00:11:43] Professor Khipra Nichols: so...
[00:11:44] Beth Altringer Eagle: That's hilarious.
[00:11:45] Professor Khipra Nichols: So that, that was Friday on Saturday. I went to a toy store 'cause I hadn't been in one
[00:11:49] for and I, I was shocked at what I saw in
[00:11:52] the toy store. I mean, it was. It, there was the pink aisle for girls, there was the blue
[00:11:57] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:11:58] Professor Khipra Nichols: For, and the, and I, it was just all plastic. And I was said to myself,
[00:12:02] well, I'll stay here for two years just to get
[00:12:04] experience. And then I'll get a real job somewhere else.
[00:12:08] So I started Hasbro in the preschool group. There were three, I was the third person and a three-person team doing preschool toys.
[00:12:19] There were 10 designers in the whole company. When I left 20 years later, there were 178 designers. So, I
[00:12:27] Professor Khipra Nichols: watched.
[00:12:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, I mean,
[00:12:29] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, Hasbro grow.
[00:12:30] Beth Altringer Eagle: I mean, most people probably know Hasbro. I don't know how you could not know Hasbro, but often like their, you know, their logos on the side of a game, you know, by a different name. So just so people listening can kind of understand how big Hasbro is, what are some of those kind of really famous products that they have?
[00:12:53] Professor Khipra Nichols: Well, they bought well, during that time they bought a lot of companies. They bought Playskool, they bought, I'm not, I'm not gonna remember everything right now, but they
[00:13:02] bought like
[00:13:02] Beth Altringer Eagle: It's okay, just a couple, yeah.
[00:13:02] Professor Khipra Nichols: five, five, or six big other big toy companies, and they went from, being, you know, pretty small at $90 million a year to, 3.5 billion when I left it, you know, after 20 years.
[00:13:17] But things that, I mean, they have, I got to, so I was in the, um, like I said, in the preschool group, and we worked on Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, that was one of our
[00:13:26] Beth Altringer Eagle: Mm-hmm.
00:13:27] Professor Khipra Nichols: projects. But I think the largest thing that we did was the, My Little Pony.
[00:13:32] Beth Altringer Eagle: Mm-hmm yeah. Mm-hmm mm-hmm.
[00:13:33] Professor Khipra Nichols: We, the, and again, it was just three, three designers. I mean, there were a lot of, support from the shop and, you know,
[00:13:40] prototyping and lots of things like that,
[00:13:43] and we had a great time. I, I think one of the
[00:13:46] Professor Khipra Nichols: things about Hasbro, which I didn't anticipate, was how much I would enjoy designing for children, you know? And, and because of that, I stayed more than the two years that I was planning. I stayed,
[00:13:38] Beth Altringer Eagle: Right.
[00:13:39] Professor Khipra Nichols: like I said, you know, 20 years, but one of the things about designing for children is that you're hanging out with toddlers who are discovering things every day.
[00:14:08] Like every day of their life, they see something they, that they've never seen before, right? Or they do something that they've never done before. So they're always in this state of wonder like they're always in
[00:14:18] this state and, and, you know, I was designing bath toys for a while, so I had to watch kids playing in pools like those little waiting pools
[00:14:27] Beth Altringer Eagle: Aha.
[00:14:28] Professor Khipra Nichols: and they would get so excited because some things float and some
[00:14:31] things sink. And they, and they, and they're almost every time you hand them something they want to know, I think they try to guess, is it gonna float or is it gonna sink? And they put it in the water, they watch it. And then they just start splashing because they, they either surprised that it floated,
[00:14:46] Beth Altringer Eagle: Aha.
[00:14:47] Professor Khipra Nichols: or surprised that it sunk and they just, you know, they just get so happy.
[00:14:51] And so when I felt like when I was designing for people who are going through this kind of state constant wonderment, you can't help but identify with it. I mean, you have to build it into what you're making.
[00:15:04] So that, I mean, these are your, these are your end users, as we would say. So you assign myself, had to trigger, wonder and surprise in my own life. And in my own process, and it was contagious. I mean, I remember sitting next to an eight-month-old, so an eight-month older is sitting up by themselves, but they've only been doing that for two months because before six months, they can't sit by themselves. They just fall over, they just fall over. So first was the excitement.
[00:15:36] So I handed a box I had a prototype, and I took it out of the box, and I handed it to the child
[00:15:42] who looked over at the box and pushed the prototype aside and picked up the box and just was just loving the box, you know, and put in the box on their head and turning a box upside down. And it was like, the box was much more interesting in that moment than whatever I had designed and built.
[00:16:00] And so I, I felt like this is, this is a life lesson. This is not just, you know, test session. This is a life lesson. And, how do you, you know, I think when you're that young you, I mean, that's your
[00:16:16] whole life, that's all you know, and I think as you get older, it's easy to feel a little bit like, you know, everything and nothing's exciting, nothing's new anymore.
[00:16:25] But as an adult identifying with them, I had to find ways to make things new, to see things new, you know, and to see something that I've seen a million times, but see something new about it or different about it, or change my perspective, because if I could do that, then I could discover a way to build something that a toddler would fall in love with or enjoy doing. So, it was a kind of a conscious, unconscious process of reawakening, like the little toddler in me or the little toddler. And so, you know, going from project to project, all of, all of them were from kids two to two to four years old. For doing that for 10 years was amazing. And then, after 10 years of preschool design, I moved into a brand new baby product design.
[00:17:18] So play school, you know, initiated playschool baby, which was brand new in 1989.
[00:17:24] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, is this for infant or?
[00:17:26] Professor Khipra Nichols: Infants,
[00:17:27] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, infants.
[00:17:28] Professor Khipra Nichols: infants. So, I went from 2- to 4-year-olds to 0, 0
[00:17:33] Beth Altringer Eagle: Wow.
[00:17:33] Professor Khipra Nichols: to 24 months, and I, I didn't, I had didn't have children of my own. So, I had to do, I ended up going to Brown actually, Brown University had a child development center directed by professor Lou Lewis P. Lipsitt.
[00:17:48] I remember Dr. Lipsitt and I introduced
[00:17:51] myself. I read an article about him in Time magazine. And I, and I found him at Brown, and I would go to his lab with some of my feeding items. I was designing, you know, toddler drinking cups and like the very first spoon, like when you think of a child eating, like what's the first spoon you eat with,
[00:18:08] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:18:09] Professor Khipra Nichols: and it can't be, it's not shaped like an adult spoon because they, they only grab things this way. They don't know how to,
[00:18:16] like, we hold a spoon in a sophisticated
[00:18:19] way compared to a,
[00:18:20] Beth Altringer Eagle: Right, right.
[00:18:21] Professor Khipra Nichols: a one year
[00:18:21] Beth Altringer Eagle: right, that' more like grrr.
[00:18:23] Professor Khipra Nichols: old. Yeah. It's like, they're aiming their hand and hoping they hope they even find it. So I had to, you know, I was, I learned how to watch them and then, you know, design utensils that made sense for the way they were learning how to eat the same thing.
[00:18:40] So those kinds of things,
[00:18:42] you know, made it more than just, you know, toy design as I would, as I imagined when I walked through that toy store and started freaking out, like asking myself, "What have I done? What have I done?" But it was more about understanding empathy, you know, "How
[00:18:59] do you empathize?" Or like we were all that age, but we don't, we don't remember any of it.
[00:19:04] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, well, also we don't have, you know, that's sort of pre-language so you, you can't, it's not like you can ask very easily. So it's like almost as hard as trying to design for animals, right? From like your cat or dog from their point of view.
[00:19:21] Professor Khipra Nichols: Exactly.
[00:19:22] Beth Altringer Eagle: It would be so hard.
[00:19:23] Professor Khipra Nichols: Exactly. Exactly. So, yeah, that was, uh, that was, uh, some experiences from the toy world.
[00:19:29] Beth Altringer Eagle: That is so cool. You just, your, feeding thing made me think of this, you know, we have kids and, um, there's this, this sippy cup that we found that, uh, is so well designed for kids that we had to look up a YouTube video on how to use it. But kids, you know what I mean?
[00:19:49] Kids are just like, and it just works, and it could never spill, like it could drink, but not spill. And yeah, we actually had to look up 'cause we're like, it doesn't work,
[00:20:00] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah. Oh, right.
[00:20:02] Beth Altringer Eagle: and you hand it to the good and like, just like that. I'll have to find it just for your and send it to you
[00:20:08] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, I loved, but I, you know, I got to work on the very first spill-proof toddler cup back in 1992,
[00:20:16] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, that's awesome.
[00:20:16] Professor Khipra Nichols: it
[00:20:16] was invent invented by our group at play school.
[00:20:21] Beth Altringer Eagle: Parents everywhere. Thank you. Mm-hmm
[00:20:26] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, it was, it was, and I had the opportunity, you know, when I left Hasbro, they told me that I had earned more patents than anyone else in the company. I had 16 patents, 9 utility patents, and 7 design patents. And so because Playskool baby was competing with first-year safety first, even Flow, like these were the giants in the baby business, and Playskool was known as a toy company.
