“I wasn't even planning on going to college," says Nhan Tyson Mai, who is a senior graduating this December with a Bachelor's of Industrial Design. However, his statement differs strikingly to the paths he's opened up to future ID majors.
Mai has constructed workshops for his Industrial Designers Society of America peers to show them the trade and craft behind the labor of designing. Some of his accomplishments include a bracelet released at a recent Taylor Swift concert, first place at Shark Tank Lafayette (The Vault) and an eco-friendly snapback hat that uses old skateboard decks for the bills that skateboard brand Element had expressed interest in. Mai will be advancing his profession to the West Coast after graduation. In the meantime, he sat down to answer a few questions.
So you weren’t planning on going to college?
Not at all. (Laughs) I was a bad kid. At first, I ended up in architecture because I wanted to find something that incorporated art and money. I changed majors towards the end of my freshman year. A lot of the times, kids change their majors to ID. We rarely have people that start ID from the beginning.
Haha, that’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one to change majors. What’s your creative process like?
I was a graphic designer and photographer before. When I jumped into ID, I just switched my base skills to what I needed for the major. Photography always looks at perspective, so the 3-D modeling and rendering done in ID uses pretty much the same concepts. I definitely know that if you want to go big in this program, you have to work A LOT. And that’s what I did; I put 20-30 hours outside of school work into the program honing my skills.
What was the creative process like switching over to ID from graphic design and photography?
For my inspiration or for designing new products, I feel like designing it comes naturally. During daily life cycles, something happens, and I (think) wish we had this to improve it. And something (clicks) when I have an “ah-ha” moment. (Then) I do my research, and if there’s already something, then I buy it. If not, I make it. There’s a miscommunication that industrial design is inventing. It is not inventing new things. We are not inventors. We are innovators. Industrial designers make things better, which is why there are so many different sorts of sneakers or home appliances to cater to the different needs of people.
And how has your time at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette contributed to your education as a designer?
I guess without UL I really would not have known how the business side of industrial design works. I wouldn’t have known how to network and present myself in a professional setting. A lot of what I learned is through conferences with the school and from real life experiences. What I do know is that the major definitely opened my eyes up like a designer. I know students who come in that had no idea what design is, and they jump into design and start to see and think like a designer. They begin to tell the difference of what is good and bad design, like what’s tacky and what’s sleek.
That’s really cool to hear. Would you mind telling us what your favorite project is?
The sneaker project, which was my senior thesis. I designed a normal, naked shoe that’s simple in design, but very sleek. Then I made the negative of the sole to be different, so I can take off one sole and attach another one. The four base soles that I had were one for everyday use, track shoes, which would give you more grip, and another one was more heavy-duty for hiking with spikes at the bottom and it had more rivets to counter the impact of earth when someone’s walking, and I also made a bike clip shoe for professional bikes. The sole stretches like elastic to be worn over any pair of shoes for bikers. The last sole is for skaters; the soles are thicker on the side so it won’t rip. My intention is for people to keep the shoes forever and buy soles instead.
Do you feel as though your background has helped contribute to who a designer can be?
It’s not just being Asian, but more about my background being in Louisiana. There’s not a lot of design here, whereas we have an abundance of construction work and oil-field related jobs. At first, I thought me being from Louisiana was like a handicap on my part since a lot of designers are elsewhere in the U.S. But soon, I learned that it’s always good to be different.
And because I am from Louisiana, I find that I actually understand “real world” problems versus being a city kid and having everything at arm’s reach. Growing up, a trailer was my home, and I find that it has helped me understand what real world people really need, which is exactly what industrial designers aim to solve. They want to make new products for better living. That’s what good design is.
Now, I have to ask since you’re going out in the grown-up world soon. What’s your morning routine? All successful people have one.
I wake two to three hours before class or whatever I have to do, and my showerhead is my alarm. I set it on my nightstand, and it goes off in the morning, and will not shut up because the batteries are screwed inside. I have to go take a shower for it to turn off, then once I’m done, I make my coffee and do a daily sketch.
I don’t set a timer for myself, I just do it: fill up the whole spread (two pages). I feel that it helps trudge through when you wanna procrastinate or don’t feel like doing anything. Because you can’t just stop in life.