Ayla Newhouse

Ayla Newhouse

Ayla is a communication designer who believes that applying the practice of design to our emotions will transform our relationships and communities. Her recent projects, 1THING and Dating by Design, aim to bridge the gap between technology and emotion.

An interview with Brett Bergmann

What’s your background, where are you from?

I was born in Phoenix, Arizona but grew up in a small mountain town, Invermere, in the mountains of British Columbia. I lived there until I graduated from high school and went to university in Victoria, BC.

I was enrolled in general studies for my first year at the University of Victoria and thought about Journalism or Advanced English for second year. I hadn’t really heard about design as a profession until a friend and I we were doing a dorm room swap. I saw a TV show about house swaps where designers would go to two people’s houses and help them to redesign their rooms.

Trading Spaces?

Yes, we did Trading Spaces in our dorm rooms. And my friend said I was really good at it. She suggested that I apply to art school because she knew I wasn’t enjoying my time at university.

I went to the Emily Carr Institute website and I started reading about a program called Communication Design. I thought, ‘You can do a program that’s about art and design and business? Wow!’

Before then my creativity was considered a nice hobby. No one in Invermere really did design as a profession. The guidance counsellors at highschool never mentioned design to me. We didn’t have many art courses in high school. I don’t remember taking any.

What did people back home think when you transfered to this “out there” creative program?

My Nanna is a potter so there’s art in my family. My parents weren’t totally surprised. I struggled a lot as a teenager, being awkward and artsy in a town full of athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. I used to beg my parents to let me stay home from the ski hill, lock myself in my bedroom for a weekend and design board games.

Did you have any influential mentors?

Kelsey Blackwell, a graphic designer and my mentor at Emily Carr. She was the first person who showed me that there is a kind of design that involved words, that writing is a relevant way to approach design challenges. She always pushed me to pursue bigger and better things. She convinced me to apply for the grad school that I went to in Toronto.

What happened after you graduated?

I started a book publishing company, which obviously was a crazy idea when you look at the technology around self-publishing today. I was the art director and designer and had partners who took care of the business aspects.

I was excited about the opportunity to be part of a cultural movement of some sort. We were publishing art-related books, plays, poetry, short story anthologies. It was small-scale, but local and inspiring. It gave people an opportunity to publish when they may not have otherwise. I liked that aspect of it.

Ayla Newhouse Designer's Drawer
Photo credit: David "Kid With Camera" Waldman
How do you think most people see designers?

I think most people see designers as pixel pushers. I often get asked to just "make something look good." A lot of people think designers can create something in isolation — a logo here, a brochure there. I find that a comical notion because it doesn't acknowledge the interconnectivity of things. Designers think about content and meaning, as well as visuals.

When I call myself a designer, I’m not thinking about myself as a graphic designer or even an interaction designer. I think ‘designer’ deserves a much broader definition. I think of a designer as someone who can ask good questions, someone who really wants to understand a big picture perspective as well as the little details.

If you engage with a designer at the beginning of a process they can help you not only design the cover of a book, for instance, but also understand why you’re putting it out, and who it might go to, why it matters.

I think about things in systems. Design is the whole system of how to communicate who you are and the values of your organization. Of course, what I make always aims to be beautiful. But I find that when it works well, it also looks good.

What interests you about technology?

I think first I would have to tell you what technology is! I Googled it today.

So to define technology you turned to technology?

Yes I did! So here’s a definition I wrote down from Merriam-Webster.

Technology is “a capability given by the practical application of knowledge”.

The example they give is “a car’s fuel saving technology.” Or, I wrote, “a person’s emotional intelligence technology.” What are those tools and process that help you have a higher emotional intelligence?

Ayla Newhouse Pecha Kucha talk
Photo Credit: Richard Cerezo

I recently visited The School of Life in London, UK, which teaches classes on topics like, “How to Have Better Conversations” or “How to Make Love Last”. What they are developing at The School of Life is a new kind of curriculum which is actually a new technology.

I'm interested in how design and technology can improve human wellness. I think we get confused between "technology" and digital tools like smartphones, tablets, QR codes, etc. If someone develops a new technology, it’s as if they’ve developed a new raw material. It’s like a potter discovering a new type of clay. As a designer, I feel the same way. I think: “I wonder what I can make with that!”

What kind of tools do you use in your practice?

I use a computer with the Adobe Suite for design work, but I also use paper, pens, sticky notes, cameras and other recording devices.

For writing I use iA Writer which is amazing. So beautiful. Only one font. Hyper simple. They developed a function called Focus Mode to only show the sentence you’re currently writing. I like that. That’s a very useful technology because it actually changed the way I write.