[00:20:52] So when we had, came in with baby products, no one was interested. So we, we couldn't try to market something that someone else already had. We had to invent something that no one else had. Otherwise, we wouldn't get, have gotten any, any placement in the store. And that's how this spill-proof cup came
[00:21:10] into existence that, for example, but of many other things.
[00:21:13] And so I felt like, you know, in a place where not only was I having fun, but I was like, oh, I was learning a lot.
[00:21:22] You know? And, and being pushed, really being pushed. I, I really learned to look at design as a, it's almost like the Olympics in a way, you know, we go to toy fair.
[00:21:33] And every company has its showroom with new products and all the designers, we all knew each other.
[00:21:39] And we were just visiting each other's showrooms. And it was one of those things where every year, and it was in Dallas, it was the juvenile product show in Dallas, you know, every year it's like, what did they come up with? What did they, you know, how did they do this? Or what did you know? We're like looking underneath the, you know, it's like, but it was that kind of thing.
[00:21:58] And it, you know, it was competition basically, because it was, you're trying to design something that will sell more than that offering from somebody else. So, I, I enjoy, I mean, I'm not, you know, I didn't, I don't feel like a, like a competitive person, but I do feel like a person who appreciates being pushed to
[00:22:21] go be beyond your own expectations.
[00:22:24] And I think that that's what I enjoyed about the toy industry.
[00:22:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I mean, it's, it's interesting. You bring up, you know, competition as a word, like, in the maid program, which is how obviously we know each other, it's all about collaboration, right? And so we talk a lot about collaboration, but you make a really good point that there's this function of at least some competition that is good for probably motivation.
[00:22:52] Right? So you annually get to see this excellence made by others and it's, is competition, but it's also inspiration, right?
[00:23:04] Of like what you can bring out of yourself as a designer.
[00:23:13] Yeah. I wonder, you know, I'd what do you think about that? I'd, I'd love to hear you, your thoughts on that.
[00:23:18] Professor Khipra Nichols: Well, I think, I think you hit on a really, really good point, and it's about
[00:23:24] how do you, how do you see what you're doing? Like how do you frame your role as a designer and how does it, and how do you, so, I got very interested in how, you know,
[00:23:37] there would always be a time when it was time to think of a new idea.
[00:23:41] So there would be a group of designers, and we're all we reserve the conference room, and maybe there's 8 or 8 or 10 designers in a room. They have a deadline, we all have a deadline and say, "Okay, we gotta think of something new." And it's like, it's almost like you're sitting there straining to think of a new idea.
[00:23:57] But in these discussions, there were always insights that somebody would have like someone would have an
[00:24:02] insight, and that insight would trigger a whole like domino effect of other insights that
[00:24:09] people recognize. It's like a prompt. I think a good insight is like a prompt and a prompt,
[00:24:15] triggers, more innovation, or I would say ideation.
[00:24:20] I got very interested in where these insights come from. Like, how do you nurture your perspective or your point of view or your way of thinking so that you are more receptive to insight.
[00:24:32] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:24:32] Professor Khipra Nichols: And,
[00:24:33] Beth Altringer Eagle: Love that.
[00:24:34] Professor Khipra Nichols: and so that's where I, I spent a lot of time. I that's where I spend most of my time. Now, when I'm
[00:24:39] thinking about assignments to give students and, my own process because I was also learning meditation during all that time. So when
[00:24:48] I, the, I started Hasbro my, my professional career in June of 90, in 78. And I
[00:24:57] started my meditation practice in February of 78.
[00:25:01] So they kind of started together at it. This is a like yoga-based like a
[00:25:09] yoga-based practice that I still do. I still, every
[00:25:13] day I still meditate, but I was also kind of conscious of, you know, mindfulness as a, as an approach had an effect
[00:25:22] on, I think my, my receptivity to insight. And so, when I, I try to build mindfulness-type activities into my assignments and I,
[00:25:33] you know, it's sometimes we meditate, and I just taught a course, um, a graduate seminar where we meditated almost every time we met. We did a 20-minute meditation at the beginning of class. And students really appreciated, not just because it helped them with the projects they were working on, but because they felt as students, of course, they lead they're leading hectic lives and
[00:25:58] very, these were graduate students,
[00:26:00] a lot of them were thesis students, so they were, they appreciated that moment of pause and reflection. And I think that that's something that if more people
[00:26:10] practice, something like that, it, it could be, there are many ways of feeling or being more mindful. I think it, it's a very good way to enhance all the other kinds of thinking you do, you know, analytical thinking, strategic thinking, all become, I think, a little enhanced if you can do it in a mindful way.
