by Bonnie DeVarco 2020
I have known my dear friend and colleague Lauralee Alben for over a dozen years as a thought leader and quiet revolutionary. Her impassioned respect for the spirit or soul of the world—something described millennia ago as “Anima Mundi”—brings healing into the heart of everything she does as a designer, poet, coach, consultant, and leader. Lauralee has expanded the definition of design through four decades as she moved into deeper waters—an approach she now deems, "Design Consciousness.”
Throughout her seemingly eclectic design foundations, she has moved from graphic design and motion graphics to interaction, experience, and systems design, and finally to design for Life. While consulting with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the late 90s, she was inspired by the ocean as a living system. Lauralee took a deep dive into the interdisciplinary domains of Living Systems Science, studying nature's open, self-organizing systems. Taking a leap of courage, she also received formal training in Core Shamanism. These together brought a new perspective and power to her approach to design and in 2000, the Sea Change Design Process was born. Since that time, Lauralee presents design as a living, conscious force—one that she has developed into a process of profound transformation that spans the design of lives to resilient systems level change.
Always challenging the norms of design, Lauralee founded the Sea Change Design Institute in 2015 with a global mission to serve our evolutionary potential by addressing issues such as regenerative business, ocean conservation, human rights, and social justice. Sea Change Design has been used to address challenges, including corporate culture change in Procter & Gamble and ocean system crises with Environmental Defense Fund and continues to create ripples in current disruptive environments.
On a more intimate level, Lauralee's design “language” allows anyone to crystalize intentions and to refocus their work and lives with greater meaning. Comfortably standing in the place of revelation, Lauralee coaches leaders to achieve breakthroughs by guiding them with clear and transformational experiences. In her workshops, she poetically captures the stillness of the room and listens to its rich subtext while expertly emboldening each participant to find a deeper realm of self-knowledge for conscious action.
Lauralee’s early education set the stage for her to use design for a higher purpose. Her undergraduate education at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1970s was under the guidance of Malcolm Grear and Tom Ockerse. Her master’s studies took her to the Basel School of Design under pre-eminent design professors Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart. Here, she was immersed in Swiss Design. Working with legendary designer FHK Henrion in London, Lauralee integrated a systems view of design in her early work in branding.
In 1985, Lauralee founded the design firm, Alben+Faris, in New York. Moving the firm to the West Coast with her partner Jim Faris in 1990, their design innovations defined some of the earliest interface designs in personal computing at Apple and other companies in Silicon Valley. Lauralee helped to define design criteria for these still nascent interactive environments. Acknowledged as an advocate for humanizing technology, she was recognized as a Muriel Cooper Fellow in 1997 and a member of the I.D. Forty. Within this emergent field, her keynotes, published writings, and work with a host of colleagues and companies left a pioneering legacy that still reverberates today.
Lauralee’s effervescent spirit is contagious. As a designer, her work is always in service to our Earth, to Life itself. Lauralee takes seriously humanity's responsibility to harness design as a universal sensibility that reaches into the heart of our shared planetary challenge. She has mastered a way to broaden the scope of design to serve a global, timeless agenda, using the power of water as our universal lodestar and guide.
Redefining DesignFrames from a short film introducing the Sea Change Design Institute founded by Lauralee Alben.
Bonnie DeVarco: In the years that I have known you, I've learned so much from you as a friend and design pioneer. As a systems thinker and sensemaker, you inspire people and impact the world in significant ways.
Lauralee Alben: Thank you, Bonnie. We’re all in this together. My experience of designing change is that it’s a participatory process. Design transforms lives. It helps us evolve our world into a creative, connected, and compassionate one.
BD: Yes, I agree. Since we’re talking about design bringing us into relationship, let's start with your definition.
LA: Rather than giving you a statement, let me frame it as a question...
How can design be the conscious planning and meaningful action that creates relationship—with humanity, nature, spirit, and time—in service of life?
This is my definition of design and my invitation. Not only to designers but to everyone. Because by this definition everyone can be (and is) a designer.
BD: Very eloquent. Let's look closer at your design arc through the past four decades. You made a provocative statement about becoming an AIGA Fellow, “To each of our lives there is a beautiful arc, a unique pattern of evolution that forms from filaments of influence, inspiration, and fascination. Eventually this arc comes full circle and the whole of our precious lives comes into view.” As you look at your own arc spanning graphic design, experience design, transformation design, and Sea Change Design what’s coming into view?
LA: The center of the circle is coming into view. For me, design is a powerful laser beam inscribing the arc of my calling. From my vantage point now, I can see design as an interstitial space of transformation and a cradle of becomingness that holds all life as sacred.
BD: You’ve always pushed the boundaries of design. You speak from the perspective of someone who can see the whole and responds by birthing something new, as you’re doing now with “Design Consciousness.”
LA: “Design Consciousness” is an intentional way of being that comes from an awareness of the interconnected and interdependent nature of everything—and the commitment to co-design with life. At the confluence of nature, humanity, spirit, and time there is an infinite flow of transformation that we can join in. When we do, we can manifest miracles.
Solutions never before imagined can surface as we respond powerfully to these watershed times. There’s only one condition: We need to show up as whole human beings, to cultivate presence, alignment, connection, and flow within ourselves. We call this “Design Being.” At the Sea Change Design Institute, we foster this through consulting, coaching, workshops, keynotes, and teaching.
BD: So, design is really core to being human—our values, our ethics, our stance in life, our actions at this defining moment in history.
Design is core to our future. Which is why it’s important that we design consciously. What we design now defines our destiny.
Shaping the Design Arc: Early education and influences“It’s Superman!” collage series published in Typografische Monatsblätter™ in 1979; Detail of an educational paper promotion for Hopper Papers using pasta to demonstrate embossing, diecutting, and other printing techniques; Communications for The Hunger Project, a global movement dedicated to ending hunger and starvation by the year 2000.
BD: Where did your design arc begin?
LA: My design arc began when I felt drawn into the art room in Pittsford Sutherland High School where Tom O’Brien, a red-beared Irishman, welcomed me. Thankfully, he was an insightful, dedicated teacher who opened my eyes, guided my hand, and set my sights on RISD.
BD: How did your graphic design education at Rhode Island School of Design prepare for you the unique approach to design you practice today?
LA: RISD was an extraordinary, boundary-expanding experience for me. It was foundational for all that followed. I thrived with challenging teachers; exceptional exposure to the worlds of art, design, architecture; irresistible opportunities to explore and express my interests, which fell across disciplines including animation, video, textiles, printmaking. I loved the Nature Lab, the RISD Museum, Market House (home of Graphic Design back then), and the academic exchange with Brown, where I studied writing.
BD: Learning semiotics combined with visual communication was formative for you in your studies, yes?
LA: Tom Ockerse, former head of RISD’s Graphic Design program, brought a holistic, dynamic approach to making meaning visible. He encouraged us to become whole human beings within the greater context of “relationship,” and to give form to the interwoven energies in nature and the spirit inherent in all life.
Tom Ockerse taught me how to express the poetics and practicalities implicit within the design process—and more importantly implicit within being. I first became aware of what “design sensibility” is because of him.
BD: Malcolm Grear, as a teacher and practicing designer, seems to have made a lasting impact on the direction of your work too.
LA: When Malcolm passed on, I wrote a tribute to him called, Signs of Hope, about the day he showed my sophomore class the environmental design his studio had created for Oakwood Center, a residential mental health facility for children coming from rural Kentucky, where he had grown up. What stayed with me was Malcolm’s empathetic focus on bringing comfort and healing, offering dignity and belonging and hope. He showed us how the transformative power of design can truly affect lives. I aspire to do the same.
BD: So, your design mentors were edge-dwellers too, bringing healing and oneness into design. Those aspects were deeply embedded in your approach to design from the beginning!
LA: Yes, surprisingly they influenced my choice to become a healer too. The natural progression often surprises us when we look back and see the patterns. If we’re lucky to live long enough, we get to see more of the arc.
BD: How did your Master’s program at the Basel School of Design and your experience as an international student in Europe change your life in the late 1970s?
LA: Those were wondrous years at the Basel School of Design studying with design legends including Armin Hofmann, Wolfgang Weingart, André Gürtler, Kurt Hauert, and Peter von Arx. All of it set within the old world context of a medieval Swiss city at the contemporary crossroads of France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Design was omnipresent. I would ride my bike past posters by Josef Müller-Brockmann, Emil Ruder, Donald Brun, Max Bill. Prominent in the Marktplatz stood the Rathaus (town hall) with its glorious hand-painted murals. Most familiar of all was the modern architecture of the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule with Hans Arp’s towering sculpture and Hofmann’s wall reliefs. This context was my classroom, the culture my teacher.
BD: How did this translate into your design studies?
What I learned was not only the economy of form, but the essence of communication—from the intimacy of plaka and pinsel (paint brush) to the infinite expressions of beauty, simplicity, and clarity.
I was 21. Initially it was hard, being catapulted into the disciplined, immersive design program in Basel. I transferred from RISD in order to complete my undergraduate degree through its European Honors Program. I stayed on to complete my postgraduate studies. I was excited to engage in the Graphics Animation program where I explored another edge between graphics, film, and video (motion graphics.) For over two years, I loved learning with and from my inspiring classmates and professors; developing a lifelong network reaching around the world. Jim Faris and I married after we moved to New York. Wolfgang Weingart visited us often on his speaking tours, always arriving with fondue cheeses packed in his suitcase. I still have his recipe.
BD: Weingart also published your collages in Typografische Monatsblätter (TM).
LA: That was a thrilling acknowledgement by Weini. “It’s Superman!” was published in 1979. It was a study on the superhero, the American ideal that my generation was raised on in comic books and the popular television series. Later in the 60s with the Vietnam war, Woodstock, and the feminist movement, that simplistic idealism became overshadowed and deeply questioned. I explored and contested the myth and some of the ideas it embodied—identity, heroism, and transformation.
BD: Transformation figured in your earliest work! You were engaged in a different kind of transformation when you were drawing leaves, right?
LA: Literally and personally, it’s true! Basel was based on the atelier model, which gave us the opportunity of working long hours with our teachers. As they moved around the room, guiding and critiquing our efforts, we all learned. I was fascinated watching the more advanced students as they developed their projects. But no matter how experienced, everyone started the program with the basic design exercise of translating a leaf over and over until we captured its essence.
Kurt Hauert taught us life lessons along with our formal design studies: Seeing what is and what’s missing; learning the value of patience and perseverance—and being present. Presence has become integral to what I now call “Design Being.”
Honestly, I’m still working on having patience. Reflecting back on my career, how ironic that years later when we were starting a new consulting project at Apple, our client Jim Palmer told me, “Let’s get one thing clear from the start. I am 100% impatient.” Silicon Valley and Basel. What polar opposites!
BD: It seems like your design education has given you a privileged point of view.
LA: Yes. My design education and the initial shaping of my career arc came from the opportunity to access the best schools and learn from legendary leaders in the US and Europe, many of whom carried on the Bauhaus legacy. I’m grateful to my parents who sacrificed greatly to give me this chance. Yet I also recognize that my privilege can be viewed from multiple perspectives.
Design is expressed in different ways through cultures, belief systems, ontologies, and worldviews. And yet there is a something greater than this—the invitation for all of us to participate in the design of Life.
Learning the Profession: Formative Work
BD: After Basel, you worked with FHK Henrion at HDA International in London. What was that like?
LA: Working with Henrion was a rare pleasure because he was quite a charismatic character. He was erudite, highly respected as a European design legend, and luckily for me, an encouraging—and exacting mentor. Henri was a design futurist, and in the same way as Buckminster Fuller was, fifty years ahead of his time. A harbinger of design’s coming of age.
BD: Yes, they were both early practitioners of systems design and Buckminster Fuller is considered one of the grandfathers of the ecology movement. He called his application of universal principles for architecting global change “Comprehensive, Anticipatory Design Science.” It certainly seems as though Henri and Bucky must have known each other at some point.
LA: It does! Having survived WWII, Henri’s commitment to design’s relevance was apparent in his work, writing, and teaching. As a pioneer of corporate identity, Henri was acutely aware of the power of design to illuminate or manipulate.
Rather than merely making something attractive or marketable, Henrion encouraged designers to get involved with issues, whether ethical, cultural, social, political, or environmental. He practiced and encouraged “design with a conscience.”
Although systems thinking was foundational in my education, Henri taught me how to design and apply systematic design management to a global business context. In eloquent words, visuals, and stories, he could communicate the value of a brand as a set of complex relationships within a systems view of life. It made a deep impression on me as young designer. I was so delighted that Max Henrion, Henri’s son and my “brother,” presented highlights of my career at the AIGA Fellow Award ceremony.
BD: While working with Henrion Design Associates you started to teach design at Ravensbourne College of Art and Communication. Tell me more about your early experience in London.
LA: I fell in love with teaching there. Jim Faris was already at Ravensbourne, which led to my first experience teaching graphic design beside creative people like Peter Rae, Dave Muriel, and Geoff White. In my blog, I wrote a tribute to Geoff called Design Mastery. For designer warriors like Geoff and me, it was imperative to teach within the greater context of design’s impact and relevance. We encouraged our students to design with integrity, not only from a sense of personal responsibility, but with an awareness of the difference taking right action can make on a viable future. I’m still teaching this today with Sea Change Design.
BD: Sea Change Design coaching and workshops guide people through their defining moments—both surviving and thriving. They engage with painful challenges and joyous moments to gain perspective and wisdom. You’ve faced a number of huge challenges in your own life that deepened your compassion. These experiences profoundly transformed you as a human being, as well as a designer.
LA: On November 19, 1979, I was in the middle of teaching a design class when I learned that my sister, Denise had died in a bike accident back home. She was barely 22 years old. On the night before Denise’s funeral, our youngest sister Kathy said to me, "Denise was a social worker. I'm a nurse. How do you help people as a designer? I remember exactly where I was standing and what the cold floor felt like under my feet. I didn’t have an answer.
That question has become the center point of my life and what we do at the Sea Change Design Institute. That is, to begin any transformation with an intention in the form of a question. One big enough to define an entire life, an organization, or system-level change.
I turned my sister's senseless death into celebration by answering the question that Kathy innocently asked me. And that is, "How can design serve people?" Over the decades I’ve evolved it as my own consciousness evolved: “How can design serve life?”
BD: That is a powerful question, borne of an impossible time of great loss.
LA: Service. To be in service. To embrace—from the soul.
BD: How did your commitment to be in service to life inspire the next steps in the evolution of your work?
LA: It took a while to become evident. New York in 1980 was a thriving epicenter of design, a node in a vibrant international network pulsing with Postmodernism, Swiss Design, and so much more. Jim Faris and I arrived with our portfolios and broom collection. Initially, I freelanced and worked with the Dutch designer, Ine Wijtvliet. Then I worked for several years at Siegel & Gale with Alan Siegel and Don Ervin. This was global brand design with an emphasis on simplicity, clarity, and economy.
BD: Is this when you had another defining moment that shifted the landscape of your life?
LA: Yes. I went home from work at Siegel & Gale on a Friday and the next afternoon I was in an ambulance with a fractured spine from a freak car accident. After two years, my spine was restored—and I had emerged from another deeply personal transformation. This was my first initiation as a healer. The fact that I had been 4mm from paralysis was startling to my family and friends, but the realization that I had survived at all was what puzzled me. While I was hospitalized, I asked my internist, “Why am I still alive?” He responded matter-of-factly by drawing an imaginary diagram in the air and explained, “There’s a bell curve of survival rates for passengers wearing lap belts in auto accidents. And you just happened to hit in the sweet spot.”
Even as I lay there immobilized and pumped full of painkillers, I had the crystal-clear thought, “This is not a sufficient answer.” Over time, I learned that healing means to become whole again.
The wounding of my body, my mind, my heart, and my soul all needed tending. As I regained my integrity, I began to recognize the sound of my own voice and what I needed to say.
BD: After your recovery, you started Alben+Faris in 1985 while you were still in New York?
LA: Yes. I launched Alben+Faris with a strong intention to use design to uplift the inherent goodness in people. My voice and vision were strong and clear as I gathered together a remarkable group of mentors, advisors, staff, and clients including nonprofits and corporations. I was also teaching design part time at SUNY Purchase, thanks to Len Stokes. Once I had established a solid foundation for our new firm, Jim Faris left MoMA and joined me. Over those first five years, our clients included MasterCard, Historic Hudson Valley, and Georgia-Pacific.
It was thrilling to design communications for The Hunger Project, a formidable initiative to end hunger and starvation by the year 2000 led by Joan Holmes with Lynne Twist guiding development. I was inspired at the audacity and power of a global network activated to create a groundswell of people committed to social justice, focused on achieving a basic human right. This was before the Sustainability Development Goals existed, specifically SDG 2: Zero Hunger.
Like so many others then, and now, I believe it is possible for every single human to be fed and flourish. To do so would mean that we are willing to design solutions that address the intersection of overpopulation, food and water, foreign aid, national security, globalization, and climate change. To alleviate hunger, we need to shift from scarcity to sufficiency. So, once again I find myself saying, above all, we need to design a shift in consciousness.
Humanizing technology: A new field of design“Making It Macintosh: Designing the message when the message is design,” published in the first issue of interactions magazine in 1994 about the interactive companion to the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines for Apple; Lauralee Alben speaking at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in 2005; “Quality of experience: Defining the criteria for effective interaction design,” defined by the jury of the first ACM interactions design awards in 1995.
BD: You and Jim Faris moved your family and business to the west coast in 1990, changing the landscape you lived in and the types of companies that you collaborated with. Alben+Faris worked with many startups and established Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Sony, and IBM. How was that—working on the frontier of computing?
