Home » Ayse Birsel: If Your life is Your Biggest Project, Why Not Design it? (Full Transcript)

Ayse Birsel: If Your life is Your Biggest Project, Why Not Design it? (Full Transcript)

Ayse Birsel at TEDxCannes

Following is the full transcript of designer Ayse Birsel’s TEDx Talk: If Your life is Your Biggest Project, Why Not Design it? at TEDxCannes conference. This event occurred on April 29, 2017 at Cannes.


What do you think is our biggest project? Our life! Our life is our biggest project.

Life is just like a design project. It’s full of constraints: money, age, location, circumstances… If you want more, you need to make what you want and what you need coexist. But they oppose each other.

Look: I want to be on vacation, but I need to work. Now if I can find a gig to work while I’m on vacation, which is kind of what I’m doing right now in Cannes, that is making what you want and what you need coexist, that’s creating value, that’s creativity, that’s designing your life.

But if you have a perfect life, don’t design it. In fact, you could leave now. Anybody want to leave? Because I’m going to show you how to design your life.

See, I had a perfect life: in 2001, Renault, the French automobile manufacturer, asked me to design a concept interior. I knew very little about cars so I asked them for a mentor from their side and they said: “We’ll send you Bibi Seck and you’re going to love him.” Apparently they told Bibi the same thing: “You’re going to love her.” So can you guess what happened? You can, right, we fell in love. I mean we did as we were told.

So things started happening really fast. Bibi moved from Paris to New York with his son, we started our company, Birsel + Seck together, we had two daughters… We were parenting full-time, working like crazy, my life was designing itself. And I was really happy.

Then the economy crashed in 2008. And I was really sad because I hadn’t seen this coming. Suddenly it felt like overnight, our clients took their work in-house. And I felt very responsible because I had uprooted Bibi from a great life in Paris, and now we had a family to take care of.

And I thought: “I should have become a lawyer!” Because I come from a family of lawyers, but all I wanted to do was to design products, and it started with a teacup. A family friend came to tea and told me about industrial design and he said: “You see how the edges are curved? It fits our lips better. And the handle is there so that we can hold hot liquid in our hands without burning ourselves; and the saucer is there so that if you spill your tea, you won’t ruin your mother’s beautiful tablecloth.” And at that moment, I fell in love with the human scale of industrial design. And I’ve been designing products ever since, from office systems to potato peelers to toilets.

I mean I was known as the queen of toilets, that was a compliment! And I just wanted to continue to design, except we needed clients. And I had all this time in my hands and I felt very frustrated. It made me anxious not to work. It was Leia Kaplan, one of my dearest friends and collaborators, who saw the opportunity in the constraint and she said: “You know, Ayse, you have all this time in your hands, but why don’t you use this time to think about how you think? Because you think differently.” I think differently because I think like a designer.

We think that no matter how hard the problem, we’re going to come up with a better solution. We put ourselves in other people’s shoes. We see the big picture, the emotion, the physical, the intellect, the spirit of things. We like to work together and ask what-if questions. What-if questions, all about having an open mind.

So I asked myself, “What if I can create without products? What if I can design my life, applying design process and tools to my life?” And from that, Design the Life You Love was born. And I became my first student out of necessity. My life was made up of Bibi, our three kids, our work together and our life in New York. But the irony is the economic crisis had already deconstructed my life, had taken it apart, and it’s kind of like having this compact black camera: when you open it up, you realize there are hundreds of pieces in it. Now, can you put this camera back together again? Thank you.

No, not really. And that’s the beauty of deconstruction, that when you deconstruct something, you break the links that hold them together and now you’re free to think about which parts to keep, which parts to change, and which parts to get rid of.

This brings us to our second step: point of view, seeing the same parts differently. How do you go from what you know and what you’re used to, something that’s different in you? The only way I know how to do it is to do it playfully. Because when we’re playing, we’re like kids, we’re not afraid of making mistakes, there is no right or wrong when you’re playing. You just try things and you create and you learn by doing.

So I decided, playfully like a kid, that I needed superpowers. I looked to my heroes for inspiration. Our heroes are people we know, like my mom, or people we know of, like Michelle Obama. But they have something, they have something that interests us, that we notice, that we admire, that maybe we want to emulate.

And so I thought of my hero, Rowena Reed Kostellow. I met her when I went to Pratt Institute to do my master’s and I was 20 years old, she was 80 years old and we became friends. And she taught me how to design in three-dimensional space. She had a unique methodology to teach it. She also taught me how to live in New York, how to shop for food at Dean & Deluca, the beauty of living in a loft, she also suggested that I should get a personal shopper. That’s probably the only advice I didn’t listen to.

But Rowena reminded me of my values. Our heroes connect us with our values. And our values are things like constant evolution and having your own voice. Longevity, generosity, curiosity, fearlessly pursuing your dreams and being the best at what you love.

Our values are the foundation of our life, which brings us to our third step: reconstruction, which is the other side of deconstruction, putting it back together again, based on our values, on things that matter to us. So I put my life back together again as a tree. My foundation, my roots were in Turkey, that’s where I grew up. And then my trunk, where I became visible, that’s New York, that’s where I had my products, my process, and it made me realize that my future is the world, that if I’m a tree I should bear fruit and I should have seeds, and suddenly this idea of teaching other people to think about their life with creativity, with a creative process, started to make sense to me. Which brings us to thinking differently.

What I was doing was thinking differently about the same things and realizing for the first time that design can transform lives, even without the intermediary of products, and that this is for everyone, we can all be designers of our life.

Expression, our fourth step, is giving form to our idea. If I’m designing a chair, I’ll sketch it, I’ll make a model, I’ll write about it, I’ll visualize it to make it happen. Same thing with our lives: if we can visualize the life we want to live, we can make it happen. And Stef Stefan from Amsterdam expresses her life as the big bird; she stands tall, she’s gentle, she’s strong, and this director of leadership development sees himself as the Zen master of his garden, working around stones, hard stones, that he cannot move.

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