[00:26:31] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, yeah, and it also, I think, you know, as a practice, has a lot of, a lot of things obviously embedded in it, right, and this could probably be a whole, whole separate episode, um, but you know, gratitude is part of it and wonder is part of it, right?
[00:26:51] Professor Khipra Nichols: Mhmm.
[00:26:51] And and like kind of emptying your mind so that you can see a new in, in a way,
[00:26:59] and I can, I can see all of that being really powerful.
[00:27:03] Professor Khipra Nichols: And you had mentioned something about engineering, like the intersection of engineering and design and,
[00:27:09] and collaboration. And, uh, I was, I have to say, I became Hasbro introduced me to engineers engineering and, the engineers at Hasbro, we, they, they called the designers, they referred to us as hairdressers.
[00:27:28] I mean, they were, this was their because they, they, they felt that they were
[00:27:35] doing the real, that engineering was the real design. And what we were doing was kind of like hairdressing and, you know,
[00:27:43] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:27:43] Professor Khipra Nichols: not
[00:27:43] that there's anything wrong with hairdressing, but it's just that it was their way of making a separation between design and engineering.
[00:27:52] Beth Altringer Eagle: Oh, gosh,
[00:27:53] Professor Khipra Nichols: And, umm.
[00:27:53] Beth Altringer Eagle: there's so much bundled in that,
[00:27:54] Professor Khipra Nichols: Oh, yeah, definitely.
[00:27:55] Beth Altringer Eagle: uh, story so far. Yeah. Please, please continue.
[00:28:00] Professor Khipra Nichols: But, but I pushed back with, you know, my sense of it was that we were not, especially in the toy industry, we were inventing more than styling. I think they were calling us stylists
[00:28:14] more, you know, one day use the term hairdressing. But I, I'm really fascinated with the relationship between, you know, styling, design, and engineering.
[00:28:24] Let's say these
[00:28:24] are three, three layers of a process. I did some teaching in Japan recently, and the, we had a lecture by one of the, by Shinichi Konno, who is a master bike builder, and,
[00:28:37] uh, runs a company, in Japan. But he did a lecture which exposed us to the, the way that Japanese designers really referenced nature, really reference nature, I think, much more than Western designers do.
[00:28:51] But, they talked about, for example, a bicycle, when you look at a bicycle, you're seeing the structure, when you look at an airplane, you're seeing the structure. They related that to insects or things like lobsters that have exoskeletons. So
[00:29:09] their form is really the, their, form is the, is their function
[00:29:13] and bicycles are fall into that category.
[00:29:15] Whereas something like an automobile, the structure is hidden
[00:29:20] like a mammal. A mammal has a, an outer form that hides the inner structure.
[00:29:28] And so you can approach design, from two ways, and this is one was, this was the example. You know, you could either be making things that are clothing, you know, cloaking the structure, or you can make things that the structure is the, it's visible.
[00:29:43] And so if I were to say something about this intersection of engineering and design, bicycle design is a really good example because the bicycle that I built when I was learning how to build bikes. I made a little twist, a little slight change in the frame structure to make it look a little bit more exciting,
[00:30:06] you know, let me say I was styling the structure. But when people look at it, I get, I ride this bike to school some days, and I get so many compliments on it. And what they're seeing is something that, you know, looking at when I was looking at the blueprint and, you know, sort of the outline of this frame, and I asked Shinichi, can I just tilt this down a little bit?
[00:30:29] And he's like, what why? And I was like, it just looks cooler that way.
[00:30:34] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:30:34] Professor Khipra Nichols: So he, so he said, "Okay, sure, you can do that." And, but now what I realize is that's a kind of engineering design.
[00:30:45] Because I couldn't, you know, I'm not an engineer. So, Sydney, you know, I, I did a sketch and the, it was engineered by the professional, the professional, like Shinichi in his crew.
[00:30:56] Can, as you can imagine, there's a lot of forces going into a bicycle frame and the
[00:31:00] Professor Khipra Nichols: weight of the ride or, and et cetera, lots of math involved. So usually, what happens is engineers and designers work collaboratively.
[00:31:09] But a lot of times that collaboration is fraught with other kinds of humans, tensions, and, and...
[00:31:16] Beth Altringer Eagle: Totally.
