Canadian-born designer, Meagan Durlak, tells us about the importance of being agile in life and how that's lead her to where she is today. Now living in New York City, Meagan uses design to solve complex problems and help communities. When she's not busy impacting society she can be found making her beautifully hand-crafted jewelry.
How did you get to where you are today?
I got to where I am today through a combination of a few things. Some personal things happened and I was willing to be agile and open with my life ... to being able to make pivots and transitions in my life. Then I also think a degree of creative restlessness got me here as well.
So, three years ago I was living in Toronto and two years prior to that I had a major loss in my life, I lost my father. That put a lot of things in perspective. I was going down a really traditional graphic design path. I kind of made it a point to work in very different types of places, I worked for a non profit innovation center and I did some work for the government. But I was always feeling really restless with that. So that loss in my life made me more willing to take chances and risks.
I went back to school and did the Transdisciplinary Design Program at Parsons. It’s a really great program, probably the best thing I’ve done in a really long time, and the best decision I’ve made in my life.
The program is made up of 18-20 designers, all from very different backgrounds, you have architects, business people, graphic designers ... You’re essentially coming together as a group to figure out how you can reimagine the design process and how you can use the process to solve complex problems.
Coming to New York was based on school and staying here is the next step of my career.
I got here through a crazy combination of life events and I was just willing to be open to it and take some chances.
Was New York ever on your radar before that?
No, it totally just happened. When I was first looking at schools and programs I wished it was somewhere outside of Toronto but I never really had that draw to the busyness of New York. It’s something that has always really scared me. But being here and going through the program in New York has been totally phenomenal.
How long was the program?
The program was two years. I graduated in May.
Were you able to get a job after it?
That’s kind of the coolest part about it. Everyone who comes out of the program goes on totally different paths. It’s designed in such a way that you pitch it how you want it to be because it is a bit of a bizarre sounding program.
I have a friend who’s working for the United Nations now and another friend who is working for a tech innovation company. It really is just whatever you make of it. It’s totally employable, it’s sort of the next step of this “design thinking” trend.
So it’s not so much practical but more of a way of thinking?
Totally. All the classes are grounded with the client so you’re doing real client work.
When I graduated from undergrad I made a distinct decision in my life to try to avoid the traditional advertising path. I think doing that you have to be comfortable with people not really having any sense of what you do. Being a graphic designer for a lot of people is such a weird and ambiguous thing so just being a “designer”, whatever that means, became even crazier.
There’s a degree of being comfortable with not knowing what’s ahead. If that’s the headspace you can get into then it’s just so much fun. It’s two years of experimenting and figuring out a new way to approach a practice.
How did you hear about the program?
The director of the program, Jamer Hunt, wrote an article about designing at scale and designing for systems. It was just so fascinating to me so I looked up his name and he had just started the program. So I was only there the third year it had been running.
What did you do when you graduated?
I did nothing for a little while and it was so great [laughs]. I got stuck in Canada for a bit because of my visa situation but I pretty much had a job lined up when I graduated. I just started at the end of August so I took the summer off and spent some time with my family, hung out with my partner, Seb, did some freelance design for a little boutique called ‘Kiss Me I’m Polish’.
Where in Canada are you from?
I was born and raised in Toronto, and Concordia University brought me to Montreal for school. Then I moved back to Toronto for about 4-5 years because of some family stuff and then I came here.
Do you miss it?
I miss my family pretty profoundly. I have a twin sister and and older brother and we’re all super close. They’re both very creative people.
Toronto is a really great city. I do miss it, I hate what’s going on with the political scene right now with the whole Rob Ford thing. It doesn’t feel like the same city I grew up in.
What does your twin sister do?
She just finished her MFA in experimental documentary media. She made these really great storytelling videos called “We tell ourselves stories” of people who were starting out their creative careers. She’s a storyteller looking for the funding to be able to make more videos.
Is it weird being away from her?
It’s awful. It’s terrible and great at the same time because when I lived in Toronto we spent so much time together. It’s tough not having her around.
My big brother runs his own publishing company and music label and is probably the hardest worker I know.
Wow! Creative family!
It’s really great. They’re very inspiring people.
Were your parents very creative and encouraged you all down this path?
I don’t really know. My parents are definitely both creative but they didn’t necessarily have creative careers but they’re creative in the way that they live. They were always really open-minded to whatever we wanted to be and do. So I think being an artist wasn’t frowned upon in my family. They definitely live the artistic lifestyle which is fantastic and so inspiring to me.
My dad was a big inspiration in my life, he inspired me to think about how design could have more of a social impact.
What was it like coming to New York?
Crazy. I think it was crazier to think about leaving my family. Somebody described New York before I came in a way that I really love and I think today is very true. She’s into yoga and she said “Yoga in Toronto is one thing but when you come here, something like yoga, is somebody’s life”. There are people here that live and breathe that. There’s a community for everything here. Every hobby or passion that a person can have is so much more saturated here and there’s so much more access to a community around it.
