Celebrate Austin design through a week of free workshops, talks, studio tours and events this November as the city celebrates its creative community in the third annual Austin Design Week.
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The Future Of Austin: Featuring Two Urban Designers

This week, I met with Meghan Skornia (MS) and Eric Leshinsky (EL), two fantastic urban planners from Asakura Robinson, to learn all about how design impacts the environmental and communal structure of Austin. At Asakura Robinson, they have worked on countless projects, and from Nov. 10-16, you can see their installation “No Lifeguard on Duty” at the Waller Creek Show!

Today, you lucky readers get to discover where and how Meghan + Eric seek inspiration and how it influences their realm of design.

Where do you find inspiration?

MS: “I find inspiration in firms and companies that relay complex information in a very simple way. I have a zoning background which is a pretty complex area of urban planning, so we spent a lot of time taking abstract ideas and making them understandable. I think that it's very important in planning to convey these ideas to citizens, because we are influencing people's physical environment. I find inspiration from designers of all types that are able to operate simply, but also can interject a little fun, and of course I'm a sucker for beautiful graphics.”

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A lot of non-designer people do things that improve our surroundings, and I am always impressed by idiosyncratic interventions that people do.

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EL: “I find inspiration from just looking around the places where I live and visit— appreciating those everyday things that people do to enliven the urban environment. A lot of non-designer people do things that improve our surroundings, and I am always impressed by idiosyncratic interventions that people do—whether it's a handmade sign,an event, or a public artwork. For me, that's what keeps things interesting. As a professional designer and planner, I'm always looking for those bottom-up interventions.”

How do you integrate inspiration into your design and planning?

MS: Professionally, I manage many of the graphics that our firm produces and drive the final document for many of the plans we develop. I really try to integrate inspiration from other fields into our work. It's really easy to just make plans that look similar each time, and even though that’s not why we're hired—we're hired for the planning work—I still really think it's important to keep pushing the boundaries as many of us are trained as designers are inclined to do.

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I still really think it's important to keep pushing the boundaries as many of us are trained as designers are inclined to do.

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EL: “In the early stages in a lot of our projects, we have an opportunity to improve the project that we're working by finding precedents that might result in something like a mood board which is more typical to architecture or interior design. We can show some ideas early in the process with whoever we're working with to get them thinking about ideas that they haven't considered before. It's an opportunity for us to inject what we’ve learned from other projects and places into the project. We're also always looking for ways to graphically communicate our ideas and to do this in a way that is tailored to the specific project we integrate graphic styles that may have worked in other contexts on projects that may have nothing to do with urban planning but they communicate a shared value system.”

What are some of your favorite designers or projects that inspire you?

MS: “Locally, James Louis Walker, the founder of Type Hike, is really inspiring to me. He's a graphic designer who focuses on typography and has used it as a platform to raise money for our natural parks and endangered species by gathering all of these different designers to create posters and a book. You see a whole bunch of different graphic styles and points of view, which I think is fascinating.

“Architecturally, I really like Studio Gang, because they push the boundaries of their work away from just architecture, touching on everything from urban design and planning to public art. Also, there is a whole host of really great marketing and hospitality companies that create place-based and detail-oriented projects, like Bunkhouse (Hotel San Jose, El Cosmico), McGuire Mooreman (June’s, Elizabeth Street Cafe), and Preacher. They all create these really immersive experiences and incredibly detail-oriented projects that I am a huge fan of, and I think are an important push back against many of our backgrounds in design.”

EL: “I am always inspired by projects that find a way to really be hyper-sensitive to local conditions and are influenced by local context, but then bring in broader influences. Austin has so much of this if you look at the kind of commercial enterprises that have thrived here. It’s funny how much I appreciate a good local fast food place like P.Terry’s or Torchy’s Tacos. Those places have used design as a part of their story and marketing in a really integral way.

“A firm that I really like is Gehl Studio, a firm based in Copenhagen. They're a hybrid of planning and design practice and focus on how people interact with their environments. A while back, the guys from Rebar Studio in San Francisco who essentially launched the first Parking Day, which has now become a big influence our tactical urbanism, joined Gehl and really expanded that firm’s work in the U.S. Studio Gang is a great architectural example—they have found a way to transcend the typical boundaries of architecture.

“I also really admire the work of the New York-based firm Interboro Partners. They’ve been super successful at developing projects that are both practical and theoretical, and which really try to understand the policies and practices which guide the creation of urban places.”

What are some of your favorite places you’ve been?

MS: “Mexico City was fascinating—from the colors, to the mix of really old and new architecture, and the chaos that still felt very ordered and lived in. I went to Los Angeles not long after, and I think the parallel between the two is very interesting. Both are pretty low-rise, sprawling cities with very rich and varied cultures. As designers, we tend to like things that are very simple, clean, and straightforward, especially in the planning world. To see complete and utter colorful chaos that still works was just really inspiring.”

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To see complete and utter colorful chaos that still works was just really inspiring.

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EL: “I went on a trip to France over the summer and made it to Marseille—I was really impressed, I wish I could've stayed there longer. It's never gotten the same attention as Paris among French cities. It's this very international port city. A real ‘melting pot’ It just seems like it's having a moment now, because it's thriving on all of this diversity. And people are started to visit for that reason. It's beautiful. There's a lot of interesting street-level action going on in terms of design intervention.

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“I'm originally from Baltimore, and I go back there a lot, and it doesn’t get enough attention for design but I'm always inspired by what I see there. There's a lot of great, resourceful design happening there that is really responding to local context.”

What is the best advice you have received?

