Radhika Agarwal

Radhika Agarwal

Radhika Agarwal

May 27, 2024

May 27, 2024

May 27, 2024

What does an approach of "regrounding" look like in design?

What does an approach of "regrounding" look like in design?

Join Radhika, the founder of Reground Design, a practice focused on developing implementable solutions to civic challenges in healthcare, education, human migration and community resilience.

Join Radhika, the founder of Reground Design, a practice focused on developing implementable solutions to civic challenges in healthcare, education, human migration and community resilience.

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Episode Transcript

Radhika Agarwal 0:00

I found that the solution is often not a new thing. It really is kind of removing friction that innovation has created that separates humans from the thing that they're actually that they know how to do well.

Liz Gerber (host) 0:23

Welcome to the Technical Difficulties podcast. I'm Liz Gerber and a design professor at Northwestern.

Lauren Lin (host) 0:28

And I'm Lauren Lin, and I'm a student who has also worked in the design industry. Each week we speak with women leaders in design and technology.

Liz Gerber (host) 0:36

Today, we are so excited to welcome Radhika Agarwal. Radhika is the founder of Reground Design, a practice focused on developing implementable solutions to civic challenges in healthcare, education, human migration and community resilience. Radhika is also a filmmaker and a visiting faculty member at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. Having grown up in Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, her approach is influenced by strong cultural awareness, building partnerships that encourage collaboration and that leverage existing infrastructure. We can't wait to hear from Radhika Thank you, Radhika, for joining us today.

Radhika Agarwal 1:13

Thank you for having me.

Lauren Lin (host) 1:14

Okay, so we're gonna get into some quick questions. We just want you know, hot takes, what's on the top of your mind. So first, what's your favorite way to start your morning?

Radhika Agarwal 1:25

Oh, favorite to start my morning. So I'm a big fan of like going outside and going for a walk before I look at anything digitally, or talk to someone that's not in person. So yeah, I need to have at least like three human to human conversations. I also like to most of what I read is poetry. And so what I try to do as well, is read a short poem to start the day, because I feel like that means that before I get into the nitty gritty of everything, I can kind of start my day with a broader thought just to kind of reflect on and just yeah, you know, help me balance that like my new show with a picture. And I'm also a music buff. So I also tend to listen to a couple new albums a week, but I tried to let at least one album play a new album, I have listened to play in the background. So yeah, I'm a morning person. I like to have like an hour to myself when I wake up before I like air quotes do anything.

Liz Gerber (host) 2:26

Thank you, Radhika, for that, that response? We were really excited by your diverse experience in everything from robotics, to biology to music. And so we wanted to ask the question of what was your first? I should be a designer, I'm a designer moment, in the midst of those diverse experiences, or did you have this moment? Maybe you didn't?

Radhika Agarwal 2:50

I mean, I have like a kind of Yes. And sort of answer to that. So I would say, one, I don't know, if I had a like, oh, wow, I'm a designer now, or just in weird hindsight, when I reflect on the decisions I made being like, Whoa, there are so many ways I was actually implementing design for a long time. And the more kind of experiences I had, the more environments I was having, I think I actually, actually over time, just realized that I had been in designer for a long time in different ways. So I don't think it was like, here's the moment this is my calling, this is what I want to do, it was more just like, and you know, I think that connects to, you know, maybe a deeper dive eventually into like, how I think about design, which is really that I don't actually think it's like, you know, this fortified separate discipline, like my engineering degree was, and I think that's actually really beautiful, I think it's, you know, not something that you get exposed to, in my opinion, and then decide, like, this will be my whole life, this is how I will define myself, but it's a discipline, a way of thinking, a way of interacting, that actually has the potential to show up in a lot of different ways. And it's something you can cultivate, and apply, and grow, but isn't like a thing that happens, and then that's what you are, in my opinion. But I will say, you know, if I were to point to specific moments that I think I was able to sort of see the power of design and say, you know, this is really something I want to kind of like get deeper into, you know, I would say like one of those moments was when I was in Delhi, building neoreef which is a neonatal resuscitator. And sort of I joined that company when we were a really tiny team and really kind of took that device all the way from sort of plumbing to to global market release, and sort of everything that entails in between that included living in a factory for a little bit. But, you know, that is all to say that I think with that I really realized the power of, of what a lot of people were saying is designed because, you know, in building out that hardcore medical device, what really drove that innovation It wasn't like, oh, there's this medical thing we need to make or you know, there's this like hardcore engineering technology that needs to get implemented, it was saying that the thing that people currently use is causing people to have low confidence, because it's kind of hard to operate, it's hard to use. So by actually then just changing the form factor so that this felt much easier to use, so that people felt more confident using it, you actually had huge returns and sort of increased efficacy of breath delivery, huge returns and saying, there's so many less babies dying, because more people now feel comfortable to do this, at time of birth. So that was very much one of those moments where I'm like, Oh, if you really focus on how people are using something, their emotional state when they're using something or motivation for doing that, and attaching that to what are the kinds of outcomes, air quotes for success that that we're really trying to achieve? That's really where I see the power of design. And, you know, that was an aha moment for me. And I think that also informed sort of the way I think about design, which might be kind of slightly different than maybe how others think about it.