LA: Consulting with Apple for nearly a decade in the 90s upended my entire view of the design process and centered my focus on humanizing technology. I am particularly grateful to Michael Arent who enticed us to move to California to join the nascent field of interaction design at Apple, as well as Hugh Dubberly, Joy Mountford, Jim Palmer, and Harry Saddler for their impact on my evolution as a designer during those years. Through them I learned to design with instead of for people. I learned the art of co-designing in a participatory, interdisciplinary process with iterative cycles and open-ended solutions.
BD: I see it as being pioneers in a sense—you were helping to define a new field of design involving interface and interaction design, and eventually experience design.
LA: I’m from the days of BUX—Before User Experience. I was never afraid to say that I didn’t understand or didn’t have an answer. I was willing to say, “Teach me, show me, clarify for me what the problem set is here.”
Designing for emergent and disruptive technologies means always asking lots of questions. Growing up my nickname was “Twenty Questions.” Now I realize that I’ve always been navigating by inquiry.
BD: I’d like to hear more about your consulting work with Apple.
LA: We consulted with Apple, becoming immersed in a design mecca of highly energized, creative trailblazers. What a wild decade that was! I’ll give you some highlights. Our first project was Making It Macintosh, the interactive companion to the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines.
We also envisioned the future look and feel of the Mac OS, creating the design strategy and interfaces for customizable themes. At that time of one-size-fits-all standardization, simplicity and stability were the primary user interface goals. We balanced these with diversity and expressiveness. Alben+Faris collaborated with an international team of brilliant, innovative designers and software engineers on this contribution to personalized computing.
Alben+Design worked on a system-level interface on a ground-breaking, hand-held device. It was to be used for performance support, field automation, and just-in-time training for airlines, banks, hospitality, and other industries.
Our best known work for Apple is the brandmark Jim Faris designed for the Mac OS, which lives on today in a revised version as the Finder icon. The original interplay between the computer and the profile of a person reinforced the idea of partnership and helped transform users’ love affairs with their Macs into lasting relationships.
BD: During that time, you also created several seminal published works and talks. These were notable contributions to the field. Tell us about “The Making of Making It Macintosh”?
LA: We were encouraged to write about our experiences by our friend, Dan Boyarski, former Head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design. I felt it was important for us as professionally trained designers to share our expertise and ground-breaking learning. I wanted to initiate a reciprocal transfer of knowledge with others. Our intention was to develop best practices and human-centered processes in that emerging field. So began a wave of articles, talks, and exhibits. “Making It Macintosh: Designing the message when the message is design,” was published in the first issue of interactions magazine in 1994. We co-created an interactive exhibit, “The Making of Making It Macintosh” with Apple that traveled to the 1993 AIGA National Conference in Boston and to SIGCHI and SIGGRAPH. Harry Saddler, Jim, and I presented at Terry Winograd’s Seminar on People, Computers, Design, and to many other computing and design organizations across the country.
BD: How did your article, “Quality of experience: Defining the criteria for effective interaction design” come about?
LA: In 1995, I was invited to be a juror for the inaugural ACM interactions Design Awards, the first awards acknowledging quality in interaction design, as distinct from software engineering and research. We quickly realized we had no way to evaluate the diverse range of product entries, from PDAs and games to medical diagnostic equipment, airline cockpits, and software. So the jury—Terry Winograd, Austin Henderson, Harry Saddler, John Rheinfrank, Shelley Evenson, Mark Rettig, Carol Stroehecker, and myself—attempted to define the criteria, initiating an ongoing dialogue within the interaction design community.
BD: So, 25 years after this, the criteria that you established as jurors still holds up in a rapidly changing technology environment. You were pioneering the art of humanizing technology when it was just emerging—personal computing and personal devices.
LA: I am surprised that our criteria remains foundational, timeless, and relevant to emergent design disciplines, processes, and technologies that we couldn’t even conceive of then, like mobile computing, social media, AI, AR, VR, IOT (Internet of Things), robotics, and so much more.
Gaining Perspective: Legendary women
BD: In the past few decades, your work has evolved through the influence of powerful women leaders. These women come from a number of fields, including design, writing, the social sciences, leadership, and technology. In 1997 you were recognized by the Design Management Institute as the first Muriel Cooper Fellow, and received the inaugural Muriel Cooper Prize for your innovative leadership at the intersection of design and technology. Had you met her?
LA: I wish I had met Muriel Cooper. I admired her role as a woman pathfinder on the digital design frontier; her devotion to design, the human experience, and narrative as primary to technology; her spirited irreverence for any paradigm that would prefer dominion over her gender, age, vision, or value. Her leadership at MIT Press, the Visual Language Workshop (VLW), and MIT’s Media Lab was influential beyond measure.
BD: What were some of the key ideas in your keynote, article, and CD in response to becoming a Muriel Cooper Fellow?
LA: In “At the heart of interaction design,” I shared a collection of design stories suggesting that the human experience—not technology—is the essence of interactive design. I asked a question that I’m still asking, “What does it take to design enlivening experiences for and with others?” Instead of pointing outward for answers, I redirected us inward to our human qualities. These were expressed by dairy farmers and airline maintenance workers, grandmothers and teenagers, caregivers and breast-cancer survivors and by the designers, landscape architects, entrepreneurs, and artists who gave these people a certain quality of experience.
BD: Another woman who influenced your work in profound ways is the renowned leadership and organizational theorist Margaret Wheatley. You and Meg share a connection to the sacred in the way you approach design. How did she impact your development of Sea Change Design?
Meg Wheatley has consistently opened up whole vistas over the years. Her book, Leadership and the New Science was formative for me as I shaped Sea Change Design. Particularly with regards to the application of living systems and chaos and complexity science to leadership and organizational change.
Particularly with regards to the application of living systems and chaos and complexity science to leadership and organizational change. Meg inspired a short film I created in 2005, World-Weaving, which visualized my dream of an interconnected world inspired by women. It ended with Meg’s wisdom: “It is impossible to create a healthy culture if we refuse to meet, and if we refuse to listen. But if we meet, and when we listen, we reweave the world into wholeness. And holiness.”
