I have to admit, my interview with Perkins+Will Dubai’s Principal Design Director – Diane Thorsen, started off on a prejudiced note. I was worried if I’d picked the best time to ask for her undivided attention, considering she was juggling a workshop and a design competition at the same time.
Within the first few minutes of our conversation, all reservations I had were completely wiped out. I soon realized I was speaking to someone who lives, breathes and speaks design. Diane not only thinks differently but learns differently as well. Also known as a ‘non-linear’ thought process, she explains how she’s embraced design as a fundamental part of her being, learning best through imagery and using it to see connections where others don’t.
The talk on process and other topics were just small bits of our much grander conversation, which for the most part, included my not-so-hidden agenda to understand what makes her design intellect so instrumental in taking P+W’s Dubai studio to the market leading position it is at today. Since she first stepped into the city back in 2008, she’s crafted a career worth envying.
In what can only be described as an eye-opening and educational talk on design, creativity and learning, Diane shares with us her various experiences that make her who she is, and what’s brought her to this point.
Diane: There’s a story I love to tell people whenever a topic like this comes up. When I was very little, I was given a box of crayons by an aunt, who was also an artist at the time, accompanied by the line “Imagine the Possibilities”. These words would form the bedrock of my journey into design thinking.
I often think back to that moment, and ponder over the simplicity yet depth of that statement. That’s what sparked my interest in design. When I find myself battling with my mind, forcing it to learn a concept or to study a difficult topic, thinking of that statement reminds me of my true nature and helps me weave a thread that connects the dots. I learn best through visual forms; pictures really do speak a thousand words, in my case, an entire conversation. Art and design help me translate the logic of everything into a form that makes sense.
Diane: Be open. Travel. Explore. See the beauty in everything. Open your mind to try something new, it’ll encourage you to understand new ways of looking at the same thing. Look for the connections and connect the dots. When I travel, I don’t make plans. I explore. This spontaneity is how I’ve ended up with the most extraordinary stories, people, and learning opportunities. I even try and take a different route to work, as it helps break the monotonous routine!
If you’ve only just considered the habit of reading, I’d highly recommend you read the book “The Design of Everyday Things”. It’s a wonderful book as it explains how designs become instinctive and functional as well as beautiful. The simplest of everyday tools we interact with have a history of design that makes it so instinctive to use.
If I may add, another important piece of advice is something I would like to tell all designers. “There’s no need to place yourselves in boxes”. People often build boundaries around themselves and box themselves within a fixed frame of mind. Age is one such box, and it severely limits the design process. There’s no rule that says an old person can do young things, and a teenager can’t behave like an adult. Once you free yourself of these, you’ll be amazed at what you can dream up.
Diane: The creative process is about exploration and discovery. I’m always inspired by finding connections where none exist so I continually explore all the arts including fashion, graphics, art, and music. I love following specific fashion designers, people who push boundaries. Issey Miyake is one of my favorites as he uses technology to play with architectural forms and textures in clothing. I also follow certain photographers as they expose and highlight the minute details, colors and textures that we typically just pass by. Art galleries and artists also offer inspiration by expressing the world in a different way. When I am designing spaces I look at these influencers and connect a story to the place and the people who will be using the space.
Diane: I can’t imagine doing anything else. I live and breathe design. People speak of interior design like it’s just another job. It’s not just about designing spaces – interior design is a passion that allows me to explore new possibilities and to link design into every solution. I continually create my own projects and they always have a design angle to them. Any place that involves design is my happy place 🙂
Diane: I often dream of designing a city that is totally sustainable, connected to nature as a regenerative design solution. It would be inspirational to work with a developer who shares this idea – a goal to create buildings. But not just any building; structures that become game changers, buildings that fundamentally change how we work and live. To be given a blank canvas is every designer’s dream. And that’s a reason I was attracted to Dubai as the city offers designers a clean slate.
This fantasy world I dream of is one that’s unconstrained by corporate agenda – ROI, profits, funding and space. I wish more people shared this idea so we could collaborate towards this common goal. This utopia is very much possible if only everyone saw the power of design beyond the ambitions common to developers and designers.
Diane: I must have been Japanese in my previous life! Their drive for simplicity and minimalism never ceases to amaze me. My personal style reflects this: it’s minimal with a connection to Japanese design where simplicity and functionality are considered as one. I love spaces that breathe, are connected to nature, and where there exists symmetry and a perfect balance. That’s what perfection in design is really about – nothing to add and nothing to take away.