Nichole Rouillac is a diehard believer in the power of design as an agent for change, and yet, she still sees much work to be done to improve the design industry’s output and impact as a whole. As founder of her own San Francisco-based studio level, she strives to run a design studio that adheres to her own professional values, in the process gaining plenty of insightful takeaways on how to create products that more thoughtfully juggle functionality, sustainability and accessibility. She also has a fresh outlook on how design studios ought to run to create a more supportive and enjoyable workplace.
Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.
As one of the early leads of the highly influential Women in Design SF meetup group, Rouillac’s work constantly aims to bring to light the importance of equity and bringing new, historically excluded voices into the design fray—We recently chatted with Rouillac, who will serve as the 2022 Core77 Design Awards Home & Living Jury Captain, about her work in and outside of level, and discussed why prioritizing solidarity is perhaps one of the most important things designers can do for their community in 2022.
Enter the Core77 Design Awards Home & Living category, where Nichole Rouillac will serve as 2022 Jury Captain
Core77: What sparked your interest in design?
Rouillac: As far back as I can remember, I’ve been building things. I would spend time building little architecture models, and nailing wood together was my favorite pastime, making bike ramps. I wasn’t so into dolls, but I also would love to make houses for mine, and even put wallpaper in them, make furniture out of cardboard.
In high school, I was just constantly drawing and painting, building sculptures, but I grew up in a place very much on the edge of the cornfields, outside of Chicago. And nobody in my community even knew design was a career– it was just something they’d never even heard of. So my parents weren’t super into the idea of me going into this field, but I just knew this was everything I was meant to do. And it was just so foreign to their world that you could actually make a living. They really tried to get me to go into business, or nursing, or something that was a stable career.
I went my own way and moved to California; that was over 20 years ago and I’ve never looked back. Up here, I found my creative community. I studied in San Francisco, was just so drawn to this really positive mindset, this sense that you can innovate, do anything, build new things, and bring new products [and] new experiences to life. There’s such an optimistic creative culture out here, so I got sucked in in my early 20s and never left.
Can you tell me a little more about level and what you would say drives the work you do there?
Our vision of the studio, with our internal as well as our client-facing work, is we’re really focused on products we believe encompass greater good. Another [important piece of that is] some of the work we’ve been doing on inclusivity and looking at accessibility; so whatever we can do to help people who are often underserved and underrepresented communities.
In addition, we’re looking a lot at sustainability; how we can design products that can be [more easily] disassembled, recycled, reused, or upcycled. So we’re doing a lot in both of those categories, and really championing our clients to make better decisions.
Health, wellness, and medical devices have also been a big push for our studio. Our work with Tempo has really taken off in the health and wellness space, and I love that it’s been of help to people during this pandemic. We’ve also worked on some medical devices that are able to detect heart conditions, and prevent strokes and heart attacks, where doctors are able to get patients’ data from their home. These kinds of things are the products where I want to be able to use technology for good, and they represent how I want to contribute to the world. There’s just a lot of tech that’s not really actually adding value to our lives, and I really want to steer away from this type of work.
Tempo Move by level for Tempo is a compact gym unit seamlessly blends into the home environment and utilizes warm materials like wood and felt.
The other thing I’ve really tried to do is not be too naive in the way we approach work. Sometimes, designers just want to do these crazy things that require lots of R&D, and it’s great, but when they work with a lot of startups, you can really just run through all of their cash. I spent seven and a half years at my last job working for an agency and was overseas in Asia, going through a lot of manufacturing on the grounds, knowing really the ins and outs of what it takes to make a product. So I try to really push our team to be flexible with how we gear the design to actually be manufacturable. I want them to consider that part of the design from the forefront. And looking at design through the lens of materials—not saying, “Oh, there’s this shiny new material, and I just want to apply it to this design,” but really thinking about, “Okay, is this design made out of thin sheet metal? Is this a stamped aluminum? Or is this a ground-up fiber we’re able to compression mold in some interesting way?”
We are thinking from the very first sketch days of how to actually make a product so we’re not steering clients down paths of [showing them this beautiful thing] and we have no idea how to make it, and it’s going to cost them a fortune to figure it out.
In the more formal design process, where do you think industrial designers ought to be focusing their efforts in creating change that will have the most impact?
I would say it’s definitely in the upfront, and being really careful with the choices of materials and manufacturing. Asking, what’s going to destroy our environment if we’re not mindful of that?
“We’ve had this long period of time where we’re trying to make…this ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ type of thing where you have no idea how it’s made, how it’s constructed. But in order to do this, a lot of times you’re co-molding metals and plastics together, or rubbers and plastics. Say you’re designing products that are seamless and gorgeous, but then, at the end of the life, you can’t even recycle them because you can’t take them apart.”
We have to design things for disassembly, making things that are modular and easy to repair. For many years in design, all of that has usually been an afterthought, or a “nice to have,” or people saw that as a sacrifice of design that would make it somehow less compelling.