BD: Cultural historian and social systems scientist Dr. Riane Eisler was equally influential in your life. Was it her revolutionary writings, like the Chalice and the Blade, that drew you to her?
LA: Actually, I met Riane Eisler when we were both speaking at the Women’s Forum in 2005. Her legendary work on Partnership is shifting entrenched domination systems. Through a Sea Change Design technique called Rippling, we mapped how the ripple effect of her research, books, and initiatives is influencing everything from economics, education, and the environment to women and children’s rights, peace, and governmental policies.
BD: So, you consulted with Riane on the Center for Partnership Studies. You also created a Sea Change Design Case Study and keynote about her called “El Encanto” (The Enchantment).
LA: Riane’s Life Intention says it all: “How can I partner with humanity to express our enormous capacities for caring, creativity, and consciousness?” Astonishing, from a child of the Holocaust who has designed her life with, “passion, inspiration, and desperation.” When I asked Riane how she has summoned the courage and stamina to spend a lifetime doing the difficult work of Partnership, especially given the atrocities being committed against humanity, nature, and the future, she responded, “Well dear, it hasn’t always been this way. Just for the last 5000 years.”
BD: That is so inspiring! Connect the dots for us between Riane’s work, women, and you.
LA: Riane asserts that both halves of humanity must engage in Partnership for us to become “fully enlightened, peaceful humans.” The sacred feminine and masculine transcend gender. Partnership is integral to our nature.
When I think about women, our wombs, and the world, I see life-givers caring for the questions that ensure the viability of our future. My son, Ben, embraces this commitment too as a creative human being. He teaches me about becoming a conscious one.
Coming home: AIGA
BD: What an honor to be inducted as an AIGA Fellow. How has the AIGA been a thread in your career?
LA: When I returned from Europe to New York in 1980, I was in search of a place of belonging, and I found it in the AIGA. How extraordinary that it comes full circle forty years later, being recognized as one of the AIGA’s own! I’m honored and humbled to stand among so many design luminaries.
As a young designer, AIGA NY was a vital hub for me with events, shows, initiatives, and opportunities to grow and participate in a nationwide design network attuned to a world with emerging needs.
BD: How did you contribute to the profession throughout the years that you were involved in the AIGA?LA:
As my career direction unfolded, my activities with the AIGA were focused on advancing the profession in two areas: the intersection of design and computing, and the meta role of design in addressing wicked, systemic issues in business, society, and the environment.
I gave talks and exhibited at AIGA national conferences as well as to many local chapters. In 1985, I brought Michael Arent, to speak to AIGA NY. To help chapter members decipher computing, we co-designed an educational poster of infographics called Bits and Bytes. During Hurricane Isabel in 1993, the AIGA Boston National Conference prevailed! We exhibited and presented our interactive work with Apple there and at the 1995 Seattle conference. The 2003 AIGA Vancouver conference, The Power of Design was a seminal event focused on Design with a big D, chaired by Terry Irwin and featuring Fritjof Capra, Bruce Mau, David Orr and many other edge-dwellers! I presented the first Sea Change Design case study on culture change, “P&G: From Products to the Profound.”
BD: How did this association with AIGA add more depth to your work?
LA: I contributed to the AIGA Advance for Design, an ambitious initiative led by Terry Swack and Clement Mok. As usual, these two dynamos were on the leading edge. The first summit in Nantucket in 1998 involved days of wrangling and resulted in a manifesto co-created by an eclectic and diverse group of practitioners, educators, and clients. We were concerned with shaping a wider destiny for design in a digital world. Within a few years, the AIGA Experience Design community was thriving, providing a new home for designers venturing into interrelated industries like software, online, digital, broadcast, industrial design, and so many more. I was happy to have the company!
BD: Sometimes you summarize your definition of design into three words: “Design creates relationship.”
LA: Everything emerges in relationship, as a result of our intentions and the context we design within. My career is no exception. All I have accomplished and contributed has transpired through the blessings, dedication, and efforts of my parents, teachers, mentors, colleagues, clients, and students. I’m grateful to all those who worked at Alben+Faris, especially Jim Faris. This is a special moment for us both as we remember those years, and for our son, Benjamin, who grew up in our design office and now witnesses both of his parents being honored as AIGA SF Fellows. Andrea English, my beloved partner at the Sea Change Design Institute bears a special mention, as do our Design Council members. Who knows what the ripple effect will be from the co-creations we designed to serve this world well?
“Navigating a Sea Change,”published in the Design Management Journal in 2002 offering a case study on the Monterey Aquarium’s website; Design strategy harnessing the power of dinergy for financial services startup, Dinergy Wealth Management, offering equitable investing; Design research on the promise and peril of manufactured seafood for the Environmental Defense Fund using the living design system of the Sea Change Design Process™.
Birthing a Living Design System: Sea Change Design
BD: Along with Sea Change Design, your passion for the ocean is partly because you look at it every day out your window. Living on the Pacific coast, one issue you’re devoted to is ocean remediation. How did that start?
LA: Shakespeare used the term “sea change” in The Tempest. In a way, I was undergoing my own storm-tossed sea change in 2000, facing a future no longer defined by Alben+Faris or a marriage, with a young son. I stood looking out my window scanning the ocean and horizon. A question formed in my mind. “For nearly thirty years, I have been exploring and pushing the boundaries of design. How can I create a design process that we can use to solve the seemingly intractable problems in business, society, and the environment?” From that intention, many mentors, collaborators, and clients have joined me on the quest. In particular, Syd Hudspith who I will always be grateful to for helping me formulate the Sea Change Design Process through his prowess in business, ocean science, psychology, and design.
BD: You worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium during that time. Tell us about that.
LA: Sea Change Design exists today partly because of a shift in my consciousness that I experienced in the late ’90s at Alben+Faris while working on an ambitious iteration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website as part of a global marketing and visitor strategy. For over two years, we learned about marine science and ocean conservation, translating it into immersive and interactive experiences that were designed to educate and inspire people to act out of deep reverence for the ocean. Marine biologist Randy Kochevar emphasized that communicating the Aquarium’s conservation mission mattered profoundly for the ocean and for all life: “Understanding the consequences of our actions as we explore, harvest, and mine the deep sea will determine whether we survive or not.” Those profound words created a tectonic shift in my soul.