[00:31:18] Professor Khipra Nichols: Exact.
[00:31:18] And so collab, not all collaborations work well, but if you are the kind of person who knows how to collaborate well, then you're also the kind of person whose attitude is, you know, positive in a, in a way of being attractive.
[00:31:35] And these are qualities that I think also help with, clear thinking like you were talking about, you know, the being able to be less distracted, and it's mindfulness, it's another form of mindfulness, but it take, but if you have taken the time to understand how to work well with others, then you're, you've also taken the time to pick up, approaches, qualities that are
[00:31:59] Professor Khipra Nichols: gonna help you with your design skills,
[00:32:01] you know, ultimately, and, and empathy too, as well, which is really an important piece of it. So...
[00:32:08] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah,
[00:32:09] what you're saying reminds me of a couple of things once from another episode and, and another is just, you know, something very common in design, and the really common one is, you know, your story of the engineers calling the designers, hairdressers is so common. Like it's different, the words are different, but it's also common on the other side where everyone tends to think that their contribution to the design is the most important part.
[00:32:41] And when we have, when we work in silos, that language actually becomes kind of, formalized, right? Even to the point where, I mean, maybe hairdresser wasn't so formalized, right, but in many organizations, you know, even just the word of other parts, you know, the, the formal label of other jobs in the product are seen as kind of less and not included early on in the process, but, and like, to be like, oh, just have the engineers do the math, or just have the, you know,
[00:33:18] Professor Khipra Nichols: Exactly.
[00:33:19] Beth Altringer Eagle: designers make it look pretty at the end.
[00:33:21] And without realizing it, like, I don't think any of these people are ill intention, but it's kind of disrespectful, right, so it makes, their collaborators, feel like their, their potential greatness is kind of minimized in the,
[00:33:37] and that can kind of drive those teams even more apart.
[00:33:41] Beth Altringer Eagle: And so I think, you know, one of the things we're doing at MADE is trying to recognize that there's a whole skill set in doing the opposite of that. And beginning, you know, to communicate that, a little better than what has been, you know, the dominant way of teaching within each of these disciplines.
[00:34:04] but the other thing, it, it reminds me of is this, it was a totally different discussion with one of our guests who's, works in UX. These days was at the media lab for a long time. And we were talking about getting feedback from mentors early and often even and getting over whatever discomfort you might have with that.
[00:34:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: And then if you could do that, eventually they become like voices that you can try on, right? When you are stuck on a project, you could be like, oh, you know, what would Mark say or Sandra say, or, you know, people you worked with so closely that you can, you have their lens in your own head, right?
[00:34:56] And I think that that's true about what you're saying too with collaborators. So those, it doesn't have to be a mentor, you know, it doesn't have to be a kind of senior voice, but the better collaborator you take responsibility for becoming 'cause it is,
[00:35:15] you know, a lot of it's self-learning, the more lenses you can activate in the future on your projects.
[00:35:27] And if you never give yourself the gift of doing that, you're just all alone, you're all alone making things now and more alone in the future, right?
[00:35:40] Professor Khipra Nichols: That's a great way to put it. That is a great way to put it. That's true. That's so true.
[00:35:46] One of the things that we often talk about, on this program is how we think about the difference between good and great design. And I know you've done a lot with, with toy design, but this example doesn't need to be in that area. It could be anything. And sometimes the way I describe this question is like, what has been designed.
[00:36:11] Beth Altringer Eagle: So, so well that you almost feel like, like, it almost feels magical to use it? Does anything come to mind for you?
[00:36:21] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, there's a kind of ballpoint pen that I really like. I think I have one right in my pocket. Let me see. I don't know if you can see this.
[00:36:35] Beth Altringer Eagle: Oh, yeah, I see it.
[00:36:35] Professor Khipra Nichols: It's a. It's called the Space Pen. The Fisher Space Pen is how it started, and it has a nitrogen-charged ink cartridge. It's a regular ballpoint, but because of the net nitrogen charge, it's well, it can write in zero gravity. That's the reason it has that. And, and this is designed for NASA, but it's sold at Staples now.
[00:36:59] So, you know, you can just get one, but for sketching, it's really, really, very smooth, very consistent, and in, and
[00:37:08] in some ways, you can make a very, very super-light line be, and then you can make super dark lines with the same. So, it's the most, it's like an instrument. Well, it is an instrument,
[00:37:19] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah,
[00:37:19] Professor Khipra Nichols: but it's, I, I, I think of when I think of great design, I think of objects that are, like extensions of yourself. Like a, a violin, you know, like the Stradivarius which is, you know, a masterpiece, it's no longer just an object, it's you having a new voice, right, and I feel the same way with this pen. It's, it's your voice. You have now a new voice or an auxiliary voice. And if it's extremely reliable, extremely ergonomic, extremely like the right shape, the right size, the right balance, that's, to me, great design.
