At NASA’s historic Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jessie Kawata has forged a unique path for herself through her love of art and science. Convinced that the two are intertwined, she has applied design thinking to planning research missions, building spacecraft, and telling more compelling stories about why science matters.
You grew up in LA. What made you stay here?
I think I stayed here because of JPL. [Laughs]
I grew up around East LA and my family is Japanese-American. I'm three-fourths Japanese and grew up hanging around Little Tokyo.
What I love about LA is the availability of culture, food, and museums, plus it's near the ocean. I was very lucky because I went to an elementary school that used to take us on ships.
What do you mean?
They’d take us on sailing adventures and also on these floating laboratories. My parents saved up to send me to science field trips at this school because they knew that I just loved the ocean.
What are “floating laboratories?”
Boats with lots of science instruments and marine biologists. It was basically a ploy to get kids out of their classrooms. [Laughs] But that was a trigger for me and why I began to love science.
So your family didn’t have a scientific background?
No, not at all. My parents are more artistic. I grew up liking art because I was really good at it. I got really into science when I was in junior high, but I couldn't write the essays as well as my classmates. So, I would ask my teacher if I could watercolor the charts and diagrams. [Laughs]
I always loved science, but for some reason, it just never really occurred to me to go down that path and I ended up doing design.
What made you pursue design?
I decided to do it back in high school, even though I didn't really know what design was. I knew what art was, but I investigated the field of design myself. I was the one who put the career book from the ArtCenter College of Design in my high-school library.
I wanted to go to ArtCenter since I was 12 years old. I went to a different college first, because I knew that it's so hard to get into ArtCenter. I really needed to figure out exactly what major I wanted to do because it's not like a regular university where you take general education first. So first I went to Pasadena City College and then thought, “Well I really like illustration,” because that's what I grew up knowing.
How long were you at PCC?
I was there for three and a half years and then transferred to ArtCenter. I transferred in as an illustration major and then about halfway through the curriculum, I decided to switch to product design.
There were a few reasons for making the switch. I was more interested in creating 3D objects, especially for the purpose of children’s educational tools and toys. I started taking rapid-prototyping classes and I met a lot of product designers through that. However, the real turning point for me was designing for sustainability.
At school, I was co-president of a student-led sustainability organization called EcoCouncil. Most of the people in that club were product designers and I learned the importance of using product design to create eco-friendly objects in people’s everyday lives.
Then I went to INSEAD, a business school in France, as part of an exchange program with ArtCenter. That experience opened my world in terms of understanding a designer's place in business. It made me realize that I'd been living in a bubble. Not everyone knew and understood the true value of art and design. Afterwards, I felt empowered to figure out a way to create change. That was also a turning point.
How did you get your start at JPL?
Ironically I applied for a position way outside of what I studied in school. I was put into JPL’s graphic design category because that was the only category that JPL had for any type of design. There has always been graphic designers at NASA, creating institutional and outreach print items. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing in my career, but at that point I would do anything to work for NASA. My first project was more of an art project for a hallway. It was a lot of fun, but I had a completely different vision for product design’s purpose at JPL. I started to do heavy research on spacecraft and mission engineering after hours. I was trying to find a functional need for my expertise within the foundation of what JPL does. That’s when I discovered mission formulation.
What do you do there?
At the core, I’m trying to create a new creative culture and grow strategic design within the JPL’s mission lifecycle. I hope to start projects so that NASA can see design as an integral part of innovation, not just communication.
In the beginning, I was compelled to figure out how NASA engineers and scientists create their missions and their spacecraft. I started working in this area of a mission lifecycle called mission formulation. In this part of the lifecycle, engineers and scientists in the A-Team would rapidly brainstorm the architecture of mission concepts. Mission architecture is the system that connects elements of science to elements of aerospace engineering. For example, an engineer might have a robot that would be useful to study asteroids, but may not have the right background to know what useful science we could achieve. Or vice versa, a scientist might want to study something on Venus, but may not know what type of spacecraft could achieve that science. The JPL A-Team helps to build these mission architectures.
I started to realize that this process is like designing and developing a product. The lifecycle of the mission is just like the manufacturing lifecycle of an appliance. In a mission lifecycle there is also a progressive sequence of steps with systemic inputs and outputs that fluctuate and mature.
