Designer Shaun Modi: Empathy for Other Humans is the Lifeblood of Design

This interview is with Shaun Modi, the co-founder of the design studio TM. He was an early employee at Airbnb and now calls Product Hunt, AltSchool, Radpad, Boosted Boards and many other startups his clients. He will be giving a keynote presentation at the Uncharted Minds Design Gurus Summit on May 17th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q: When you were growing up, were you always interested in design?

A: Yes. For the most part, it’s all I ever wanted to do. There was a short period of time when I wanted to be a meteorologist to study the atmosphere. Design was a huge part of my upbringing. There are four people in my immediate family and we are all designers.

Q: What did you study in college?

A: I studied industrial design at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design].

Q: What were some early influences on your career choice?

A: My family exposed me to creative thinking and design at an early age. My parents ran a graphic design firm in New York for 15 years, and they taught me about design integrity, idea generation and creative execution. My Grandfather was the Executive Officer of the United States President’s Science Advisory Committee. For 20 years he was involved with science and technology policy development in the White House and Executive Office for the President. To this day, he inspires me to make a positive impact on society through design and technology. Another influence was my professor at RISD / MIT, Matt Kressy. He selected me to lead an international project for Nokia exploring product applications for multitouch when the technology was in it’s infancy. Throughout the year-long project, he taught me the principles of product development, interdisciplinary collaboration, the general “ins and outs” of design as a business, and product storytelling.

Q: What did your parents do?

A: They were both graphic designers.

Q: Tell me about your first design job.

A: My first official design job was working for NASA, designing the interior environments of the lunar ascent module and lunar base. This was part of the Constellation program, a mission for the United States to return the moon by 2020. The hard constraints of microgravity environments, human factors, materials, cost, and life support systems taught me a tremendous amount about interdisciplinary teamwork and technical design.

Q: What were some early lessons you learned about design?

A: My professors at RISD were incredible. It was at school where I developed my understanding of an insights driven design methodology, and craft. I was able to work on projects like telepresence video communication, prefab architecture, and furniture. While all of my projects were different, I approached them with the same creative process and attention to detail in execution. Whatever ideas I came up with, I had to make with my hands. Making with your hands is crucial for young designers. Another lesson I learned is the value of independence. Being an independent designer is hard yet rewarding because you are able to choose to take on projects you’re passionate about. Learning how to be independent is something I work on every single day.

Q: Tell me about your approach to design today.

A: My approach to design starts with finding problems my team and I want to solve. What industries can design in conjunction with technology improve? What populations are being underserved? My mission is to improve the human condition through design, while creating measurable business value for my clients. Once I take on a project, my process is insights driven and highly collaborative. I work closely with my clients and my team. TM is a tight-knit design team that embeds itself with our clients, becoming part of their company culture. We work directly with founders and our clients leadership teams to address strategically important business opportunities. Then, we do the hardcore design work. We get our hands dirty. We execute, measure impact, both qualitative and quantitative, synthesize, learn, and the process repeats itself. The most precious resource a startup has is time, and my goal is to provide the most value for my client’s nascent businesses in the shortest time possible.

Q: How do you find clients today?

A: Word of mouth, friends, investors.

Q: What career advice would you give to young people today?

A: Start with empathy. Empathy for other humans is the lifeblood of design. It allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you’ve identified a type of design that makes you happy like industrial design, graphic design or architecture, focus on developing a technical a skill set that is defensible, focus on a discipline that is in demand. The world needs great interaction designers, visual designers, and cad modelers. Being a generalist is useful in the long run, but it’s important to have tangible skills that are marketable. You should provide immediate value for your company from the start and hit the ground running.

Q: Hardest part of being a designer?

A: Not enough hours in the day.

Q: Favorite part of being a designer?

A: Mentoring my team and seeing people use your creations. Nothing is as rewarding as working with your best friends to develop something great, then see your invention make an impact on someone’s life.