[00:38:04] Now, in reality, there's more to it because
[00:38:07] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
[00:38:08] Professor Khipra Nichols: what we realize nowadays, which we weren't thinking about in the seventies, was, everything we manufacture has an impact on everyone on the planet. Essentially, you can't build a factory that's making something that isn't going to end up in the earth,
[00:38:28] you know, it's gonna end up in the earth someday. I, I remember one day I was in a Walmart. I was, I needed to get something I'm walking through the aisles, and I was, I couldn't find what I was looking for, and I, sudden a thought hit me and it stopped me in my tracks. And I said, you know what? In less than a year from now, everything in this store
[00:38:48] is gonna be in land is gonna be in a landfill.
[00:38:51] So, I mean,
[00:38:53] maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but not, not that
[00:38:56] much of an exaggeration, probably not that much of an exaggeration. So...
[00:39:02] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I felt that like halfway through your sentence, I was like, "Ahhh..."
[00:39:07] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah. It,
[00:39:08] Beth Altringer Eagle: I know where he's going, oh my Gosh.
[00:39:09] Professor Khipra Nichols: yeah, and then you think, well, there's not
[00:39:11] what 9,000 Walmarts in the oh, so when I think of today when I think of great design,
[00:39:20] I think it's, I think of it as being design that takes into account the entire life cycle,
[00:39:27] of its existence.
[00:39:29] So, and these kinds of thoughts bring into really sharp focus, the fact that our marketplace has, you know, the intention of the marketplace is not always the best intention for, you know, humanity it's,
[00:39:47] it has, you know, it has its plus pluses. And, but it also has its minuses. And I think good design, great design are done by people who take into consideration how to minimize and ultimately eliminate the negative impacts of the marketplace that we are working for.
[00:40:11] And people are doing that, you know, people are really, you know, there are material scientists. I mean, we teach a biomaterials course in our department. Peter Yin teaches that, and we have students, we had students winning awards in bio design.
[00:40:26] Last year there was some awards that, that class won in New York. So great design to me is, I remember when I was, I was, talking to you about Fords and Chevys and when I
[00:40:37] Professor Khipra Nichols: was 17 years old, you know, I remember driving a, a Barracuda, you know, a, a muscle car, you know,
[00:40:46] it was, it was just like,
[00:40:48] it was the biggest thrill
[00:40:50] for me,
[00:40:50] but but nowadays, I don't think of cars as much as I think of mobility.
[00:40:56] And what does it mean? What does it mean to move through the, the environment without leaving a trail that, you
[00:41:05] know, a toxic trail behind you?
[00:41:08] So that's, that's where, to me, that's where great design is going to emerge and our students, the MADE students, the ID students at, you know, we're seeing projects like this, you know, we're seeing students who care about these things and are doing something tangible, with those ideas.
[00:41:28] Beth Altringer Eagle: It's so exciting to see that, you know, like I've, I, I don't know if you knew this, but when I did grad school in architecture, that was my focus was kind of green design. It was too early, you know, for a lot of that, those ideas aren't new, but like the, the degree to which students who are not specifically looking for that when they come into a program are interested in that,
[00:41:57] and choosing that for their project is really different than
[00:42:00] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah.
[00:42:00] Beth Altringer Eagle: even like five years ago, you know, five years ago,
[00:42:03] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah.
[00:42:03] Beth Altringer Eagle: there's still a lot of apps of every kind and deal. Not there's nothing wrong with apps, but that was like, everything was apps for several years, in many different design departments, even if it was also a physical thing,
[00:42:20] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah, yeah, that's true.
[00:42:20] Beth Altringer Eagle: and then before that, it was like a lot of 3D printing of all kinds.
[00:42:27] And so you see these trends in student interest, and it is really exciting that, you know, what you're talking about and hopefully more than a trend, but there is this
[00:42:40] notable uptick in like design, without sacrificing like the joy of the object or the service or the process, but really thinking about it in this much more holistic way in terms of its impact, environmentally and socially.
[00:43:00] It's an exciting time.
