Sneakers that click like high heels, t-shirts networked in circuits that measure individual sweat output, coats fashioned after Aristophanes’ Symposium speech they light up and purr when they meet their other half, Afghani artisan toolkits, the esoteric philosophy of Heraclitus, NYU courses in design and innovation: what do all these things have in common? The creative genius of Despina Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos, named one of the 10 most influential women in NYC tech design by Forbes, is hard to classify. She is a design systems theorizer, a vanguard in the wearable technology sector, a professor at NYU, and a Daedulus of design, engineering the circuitry that makes possible textiles that can blink, click and take your temperature all the while grounded on the foundations of what it means to be human.
A New York Kinda Start for a New Yorker at Heart
Papadopoulos had visited New York City as a teen before she made the decision to return for a Masters in Interactive Communications. Before this she had completed an undergrad degree in philosophy in Brussels, Belgium. That might seem like a huge disjunct but as she sees it “there’s a thread connecting the two fields, between understanding what makes us human and what is it that drives us and the environment and the design this environment takes to maximize our humanity and our happiness.”
She worked in an innovation lab in San Francisco for a year, but missed NY. Following a tip from a friend who worked at the Museum of Natural History, she launched a design firm to compete for a grant to set up an interactive installation project around the theme of diamonds. “Because I didn’t know any better,” she recalls, “I set up my own company and bid for that project and lo and behold I got the project.”
From there, Papadopoulos delved into the worked of “wearable technology.” Taking inspiration from Plato’s Symposium specifically Aristophanes’ speech about the nature of “eros” in that each individual is seeking his “other half,” she designed jackets in pairs that could were communicate using infrared across distances. Their internal LED would light up and chirp like crickets when the one jacket came into close proximity with its “other half.” That was 20 years ago when the field of ‘wearable technology’ was in its beginnings. After presenting at conferences, Papadopoulos developed a reputation as a guru in the world of wearable technology and its applications which at that time was a very small world. “Since that time 20 years ago,” she explains, “the field of wearable technology has expanded. As I found I was developing stranger and stranger applications it became clear that I couldn’t be anywhere else but New York.”
Design Founded in Philosophy
Twelve years ago, she was invited to start teaching for her old alma mater, NYU in its Design department. In her mind, philosophy and design have a very clear path. In fact, she insists that students but esp as Greeks should delve more deeply into the Greek philosophical tradition and not just flirt with understanding the stock philosophers in liberal arts. (In addition to her post as adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Interactive Telecommunications Program, she is also a member of the faculty at the School of Visual Art’s MFA in Design for Social Innovation.)
“Philosophy,” she explains, “helps me create very robust frameworks. Usually you have some designers with a good idea but no real justification behind it. The more solid your foundation the more clear you are about what drives your design. The clearer you are you are about What what informs your workthe values, the principles, the impact, each component each decision in the system means the easier to be successful.”
Speaking like a professor in her class “The Softness of Things”, she theorizes about things like modularities, connectors, and systems–electronic systems, social systems, space, the human body. She forces designers to question their decisions and how well the concept is manifested in the form. Papadopoulos can therefore be described as a philosopher of design whose theorizing involves a systems approach.
The Role of “Technologia” in Design
Given the incredible impact of technology on society in the Information Age, Papadopoulos felt that decisions regarding its design and implementation should not be left up to the technologists only. She sees herself as a humanist designer who has a stake in the brave new world being shaped by technology whose understanding should be allowed to shape it. What will happen when everything is moderated by technology? Will we live in a world In which the human gets consumed by the machine?We have seen that encroachment as so many walking humans swipe and text their needs into a smartphone instead of each other. “I wanted to propose an alternative way of how to implement technology,” she says.
She sees ‘technologia’ as its Greek root imples, a tool. Design involves choosing the right tool. The question becomes which is the appropriate type of technology for the audience it serves. sometime she says the best tool could be a simple book. “The reason why I gravitated to technology as we know it today is because it has become increasingly more prevalent in our society. We have all this technology but how will it affect what it means to be human.”
