In April of 2017, MIT STEAM hosted a talk by Jessie Kawata who works as a creative strategist and a lead designer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the main U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system. Jessie’s passion for science and design led her to JPL, where she became one of the pioneering forces of creative culture change. With a background in product design, Jessie has been able to spearhead the integration of design-thinking and human-centered design into the innovation of early space mission architecture. Since then, she has played a pivotal role in the inception of out-of-the-box mission concepts such as automatons on Venus and interplanetary cinematographic spacecraft. Jessie now runs an evolving team that works on creative projects including bio-inspired spacecraft, ethnoastronomy, robotic design strategy, and human-centered field research for Earth mission applications.
During her talk at MIT, Jessie shared many of her experiences working as a designer at JPL and the challenges she faced in conveying concepts of design-thinking to her engineering colleagues. Jessie actually started out in JPL’s graphic design team because that used to be the only category that JPL had related to design. Her first project was designing a hallway at JPL. Through researching spacecraft and mission engineering after hours, Jessie eventually found a place in mission formulation. There, Jessie now works to incorporate design-thinking as part of the mission conceptualization and system architecture process, showing that design-thinking is not just for communication.
Jessie’s advice to students who want to work at the intersection of design and engineering is to work hard and never give up in paving the way for yourself and others. Her career trajectory through JPL is proof that it is possible, though being one of the only designers at the center was difficult and sometimes lonely. When asked about her vision for the next ten years, Jessie said that she hoped to expand the design team at NASA JPL from one product designer (herself) to a team of designers who work collaboratively with engineers and scientists.
As part of Jessie’s visit to MIT, MIT STEAM arranged for Jessie to meet and tour labs and groups on campus that are also pushing the intersection of design and science, namely the MIT Media Lab, MIT Integrated Design and Management program (IDM), MIT D-Lab, MIT Space Systems Laboratory, and more. Through Jessie Kawata’s talk, MIT STEAM aimed to bring perspective from a unique sector where STEAM is growing, hopefully facilitating the creation of more STEAM opportunities in the future.
Inspired by a previous inclusive design workshop at RISD and Brown in Spring of 2015 with Microsoft Design, MIT STEAM decided to host an inclusive design workshop for the Boston and Cambridge community. Bringing together twenty-five undergraduate and graduate students from various majors, backgrounds, interests, and schools (MIT, Harvard, Boston University, and Berklee College of Music), the workshop was held on MIT campus in February 2017. The one-day workshop was facilitated by Hanna McLaughlin and Adi Azulay, current RISD graduate students and former employees of Microsoft’s Inclusive Design group.
The day started with breakfast and coffee at 9am and then the group delved straight into researching and understanding inclusive design in the context of everyday products and technologies. Equipped with the necessary background knowledge through videos and hands-on activities, students were then divided into small, interdisciplinary groups to come up with ideas for more inclusive technology. The ideas ranged from more personalized features in online education technology to more emotionally communicative accessories such as hats and watches. Many of the participants had never been exposed to inclusive design principles before and took away a new perspective to evaluate the products and technologies around them.