Lauren Lin (host) 6:11

Yeah, and on that, I'm curious, because you've worked I'm where you're talking to, and we saw each other several months ago, you had been at like Frog Design, and McKenzie design and these more traditional design spaces? And how do you feel like that concept of design contrasted? You know, this other more like fluid, less defined the concept of design?

Radhika Agarwal 6:35

So I mean, I would say, you know, first of all, I'm really grateful that I had the opportunities to be in those more traditional settings, because I think, ultimately, you know, there's something really nice in between, like, rigid and totally fluid, right? And so that's kind of why most of my work is saying, like, how do we pick the right constraints, so that that fluidity is meaningful? And really kind of generative, right? And so, I would say being in those environments helped me realize what are meaningful constraints, but then where are we overly defining something that is no than limiting the potential of sort of how we can apply design? So, you know, I would say, maybe, you know, a tangible example of that is that, for example, when I was at Frog, I think, you know, frog has a prestigious history of the type of design work frog was doing his type time, and the types of outcomes that you could kind of that clients could expect, right. And, you know, an example would be things like, I remember that I was on a team that was working on a project where, you know, the output was a thermostats product, right? And I remember the kind of industrial design team did this amazing design output we gave, you know, all the key shot renders great decks, things like that. But in the end, everyone was kind of like, Wait, what the clients not gonna even do that. And it turns out, the client wasn't going to do that, because they have their own manufacturing lines. And so for them to invest in a whole new injection mode for that form factor would have to make sense in a lot of different ways. Right. And I think, so why that friction existed was because one, I think there needed to be a stronger case for sort of what they would get by making that big investment. But I think also from the design team side, you know, maybe there could have been more that we were also doing, which, you know, to be fair, at the time wasn't our mandate, but to also recognize what is the ecosystem for implementation that this client is working for. And so I would say, to the point of kind of figuring out what constraints that then allow for fluidity, a lot of the work that I was doing kind of even at McKinsey was really deeply understanding the client context understanding when we propose something, what then has to happen for an organization to implement this right. And so I would say, you know, I, I both do work that's totally generative, and very much in the art side, but I also do work that's deeply, deeply strategic. And I would say that then became the core of the type of design I want to do and have been doing, which is saying that, you know, if we can be really mindful of the constraints that exist in making something a reality, then what we can do is also be incredibly generative and incredibly human, and incredibly thoughtful about how we're understanding people's experiences in deciding what we want to make. And then, you know, the core of my practice now is taking those things that seem like extremes, and directly bringing them together, without, you know, necessarily saying, oh, design sits in the middle, and we have our own outputs. And so I would say that's kind of the other key piece to saying that, rather than saying design has its own discipline that slots in between saying that really design is actually supposed to say, how do we better understand what people need and directly attach that to the decisions we make around what we make and make sure those things can exist in the world. And so kind of really directly connecting those and saying Maybe we can step out of this a little bit focused on our role as enablers without then selling our own outcomes is like a big part of the work I do now.

Liz Gerber (host) 10:10

Thanks that was really interesting and might transition well into helping us understand how you started your own practice of reground. What was you had? You've worked with McKinsey frog, we work catapult design, I mean, you name it, you've worked with them. And now you're started your own. So can you tell us a little bit about that? How those previous experiences influenced your own? Practice your own private practice?

