The design industry, as it stands today, is at the nexus of change, innovation, and social transformation. Beyond aesthetics, design now carries the weight of societal betterment, with a growing emphasis on sustainability, inclusivity, and psychological well-being. Today’s designers are not just creators but thought leaders, influencing urban landscapes, interior spaces, and even our perceptions of distant celestial bodies.
Asmita Kerkar’s journey embodies this transformative shift in the world of design. Graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture from KLS Gogte Institute of Technology in India and later a Master of Science in Environmental Design (Spatial Experience) from the renowned Art Center College of Design, Asmita has consistently demonstrated her commitment to melding creativity with purpose. Her career has seen her wear multiple hats – from an intern learning the ropes in the serene landscapes of Goa to a junior architect in the heart of Belgaum, India. With experience spanning diverse roles, from spatial planning for food shelves at FFEN – Foundation for Essential Needs to curating workshops with Steelcase Inc.’s social innovation team, Asmita has showcased her adaptability and keen sense of design in various capacities.
But what sets Asmita apart is her unwavering commitment to societal betterment through design. Her projects, whether addressing hunger relief through trauma-informed design, advocating space equity in urban design, or raising awareness for the LGBTQ+ community, all resonate with a deep sense of purpose. Her design philosophy is marked by a drive to craft spaces that ignite empathy, nurture community engagement, and champion societal progress. These are not mere spaces but narratives, each echoing a story of transformation, inclusivity, and hope.
Given her myriad achievements and unique approach, we were fortunate to delve deeper into Asmita’s innovative mindset. In a candid interview, Asmita shared her insights when it comes to problem-solving and innovation, specifically shedding light on projects that stand as a testament to her groundbreaking approach.
Learn more about her story here.
Asmita, we are truly grateful that you gave us an opportunity to speak with you and discuss more about your work. To start, can you walk us through the inception and execution of your thesis project, Urban Design for Space Equity? What specific challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
My thesis project, “Street Respect,” commenced with a thorough exploration of its central objectives. It aimed to address issues of street harassment and safety in urban environments, engaging three primary audiences: perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. The initial phase required in-depth research to deeply understand the perspectives and needs of these groups. A key insight was the essential challenge of addressing bystander apathy, deterring perpetrators from harmful actions, and enabling victims to feel secure.
Several challenges surfaced during the project’s evolution. First, I needed to clarify why women were my primary target audience. Though the spatial toolkit emphasized women’s safety, it was vital to convey that the objective was to design for a specific group while benefiting the broader community. Another hurdle was moving beyond the traditional method of crafting closed or designated areas solely for women’s safety. Given that street harassment – a societal issue often downplayed or normalized – can lead to escalating offenses, it was crucial to transition from viewing these as “women’s issues” to seeing them as overarching societal concerns. Additionally, addressing the fear and avoidance linked to certain urban zones due to pervasive harassment was challenging. Conventional measures like “Women-only zones” or online platforms spotlighting assault sites, while well-intended, might inadvertently foster isolated and perilous zones.
In response, I sought to enlighten and empower individuals about empathy and healthy interactions. My project’s goal was to cultivate a more inclusive and secure community by rolling out a spatial system of toolkits rooted in a code of ethics. These toolkits, situated in urban settings, were crafted to prompt individuals to “Learn to Act” via visual urban cues. They also supported “Learning to Respect” through striking, attention-capturing settings activated when a woman sensed danger and sought assistance.
This innovative strategy was crafted to raise awareness and foster positive behaviors in addressing societal dilemmas. Fundamentally, “Street Respect” endeavors to shift from women’s liberation to human liberation, aiming to transform community norms, social interactions, values, customs, and institutions, ultimately elevating the community’s overall quality of life.
Your concept of “Spatial Design for Space – Life on Moon” is quite futuristic. What inspired you to delve into this area of design, and what innovative approaches did you employ?