MS: “My boss once told me I have really good judgement. I've only been working about 4 years, and I haven't really had anyone that has indicted that they have such faith in me to just do things as I see fit, but that has given me the support I need to rely on myself, trust my judgement and stand up for my ideas. I have been able to really fall back on my own intuition since joining Asakura Robinson a year ago, which has been super empowering and really fun, and I am grateful to work with such awesome people that support each other like that.”

EL: “I received a small piece of good advice when I was in architecture school, which sounds kind of obvious but it was, "Don't rely on your assumptions." which is harder to do than it sounds! Whenever you're trying to understand a place or a situation, you have to observe it first, and then make sense of the observations. I tend to make assumptions, so I have to catch myself, and you really don’t want to rely on that.”

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Don't rely on your assumptions.

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What do you see as the future of urban planning?

MS: “I see increased community involvement and a more empowered community. We are seeing the effects of increased population and global warming on a more dramatic scale daily. Many people are realizing the way that they live and get around is really impacting our environment, and are becoming more aware the consequences. I think that awareness coupled with advances in technology has a lot of people more interested in urban planning. I see the future moving towards a more informed and equipped public, which as a planner is exciting.”

EL: “Yes, like everything from how people navigate public transit to how they attend planning-related events and community meetings. Generally, non-planners are becoming much more aware of how they can impact planning. Urban planning is emerging from being an under-appreciated tool for addressing the climate change, and we're seeing people realize that more and more of.

“Cities and communities understanding the guidelines they provide for how development and transportation happens, all have enormous impacts on climate change. We can control that and we can control making cities more bikeable and walkable, which has a huge impact on global warming. We can also choose to not develop places that can help us mitigate flooding.

“The influence of environmental planners on city policy is becoming a significant development. It's been amazing to see certain cities, like post-Katrina New Orleans, and now post-Harvey Houston, embracing how to manage storm water more productively. Every city that has flooding, is learning how to address that differently.”

What’s the last great book you read? Any other resources?

MS: “I'm switching between Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is about Chicago in the 1800’s and The Interior Circuit by Francisco Goldman, which is about Mexico City in 2013. They're both fiction, and really great books if you're interested in cities. Other than that, I really like looking at cookbooks, and own far too many of them, gathering graphic ideas about how to relay processes and instructions.. As for local blogs, I like Austin On Your Feet, which is about the local development scene and everything that's going on with our zoning code.”

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I've always appreciated the way [Greenpeace] blended their media tactics with environmental advocacy.

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EL: “I'm reading a book called Greenpeace right now, it’s a biography of the environmental group, which is an amazing read. it's really fascinating, because the era that organization launched in, the 1960s feels very similar to right now in the way the book characterizes it. It was the period of the nuclear disarmament movement where people were responding to a world that seemed to be careening out of control. If people are nervous about the condition that we're in now, the book it really put things in perspective—not to say that we don't need to be active right now, we need to be more active! And the tactics for activism have changed The Greenpeace organization was a direct response to what was happening then but they’ve found a way to stay relevant. I've always appreciated the way they've blended their media tactics with environmental advocacy.”

What do you follow to keep up with current design trends?

MS: “Instagram, mostly I really like all of the design work that Outdoor Voices is doing right now—conceptually, by using the platform to reach users, and with their own graphics. I follow nearly 4,000 people, which is ridiculous, but I tend to follow anyone I am interested in from fellow design firms, to brands I admire, and of course tons of restaurants. I also really like the blog NOTCOT. It's a good overview of what's going on with the design world without getting too deep. Next City is pretty urban planning specific that a lot of us read as well.”

EL: “City Lab is a good blog. There's a lot of blogs that are in between city planning and design. We're pretty fortunate here in Austin, where a lot of organizations are pushing design, so we all try to go to events when we can. Folks from our office, including Meghan, have helped to organize a monthly meet up of design and planning professionals called UP Club that is a great way to stay connected.”

MS: “We all go to a lot of local design events as an office. There's always a couple of us attending events held by Preacher. Lately, Type Hike with my friend James Louis Walker has been doing some fun and informative events, so I like to go to those events as well.”

What can attendees expect during your workshop on tactical urbanism?

MS: “They should expect a laid back workshop that helps empower them to solve their ‘urban annoyances’ and address problems in their communities. If they come armed with something like, ‘my bus stop is awful’, we will learn about and test short-term interventions, with the idea these projects could lead to long term change.”

EL: “It's going to be a quick primer for people to see some of the possibilities that they can realize in their own neighborhoods and places where they spend time... It kind of goes back to what we were saying about people becoming more engaged and informed about how to participate in urban planning and urban design. We're hoping to leave people with some simple DIY and doable ideas that can be done on a budget, with just a little design prowess, but really have a potentially huge ripple effect on the improving our surroundings.”


Hopefully this got you guys excited to learn much more about Austin's unique urban environment during their workshop on Nov. 7th!

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Improving Your Urban Experience: Tactical Urbanism Immersive

Participants will learn about how they can improve their neighborhoods, travel routes, and parks through Tactical Urbanism, using everyday tools and small, diy improvements to spark change in their urban experience. This workshop will be immersive, taking participants from learning about Tactical Urbanism and developing initial concepts, through hands-on testing, to creating a simple and easy to apply “kit of parts” plan for use in their own neighborhoods, and finally will develop a way for participants to share results and ideas on social media after the workshop, continuing the conversation.

Read more about the event you don't want to miss here!

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The Austin Design Week Blog is curated and produced in partnership with Left Right Media. Left Right Media is a creative agency in Austin, specializing in branding, web design, app design and digital strategy. Their success is a result of both an analytical (left) and creative (right) approach to design.

SAVE THE DATE: November 5-9, 2018