Walking & Writing About Design: An Interview with Alissa Walker

Alissa WalkerEven before her New York-walking adventure transformed into the architectural guide City Walks Architecture: New York (Chronicle Books, 2009) last year, Alissa Walker has been walking and writing. The car-less Los Angeles resident has been writing about design, architecture, cities, transportation and food for outlets such as Fast Company, GOOD, Dwell, and KCRW’s “DnA: Design and Architecture,” where she is an associate producer. In addition to walking and writing, Alissa is also an avid gelato eater, which she tries to perfect the art of eating of, whenever she can.

Some of my favorite writings that you’ve covered include the Fast Company piece about the design of LA transit, the appearance of architectural dining spots in Downtown in Dwell, and the fake freeway sign that you wrote about for GOOD Magazine. Los Angeles in general seems to be a large component in your writing. How does the City of Angels influence and inspire your ideas?

No topic inspires me more than LA! It’s a vast, complex, beautiful place. I’ve lived here for almost nine years and I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about how lucky I am to live here. I think partially because it has such a bad reputation in the minds of, like, everyone else in the world, and suffers from all these stereotypes, that I feel a responsibility to share these really amazing stories about the people and places I come across.

Los Angeles has so much to offer in terms of culture. Do you feel the design industry reflects that as well?

I think the really cool thing about LA’s design industry is that it’s the result of so many creative overlays. There’s, of course, the film industry, a heavy street art influence, an awesome DIY community, the tech aspects of the gaming and animation industries, most of the country’s auto design studios, and probably the most innovative architects in the world. Combine all that with lots of space for people to experiment, a history of manufacturing and fabrication, and an authentic focus on sustainability, and you’ve got what I think is the most diverse and exciting design industry on the planet.

Alissa's article about Fake Urbanism in GOOD Magazine's Neighborhoods Issue.

Alissa's article about Fake Urbanism in GOOD Magazine's Neighborhoods Issue.

You also write about creativity outside of LA. Throughout the nation, have you noticed any emerging trends in design?

I get really excited about the work that designers are doing in service of their cities. I’m seeing designers get involved in real policy issues, launching projects around big issues like public transit and urban farming. This is something we’ve tried to catalyze through the GOOD Design program where we have events in cities that pair designers with urban problems as proposed by city leaders. We’ve done programs in LA, San Francisco and New York and I just got back from Sarasota, Florida where I saw the presentations made at our second student event, where Ringling College of Art & Design students presented three solutions for conserving and celebrating water. We also just launched a school garden design contest with LAUSD, and we’re going to build the winning designs.

It’s great that designers are out there wanting to make a change in their surroundings. What is it about creative thinking and processes do you feel, bring people together?

I think there’s a real camaraderie between creatives because there’s always that possibility to collaborate, which is usually what ends up happening when you get them together enough. I organize a monthly design party named de LaB where we have events that range from making t-shirts and posters at a screenprinting shop, to holding a fundraiser at the house of the architect Richard Neutra, to a tour of Chinatown galleries on bikes (with a stop for dim sum of course)…and recently we organized a pop-up shop for people to sell whatever items they’ve been making. These events are so fun because they expose all these different creatives to other people’s practices, and to each other, and we’ve heard so many stories of people going on to work together. It kind of goes beyond networking.

You’re in the midst of working on a new design site for Fast Company, which is very exciting. How is that going?

Especially now as we continue to hear bad news about everything magazine-related, it’s pretty amazing that Fast Company is able to launch this new experience for its readers. The design content has been the fastest-growing part of Fast Company as far as traffic and it makes sense to corral it into its own curated site. I will be editing it along with the amazing Cliff Kuang, who I’ve been working alongside for a year, and we’re going to break news and report stories where most blogs just publish pretty photos (but we’ll still have photos!). Also, the site was designed by my friend Scott Thomas, who was the person behind all the beautiful and smart Obama campaign websites. That’s about all I can say about it now, but it’s launching soon, so you’ll see for yourself!

Why do you think design content has been the most popular?

Design has finally been embraced as a way of thinking, not necessarily this obsession with pretty stuff. Fast Company has done an excellent job of not only positioning design as problem solving, but also challenging the typical “business” angle when it comes to the kinds of stories they publish—our editors really push us to show how design can translate to everyday life, or be applied to more mainstream stories. I think that’s the common thread through all Fast Company’s stories—unexpected and innovative solutions for all kinds of problems, from product launches to social issues, executed by really creative people. I think people understand that creativity is good for business.

You’ve been writing under the moniker, Gelatobaby, for years. As an expert gelato-eater, what’s your best memory of eating gelato?

There are so many! There’s the “original” best memory—the reason that I named my site Gelatobaby in the first place—which was a summer I was kind of aimlessly touring around Europe by myself trying to decide what to do next. I crossed from France into Italy on the train and got off Vernazza, this tiny town that everyone knows about in the Cinque Terre, and could not believe my eyes. There was gelato sold on every corner. There were gelaterias next door to gelaterias and across the street from another gelateria. No one had prepared me for this! No one told me Italy in the summer is basically this technicolor ice cream wonderland. I truly spent the next three weeks eating as much gelato as I could (sometimes three, four times a day) and found myself so creatively fulfilled that I knew there was a correlation.

Rachel Elnar is a partner at Ramp Creative+Design in Los Angeles, a multi-disciplinary design firm that believes that design makes doing business a pleasure. She loves thinking, writing, tweeting about the business of design.

 

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