My foray into “Spatial Design for Space – Life on the Moon” was driven by my strong belief in design’s ability to enhance well-being and craft transformative experiences. The adage “Every Design Has a Story” consistently informs my design approach. I’m dedicated to creating spaces that not only meet practical demands but also elicit emotional connections and foster positive transformation.
My design concept originated from the challenges astronauts encounter on the International Space Station (ISS). Observing their daily routines, I identified key concerns affecting their well-being, ranging from the scarcity of personal space and feelings of isolation to the lack of familiar surroundings. This led me to pinpoint specific challenges:
- Cluttered Environment: Astronauts frequently felt overwhelmed due to cramped spaces.
- Lighting Effects: Recognizing the psychological implications of lighting within limited spaces.
- Isolation: Addressing the desire for moments of solitude and introspection.
- Mindful Sleeping: Enhancing sleep quality and tapping into its therapeutic benefits.
- Absence of Home: Instilling a sense of comfort and familiarity.
- Physical Discomfort: Addressing ailments like back pain and skin issues induced by microgravity.
My design approach leaned heavily on spatial psychology, merging behavioral insights with spatial layouts. This culminated in the “Cocoon” – an inflatable pod enriched with therapeutic elements. The design prioritized two main areas: a relaxation space and a sleeping zone. Drawing inspiration from practices like Otonamaki and counting sheep for sleep induction, understanding techniques that champion mindful sleep and relaxation greatly influenced the Cocoon’s interior.
The Cocoon transcends basic functionality. Through nuanced alterations in light, sound, texture, and sight, it crafts therapeutic spaces tailored to astronauts’ varied emotional needs. These adjustments, inspired by astronauts’ stories and psychological research, transform the pod into a sanctuary attuned to their emotional shifts, prioritizing not just rest but comprehensive well-being. This innovative direction doesn’t solely enhance astronauts’ daily living; it offers a respite amid space’s challenges. The endeavor exemplifies my commitment to design solutions that deeply resonate with human experiences, even in the most exceptional settings.
Designing for hunger relief through trauma-informed design is both innovative and socially impactful. Could you share any roadblocks you encountered while implementing this design, and how you navigated them?
It brought forth unique challenges, especially when considering the emotional and psychological needs of those seeking assistance. I faced several roadblocks as well.
A primary challenge was the stigma tied to seeking food aid, which could evoke feelings of shame. To counter this, I aimed to create warm, inviting spaces that exuded dignity and respect. Encouraging open communication and involving the community was instrumental in breaking down these emotional walls. Since many individuals seeking assistance might have undergone trauma, it was vital for the design not to evoke those traumatic memories. I was meticulous in selecting calming colors, lighting, and layouts that wouldn’t act as triggers. This called for thorough research and heightened sensitivity. With food shelves often constrained by budgets, executing expansive design modifications was a challenge. I responded by seeking cost-effective solutions, such as maximizing natural light, prioritizing essential equipment within budget constraints, and creatively repurposing existing spaces and tools.
By navigating these challenges with teamwork, cultural awareness, and a robust grasp of trauma-informed principles, the designed food shelves became more than just functional. They stood as socially impactful entities, offering tangible assistance while simultaneously tending to the emotional wellness of those they served.
Your portfolio also mentions co-designing toolkits for food rescue. What was the most innovative part of this project, and how did it require you to think outside the box?
The standout innovation in the “Fresh Food First” project I’m designing with – FFENFoundation for Essential Needs stems from our commitment to co-designing toolkits with genuine community engagement.
This called for several unconventional approaches:
- Empathetic Research Methods: By conducting 1:1 interviews and leveraging interactive polls on platforms like Mentimeter, we delved deeply into the challenges faced by food shelves. Engaging directly with stakeholders enriched our understanding in ways that conventional research might overlook.