BD: You said the Monterey Bay Aquarium was your first experience really tackling your understanding of the ocean as a living system?
LA: All of those years ended up in a design and ecological vortex—the direct, revelatory experiences with the ocean, the fascinating fields of oceanography and conservation, and the countless stories and terms like “intertidal zone.” That term alone became a metaphor for how I perceive design as a transformative space. I was inspired by this interstitial ecoregion formed by the tides and teeming with rich biodiversity. First, in my imagination—and now in reality—as I envision how design can serve life. The best kinds of interactions are ones in which all evolve. We helped the Monterey Bay Aquarium leverage its (then) 15-year ocean conservation mission by designing with an emerging technology, influencing visitors from around the world. In turn, I was given a formative experience that has evolved into a living design system.
BD: The power of water, the ocean as water mimicry, metaphor, and a force for personal, cultural and planetary growth, how did that become central to your work?
LA: Water is the source of life, a formidable natural element with its own consciousness. Water is alive and transformative, so water mimicry is the perfect medium for Sea Change Design.
We design with water—as muse, metaphor, and more so as a powerful intelligence that forms a fluid living matrix for our work. From the personal to the organizational to the planetary, water sources regeneration and resilience. This is an interstitial age. This is the era of water.
BD: The Design Management Journal published your seminal article, “Navigating a Sea Change” in 2002. This was the first time you wrote about Sea Change Design, declaring yourself a design activist and an ecodesigner.
LA: That article was a declaration about the role of design as a transformative power. It was the first time sharing my expansive definition of design. The first introduction of Sea Change Design. And a first glimpse into how it worked on business, social, and environmental challenges. In it, I addressed ocean conservation, human rights protection, and innovative business cultures. That writing was my first iteration at exploring the intrinsic nature of design in relationship to ecology and culture. I will always be an advocate for design. We have a long way to go.
Evolving in the Flow: Sea Change Design challenges
BD: How did Sea Change Design contribute to organizations you worked with, particularly the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)?
LA: Some of our most comprehensive consulting work has been for EDF. For their Smart Boats Initiative launch, I gave an interactive keynote as an integral part of a Sea Change Design Scan focused on addressing the urgent, worldwide crisis of overfishing through technological solutions.
BD: Working with disruptive technologies, Sea Change Design seems to be comprehensive and multi-layered, intended to impact life at a global scale.
LA: It is. On another project for EDF Oceans, we engaged with five senior ocean scientists and a team of research fellows, exploring the complex system boundaries and surfacing strategic questions for a research grant on the promise and peril of manufactured seafood. We contributed our findings to EDF’s report on the potential ecological, social, and economic impacts of this emerging technology and happily, helped secure the next level of funding. This was one of the most significant opportunities we’ve had to scan, strategize, and seek solutions to VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) challenges.
This crucial work set a precedent for conducting research through a comprehensive systems analysis and synthesis using a living design system.
It focused specifically on the implications of a disruptive technology that we presume will have an immense impact on our planetary life support systems and the evolution of humanity.
BD: Tell us about the nature-based, regenerative brand strategy you designed for the financial services startup, Dinergy.
LA: What edge-dweller could resist the vision of bringing equitable investing to main street? What started with a request for branding became a blueprint for a living system that has the potential to harness the timeless energy of dinergy, a universal force that extends from our DNA to the cosmos. We created a design strategy for the startup and the name, Dinergy Wealth Management. We aspired to influence a shift in the financial service industry’s mindset of unlimited growth to one focused on sufficiency through a unified approach to investing in these polarized times. Central to our design concept were economic and societal issues like inequity, scarcity, and separation.
György Doczi defined dinergy as the energy that unites complementary opposites through pattern-making processes to generate growth within limits. For a financial services business this translates to “qualitative growth” or “growth which enhances life,” as Frances Moore Lappe calls it. Rather than one based on the “illusion of perpetual growth,” in Fritjof Capra’s words. So we designed the conditions for regenerative “dinergic growth” that would prioritize equitable wealth as the bedrock of the business investment approach and services; relationship as the transformative meme at the heart of the organizational culture; and engagement as the creative power behind the brand experience. All of this, taken together would result in what we termed “dinergic integrity.” I like to imagine the design potential of what we initiated fully actualized in society.
BD: How did your work with Procter & Gamble in 2001 set the stage for shifting mindsets within business culture itself? LA: The first significant use of Sea Change Design was for Procter & Gamble. I’ll always be grateful to Martin Murray, Director of R&D in Global Beauty Care, who trusted in me and committed to explore the uncharted territory of a design-oriented corporate culture change within his R&D group. Martin was excited about adopting a holistic approach that put “design on par with economics, people, and the environment.” I remember his initial response to my proposal outlining how we would use the Sea Change Design Process. He said “Your model promotes unity, partnership, creativity. You want me to buck the entire culture of my organization, where specialization is prized, territories are defended, and the easy way out is pragmatic?” Every sea change begins with an intention, and ours was to develop a sustainable innovation capability from the inside out. We succeeded by any measure—market share, employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, holistic design. From research labs to store shelves to the soul of the organization, meaningful and powerful transformations transpired.
BD: Twenty years ago, Procter & Gamble initiated your first phase of coaching with Sea Change Design. How has it evolved since?
Design coaching became an integral part of the R&D culture change we were leading. Realizing each person was a fractal of the entire culture, we amplified its innovation capability by working individually and collectively.
By accelerating the personal and professional growth of high performance leaders, executive coaching impacts the vitality and productivity of the whole organization. It also provides a way to establish a transformative design nexus like we did for P&G and for clients like ServiceNow and Compass today.
I love coaching people from all walks of life and professions, from social change agents to those shifting existing systems within industries and sectors; from environmental advocates to educators and artists. The youngest has been 14, the oldest 80! Often the desire to serve moves people to courageously accept the challenge of transformation. As our passions become irresistible and the world’s needs become imperative, we choose to claim our lives and act from what is meaningful, what is essential, and what is extraordinary.