[00:43:04] and also just, um, becoming more inclusive too. I, I recently, so one of our alumni published a book about design, it just published maybe three weeks ago. And
[00:43:17] Professor Khipra Nichols: in it, he has a whole chapter or whole, um, section devoted to black inventors who may have been forgotten in other textbooks and things like that.
[00:43:30] But along in his timeline of designers, he includes black inventors, of which there were many, um, in the 20th century and end of the 19th century. So I was really excited about that and, and proud that one of our own alumni was, had the, the foresight to, uh, include that in his, his book. So, I, yeah.
[00:43:54] Beth Altringer Eagle: And telling the story, that was there all along. It was just, you, you have to have people paying attention close enough, closely enough
[00:44:04] Professor Khipra Nichols: Mm-hmm, and shining the light, and shining the light.
[00:44:06] Beth Altringer Eagle: to yeah. And shining the light. And it would've been nice if that was done originally, but it's, there's still a lot of work to do. Yeah.
[00:44:15] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah. And, and where people are doing it, you know, people are diving in and, and making that happen. So that's, that's exciting.
[00:44:23] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. It's really exciting. And you could feel that on campus, you know, the desire and energy for that, both at Brown and at MST. Well, I wonder, you know, we could, we have a couple of different audiences for this show. And one is like people who are looking for the next step of their career and interested in working in this, in an intersection
[00:44:47] involves some mix of design, art, engineering, technology, and I wonder if you have any kind of to share with them?
[00:45:00] Professor Khipra Nichols: Mm-hmm sure, I think it's really important to have an open, open mind and open enough mind to see past sort of the silos. Uh, you'd used the terms earlier that we, these disciplines, especially at on some RISD right now, there's silos, between each discipline. And one of the things that I like about the MADE program is it gives students an opportunity,
[00:45:22] not only, I mean, basically these students have both course catalogs from Brown and RISD at their, well, I won't say at their fingertips, but at least at arms in arm's length. And not to feel like you have to be one thing or another thing. I mean, but feel like you can follow your inspiration, your insight, and your instincts toward a goal.
[00:45:47] I mean, we've had students who didn't quite follow the, the rules, but broke the rules in a constructive way, and actually by breaking the rule, they were really doing what we want them to do is finding their own voice
[00:46:06] and finding a way to manifest the, you know, sort of the, the picture they have of their future.
[00:46:12] And, so I think the, because the MADE program exists between universities, it's the students in that program, although you, it's really just a short time, it's, you know, you almost have
[00:46:24] to make every minute count, but,
[00:4627] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah, totally.
[00:46:28] Professor Khipra Nichols: but you, you have this really, you have this opportunity to walk between like you're not caught by the expectations of either university.
[00:46:36] You can build a new way that is not either, but both and actually beyond both, because it's greater than the sum of its parts, I think, and I feel like the first cohort sort of opened that door and
[00:46:50] showed us what's possible. And I think the next cohort, which is about to start now, will take the O, open the door even wider,
[00:46:59] you know, and I, I, it's very exciting to see it happen.
[00:47:03] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. I, I love that, that piece of advice too, because it's not just true in, you know, kind of our world of bridging these universities and, through this program, but it's also true in, you know, the broader, bridge that's being built across these disciplines. And of course, you know, design and engineering are far from one discipline each, right?
[00:47:29] It's like many design disciplines, many engineering disciplines, and all kinds of bridges are being built. And like that space in the middle is this sort of liminal space. Like things aren't defined as well in that space. And there is, you know, chaos, that is sometimes frustrating, you know, in that, in that liminality, but there's also so much creative opportunity.
[00:47:56] So that's a, that's a really, that's an exciting takeaway. We have some listeners too, who, you know, are leaders of products or companies that are looking to up their game and kind of integrating these fields. I wonder if you have any takeaways for them?
[00:48:14] Professor Khipra Nichols: That's a really great, that's a really great question. And I, I think it's really important how people write job descriptions or how people interview potential design engineers when they're meeting
[00:48:27] them, and I think that it's, if I were giving a takeaway, to a place like that, I would say, move the boxes out of the way, like think outside of the box, not just in the work that you're doing with your company, but how you're describing what you do and how you are analyzing the persons that you're considering to join
[00:48:48] with you, I think this idea of collaboration, I mean, they people use the term team player. But I think it's more than that, it's really building a kind of culture that gives people permission to, be, you know, kind, compassionate and caring for each other, and if that's a natural outgrowth of the culture, then you will get people who are working across disciplines, empathizing with their engineers and designers and, and, and administrators and all the other disciplines, you know, that and then that comes from the top. I mean, that really does come from the top. And if, if, if you can have this kind, if you can nurture this kind of culture where people have the permission to kind of, to be themselves and not be afraid of voicing their opinions, that's what I would say.