Radhika Agarwal 10:37

Yeah. So I mean, I would say, you know, first of all, with with my own practice, I think I also view it fluidly. In that, you know, I'm not someone that was like, I worked at all these great places. But now I want to start this, like competitive practice, and be a CEO of this thing that's gonna rival and define the future of design. Like, that's really not my motivation, I think, you know, I've worked at some great places, I'm thankful for what I learned to those places. Usually, after any of those jobs, I've taken some time to independently reflect on what I learned what's important to me. And that's usually in the past involved periods of freelancing or sort of doing kind of smaller projects, while just being a human, which I also think is very important in life.

Liz Gerber (host) 11:23

And can you say what that looks like? What is being a human look like to you? I love that.

Radhika Agarwal 11:27

Oh, man, I think it's just like, you know, and this is definitely going to be a tangent, but I did just throw myself raccoon themed birthday party. So it's somewhat irrelevant, I guess. But I like memes. And I think there are a lot of great memes out there that just kind of make you realize that like, hey, we as we get older, like you're this super important person, and you need to grow in this career ladder, and like, all this stuff, but like, really, we're all just like, messy, you know, clumps of cells that are just like out here, trying to make good decisions connect, and people laugh. And so I think, yeah, everyone smile, it's really important for me to just reset and be like, oh, like, here are all the narratives that were shoved on top of me. But actually, I'm none of those things. And so I can wake up at 11 o'clock for weeks on end, if that's what I need to do for a little bit like I can, you know, just take a film class, because that's what also feels important to me. And like, does it make sense right now, in terms of what it is enabling me to do? No, but it doesn't have to, and then inadvertently, all of those things end up becoming important to what you do, somehow, but like, kind of allowing yourself allowing myself to have those periods where things don't have to make sense. And then kind of struggle and wrestle with all the weird existential stuff that comes up, which is like, what does productivity mean to me? Like, how do I reconnect with my intuition? I'm feeling stagnant. Oh, God, what do I do about that, like all of that stuff. And anyway, so that is all to say that in terms of starting my own practice, so I have had periods of sort of going in and out of kind of more rigid structures, and then sort of more fluid structures. I think in terms of starting my own practice, last February, it did feel different. Because I would say with that, I wasn't necessarily saying, Oh, I'm just taking this time for myself and kind of maybe freelancing in between it was really like, I want to start to advocate for those ideas and sort of really structure larger term engagements and longer term engagements around these types of ideas. And so yeah, there was, there was, there's been a lot of learning, as happens, you know, when you start to kind of, say, I want to work on different types of problems, I want to work, I would say the biggest challenge has been working with very different types of organizations that aren't, you know, necessarily initially traditionally bought into design thinking and all these things. That has a pro and con. And yeah, I guess what really motive motivated me over the last, I would say, 10 years to start my own practice, was realizing that, you know, we build things that don't need to be built. We build things and incredibly wasteful way largely enabled by people's egos. We build things in a way that's really extractive. We build things in a way that's really not that beautiful. And I think beauty is really important when we think about what we create, at least for me, you know, like, I think there were the all these things where I was like in the work I've done, I found that the solution is often not a new thing. It really is kind of removing friction that innovation has created that separates humans from the thing that they're actually that they know how to do well, and I would say like, you know, that speaks to a lot of the work I've done in education, health care, doctors and educators know what they're doing. But what makes their jobs hard, is then when you're like, okay, but do these five other jobs. And also, here's some weird like classroom ratios that don't make sense. By the way, take an unpaid internship and get this weird degree, you know, and then jump through these 10 other hoops. So me making a yoga app for an educator won't solve burnout. But me saying, Hey, we actually need a prototype a new pathway for educators to enter the system for which we consider a better financial equation for which we say these three departments are redundant. And these two policies are, you know, causing a lot of stress plus, then say, okay, but if we do want to build something new, it's not going to be the flashy, totally new platform that sits on top of other things, it's gonna be this sort of plugin almost to the existing system that creates a better connection and sort of removes friction, right? So it's like, I think a lot of times when we think about frictionless design, it's still in the context of we're making this new thing, how do we make it super easy for someone to do new things they might not even need to do in the first place. But the type of design I'm interested in is saying, let's get really close to a context, let's ask like, kind of the deeper questions around what even needs to exist, let's remove where friction has actually caused problems. And let's just allow humans to really do the jobs that they want to do that integrates better with their lives, that connects people to other people that doesn't further extract resources, you know, all of those types of things.