BD: Design “coaching” was unheard of when you first integrated it into Sea Change Design.
LA: When I began Sea Change Design coaching, I was thrilled to work in such a deeply intimate way, guiding people through a design inquiry that enhanced self, work, and legacy. Twenty years later, there’s a plethora of books and offerings on the topic. I take it as a positive sign that design is becoming integral to a new way of being.
BD: Sea Change Design continues to have a very interesting evolution in coaching, business consulting, and organizational development. With every client or challenge, you gain a deeper understanding of how to evolve your Process to serve a broader range of needs.
LA: True! We could call it real-time design in response to what’s emerging. This is the nature of our living design system. The framework of the Sea Change Design Process provides both structure and fluidity to whatever it’s applied to—a wicked problem or an awakening life—with the intention to co-design positive, profound, and regenerative transformations.
Educating Across Generations: Sea Change Design philosophy
BD: You have a passion for teaching Sea Change Design. I imagine you draw from your earlier experiences as adjunct faculty at Ravensbourne and SUNY Purchase, as well from the interactive lectures and design workshops you’ve given at many schools and universities like Stanford’s Digital Vision Fellows Program, Carnegie Mellon, and RISD. You’ve also served as a guest critic for design initiatives linking business, academia, and society.
LA: What courage and conviction I see in this generation! Recently, I enjoyed the stimulating interactions with students at California Institute of Integral Studies and UC Santa Cruz’s Graduate Program in Coastal Science and Policy. In every educational setting, we foster a transformative exchange of exploration and evolution within the context of a world in transition.
BD: Your design partner, Andrea English, has been teaching Sea Change Design curriculum for over ten years now at San Jose State University. The impact has been impressive. How did that come about?
LA: SJSU is now the first university to offer Sea Change Design as an integral part of the educational experience. In 2009, Andrea incorporated Sea Change Design curriculum into the capstone course for design seniors in the BA Design Studies. Teaching this course is intense and demanding. It’s essential, sacred work that manifests powerfully in the raw reality of these times. Andrea’s commitment, mastery, and dedication are evident. Over a thousand students have ventured out into the world now with a sense of direction—and belief that they are valued and an integral part of how the future emerges.
BD: You receive many noteworthy reviews, testimonials, and referrals from your clients. What feedback have you received from your students in the design capstone course?
LA: We’ve carefully collected data and over the past decade and the patterns are now clear, achieving and sometimes exceeding our intentions.
Student feedback highlights increased self-worth and self-awareness; a holistic, ecological worldview, systems thinking, and access to the power and relevance of design.
It’s exciting and humbling to know we are giving the students transformative tools and experiences that empower them to co-design sea changes in response to challenges including water, mental health, gender equality, poverty, education, and biodiversity.
BD: What do you and Andrea find most meaningful about teaching?
LA: For Andrea, it’s the shifts in perception. For me, it’s the healing.
Constellating Experiences: Words in time, space, and place“Born to create,” a meditative manifesto and interactive keynote on creativity and an invitation to co-design a life-giving world; Frame from the short film “Grief Cry" expressing an evocative poem by Lauralee Alben. Photograph ©Lawrence Weslowski Jr.; “From crisis to consciousness,” a Sea Change Design keynote and masterclass on Design Consciousness.
BD: Your transdisciplinary approach to design integrates both the spoken and written word. Essentially, you elevate design into a higher art form. You're an artist, a writer, and a poet. How do you weave these all together?
I like to compose and create constellations of experiences that resonate deeply with those who are questing for wisdom, relationship, or meaning. These include stories, essays, or poems integrated with imagery, graphics, and sound. These coalesce into recitations, talks, interactive experiences, exhibits, short films, and now surprisingly, songs and performance.
BD: Poetry is central to Sea Change Design.
Poetry serves as a way to access the spiritual level of our true being in Sea Change Design. It brings us down into the deepest, nutrient-rich waters of our souls, to the source of caring, connecting, creating, and choosing.
In the eloquence of a poem, we can sense the inexplicable finding expression. We can intuit its relevance to the beautiful reality of our ordinary lives—and then we shift. There are so many poets I draw wisdom from—Joy Harjo, Ellen Bass, David Whyte, Pablo Neruda. In the natural world, rivers are some of my favorite poets. A leaf spiraling earthward. That hawk calling just now.
BD: In 2012, you designed Born to Create. It’s a lyrical, meditative manifesto and interactive keynote about design as our birthright. At the beginning of the pandemic, you created a film of your powerful poem, “Grief Cry.” The first time I saw it I felt deep sorrow and freedom, sadness and joy. Your words captured what I and so many others around the world felt as we faced a new global challenge that brought personal loss to almost everyone’s circle of family and friends.
LA: Grief is a liminal space of transformation. There, sorrow merges with the sacred, and grief and grace co-exist in the same moment. Grief Cry burst through me like a breeching humpback whale, whole and complete in one flowing motion. Now we’ve made it into a short film offered as a healing balm for those suffering from loss. It’s included in Poetry and Covid, a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council project sparking global connection through the sharing of pandemic poetry.
BD: You’ve extended your storytelling and poetry to your blog where you share the transformative stories of different people in your life—mentors, clients and those you find inspiring. I loved “What’s at risk?” about the Blue Mind Summit and “Loving the Mystery” on Mary Oliver.
LA: Mary Oliver challenges us to live in the numinous space of not knowing. She lived in a lifelong inquiry and in her poetry asks us countless times to “love the mystery” too. In Sea Change Design, questions are elemental, omnipresent, and irresistible. Every transformation begins with an intention, which always begins with an inquiry. In her poem, “Spring” about a black bear she writes: “There is only one question; how to love this world.”
Transforming Crisis into Consciousness: A legacy on the edge
BD: You and Andrea founded the Sea Change Design Institute in 2015. Tell us about it.