Do any of your projects use the concept of limitations?

My iPhone and web app, 1THING , is a great example. Even in the name. The idea is to write only one thing, one piece of gratitude at a time, at least once a day, and share it as an offering to the broader community.

1THING is a gratitude journal at its core, but it’s also a sort of social network in that you can see what other people are thinking about, what they’re grateful for, and hopefully that inspires you to also be grateful for those things. Every day our artist in residence chooses one thing from the public feed of gratitude and draws it. And that’s cool because it creates a feedback loop.

Ayla Newhouse 1Thing app illustrations
Illustration credits include Mike Ellis, Flavia López and Sarah Cannon

I’m really interested in exploring how technology and human emotion come together. How can we make what we traditionally think of as technology be a bit more human?

Right now I’m writing a book, Dating by Design. The idea is to take the technologies of design — the processes, methodologies and tools — and apply them to relationships. I’m looking at how we can build better relationships by looking at them through a lens that’s not so emotional.

What do you gain by removing emotion?

Perspective. For example, I did a bunch of interviews when I first started working on this project and I talked to a guy who said he had spent 15,000 hours developing skills for his career. I asked him how long he’d spent developing his skills around relationships and he said, “Maybe 15.” That’s amazing! We don’t spend time thinking about relationships as a skill. We’re not asking the right questions. To have better relationships we need to design them more intentionally.

Would you consider designing relationships between people to be one of your life goals?

I think certainly helping people develop emotional intelligence is a big goal for me. Perhaps starting a school like The School of Life, that would be a major life accomplishment.

Ayla Newhouse 1Thing app
Touching someone else's gratitude post in 1THING triggers a blooming sun animation and leaves a fingerprint impression beside it.
How did you get into tech in general?

I did a post graduate degree in Toronto at the Institute without Boundaries in Interdisciplinary Design. From there I was offered a job at a design studio in Toronto called Normative Design. That’s where I learned about how to design for the web, because before that I had only been taught print design. I wound up working with a lot of developers and learning their language.

My boss at Normative Design, Matthew Milan, certainly taught me a ton about technology. He was the one who pushed me to pursue my own path when he could see that I was, as he put it, ‘dipping my toe in the water at the pool while everyone else was sitting on the deck chairs’. He was like, “I see what you’re doing; I was there once. I wanted to go swimming and I was scared to — but don’t worry, there’s water in the pool. Just do it!” He inspired me to pursue my passion project, 1THING, and make a leap of faith to quit my job.

How did you find working with developers?

I love working with developers, but at first I was terrified to learn all these new skills. My designer-dev relationships have been built on mutual respect for each others' craft. I like to hand over some of the creativity to a developer, and I like it when they involve me in the creativity of the code, too. It's really exciting to work with someone who can make my ideas into moving, living things.

Having worked with developers, did you notice a gender divide?

Yeah. There are definitely more men in development. Design is less poorly balanced. But I don’t really think about gender that much.

It's funny because growing up, I never thought there was a difference between me and the boys. But somehow in the last few years, living in Toronto, I find myself surrounded by women who are really fighting for a different kind of equality. I’ve had to think about gender and talk about it a lot more in the past couple of years. And that’s probably a good thing. I think these issues are so often just under the surface that they aren't visible and therefore fester or change dynamics in unseen, indescribable ways.

Do you feel groups like Women && Tech are helping or hurting?

That’s a very good question. I’m leaning toward maybe hurting. I almost feel that because we’re talking about it so much it’s making it more of an issue. Before, I didn’t feel like I had to think about gender issues.

I think what Women && Tech is doing is important because you’re publishing ideas and interviews. Looking at art history, the groups that are remembered are the ones that published and documented their work; that’s effective and important.

If you could change one thing about the role of women in tech?

That’s a hard question. Maybe there’s something more that women can offer that we’re not currently offering because we’re trying to fit in to what has already been established.

Who inspires you?

So many people! Alain de Botton , who started the School of Life; Neal Stephenson , who writes about technology of the future; Sophie Calle , who is a performance artist -- she’s an everything artist, actually; Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine for making epic inspiring music. And that she’s like 26. Whoa; Barbara Kruger , for making words amazing; Carl Sagan , for inspiring my love of the universe and thinking about things from that massive perspective.

In our last interview, Heather Payne asked, “What are you doing to change the world?”

Promoting the benefits of living a grateful life and being positive. And I’m trying to be a better person. I don’t think you can change the world without changing yourself. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the last ten years or so. Just trying to be better.

with love from the Women&&Tech team