Hearing that from her when I moved to New York was really inspiring and exciting and it’s really lived up to what I thought.
Would you have moved here if you hadn’t got into the course?
No, I don’t think so.
Are you glad you did?
How long have you been with Seb?
Six and a half years. He’s Canadian, we met at Concordia. If I had it my way I probably wouldn’t live in New York anymore at this point, but Seb’s made so many sacrifices for me and moved here for me so I think it’s important for me to stay here for him. He wants to be here and has a great job.
Where would you be if it wasn’t here?
I’m a huge hiking fiend and I need nature so bad and I feel there’s not a lot of it here. It’s hard to escape when you’re working. If I had it my way I think I’d live in California. I think he would too, I just don’t think we’re there yet. I need more mountains in my life.
What is the job that you are doing now?
I am a design lead or senior consultant at a place called Doblin. Doblin is an innovation design consultancy. Essentially they work in a very tangible strategy space of problem solving. As opposed to coming out with “design a website”, it’s more what is the solution that is going to impact this problem. We are what we call “phase zero”. We start at the very very beginning.
What sort of problems are you dealing with?
It’s really open. So, it might be like a healthcare company that’s looking at how they can better engage their customers or this one company wants to improve their workplace environment ... how can they improve the way people work. It’s totally open.
Are you executing anything or purely coming up with the concept?
It really depends. Sometimes we follow through all the way to the end and sometimes we end with the strategies and concepts. The hardest part about it is that you don’t get to see what you do unfold in the real world for three to four years.
How does that work? Do you worry in three years it won’t be relevant anymore?
Totally. That’s a really good point. The solutions that you come up with are intended to be so conceptual but also open-ended. It’s more like “here’s the picture of what you can have if you think about doing something like this”. It’s like here are the things you need to be focussing on.
The project I’m on right now is supposed to be very forward thinking, 10-15 years in the future. So you’re looking at the landscape of the problem now and thinking about what will change.
How do you even begin to think about 10-15 years in the future?
In our case, we’re dealing with the workplace so we think about the demographic that is entering the workplace and the things that are different. Take Millennials for example, are Millennials working differently to Gen-X or Gen-Y? If you saturate that with 15 years then what’s the model going to look like? It’s like how we’ve gone from 9-5 workplaces to people being more flexible and working from home and now back to the office.
Do you have a pretty standard schedule?
No, there’s a lot of traveling. I’m lucky because this project is staffed in New York so I don’t have to travel that much, but our clients are all over the place. I was going to Chicago for a while and we did some user research in San Francisco and Texas.
It’s really more about the user centric side of design, meeting with people and hearing their stories and trying to attach that to the solutions that you’re making.
What about actual graphic design?
That’s still part of my job. As a design lead we do what’s called “visualizations” so you take a strategy or user journey and visualize that journey for clients so they can understand what that could look like.
I also do freelance graphic design work. I somehow ended up in the social entrepreneurship sphere in Toronto so I get contacted a lot to do branding work in that area.
And you also design jewelry!
I also design jewelry. That is really random, it started when I was a student more than a year ago. I was wearing this necklace that people used to always compliment and I realized it was made of polymer clay ... like bakeable clay. I thought “I’m really broke and I need an idea for holiday gifts” so I got into making them and got totally addicted to it. Because my work was so intangible and so strategy heavy I just needed to make something with my hands. I can’t just sit and watch a movie, I have to be doing something while I’m doing it. Not in an ADD way, I just like to make it, it feels good. So I’ve been doing it obsessively for about a year and a half now.
How did you come up with the name Made by Okru?
I totally made it up [laughs]. I made this fantastic list of words that I liked. It was a combination of okra and I can’t remember the other word. I just made a list of words and started playing around until I came up with Okru. My friend says it has a nice “mouth feel”.
How much time do you spend doing it?
My job is pretty full time so when I have the time I spend every evening I’m at home doing Okru. On a good week I’ll probably spend 10-15 hours doing it. Usually on the weekend during the day I’ll take all the product photos and I launch new stuff on Mondays.
I have a bucket of necklaces and I’m slowly creating a database of all of them. Although I was told by Seb that I have to stop making them until I sell some more [laughs].
Are you promoting them?
Yeah, Instagram is a huge help for that and I’ve done a few wholesale orders. There are some potential things on the horizon.
My “work” work at Doblin is what I do for other people, coming up with ideas that may impact how someone else lives their life and Okru has really become more for me. The way it works is that I do it so each piece is one of a kind because it’s just so much fun to do. The idea of doing it repetitively would be no fun for me.
What’s your favorite thing about New York?
I feel like it’s the stupidest thing to say and I almost don’t want to say it, but the food in New York is amazing. People ask “what’s your favorite restaurant?”, honestly I don’t really have one because I never regularly go to just one. You can go to a different one every night and they’re always fantastic.
What do you think of when you think of New York?
I think of Brooklyn. I love it here and I love having the polar lifestyle of working in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and then coming home to this.
See more of Meagan's beautiful necklaces at www.madebyokru.com