Liz Gerber (host) 16:44

I have 500 follow up questions, trying to decide which one to go on. I think I'll go back to the on the the narratives that you have, and then drop, I'm wondering if you're willing to share one personal narrative, you were telling yourself, that was not helpful to you that you have since dropped?

Radhika Agarwal 17:07

Oh, there's so many. And they're all somewhat intertwined. So let me think about one of the big ones I sort of alluded to earlier, which is that things have to make sense. Because things don't have to make sense in terms of like, you know, this, I thought about it, I have this amazing plan, intellectually, all the boxes are checked, like things just don't have to make sense. And if intuitively you believe something's right, like, and it is grounded in something that's meaningful for either you, the communities you're designing for the people you're relating to, like, you'll make it make sense, because like, it doesn't make sense. But like, you don't have to make something makes sense. And if you're trying to make something make sense, then to some degree, you know, there's probably a narrative that you're telling yourself on why something has to work, or you're in the space of on a product level, creating a product that is going to have friction on delivery, because maybe it doesn't address a specific need. And then now you're hiring a huge marketing department to create narratives that make it make sense, right? So that is all to say, I think one of the narratives is that it doesn't, it doesn't have to make sense. But if your intuition is telling you that there is a reason that you want to pursue something, and it is something that will be meaningful for you, the communities work with the people you relate to things like that, like it just will. And you don't have to have this like grandiose story and crazy intellectual rationalization checklist. Like it just has to resonate on a deeper level.

Lauren Lin (host) 18:38

I'm curious. Now, going back to reground, a little bit in the idea on free grounding that you touched on earlier. What's the relationship between like fluidity and constraints and friction and like how things don't need to make sense all the time? Like, are those maybe like themes and re grounding, that you kind of try to practice in your own practice? Like how I don't know, I feel like there are a lot of themes, and I'm curious how they connect for you.

Radhika Agarwal 19:06

Yeah, so I, you know, I think I mentioned we started the the chat, but but kind of starting reground was very much like a deliberate personal and professional choice. So it was really about the type of work I wanted to do the ways I wanted to work with folks. What more importantly, I wanted to say no to. And also, I think, yeah, on a personal level, the sort of values that I was working through in my own life. And so I'm trying to think of like, a simple way to answer this. But yeah, I mean, I think on a human level, you know, we're all sort of, from what at least my experience is like geared towards wanting to really be connected to other people, and to really take care of each other and to take care of the planet and to be present and to have hope and to feel like We're evolving. Like, I think there's some very baseline types of values and emotions that I think the way that we do design work, the way that we show up in organizations, these societal narratives that are sort of pushed on you that sort of impact personal and professional can be really dissociative in that way. And so I think, as an individual, I was already thinking about, what does it mean for me to continue to partake in these communities and in these spaces, but get off the hamster wheel of like, I was in this crazy work environment, and then I got burnt out. And then I had to sleep for three months, and I jumped, just jumped right back in, right. And then I think similarly, from like a client and, you know, project standpoint, I was also thinking about, you know, why is it that certain organizations will commission, the same exact design research study, like 10 different times, but then that somehow doesn't actually translate to any of the decisions are making about where they're investing, right? Like, I was like, these organizations are also kind of, in a lot of ways acting as somewhat dissociative way. And also kind of going to just keep being in that that sort of friction state where you know, you get all these insights, and then suddenly, you're like, great, but what does that mean, to creating those connections? And sort of really re grounding the core of what organizations are in sort of what's right for people? How do you allow the process of innovation organizations to be iterative, fundamentally and curious and relationship driven, and have that room for sort of organic growth? Right, so I think the Ann's long answer is short, long answer is that yes, there are a lot of themes. The basis for founding reground was very much a personal and professional kind of journey. And I think, yeah, really what it is, is that in the way that I work with clients, in the ways that I work with the teams at reground, in the ways that we work with the teams internally for our clients, like it really is about how do you make kind of the right meaningful connections. So that, you know, ultimately, you are also reducing that friction and making sure that what's being created. Makes sense, right, in sort of the way that we talked about a few minutes ago.

