Tonian Irving: Advantages Of An Unconventional Career Path

Why A Life Lived Outside Design Can Make You A Better Designer

Tonian Irving is a Senior Producer at experience design agency HUSH. Championing the intersection of physical and digital spaces, her responsibilities range from client and team management to quality assurance for HUSH’s innovative projects. Her most recent collaborations include MIT Museum’s Lighter, Stronger, Faster: The Herreshoff Legacy and the experiential documentary, Life Underground. She is also a Founding Partner of Offshore Residency, an international program which takes artists on collaborative sailing journeys.

I started working in experiential design as the industry was just beginning to define itself. There were no rules, no best practices and few direct references to draw upon. We were making it up as we went along – pulling from our different personal and professional experiences and applying them in a design context. It had its challenges, but the spirit of invention was really exciting. That still holds true today with the multi-disciplinary work I do at HUSH. We’re constantly exploring new platforms and technologies and finding new ways to leverage them in design.

In a typical day, it’s just as likely that I’ll sit down with the Creative Director and work through the logic of a wireframe sequence as it is that I’ll develop a production plan with the Executive Producer or strategize on project positioning with a Partner. Juggling those responsibilities takes interpersonal skills and insights that draw from far more than my experience in design.

I’ve held several non-design jobs that have taught me valuable design lessons. About 10 years ago, I helped a friend open a small restaurant. I was the manager, the only waitress, and a frequent prep cook. I even turned the dining room into an art gallery with community dinners for local artists. It was an amazing experience, and I draw upon it often. Everything that happened outside of the kitchen was my responsibility. That role really taught me how much the design of an experience matters. In a restaurant, it begins as soon as a person walks in the door and lasts until they walk out. The food can be great, but if everything else is wrong, you’re going to fail.

Later, in my very first job doing experience development for museums, I remember being in a creative brainstorming session with a group of senior designers. We were thinking through some early concepts for an interactive exhibition aimed at teaching children and families about the basic concepts of physics. I suggested we put children in velcro suits and have them barrel down a runway, jump on a trampoline, and then “stick” to the wall.

Of course we didn’t actually do that, but the idea changed the trajectory of our conversation. Initially, I remember feeling embarrassed that I said something so ridiculous in front of all of these veteran designers. In retrospect, I think it’s a strength that I’m not constrained by ideas about what’s possible or appropriate. That willingness to challenge expectations tracks directly to my training and early work as an installation artist. In that work, I was creating objects and environments to alter impressions of everyday objects – like a quilted suit of armor positioned as if it were a baseball catcher’s uniform. In my work now, I take the same approach with data as a medium to convey and interpret insights and ideas.

In any creative field, you need the flexibility to move seamlessly between vastly different projects and ways of working. In more and more industries, appreciating people with diverse backgrounds is becoming the norm. David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is about this very idea and it’s been on the New York Times Best Sellers List for weeks.

The lesson for designers? The greatest advantage of an unconventional career path is that your design instincts and approach to challenges will be unexpected. With so few original voices, a unique perspective is incredibly valuable.