- Collaborative Concept Development: We went beyond mere data collection; we included the community in the ideation phase. Through focus groups, we presented our preliminary concepts and invited participants to contribute their perspectives. This participatory method ensured the toolkits weren’t external impositions but were genuinely aligned with the desires and requirements of the end users.
- Flexible Toolkit Design: Recognizing the varied needs of different food shelves, our project sought to uncover the multiple manifestations of these resources and toolkits. By accommodating diverse options – be it digital resources, tangible toolkits, or workshops – we made certain our solutions were versatile and tailored to each food shelf’s unique situation.
By transcending standard research and design methodologies and deeply involving the community, “Fresh Food First” is poised to offer innovative, customized, and user-focused toolkits. These will not only mark a significant advancement in food rescue but also provide a robust support framework for food shelves.
Your Volume Zero competition entry focused on creating a library for the LGBTQ community. What unique design elements did you incorporate to make the space both inclusive and informative?
In conceptualizing the LGBTQ+ library for Chaka Gopalpur in India we integrated several distinctive design elements to ensure both inclusivity and informativeness. The spaces we crafted include the following:
- Mindfulness Nook: Recognizing mental health’s significance, the library features a dedicated space with Internet access and screens for liaising with certified counselors. This nook provides a secure environment for self-reflection and therapy, nurturing emotional wellness for community members.
- Folklore Forum: To educate and enhance awareness, a dynamic area was fashioned. It boasts an open theater layout for educational plays and folklore showcases. A separate section with digital tools connects users with activists, offering crucial insights and techniques for managing stress.
- Inspiration Hub: This organic enclave functions as an epicenter for intellectual expansion. Furnished with cozy seating, it offers access to contemporary books, fresh insights, and information about urban initiatives. By presenting resources on varied identities and histories, this hub encourages understanding and compassion among patrons.
- Makers Space: Recognizing creativity’s therapeutic value, we integrated a Makers Space. This zone supplies resources for arts and crafts endeavors, facilitating anxiety relief, poetic creation, and emotional articulation. By championing self-therapy via artistic expression, the library backs emotional recuperation.
- Whispering Corner: A standout feature, the Whispering Corner is an anonymous storytelling phone booth situated within a historic brick construction. Here, visitors can relay their personal tales and experiences, fostering understanding and bonding through shared narratives.
By weaving in these components, the library transforms into a versatile venue that addresses the emotional, educational, and inventive requisites of the LGBTQ+ populace. Each segment is meticulously crafted to offer not merely information but also a profound sense of belonging, recognition, and empowerment. The design ensures that the space transcends being merely a book repository, evolving into a lively, participatory nexus that champions inclusivity, comprehension, and individual advancement within the community.
How do you approach problem-solving in projects that have constraints, whether they be budgetary, spatial, or otherwise? Could you provide an example from your work experience?
When navigating constraints, whether they’re budgetary, spatial, or other, my strategy is anchored in clear communication, pragmatism, and teamwork. Faced with client reservations regarding a design proposal, I engage in candid conversations, highlighting the practical elements and advantages of the recommended concepts. I’m convinced that open communication not only resolves concerns but also nurtures trust, which is key to a fruitful client-designer rapport. As a fresh graduate designing a dental clinic in India, I was initially reticent about championing my suggestions. However, after discussing with the client the practicality of choosing colored wall tiles over traditional white tiles, we built a positive relationship.
In addressing budgetary limits, I employ a thoughtful approach. Instead of perceiving constraints as hindrances, I view them as catalysts for inventive solutions. I prioritize smaller, impactful changes that achieve significant outcomes within the set budget. I also advocate for repurposing elements to maximize their value and reduce waste, thus optimizing the budget effectively. When redesigning a hair salon with limited funds, I sought imaginative material solutions. For instance, we used bamboo and ropes for partition walls, sidestepping the costlier plywood cladding.