Now, because the engineers are starting to see the similarities, they are very interested in leveraging design-thinking.
That's super interesting. So your role has really been to bring forward design-thinking into the process of how NASA creates its missions and create a system that helps generate ideas.
Do you think that you are able to create more of these blue-sky ideas because you’re not a scientist?
It’s always been a collaborative experience where I use design-thinking with engineers who know what’s feasible. We use design-thinking methodologies such as iteration, prototyping, strategic roadmapping, and storyboarding. But what's actually having the most impact in mission formulation is strategic storytelling. What I’m finding is that they need to have a really good, strategic story at the very beginning of their mission concept, because they need to sell why their science is compelling. You need to connect—it's not just communication, it's using storytelling to find uncertainty and gaps within a mission proposal. When you're trying to sell a mission to people who are not necessarily the same type of scientist or engineer that you are, you need to tell them why this is important.
So, identifying user needs and then demonstrating how you’d meet those needs?
Yes, exactly. We do user needs assessments for our missions or science applications, always trying to connect it back to humanity. For example, studying the processes of a volcano is relevant to society because tens of millions of people live at the base of the volcano. Providing data on these processes could help organizations be better prepared when an eruption is about to happen. Product designers can help find those connections.
In the past, I assume scientists have just said, "There's this cloud we're really interested in studying, so give us money."
Yes. Sometimes it is hard to sell why science is so compelling to the general public. My team helps to sell the sense of urgency of the mission.
Are all of these assignments self-initiated by JPL? How do you decide to study clouds versus volcanoes?
That's a really good question. NASA has decadal surveys put together by the National Science Foundation.
Yes, they are available online to the public. Scientists will write white papers and submit them to the National Science Foundation. Then the NSF will review the papers to come up with a strategy for the next decade.
This is quite a process.
It is. Then NASA will look at that book as goals that they need to meet. That scopes down what NASA needs to propose. There are other ways to scope down the type of mission such as the rate at which technology is being developed, societal implications, and what private or commercial space companies are doing. These qualitative metrics aren’t necessarily available in these surveys, but design-thinking can help with that research.
How do you see your role and where you want to go in the future?
I’m really striving to bring more designers to NASA. I think that JPL is at the brink of truly understanding the value of design for the purpose of functionality, not just form. It's definitely a hard road because there are a lot of filters that one has to go through in order to change a culture. You really have to just start from scratch and help to bring awareness. Currently, I’m studying a little bit of anthropology right now. I’m interested in learning how new cultures or languages have adapted and been accepted into ancient civilizations. I believe that there might be insight into how designers with their own creative language can integrate into strict engineering and heritage-driven cultures like NASA.
With all that is happening in the world right now, it seems as if the word “empathy” has come up a lot. Empathy is all about putting yourself in someone else's shoes and understanding what their real purpose and needs are. Design-thinking gives you the tools to do that. It's being able to connect an object, a system, or a service to a person. That's what NASA needs. I want to support NASA’s growing need for user experience, whether it has to do with missions, robots, astronauts, or employees themselves.
As someone who works in the design industry, I didn't know that people could do this kind of work at a place like NASA. How might people find out about this kind of stuff?
Hopefully in the near future, there will be more opportunities for designers at NASA. People don’t necessarily see the availability of this particular job out here in the industry because I tailor-made it specifically to the needs of JPL and it’s sort of the first of its kind. With that said, NASA is not the only science and technology institution that needs design support. There are lots of science and tech companies that need as much design help. They may not offer exactly what a designer wants at first, but there is always opportunity to make creative culture change and create your own opportunities once you get in.
That is a really great piece of advice.
I’ve also talked to a lot of young women and they always ask, "How do I get to do what you do?" I usually tell them that they should never give up. If women want to work in an industry in which you have to break through a lot of barriers, they’ll hear “no” all the time before hearing a “yes.” You can’t take it personally or else who will be there to help pave the path for others to follow in the future?
What do you hope for yourself in the next ten years?
Wherever I may be in the next ten years, I want to be able to still push the intersection of design and science. I have this natural curiosity to figure out how to help the ocean. That was my first love. Maybe I’ll explore the depths of the ocean next.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©