[00:49:42] Professor Khipra Nichols: The takeaway is figure out what your offices need to nurture that culture of, of inclusion through kindness and just understanding.
[00:49:53] Beth Altringer Eagle: Mhmm.
[00:49:53] I mean, it's, it comes down to that. These are the simple things that we all knew about along, all along. But when you, when we step into the business world, we put on a, you know, a couple of layers of intellect, that
[00:50:07] keep us from thinking about those things.
[00:50:10] But actually, those are the things that make everything else work.
[00:50:14] So, yeah, that's what, that's what I would say.
[00:50:18] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. There's, I mean, do you have, I can kind of imagine people being like, oh, you know, that's all well and good if you have the time, but what if you make things that are really, really fast? Like how do you keep that openness on, you know, if you're Apple building
[00:50:38] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah.
[00:50:39] Beth Altringer Eagle: a phone?
[00:50:40] Professor Khipra Nichols: Yeah. You can do it. Apple does a good job at, you know, I've, we've had some students there.
[00:50:48] I do, it takes, it's very simple things. So, I, I had a, I had a faculty retreat where we were to talk about the curriculum. How are we gonna decolonize our curriculum? Where are we going from here? And I brought popcorn, a popcorn machine,
[00:51:06] that's, you know, that spits the popcorn out of a big funnel. I don't, it's an old air, the hot air popper.
[00:51:13] Beth Altringer Eagle: Aha.
[00:51:13] Professor Khipra Nichols: And I brought, and
[00:51:13] I brought a, a, a dump truck, a plastic you know, a,
[00:51:17] a, um, toy dump truck. So, in the middle of our, when it was time for our break, you know, I pulled out this popcorn machine, and I rolled the dump truck up, and I plugged it in.
[00:51:27] And within a few minutes, the popcorn was filling the back of this dump truck, and the faculty, they got up, they were so excited. They were taking pictures and taking videos of this, right and then they all, you know, took some popcorn, and they went off to the corner and they, they were all enjoying. I mean, I brought it because I knew that it was something that would take them by surprise,
[00:51:49] Beth Altringer Eagle: Mhmm.
[00:51:49] Professor Khipra Nichols: and exactly. And it, that it, that created the atmosphere for the second half of our, of our workshop. So, people, instead of getting tired or feeling like they were just spinning their wheels, got re-energized by the, not the popcorn, but the, the surprise of the popcorn.
[00:52:11] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:52:12] Professor Khipra Nichols: And,
[00:52:13] and so I think, and that's, didn't take much at all to do that,
[00:52:17] right, so I think finding these small things that just enter the space and take people's capture people's imagination, drop some of the defenses and open up this opportunity for an, a, a sincere
[00:52:37] And that's how you do it. And then everyone's busy, but something
[00:52:40] like that, it took 7 minutes of time,
[00:52:45] but it added it probably added, well, actually I could tell you for a fact, it added an hour
[00:52:50] Beth Altringer Eagle: Right. Really highly energized brainstorming because people, it was time to leave, but people didn't, wouldn't leave.
[00:52:57] Professor Khipra Nichols: So,
[00:52:58] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah.
[00:52:59] Professor Khipra Nichols: yeah.
[00:53:00] Beth Altringer Eagle: That's beautiful. And people, you know, listening who may not have been in higher education for the past couple of years, that's a huge deal, like people are, people are really stressed out and tired. And so to be able to achieve that and in these times makes it extra meaningful.
[00:53:18] That's really good example. Well, professor Khipra Nichols, I wanna thank you for your time for joining us. It's been such a
[00:53:27] pleasure too.
[00:53:27] Professor Khipra Nichols: Thank you.
[00:53:27] Beth Altringer Eagle: It's always a pleasure to hear how you think about, about design and get into these, like these details, like the popcorn, like the sense of wonder.
[00:53:39] Professor Khipra Nichols: Thank you. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed, I was looking forward to this, and I'm happy we could do it. And, yeah, I'm I wanted to tune into the podcast. I, I think this is a great thing to,
[00:53:50] Beth Altringer Eagle: It's, it's kind of place that's fun.
[00:53:51] Professor Khipra Nichols: to do.
[00:53:52] Beth Altringer Eagle: Yeah. Well, thank you again, and have a great rest of your day.
[00:53:56] Professor Khipra Nichols: You're welcome. Thank you, you too.