Collaboration remains central to my problem-solving methodology. I’m of the view that a team’s collective insights outshine individual contributions. By engaging stakeholders, clients, and end-users in the design journey, I obtain a plethora of viewpoints. Thorough research and sharing these insights with end-users ensure the design matches their needs and aspirations, culminating in a solution that is not only practical but resonant. The “Fresh Food First” initiative stands as a testament to this collaborative ethos, where diverse insights from food shelf leaders and volunteers collectively shaped a robust solution.
In your opinion, what is the most innovative project you’ve undertaken so far, and why? What did you learn from it that you’ve applied to other projects?
The most innovative project I’ve embarked upon is Fable, a narrative-driven dining experience that pushes beyond the conventions of traditional dining. Fable tells a compelling story about the displacement of people and homes, drawing specific inspiration from the history of Bunker Hill.
What sets Fable apart is its immersive storytelling that intertwines history, empathy, and the culinary arts. It elevates a meal into an emotive and educational odyssey, captivating diners on both sensory and intellectual planes. Through the adept melding of historical narratives, multimedia projections, and culinary creativity, Fable crafts a singular experience that engenders empathy and understanding among its guests. The endeavor transcends typical dining, promoting introspective discussions and making it a trailblazing feat in experiential gastronomy.
From the Fable initiative, I grasped the transformative might of storytelling and immersive engagements. Delving into the intricacies of human emotions and historical context, I was able to weave a narrative that profoundly resonates with its audience. The essence of crafting spaces that stimulate reflection, encourage dialogue, and stir emotions became clear.
This groundbreaking venture underscored the merits of interdisciplinary teamwork, wherein design, history, gastronomy, and technology merge to sculpt something truly unparalleled. This comprehensive creative perspective has since evolved into a foundational tenet of my design ethos. Now, I approach each project with a multifaceted lens, aiming to harmoniously fuse diverse components to arouse emotions, narrate tales, and ignite meaningful dialogues.
Fable illuminated for me that innovation isn’t solely rooted in technological advancements or design complexities but in the harmonious amalgamation of varied facets, producing an experience that surpasses the norm and etches a lasting impression. Such a methodology has deeply informed my ensuing projects, guiding me toward fashioning immersive, emotionally charged environments that enlighten, edify, and enthuse.
Lastly, can you discuss a time when your initial solution to a design problem was not effective and how you iterated to find a more successful approach?
In a particular project, a challenge emerged when I proposed a novel approach to the layout of a food shelf. The traditional grid layout, familiar to the food shelf leaders, was at odds with my suggestion of diagonal arrangements in a 2D plan. Given the departure from the norm, the food shelf leader’s reluctance to adopt this innovative design was expected. It was crucial to bridge the gap between their comfort with tradition and the prospective benefits of the new layout.
Initially, I acknowledged the food shelf leader’s reservations empathetically, recognizing that any shift from the familiar can be daunting, especially when it disrupts established practices. To aid understanding, I crafted a tangible visual – a sketch model depicting both the conventional grid layout and the proposed diagonal scheme. This tactile representation allowed the food shelf leader to visually and physically grasp the concepts, aiding their understanding.
In a comprehensive conversation, I underscored the merits of the diagonal layout, particularly its potential to enhance shopper flow and provide a more spacious and navigable space. I also discussed the potential limitations of both layouts, ensuring a transparent and comprehensive dialogue about the choices at hand. I encouraged a collaborative spirit, inviting the food shelf leader’s insights. Together, we tackled concerns and contemplated possible tweaks that would harmonize the innovative approach with their functional requirements. Through this dynamic blend of visual elucidation, open conversation, and joint problem-solving, we came up with a solution that adeptly blended the diagonal design’s benefits with the food shelf leader’s concerns.
This endeavor underscored the value of lucid communication and the efficacy of tangible visual tools during design dialogues. By championing collaboration, respecting stakeholder views, and transparently navigating design decisions, I transformed initial reluctance into wholehearted endorsement, striking a judicious balance between innovation and feasibility.