Alex Hope, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab and the founder of design studio Ten FWD, sees design beyond its artistic appeal. In her work, Hope uses design as a vehicle to create appropriate technology for social change.
“It’s less of an engineering-first approach and more of a human-centered people approach,” she said.
With her petite frame, red hair, and clear-framed glasses, Hope, 28, stands out from the heavy gray machinery and computers at the Media Lab.
“I was always kind of split between having an engineering and design mentality and wanting to create things for people,” she said. “I’m the type of person who likes to build and make things, and there’s an artistic, aesthetic side of my brain too, but also I really, deeply want my work to impact people.”
One of her projects includes enhancing the reading experience. She co-created the publishing platform FOLD, where hyperlinks to videos and photos appear next to the text when scrolling through a story – the idea is to give context and to better explain the news for people. What started out as her master’s thesis at the Media Lab grew to a platform used by journalists, educators, and nonprofits.
“Teachers assigning students to use it and students using it as a new writing form – I think has been the most exciting for me to see how creatively they use it,” said Hope. “I hope for tools like that would provide a way for other people to express their creativity.”
Hope, however, wasn’t always enthusiastic about her studies. Right before she was about to drop out of the University of Washington-Seattle in 2010 – since she found her courses to be “unfulfilling” – she began working on a project building a portable ultrasound machine for midwives in Seattle, Kenya, and Uganda.
The project re-reignited her curiosity, as she realized that her interests could make an impact on society. Hope was both the designer and the product manager of the project, collaborating with radiologists in Seattle who were trying to put together a clinical trial to investigate where ultrasound can reduce maternal mortality.
“So there were a lot of different aspects to it,” she said. “It was different than a homework assignment – it took over my life in the best way.”
Now Hope is going on to bigger projects such as creating tools for researchers to better understand the relationship between media stories and sources; working for the R&D team at Facebook; and running the design studio, Ten FWD –reference to a café in Star Trek – that works with nonprofits and companies on design research and prototyping.
“It’s been a really fun and challenging to kind of do your own thing,” said Hope. “I used it in a way to kind of carve out time to learn new things.”
In her spare time, she takes classes on 3D and product design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
“Sometimes it’s really nice to not look at a screen and hold in your hands objects that you made and turn it around and consider it,” she said.
Transitioning from a digital-based design process to traditional craft has taught Hope how to appreciate art in both a technical and artistic way. When asked if she could see design replaced by automation one day, she doesn’t believe one can replace the other.
“Each has different design processes, and it impacts the way you think and the type of ideas you come up with,” said Hope. “For example, if you’re carving a shape out of blue foam and you make a mistake, then it causes you to look at this shape in a new and different way.”
In the future, Hope said she would like to mentor others through classes and workshops and to eventually open a brick-and-mortar for her design studio.
“One of the things I discovered that I really like to do during my time here in the Media Lab is to help others accomplish what they’re looking to do,” she said.
While Hope has made major achievements, her key to success is to go with the flow and be a lifelong learner.
“I think the way I live my way, I want to have some set of things that I feel like I’m competent and good at,” she said. “But I also like to have a set of things where I’m a total beginner.”
Photo by Michelle Cheng