Liz Gerber (host) 22:20

Thank you, Radhika. Our last question is around some advice. And it's, I want to frame it both in advice for yourself for the future and advice for those entering your field. So I'm sure there's many things you still want to learn to, you know, learn how to do and envision yourself doing in the future. So the first part is, what advice do you have for your future self going forward? And then the second part of that is looking back, what advice do you have, that people might not be thinking about for those who want to enter your field broadly defined?

Radhika Agarwal 22:53

Yeah. So I mean, I'd say the first part, is something that I'm aware that I need to work on, I'm still working on and I think getting better at it will help me leave a more fulfilling existence, which is to think less. And just do more things that feel intuition aligned. So like, you know, I think if you are someone who has an analytical brain, that idea of needing to hyper rationalize, and like I said, Make things make sense, before you decide that something's important to you, and you just want to jump in. I think that's something that a lot has, you know, overcoming that that mind barrier has been what's provided me the most valuable experiences of last 10 years. And it's something that I do still have to kind of fight in my brain from time to time, but I am, yeah, excited to Yeah, continue to practice. Needing to rationalize less, and just say, my intuition, you know, what feels right, from a joy level and interest level in what just feels like it resonates on a deeper level is pushing me in this direction. I know, if I go in that direction. Over time, it will, it will make sense. And I guess that is connected to what I would sort of share with folks, you know, as they are entering design are sort of getting into the work that I that I do now, if that's of interest is that I think also to not focus so much on the boxes. So you know, I know right now, there's a lot of, you know, what, to me reads is almost like defensive or free driven rhetoric around what is the future of design and like, how do we protect it and we need a seat at the table and we need a degree that's equivalent to engineering or an MBA, what is it going to be as a grad as it you know, and all of that stuff, like, just don't go there would be my advice, just don't go there. Like, it's just, you know, what are you interested in? What are the types of problems that you want to solve for those problems? There's going to be 10 fold different contexts that you could find yourselves in for that context. What are this skills that you need to acquire, and then just do that because, you know, I'm, I'm very privileged to have spent time at some of those institutions that people say, Oh, if you get there, you know, you can get anywhere. But I would say truly the types of experiences that people have really valued and I have valued and the type of work I do now, are those like random startups that were like, we need you to do all of these different things, and we're going to trust you do more. And we're not going to tell you you're like one of 5000 applicants. So if you don't want this, like we'll get, you know, you're not going to be driven by fear and competition and ego to just, yeah, be in those spaces where you're interested in the problem. And, you know, the other thing I would say, too, is that I think we forget that being a good designer is just being a good human. And that's different than being a good engineer as being a good human. And I have an engineering degree. So I don't know if I'm allowed to say that out loud. But like, and, you know, so whereas people are so stuck on, like, what is the design, you know, equivalent to engineering, to my point is, I'm like, they're different. And that's great, right? And that's like a strength. And that's like an amazing power that they are different. And so I would say like, I'm very thankful that I spent the last 10 years being really focused on what does it mean for me to be an active member of my communities? What does it mean for me to be really in touch with what feels right to me? What doesn't feel right? What, you know, all of these types of questions, I think, inherently make you a better designer. And you know, as humans, I think we're quite terrible at creating labels initially, to then be like, Oh, this is going to make things better. But then it would if you're then able to say, Okay, now we don't need them anymore. So that is why I say that, like, don't worry about if you're a designer, or you're an engineer, or you're like a business person that then got like, two classes in design thinking and is worried if that makes you legitimate or not just just, you know, focus on the problems you want to solve. And then you might experience something that I did, which is I realized that I had been a designer since I was like eight years old. And then it didn't really matter. When I got the degree it's it's just something that's become a part of who I am and a part of how I approach all different aspects of my life. And that feels good.

Liz Gerber (host) 27:23

Radhika. Wow, thank you so much for sharing your time and stories with us.

Lauren Lin (host) 27:28

That was Radhika. You can find out more about her work in the show notes. And you can learn more about this show by going to technicaldifficultiespodcast.com drop us a note at technicaldifficultiesteam@gmail.com or leave us a review on your favorite podcast app. It really helps people discover the show. We're especially curious to watch stories and insights.

Liz Gerber (host) 27:50

This show is produced by Lauren and Liz and made possible by the Center for Human Computer Interaction and design at Northwestern. Thank you so much for listening.

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