She is optimistic that we will not become slaves to the tools we create. With the glut of so many useless devices and useless ways of technology moderating our relationships, the randomness of solutions based on algorithms, she already notices a push back from young people. More and more millennials are cutting off from social media and seeking for more meaningful experiences. She brings up the “Maker Movement” that states that the user will be the author of the experience. We will not let engineers tell us how to make our world, we will moderate the experience. “If I can’t open it, if I can’t break the box it comes in, I can’t own it” is the rationale of the movement.
The Woman’s Perspective in Design
An advocate for more women in tech and design, Papadopoulos insists that a woman’s connection with the world is different. perspective is critical. having more women and girls engineers to build our world will slowly change how we work. Having more young people have access to tools and not being mystified by technology will have an impact on how the world looks and feels.
Papadopoulos has herself been involved in causes to empower women. She spent a year in Afghanistan working alongside an NGO to bring entrepreneurial know-how of the 21st century to traditional craftsmen and women. Her expertise in systems design enabled a cooperative of calligraphy, jewelry and ceramics workers to bring their products to a larger audience with the help of technology. A friend in Canada founded a company in social impact entreprenuership invited her to implement “The Afghan Craftsman’s Toolkit,” a systems approach, step-by-step method, to help traditional craftspeople bring their products to market. She describes the project as difficult but gratifying.
“Being a woman hugely influences the way that I look at my work, how I look at form,” she explains. “There is a gentleness there; some other great industrial male designers have a different approach.”
She notes that even with the opportunities there is still a gender gap in design. She urges young women to seriously break new ground by pursuing careers in engineering, technology and design.
On Being a Greek Woman
Without reservations, Papadopoulos makes clear that her success would not have been possible in Greece. She admits that Greece is still rigid in how it perceives professional women and career growth. She admires that her host country offered her so many opportunities even as a “foreigner, a national of a tiny nation, in NY and a woman.”It did not matter, where I was from, how old I was, who my father was from, a young woman from Greece, it didn’t matter, ” she explains. “I put the proposal together to demonstrate I could accomplish the project and I got it. I don’t think I would have been viewed the same in an entrepreneurial sense in my home country. No one questioned my ability to do what I had to do. “I graduate and got a bid at a project at one of the most prestigious museums in the world and ten years later I was teaching at NYU, I cannot imagine in what universe in Greece, and I say that with great pain, that would have been possible.”
Even so, she feels the Greek in her. “I still feel very Greek,” she confesses. “When I go to the sea, when I listen to Greek music, go to Delphi, Delos or stand in front of the Acropolis, I feel it so very deeply. Coming from that tradition that creates a certain amount of responsibility.”
She brings up the fact that with the crisis in Greece, there has been a recent revival in the design world run by women in Greece. There are also a few female in wearables in London.
“Be bold, be unafraid, realize the rest of your life is at stake, dream of what you want to be,” she advises young women. She also encourages them on a more practical level to seek out mentors. “Seek out these role models, women that inspire you and shadow them.”
On Current and Future Projects
In a box in her studio in the Meat Packing District, a stack of t-shirts by the Nivea company with patches of circuitry running through them await processing. (You remember Nivea, right? That navy blue tin that carried that white waxy cream with the distinctive smell your yiayia would slather all over her face and neck.) The t-shirts are prototypes for the first phase of a project commissioned to Papadopoulos that are to measure an individual’s distinctive type and amount of sweat. The company is experimenting with new anti-perspirants that synchronize to a person’s sweat output on any given day. The questions she is working on: how does one produce 1000 of these with circuits and chips given a production process that involves many components from other countries? Her studio is involved in the practical components involved in the manufacturing process for this wearable technology.
Papadopoulos predicts that there will be a massive market in ‘social wearables.’ Just like you can text and add emoticons in your social media messages, imagine your jacket or sneakers doing that too. One of her first designs involved jackets that when you hug someone, they light up. Clothing that interacts with other clothing when it comes into close proximity. “These are fun, delightful, communicative gets you out of the box, and get you away from your cell phone,” she notes.
New spins on the applications of wearable technology are stretching the design and engineering imaginations of humanistic designers to the vanguard of a brave new world of design. Despina Papadopoulos no doubt will remain at the helm of this changing frontier.
More info on her company at Principled Design, an organization that creates shared frameworks and strategies for collaboration, development and change, www.principleddesign.org.