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Meet Designer: Vanessa Julia Carpenter

What don't I do! I work on a creative team at Gagarin to deliver tangible, interactive experiences to museums. At Gagarin, we have a project where we're working with climate change education in the form of VR aimed at youths (
When I'm not doing that, I'm developing new technologies for menopause and for living a meaningful life. It's a circus and I love it!

What is your typical "day in the life of a designer" ?

Firstly, I design my day. I start with yoga or the gym each morning and then head off to work with a fresh brain and body. I usually and unfortunately have a few meetings about meetings because I split my time between being a designer and being a director/strategist. And then I get into 'the work'. Some days I work on new concepts for interactive installations, thinking about technologies and use cases, and how this all relates to the context we're trying to relate to. It might include research, like the past few days, on magical rituals, so I sat in a witch-cafe, reading Tarot cards and hanging out with crystals to get inspired and enlightened.

Other days, I'm diving deep into research about historical times or scientific research about climate change to find out how to best communicate this to a wide range of audiences. Then I take all this knowledge and combine it with my knowledge of hardware and interaction design to find out how we're going to build the technologies which will provide immersive experiences. I follow this up with some strategic work - what direction are we heading in, what decisions do we need to make and with which partners, to achieve this goal? This is also design work, designing our futures in a way that makes sense and is fulfilling. A lot of it is listening to others, to find out what they need and want and synthesising that into something actionable.

Design principles you live by?

1. Designing for Meaningfulness - I wrote a PhD about this so I'm pretty committed to it :D I want to create things that matter in people's lives, and which contribute to their sense of identity, purpose and fulfilment in life. I frame this in terms of people-to-people connections, a person-to-their-sense-of-self, and a person-to-time.

2. Increasing complexity - this is something a friend of mine, Mads Høybe worked on a lot, that something should be approachable, and easy to initially engage with and then it can increase in complexity so the experience becomes more interesting. We did this a lot at - creating large scale interactive art with increasing complexity.

3. Tangibility - I'm not a fan of the virtual world (she says, typing this into a Google form), and I believe that a majority of the things we design should be somehow be based in the physical world, and be everyday objects. I'm a huge fan of David Rose and his enchanted objects and also Ron Wakkary and his "Everyday Design Studio" for their work in this area. I also dedicated a huge part of my own research to embedding everyday objects with technology to enable meaningfulness.

In the development of enhanced and smart technology, we explore the concept of meaningfulness, tangible design and interaction with everyday objects through Kintsugi, the Japanese craft of repairing broken ceramics with gold.
ElectronicKintsugi - Vanessa Julia Carpenter

What problem can't you stop thinking about?

And we're back to meaningfulness. I am hugely frustrated by all the technology being developed for the sake of convenience. I like a simple quick fix as much as the next person, but we're spending way too much time putting 'a chip in it' when we should be thinking about how we can use technology to help people develop individually and collectively. I truly believe the biggest problem we have is that we are too busy, too overwhelmed and too much in our first world problems, and should be working on ourselves, to find out what our values, priorities and aspirations are so that we can better help others. In this, I think that we need to evaluate our relationships to others and to the planet. We need to focus on this. We need to make technology which helps us to be better humans so we can make a better world.

Photo booth meets kissing booth in this interactive installation wherein two people sit in chairs, and as they touch, a photo is taken
Touching Booth - Vanessa Julia Carpenter

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I am having trouble separating emotionally connected advice from the best advice ever. My dad, who recently passed away, always told me, what is meant for you, will not pass you by. From a design perspective, I'm not sure that is the right one for this moment. So maybe this isn't advice, but it's something a wonderful drag queen friend lives by, "What is your legacy?" and I think about this a lot. Daily. Maybe hourly. What is my legacy? What is what I'm doing now adding to my legacy? What are my values in this legacy? So, maybe it's not quite advice, but it is something that's greatly impacted my thinking.

Design tools you can’t live without? (Physical and/or digital)

  • - it's genius.

  • Google Drive and all its apps. Very useful and transformed the way we work together, thank goodness, no more sending one word document back and forth 1000 times.

  • I'm a big fan of the which helps me with the meaningfulness aspect of my life.

  • A mind map. Solves nearly every problem.

  • My tiny silicon hippo, Frank. He sees the world from a unique, tiny, perspective, and it helps me see things differently too. He's on IG if you want to check out his perspective. @frank_thehippo

What’s in your bag?

  • Frank, as mentioned above.

  • Hand sanitizer - seriously, thank you crazy times we live in for giving me the opportunity to let loose my inner germaphobe and sanitize everything.

  • My Rose Gold Macbook. It's the second one I've bought and it was seriously a purchasing decision point, I was going to get the more powerful Macbook and then my dear partner said to me, but you're so, so happy every time you pull that pink Macbook out, it's part of your identity. And it is. I'm a pink material girl sometimes.

  • A solid near kilogram of connectors for said Macbook. Sigh.

  • Four Sigmatic Lions Mane coffee, it's a game changer and helped me regain my brain during a severe period of stress.

  • A day planner. I'm trying a new one after the above mentioned Clever Fox one and I'm not as happy with it, but it is more portable and attainable in Europe.

What is the greatest design object, service, product or graphic ever made, in your opinion?

Oh my goodness, this is hard. I should know better, I'm on the Danish Design Awards jury and yet my brain is totally blank here. One thing which comes to mind is the Amazon Kindle. Proprietary nonsense aside (and that's a big aside), I appreciate the concept of a representation of an everyday object, combined with an energy saving device (e-ink) combined with an endless library of books. I have had one since they came out and subscribe to Kindle Unlimited so I always have something to read and when I was writing my PhD I could read PDFs on it as well. It's also such a controversial device which causes us to question our values.

We found out that we love the smell and feel and weight of books. We like to have libraries around us, they are indicators of our identity, how do we represent that in a Kindle?!? What about the complications and compromises of having an Amazon product and subscription? For me, it's definitely not the greatest design object, but it is a very interesting, useful and future facing product that came out early and has since caused a lot of discussion, inventions and thoughts about the future of how we receive the written word.

Two Designer friends you admire and we should talk to!

Timi Oyedeji - he's making waves in everything he does, and also works with everyday objects, which I appreciate. He's thinking outside the box in terms of how we see future technologies and I very much appreciate his perspective.

Keshav Koduvayur - Keshav is young and just starting his design journey but he's already so amazing in the way he thinks about design and life, and I just think he'd be ideal for this.

Books you highly recommend for anyone pursuing a career in design?

Enchanted Objects by David Rose

Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers

Where and What did you study?

Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Design & Technology

Aalborg University, Denmark Masters, Interaction Design Malmö University, Sweden Bachelor's, Interactive Art & Technology

Simon Fraser University, Canada


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