Creative Innovator Kelli Anderson on Inspiration, Adobe MAX and A Pop-Up Book

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Kelli Anderson is a designer, author, and all around creative innovator. She was also one of Adobe’s very first Creative Residents, and she’ll be speaking at Adobe MAX 2017 in Las Vegas, October 18-20. We talked to Kelli about her work, her MAX session, her unique and delightful book, This Book is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions as well as about the concept of designing for good.

Q: The design field is ever-evolving. How do you keep up with the changes and evolve as a designer? Do you find it necessary to continue learning and experimenting with the technology? What do you do to foster your creative growth?

A: As a ‘professional’ it is hard to admit this (but someone has to do it!): I make better work when I’m new to something. When I don’t completely know what I’m doing or what to expect out of the process, the work is often more successful than when I feel like I ‘have a handle on it’. Because of this, I’m eager to experiment with new technology and just see what happens. (Since I don’t know exactly what to expect, I waste no time thinking about strategy or motive and get straight to considerations internal to design itself. It forces me to respond to what’s in front of me, not my preconceived notions about what should be there.)

Q: How do you handle a creative slump? Any favorite places for inspiration?

A: I read kids’ science experiment books (seriously!). But I also like to escape media and just see what’s happening in the world. I love going to the art book fair, to the Arm (which is a community printspace down the street from me), and Chelsea galleries. Lately, political protests have felt very inspiring (the signs are way-good!) Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a slump is idea- or mood-related. Having physical places that make me feel inspired is a necessity in my life.

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Q: You’re an author as well as a designer, and your newest book is coming out in October. Can you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired it?

Yeah—so the new book is called This Book is a Planetarium and it contains a pop-up planetarium, a strummable musical instrument, a geometric drawing generator, a perpetual calendar, a message encrypter and decoder, and a speaker that amplifies sound.

I wanted to reduce familiar gadgets down to just paper—to show that a lot can be done with very little—but also: to demonstrate (rather than just “telling”) that the physical world is amazing in ways we totally take for granted. Because each pop-up works (despite exhibiting no apparent technology), the book enables an intimate, firsthand vantage point on invisible forces at play in our world. The book also concisely explains how paper can be structured to tap into the larger phenomena of light, time, soundwaves, and mathematics in order to make lo-fi magic.

It is kind of a science book for people who are better at feeling things out than they are at math.

Q: You’ll be speaking at the Adobe MAX conference in Las Vegas this October, and your session explores your very hands-on, analogue approach to your projects. Can you tell us more about your working style?

A: In design and in life (mostly) I really like it when things don’t behave as expected. Much more so than ‘being told’, these experiences form a very compelling intervention to our misconceptions about how the larger world works.

This is why I’ve been working on these paper tech design experiments [that the world totally doesn’t, like need-need] For most modern people, witnessing paper perform as functional tech is a revelation—since we tend to assume that all technology is magic that happens in very out-of-reach black boxes. Creating these pop-up books was the most effective way that I could think of to shake people into believing that the science behind the physical world is both magic and accessible to everyone.

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Q: The term ‘Design for Good’ is popping up a lot these days, and the idea of your work making a difference in the world is a goal for many designers. Do you think about how your design can impact certain issues for the better? Is that a goal you keep in mind?

Definitely. And I don’t think people have to quit their day job (or dump all of their clients and work for a non-profit) to do it. Designers make a ton of tiny decisions that shape the world in small but very fundamental ways. What is the default skin color used in your illustrations? When you say you’re making your app ‘accessible’, who do you have in mind? Right after the election last year, a group of SVA students and I sat down and made a list of all the ‘good’ design can do. We came up with this: empower by informing (do not hide information or mislead), correct/challenge misinformation, visualize the changes that you wish to see in the world (this gets them closer to ‘real’), depict how the world really works (rather than how it’s supposed to work), un-hide diversity, make civic engagement more inviting, make the little guy look bigger than the big guy, level the playing field for someone, show that science is real, uncover new information through applied research, and challenge ossified assumptions.