You know, having to design something with screws, or latches, or things that would open, it just makes it messy. Or we’ve had this long period of time where we’re trying to make things as beautiful as possible– this ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ type of thing where you have no idea how it’s made, how it’s constructed. But in order to do this, a lot of times you’re co-molding metals and plastics together, or rubbers and plastics. Say you’re designing products that are seamless and gorgeous, but then, at the end of the life, you can’t even recycle them because you can’t take them apart.
But also, it’s about not designing things that don’t need to exist. We get pitches all the time, some I’m excited about, but there are definitely many things I see where I think, that product doesn’t need to exist. And that’s a big enough problem, as designers, we have to question: is this really worth the impact it’s going to have on the earth right now?
I only want to build products that are going to be better for human life and society, and are helping people in some way. And I don’t want to be making more junk going into the landfill. There’s just so much out there that isn’t necessary, and I would like us to [question] consumerism. There’s just this constant feeling of needing to buy the next thing. I really want to work on products that are going to last. I don’t want to have to buy a new phone every year. I want my computers to last, I want my furniture to last. I want people to shift back to the mentality we had decades ago, where you would actually save up for something and cherish it, and it wasn’t just disposable.
Based off of your research, do you have any predictions in the near future of how tech hardware products are going to evolve?
I think we’ve already started to see a subtle shift with certain brands, and I hope we continue to see this. A long time ago, it used to be [all about] shiny black lock boxes with blue lights. Google’s been highly influential on how we can do things different, and we’re getting some of the trickle-down effect and movement to products that feel more like a beautiful vessel on your shelf, and not just like an ugly plastic box. So I really love we’re seeing more and more natural materials coming into the space, and I think clients, as well as manufacturers, are more open to looking at different materials.
Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.
And I love that for the home. It should feel like it blends in with the materials and the aesthetics in your environment. So you know, more textiles, and even if you have to use plastic, utilize plastic that feels and looks warmer, richer, and softer. Just more fitting to that space—less sci-fi, and more of a very warm and inviting future.
CMF prototypes for AliveCor, a pocketable heart healthcare device designed by level
I’ve read in interviews you put a lot of emphasis at level on developing a good workplace culture. What does that mean for level, and what advice would you give on creating a values-focused, healthy workplace?
I would say I take this [stance] because I spent years at some good, and some less good, places where I learned what I do and don’t want to bring into my own studio. My last job was at a company called One & Co, and they were amazing, and I really tried to bring about [some of their] philosophies, just make it an atmosphere where you walk in the door and you feel this welcoming energy.
Everybody is very respectful and kind, and takes care of each other. People have life events that happen. Somebody gets sick in your family, and you’re having a baby, but [your colleagues] really care about what’s going on. It’s not about, “What is this person doing in their job?” but instead, “What’s happening in their life, and how do we make sure we’re there to support each other, and pick things up when somebody needs to take off?” So making sure there’s also a good work-life balance, that people feel it’s okay to take the time off, to go work out, or go for a walk when they need to get a breath of fresh air.
Designers can get really enthusiastic, and sometimes work really hard when they’re just really trying to get something solved. And then after they get through this crunch of energy, they should be able to take some extra time off, go do your thing. Make sure to see the sunlight more than you have. So taking care of people’s mental and physical well being is really important.
What I also learned at my last job was just taking the time to check in and have conversations with people—have coffees, have lunches. This makes sure you are keeping a close check on what’s happening in their world. And when people feel cared about, when they feel like their voice is heard, and there’s good transparency in the conversation, we feel like we’re talking to friends. At least I try to make them not feel like they’re talking to their boss! And then it just allows us to create a good culture, because there’s a bond, and everybody has awareness and transparency.
One last thing that works really well for the scale of our studio is autonomy. Some people on my team are morning people, and they go in early for work, and then some of my team just like to hang out at home, drink coffee, do whatever, and they come to work later. As long as they always get the work done—and they always do—I sort of just let them work the hours they want. They’re responsible people who are passionate about design, so they will show up to the meetings, and they will have great ideas, and they will just let them do their thing. And with an eight-person team, it’s much more manageable. Let them do their thing, and then they do great work.
“I want to focus more on getting to do projects we love, because the more you grow, the more you have to take on sometimes, you need to keep the lights on. You need to take on projects that may not be fitting with your morals and values, and I don’t want to have to get to that place. So I really clearly made the decision that I would actually keep our studio very small, very tight, and really focused on our happiness.”
Has the pandemic era significantly changed your practice and the way your studio operates?
I would say it was definitely a time of great reflection for me. We’ve done great, but there was so much going on. I had to really think about, like, there’s this small amount of time we’re on this earth. What is the impact I want to have, and want my team to contribute? And that’s where I really took a step back and decided I want to keep the studio small, from a business model. I don’t know if that’s what a finance person would tell me to do, because you make more money by being bigger, but I felt like if I wanted to maintain that creative atmosphere of great culture, keep myself sane, to still be creative from time to time, it meant I didn’t need to grow to a Fuseproject or IBS-sized company.
