This month, AOW connects with product designer Mimi Robinson, founder of a multi-disciplinary design consultancy and studio committed to social and environmental responsibility. Mimi was one of those designers who first inspired me to get into this field back in 2004. Read more to learn about her approach to design, her creative process along with some lessons and tips she’s picked up along the way.
To start, please tell us a bit about how you first got into this field.
I started out working with Aid to Artisans. My first project was in Ghana. After that project I knew that was the path I wanted to take. That was back in 1995 and since then I have worked all over the world with many talented artisans and their hand-made traditions; from felt makers in Kyrgyzstan to small ceramic communities in Peru and Mexico. I studied fine art at RISD, which gave me a well-rounded approach to design.
I have always been fascinated by world cultures, so this work has been a dream career involving creativity, art, culture, and working with people. It has been a privilege to work with so many artists, and to be welcomed in to their creative process. I have learned so much because of the wide diversity of these projects.
All these experiences of working with artisans have influenced me, and as a designer. I have explored and experienced the power of craft, not only as an expression of culture, but also as a model of resourcefulness.
Can you tell us a little about your design process?
The first part of the process in my studio is proactive and design driven. I prepare new designs and send them ahead. The other part happens on-site and it is about stepping back, being receptive and flexible.
Before any project, I spend about two weeks working on product development and design, studying the cultural legacy of the country I will visit. I spend time assessing the market potential, costing, and pricing. I make sure it is viable for the artisan groups I am working with.
Once I am on-site, the emphasis shifts to listening and observing. As many designers know, making samples informs new designs. Although I will arrive with many design concepts, I remain open to the results of group collaboration. I create new sketches along the way and I carry watercolors with me to document colors, patterns and color schemes I observe. All of this feeds into the new collaborative ideas as they begin to take shape. Working in the field keeps me present to the unexpected creative solutions that often occur and can lead to great results.
I realize you have a passion and love for color. Can you tell us a little about the book you created and how this ties into your work with artisans?
The book is intended to be an invitation to sharpen our perceptions of color. I have always been interested in the “geography of color” and how different places have different colors. The idea that color is part of any cultural heritage influences the work I do with artisans.
Think about these places and the colors they invoke: Guatemala – tangerine walls, blue volcanoes letting out white poofs, and red-tiled roofs. It is a saturated and bright palette. Now consider Tokyo: an elegant temple with black and white shoji screens, meticulously raked rock gardens in many shades of neutral grays, white gravel, sand and moss green. It is a subdued palette.
I always carry my watercolors, and I love to make color sketches and paint palettes as we go. Color is a universal language and together with artisan groups we can explore new ways of seeing.
Click here for more info on the Local Color book.
What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
The outstanding projects are those in which we have been able to make the most impact through sustained product development and design over a long period of time. For the past three years I have been working in Fiji and Haiti, which are both island cultures with their own sets of challenges. We have made excellent progress over time in both places. Product development is a process that requires an investment of effort and funds.
I have also worked in Peru for many years, where I have had the opportunity to collaborate with many different artisans with a variety of materials. One of my favorite places to work has been in the Sacred Valley with communities of weavers who are deeply connected to the place, the land, the animals they tend, and to each other. Generations of knowledge have been handed down as an unbroken thread.
It is a culture that knows how to make things - remarkable creations of beauty. The people have a deep understanding of their natural resources, and they understand true meaning of sustainability. Keeping a sacred way of life and navigating the global economy requires a capacity for resilience. Products made in this way transmit the values of this cultural legacy. In the Sacred Valley when the young women make their first piece of weaving, they throw it into the river with the blessing: “May your weaving flow like the river.”
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned working within this field?
The most important lesson is that this work is about the relationships and the bonds we form through our shared goals.
Other important lessons:
- Create realistic expectations
- Get clear on goals
- Know the customer and involve them in the process
- Focus on quality
- Invest in product development and design - it has direct impact on increasing sales
- Link arms and create strategic partnerships
- Be innovative
- Invest in the power of photography to tell the stories
- Identify and tell the stories
- Be flexible and open to outcomes
- Have a realistic timeline for launching new products
- Communication is crucial every step of the way
When you first started, I imagine there were few people doing what you do. Now, there is an explosion of designers wanting to work in collaboration with artisans. What are your honest thoughts about this?
It is gratifying to see so many people interested in pursuing this work.
Quite a few years ago, I designed and implemented a project with college students called ‘Bridging Cultures through Design’. The students were connected with artisan communities. Some of those students have continued to work with these communities and now lead successful businesses.
What tips do you have for those who want to get into this field?
For people entering the field today, choose a place you would like to work and build relationships there over time. Develop long term planning and funding to sustain each project. Innovation is more important than it ever was in today’s competitive markets.
What are your favorite sites, IG accounts, or publications for industry info and inspiration?
There are amazing galleries on Instagram and they are very inspiring to see, however, for me, I need to make sure to keep it all in perspective. Sometimes I don’t like to look at IG because I’m afraid I will be influenced too much. It is good to know what the trends are but then we each need to develop our own unique touch.
What's next (re: projects) for the end of the year and in 2019?
I look forward to ongoing work in Haiti. Currently I am engaged in new product development with Sandilou Artisanat, funded by US AID. We are also collaborating with other Haitian textile producers with the goal of increasing sales and strengthening the textile industry.
Sandilou artfully transforms fabric with paint dyes and appliqué to create beautiful fashion pieces, including accessories and soft furnishings. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and painted free-style with paint, dyes and silkscreen. Lately we have been collaborating on a new collection inspired by loose watercolors and Caribbean culture – its rhythm, colors and joie de vivre.
In my Northern California studio, I continue to offer product development and design to a broad spectrum of US-based wholesalers and retailers for a variety of projects, including new ceramic collections produced in Turkey and embroidery from Kazakhstan.
Lastly, I look forward to my upcoming color and visual art workshops, which I am leading in several venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. We welcome all levels of experience in the workshops.
You can find more of Mimi’s work at: