New York City is well-known to be a hub in many different ways: It is a creative hub, nurturing designers in different areas like product, packaging, fashion, interiors, architecture, graphic, multimedia, technology; It is a multicultural hub, home to people from all over the world; It is an education hub, offering world-class design instruction via schools like Pratt Institute, Parsons The New School, FIT, SVA, to name but a few; It is also a hub for producing locally – from makers (artisans and craftsmen) to manufacturers, and a fast growing technology (rapid prototyping, Maker Faire) community.
Embracing this spirit, Juhi Solanki designs, lives, has studied, and makes in the greater New York city area. As an industrial and packaging designer, she has designed for a number of international brands, building up a diverse portfolio that encompasses a range of industries – from packaging to footwear, medical design to exhibits, housewares to personal accessories. Her most recent work has been with Colgate-Palmolive, developing innovative packaging concepts for their various brands. She is a graduate of the Master in Industrial Design – MID program at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Having grown up in Kenya, she traveled to the US to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), graduating with a BFA in Industrial Design and a BS in Computer Science.
We approached Juhi to know more about her work and experience.
How did you get into Industrial Design?
My second year at UIUC was the major turning point, or as we designers used to say at that time, the Aha!-moment. Growing up I had loved art classes and could spend hours drawing portraits or still-life studies with my favorite 6B pencil. However, with the limited information and exposure I had back then, pursuing a career in Art seemed to be a direct ticket to starving-artist-land. Since I also enjoyed subjects like physics and math, engineering seemed to be a much better direction, and I narrowed down further to computer science.
I couldn’t quite abandon my art side, so I took some interesting classes like ‘Programming for Artists’ and ‘Artists and Computers’ in my first year. This led to applying to the School of Art and Design, where I did three dimensional form and composition exercises for the first time, and was also introduced to Industrial Design as a career path. I think it was the three-dimensional form development and problem-solving that got me hooked. I went on to finish both degrees (computer science and industrial design) and have always felt that I would find a way to do something with both skill sets one day.
What aspects of your background, upbringing and education
have shaped your design philosophies and career path?
Having lived and worked in 3 different continents – Africa, Asia, N America – has informed my perspective, and, I feel, given me valuable insight into consumers (their habits, problems, buying patterns, motivations) from global markets. It has also made me realize that we are as similar as we are different. For example, many people will want to have a nice home and beautiful, functional, interesting products, whether they live in Nairobi, Mumbai or New York. However, each person’s idea of beauty and functionality will be different. I still remember a very powerful image that one of my professors had shown to us. It was of a well-worn, scratched up vehicle lying sideways on the side of the road. The story was that when a group of people in, for example, New York, saw the image, their reaction was: “Oh, no! How unfortunate, it looks like an accident.” And when a group of people in, say, a village in Kenya saw the image, their reaction was more like “Oh wow, look they have a car!” It reminds me of the importance in always being conscious of whom I am designing for.
Something that continues to delight me is when I discover new ways in which my multicultural background influences my design work. For example, when I was designing footwear for Jambu, my interest and skill in intricate henna patterns was unexpectedly useful.
In terms of education, an early exposure to rapid prototyping technologies and CAD skills is now proving to be vital to my work. Also with the growing integration between the design and technology fields today, whether it is wearable tech or Internet of Things (IoT), I am really looking forward to finally utilizing my diverse educational background in a well-rounded and meaningful way.
You have worked with many brands, industries and in different professional environments. What made the biggest impact for you and what would you suggest to designers transitioning from student to professional?
It is interesting because when I was starting out, people would always ask what industry I would like to specialize in, because most people ended up focusing in one area, whether it was toy or electronic hand tools or gifts and promotional products or UI design, etc. And I had always struggled because I enjoyed every different field I designed for, including the different environments like corporate, consultancy and manufacturing, and I couldn’t easily pick one.
What was then a struggle has today thankfully become a strength, because I have had the chance to solve problems with different sets of success criteria. I have always felt that the design process remains the same, whether it is applied in designing paperboard packaging for Disney, deodorant packs for SpeedStick, tradeshow exhibits for Derse, pipe organ instrument for a Church, or even software. It has been wonderfully challenging, refreshing, and a great learning experience.
My suggestion to upcoming designers is to focus internally on yourself and begin to find your voice as a designer: what makes you unique, what really gets you passionate, what work style works best for you. Make your own path rather than trying to do what everyone else is doing or what is currently trending.
With your background in industrial design and computer science, you are uniquely placed to comment on the growing integration between the fields of design and technology. Where do you see this integration going? What are you most excited about and what concerns you the most?
There was a time when designers passed on their concepts to engineers, who made whatever changes they needed to, and when the final product came out in the market, the designer barely recognized it. So what really excites me is that designers are working hand-in-hand with engineers, software developers, business leaders, etc from the beginning in defining the vision to the final product launched. With the spread of “smart” devices and connectivity (between your phone and fridge and air conditioner and other home appliances), it is even more important that design and technology are integrating and sharing their expertise in creating innovative solutions.
One of my concerns is whether “smart” devices are actually making us more dumb, and what responsibility that puts on designers. When I was in high school, I remembered all my friends’ phone numbers and could call any of them up with no need to consult the telephone directory. Now I sometimes have to look up my own phone number. I know, I know, it is a clichéd and oversimplified example. But I am certainly interested in exploring deeper ramifications and side effects.
What do you see yourself doing in the next 5 years, what kind of products or industries do you envision working with?
I’ve always been interested in teaching and research in the design context. Those are definitely areas I would like to explore in the near future.
In terms of products and/or industries, I have several ideas at different levels of development for housewares (lighting, kitchen, dining, organization), food design, mechanisms, wearable tech, personal accessories. I am also interested in different ways of making, like 3D printing, ceramics, circuits, laser cutting. Also, clocks and other time-related objects are just fascinating.