I want to focus more on getting to do projects we love, because the more you grow, the more you have to take on sometimes, you need to keep the lights on. You need to take on projects that may not be fitting with your morals and values, and I don’t want to have to get to that place. So I really clearly made the decision that I would actually keep our studio very small, very tight, and really focused on our happiness.
In the pandemic, I think it was what we needed to do too, because I rehired a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, and I was just feeling like I was stretched too thin. I was not getting to be creative enough, and it was just getting too hard to manage, and I was like on the back end. I thought, I want to just get to the core of what I love, I want to just work with good clients, and turn away things we don’t feel are fitting for us. [Remaining small] allows me to be actively involved, and always be able to be on the phone, or meet up in person with my clients. The relationships are so much more important to me than the growth.
The Intelligent Assistant home security system designed by level
You’ve done a lot of work with Women in Design to promote equity in design when it comes to gender and race. And I think in recent years, especially during the pandemic, I think it’s been emphasized how the heavy lifting is often put on the people who are marginalized, and we need to start bringing more people into the conversation who can help, but aren’t necessarily like affected by discrimination. And so I was wondering if you had any advice for men, white women, etc. to be better allies to more marginalized groups within the design industry.
I think they need to listen more than they talk. You haven’t lived the experience, so it’s time to just sit back and hear what the hurdles are, and to not just listen, but analyze, reflect on what you might have done in the past that wasn’t so good, and how you can use your power. If you’re a leader in an organization, you have the financial ability to support things, like how you can make this better. But really start with listening to people, and not just making assumptions about what the problems are, or trying to pat yourself on the back and say what a good job you’ve done already. That’s not going to help us get anywhere.
I’ve had experiences or conversations with male leaders in the industry, and they say, “I’m very proud of the work I’ve done,” but it doesn’t always seem like they’re really trying to deeply just absorb it, and understand what needs to change.
I also don’t want people doing it for the sake of show. You know, I found a lot of times, as I was the chair of Women in Design in San Francisco, there were companies and organizations that would reach out to me about collaborating on efforts, whether it’s events, and talks, and things of that nature, and it felt very much like they just wanted to sponsor things for some marketing, because so many people are interested in this topic these days. I don’t know if it genuinely seemed like they actually wanted to help or just put their name on something. So I want that to be authentic. People will naturally come to you if you’re doing something that’s influential and positive. Don’t just try to make it a PR stunt.
Do you feel like there’s ways, specifically in the design industry, that hiring can become more equitable? How do we bring people in? What are those barriers, and how can we bring some of those barriers down?
Yes, I’ve tried to talk with my team about this, and I think more organizations having conversations about it. I don’t want to put things in a box, but I found there was a period where even some of the men on my team were getting swayed to liking the portfolios with the fancy rendering skills and drawings, and I was like, “Yeah, but there’s not a lot of substance and thinking behind this design. There’s just a shiny object.” And so I really test my team to really think deeper about looking at the story, the work, what’s [the thought] behind the design and why it existed, and how it was creative.
And it’s not to say women and POC aren’t making great renderings, but I was generally finding more of my men getting steered to other men’s portfolios very similar to theirs. And so what I did is try to have them look for other skills. Some women have been suffering, really, because they are better storytellers! There’s a lot of women I know who get pigeonholed into this job of doing CMF, which is not wrong, because they are really good at it, but they can also still touch the hardware, and touch the product, or design the physical thing too.
So I don’t like that because a lot of women I know [are so good at] thinking and analysis, they tend to no longer be involved in the actual physical product design, and they’re getting steered into working on strategy, CMF research, and all of these things. And I honestly think those are great values you can bring, but I still want women working on the actual product too.
You are serving as Jury Captain for the Home & Living category in the 2022 Core77 Design Awards. What do you think you’re going to be looking for when you’re judging? what type of projects are really going to excite you if you see them?
Again, [I’ll be asking] why does this product need to exist, and, do we need to put technology in everything? No. Sometimes the humblest and most simple things are actually the best. It doesn’t need a million buttons, and a disk, and a screen, and to be a Swiss army knife to be a great product. Sometimes it can just be just really thoughtful, really simple, great materials, and something you will cherish for a long time.
I would love to see products going into the home that you can keep for 10 years or more. I don’t want people to repeat this disposable products lifestyle anymore. I would so much rather people keep things for generations, hopefully. I’m just sick of this culture—there’s so much stuff that just falls apart. I would like to own stuff I can hand down to my daughter, that I would love buying today, and that would still be in style, and usable, and not fall apart by the time she can use these things.
Thinking of entering to one your projects into the 2022 Core77 Design Awards Home & Living category? Get your entry in today—our Final Deadline arrives on April 1st.