Product designer Shaina Garfield is creating products that bring empathy and joy to difficult experiences such as death and disability. In May, she talked with CCPD Communications and Marketing Assistant Kate Butler about her journey as a designer, her experience with Lymes Disease, and the challenges she faced after graduating from Pratt in 2018.
Kate Butler: Did you always want to be a product designer?
Shaina Garfield: When I was in high school, the ceramic classroom was my safe haven. I absolutely loved working with my hands and bringing new objects into the physical world. Once I learned about Industrial Design, it became the perfect way to combine my love for 3D craft and problem-solving. I chose Pratt because I knew I would have the same meditative experiences in our 3D curriculum that I had found in my ceramics.
KB: Can you describe the research you conduct in order to develop a new product?
SG: Two of my favorite techniques are observations and historical research. As a history nerd, I love to learn everything regarding something’s past to better inform my impact on the present and future. Even when I’m not working, I find myself observing people and their behaviors, always asking why or how they do something. Depending on the project, I am drawn to an inductive approach to research, where theories and ideas emerge from observations and data. Going into a situation with as little preconceptions as possible allows for my mind to be completely open to new possibilities.
KB: You’ve found success as a product designer by making work that reflects your values — among other things, of empathy and sustainability. What ethical challenges do designers face in making work and in making a living off that work?
SG: Now this is just my perspective, but from my own observations and experiences, one can become “successful” quicker when choosing a path of least resistance. However, if someone has strong values and morals, these will most likely get compromised in one form or another. As I continue to grow, I am now comfortable existing in spaces that I do not 100% believe in, as long as I am using my values and passions to better that space. Now that I am also pursuing my own company, I find that while it is easier to create work that reflects my values, it takes incredible amounts of vision and grit to see it through because success will not happen overnight. This is all to say, that there will always be challenges designers face. We just have to decide which ones are worth facing and which values are worth fighting for.
KB: Did you ever turn a job or opportunity down because what the organization was doing didn’t align with your values?
I definitely have not turned down any opportunities despite them not completely aligning with my values. I believe that as a young designer, it is imperative to absorb any and all information.
Even if your next opportunity is not what you want or it is against your morals, you will still be able to learn from that which will only better inform the next step on your journey.
KB: “Leaves,” the sustainable coffin you designed, strikes me as one of your most touching and also potentially your most controversial design — if only in the way it challenges conventional rituals of death in the US. Can you describe, first, the process of arriving at this design, and, second the feedback you have received about it?
The coffin was born out of many parts of my life coming together, which now looking back was a beautiful process. First, I wanted to create something out of the thousands of pages of reading I had done is my sustainability minor courses. I focused on the human-caused sixth mass extinction of up to a million species. This crisis is due to “human exceptionalism,” the idea that our species is the most important entity in the universe.
Secondly, I wanted to embrace my healing journey with Chronic Lyme Disease, a journey that had defined my young adult life. I have turned to the natural world to heal me and therefore have become so connected with the Earth’s biorhythms. Lyme Disease symptoms are also worsened by Climate Change effects, so as the Earth takes more and more of a hit, so does my body. When I was trying to get diagnosed with Lyme Disease many years ago, I felt like I was dying because my body was rapidly deteriorating and no one could figure out why. When combining my healing journey with concepts of extinction, this near-death experience was brought back into my consciousness. From there a project focusing on finding new life out death emerged. I did not plan to design a coffin, but it has become the perfect way to address the emotional implications of death and healing with sustainable efforts.
At first, the feedback was very mixed, because making a coffin was certainly not your typical Industrial Design product. If there is one thing I learned from the project is it that, if you believe in something to your core, do not let anyone tell you no. Since I created Leaves, I have traveled the world giving talks about the coffin and exhibiting it. I have since then been featured in numerous magazines and blogs. This project came out of a place of extreme vulnerability and it is because of that, that so many people have connected to it.
KB: Do you know of anyone who has used the “Leaves” coffin yet?
SG: Unfortunately, the coffin is not ready for use. I am currently in search of potential partners and research grants to continue the coffin’s development. For everyone interested in using Leaves, I just keep telling them that they have to wait a few years to die!
KB: What brings you joy in your practice?
SG: The thing that brings me the most joy in my practice is creating emotional connections with others. Specifically with the coffin – when people first hear about it, they are confused about why I would ever design that. However, almost immediately, people open up by sharing their own stories about death or funerals. Since I have traveled the world, I have been exposed to cultures and communities I know very little about it. Through sharing my work and exposing my vulnerabilities, people feel safe to do so in return, and that is truly powerful.
KB: How did your experience with Lyme disease, and the way it disabled you, affect what products you were interested in creating, and how?
SG: My experience with Lyme Disease has affected quite literally every aspect of my life. I always say that I wish that no one has to experience the adversities of Lyme Disease. However, becoming sick and disabled, while in school, allowed me to push the boundaries of my identity and therefore what type of designer I wanted to be. I have now learned that the more intuned I become with my body, I also become more in tune with the world. As a designer, that’s a pretty special gift to have received.
KB: If you could give advice to yourself as a Freshman at Pratt, what would it be?
SG: I would tell my Freshman year self that whenever you face adversities, to dig deep and find the good that can come out of them. As a creator, you have the power to create beautiful connections with other people, and that with each adversity you face, the more those connections grow. In school, you do not have clients or stakeholders, so truly push yourself even when you are told no or when you could fail. The greatest opportunities for growth come out of those experiences.
KB: What advice would you give to yourself in the weeks after you graduated?
SG: Towards the end of college, and in the weeks (and months) after I graduated, I was so unbelievably stressed about my future, constantly worrying about how I will afford my rent, student loans, and medical bills. On top of that, just figuring out what type of career I want to have and then actually achieving that career are extremely different and overwhelming things. Like all things in life, it does work out, and now I am doing what I love. So while I would never change the amount of hustling I did post-graduation, I wish I had taken more time to breathe and trust that things would happen the way they were meant to.
KB: What advice would you like to give yourself now?
SG: One of my favorite quotes from a yoga master named Yogi Bhajan goes “keep up, and you will be kept up.” I repeat this simple quote every day, especially when I feel overwhelmed and want to throw everything out the window. Having the privilege to tell my story, like through this interview, and to do work that I am passionate about is absolutely incredible, but it does not come without hurdles. I was told recently that the more successful you become, the more pressure and responsibility you will hold. So now my advice to myself, and anyone experiencing similar situations is to find the tools that allow you to always keep up even when you do not want to. Every time I choose to keep up and not give up, more opportunities come my way and that means more good can be done.