LA: My design partner, Andrea English and I realized it was time to scale, so we launched the Sea Change Design Institute. We announced our presence on World Oceans Day with a short film titled: “One intention. Infinite possibilities.” Our growing nexus of change-makers committed to evolving a conscious, creative, and compassionate world was born. Now, we’re preparing to stage Sea Change Design intensive training programs for coaches, consultants, and teachers to extend our impact and reach.
BD: Your brandmark for Sea Change Design is resonant with many symbols that have come before—ancient understandings—now re-emerging as relevant today.
LA: True. We’re respectfully invoking the original power and meaning of universal and ancestral wisdom represented by the circle and the infinity loop. It’s written and woven, danced and chanted, carved and crafted across time. We’ve re-interpreted it in a fluid way with an emergent story inviting us to design our evolutionary potential. In my poem Design Consciousness, I compose in the shape of the underlying energetic pattern of flow forming a double infinity loop.
BD: As we end this interview, we have witnessed how the last 20 months are transforming everyone and the way in which we do literally everything. Sea Change Design is a process that is pivotal and propitious to this time. Around the world we are experiencing compounding global crises, yet you’re beckoning us across the transformative threshold of a positive future. How can design guide us to become adaptive and innovative at this unprecedented time?
LA: These extraordinary times are defined as much by cataclysmic crises as by compassionate actions. It’s time for us to co-design new ways of living, doing, and being. Just as imperative is reconciling the disconnection, isolation, and wounding within the human heart.
When design becomes an integral part of any effort, it’s contribution is substantial and the emergent outcomes are often revelatory. Resilient leadership. Regenerative products. Restorative processes. Resonant systems.
BD: Despite the limitations of COVID, you have birthed several new initiatives. One of these is your new masterclass, “Transforming Crisis into Consciousness.” How did it evolve?
LA: On that extraordinary evening when I was inducted as an AIGA Fellow, San Francisco went into shutdown from the pandemic. My sister nursed COVID patients. My family endured mournings and health emergencies. Five months later, I evacuated my home as the CZU Fire was bearing down on Santa Cruz. I too, couldn’t breathe. Climate change was suddenly very real and personal. What became clear to me as a healer was that the Coronavirus was here as a crowned messenger bearing three gifts for humanity: oneness, interdependence, and consciousness. I also realized Sea Change Design could help bring these back into our awareness and actions.
The butterfly effect of each blessed one of us is amplifying the sea change in consciousness that’s occurring now in this nexus of self, crisis, and life. When we explore the sanctum of inner transformation we can expand into the crucible of this transitional era. Our primary inquiry in this masterclass is: How can we use design to engage in the profound nature of paradigm-shifting and the pragmatic work of problem-solving? Participants reckon with crises including environmental ones: ocean fisheries and watershed restoration; social systems: injustice, patriarchy, and technology; and spiritual ones: belonging and separation.
BD: You designed a way to enable us to transform who we are as human beings at a pace equal to the urgency of the moment.
LA: How else will we evolve if we don’t bring our whole selves to this precious, precarious world now?
BD: This seems to be a common theme when you speak about designing the future.
LA: Is there a more pressing or worthy cause than our future? Our legacy is dependent on how we design the present. “Now or Never: Designing the Future,” the opening keynote I gave with Uday Dandavate at the Pune Design Festival in India in 2021, was a dialogue about the evolution of consciousness at the intersection of poetry and design. We struck a powerful cord. In 2005, I spoke at the inaugural Women’s Forum for Economy and Society in France. It was thrilling to be among women world leaders passionate about a viable future. At TED in 2004, I gave a fervent plea to design a future worth inheriting for all beings.
These inspiring conversations continue to motivate me, as do the conversations you and I engage in, Bonnie. You serve on the Design Council of the Sea Change Design Institute, so your vantage point on me is wider than most. I am so grateful for your partnership, our friendship, and especially for this adventurous interview through the design arc of my life.
BD: Thank you. I think your resilience and perseverance are really an outgrowth the dialogue between you and your sisters, Denise and Kathy. They urged you to ask the biggest question you can. You’ve answered them. You’re serving life. You’re fearless when you enter new environments or uncharted domains. You love being on the edge.
LA: I’ve discovered that creativity gives us a way to negotiate the territory between chaos and order. Right there on that thrilling edge we’re confronted with what’s beyond it. Think of the sheerest edge you know. A calving Antarctic ice shelf, a raging global pandemic, nuclear disasters… We’re there. We’re in a creative paradigm shift that’s beckoning us into a whole new way of being. I’m bringing everything I have, including a transformative design process that was born on humanity’s edge.
BD: Our planet is on the edge. But as birds know, there is no edge. There is only space.
LA: And the still point: We are. Here. Now.
I asked two urgent questions standing in that still point. “How can I explain that now is the time for design—when all of Life hangs by one precious thread? and “How can I communicate what Design Consciousness is?” The answer was: “Speak to their souls. Write an epic poem.”
Here’s the first stanza of Design Consciousness.
If I could sweep you into the great cosmic embrace,
into the great arcs of co-creation as they curve out and back around
like the hair whirls at the center of your blessed head
and the horsetail cirrus painted across the cerulean sky,
we would come to the still point where even time takes a breath
and remember when spirit was inseparable from stone.
The last four lines bring us to the pinnacle, where we gaze awe-struck across infinity, eternity, and existence, becoming conscious of what design is.
As the Light ignites our imagination all that is blossoms into possibilities
and the portal of our heart opens into a landscape of love.
We transform in the point of convergence, arms raised in exultation
knowing now design serves both as vessel and revelation.
Bonnie DeVarco is an author, curator, designer, and co-founder of Studio DeVarco. With an academic background in cultural anthropology, dance ethnology and archives management, she writes and lectures on Design Science, visualization technologies and virtual worlds, VR, AR and the culture of cyberspace. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar with the MediaX Research Network at Stanford University. As former chief archivist for the Buckminster Fuller Archives, Bonnie is an advisor to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, a Fuller scholar, curator and researcher in the Fuller Collection at Stanford Special Collections. As an education technology consultant and advisor, her clients include PBS, Silicon Graphics, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and Scimaps.org. She sits on the Design Council of the Sea Change Design Institute.