It’s Giving Tuesday today, and #MOYAVoices features Jessica Villeda, an Interior Designer at Moya Design Partners. Jessica talked about a variety of topics: empathy, the recent hurricanes affecting her native Honduras, and how designers must be more involved and proactive in their communities.
Q: Tell us about your beginnings as a designer.
I started a while back in the late 1990s. I went to school in the D.C. area, butdecided to put my career on hold to have a family. I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years but was able to dedicatesome of my time to interior design consulting. I completed some residential work,providing consultations,sketches and design ideas as a part time job for 5 to 6 years.
After I went back to finish school, I started working at largerdesignfirms. The first company I worked at was a firm specialized in hospitality design,which was a great experience. I worked on commercial interiorsat HOK in D.C., and then at Design Collective in Baltimore getting exposure to more diverse projects. Working in both those environments helped me getcomfortable workingand collaboratingwith people from different fields,while also creating forward,innovative, and greatfunctional spaces.
And now, I landed here at MOYA! I started talking to Paola over the summer, and it made sense to me to move to a firm that does splendid work and has a great philosophy of design.
Q: How does the MOYA philosophy fit with your views on design?
One of the things that has always interested me is creating spaces with the end user in mind, thinking of empathic designprocess and the user centric design approach. For instance, in the hospitality field, you are thinking about the owner or the hotel standards, but not necessarily the end user.On the other hand, for a commercial interiors project, you have the opportunity to think about how much time a person spends in an office. It is often more than eight, ten hours – a person practically lives there.Designingan interior space for an office or a workplaceis rewarding; you can provide elements that create an environment where people would feel comfortable and at home.
When I saw the kind of work MOYAdoes and the kind of relationship they have with the community, I thought that this firm would be a great place to work. I have been volunteering and doing community work my whole life, and MOYA’s design philanthropy goals connect well with mine.
“One of the things empathic design is trying to address is thinking from an end-user perspective. Questions that arise could include: what activities are you going to be doing; how much time are you going to be spending there; and what are the things that surround you while you’re working?”
Jessica is part of the MOYA team working on the renovations for the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) office interiors. Since 2006, DASH has developed survivor-centered programs that have helped thousands of domestic violence survivors build confidence and find the support to re-appropriate their lives.
Q: What has been your experience with the DASH office renovation project?
Thisis a great project for me, and my first project at MOYA. DASH supplies housing for victims of domestic violence, and this projectis for the headquarters of this organization in the D.C. area.This is the office from where these individualshelp others. They bring light and hope to all, and I thought that with the work we doas designers we have an opportunity to change a space to better inspire them – with environmental graphic design, adding some texture or changing the lighting – we can make this space more welcoming to help their current environment.
One of the things empathic design is trying to address is thinking from an end-user perspective. Questions that arise could include:what activities are you going to be doing; how much time are you going to be spending there; and what are the things that surround you while you’re working?
With the pandemic, everybody has an office or makeshift office space for working at home. Eventually we will go back to an actual office building, but not everybody gets the chance to havea nice space. In the building where DASH has its offices, one of the sides of the building is right against another building, blockingmost of the windows they have. They don’t have a view and they’re filled with concrete. It gives you a sense of enclosure. I would like to bring life, bring color, and bring texture into the space to make them feel like I would feel at home.
This is not a project where we are building and taking the walls apart. It’s not a major renovation where you’re knocking everything down and creating everything from scratch. The team will work on bringing some elements in to brighten the space, such as adding some colors and bringing in softer lighting.Another thingwe need to consider is safety, in the times we are living. We have to think about the space that we’re in and how we can interactwhile keeping our personal space at the same time. At the start of the project, I researchedall the new furniture and elements that will be part of the interior design due to the impact of COVID. It’s not only biosecurity, but how do you divide the spaces,relying on the elements available to create environments where the six, seven people that work there can come in and feel comfortable.
Q: DASH Headquarters is not only an office space, but also a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, of which one-third are children. How does that condition the design of space?
We were asked tocreate a multipurpose room, which we are callingThe Conversation Room. This room has access to the Internet, computers and desks, a sofa and a kid’s area.It was made clear to us that it’s not just women, but also families that come into DASH. We’re adding a kid’s corner to create a little nook for those families that come in who needto go through paperwork and information and will come with their children.
We aretrying to make this room light and airy, bringing in visual graphics with texture, a chalkboard,activities and soft seating.While these families are at DASH offices, they at least have the hope that they will transition andgo to a nice place where you’re going to have some sort of freedom.
In November, Central America was hit by two hurricanes. First it was Eta, a category 4 hurricane that soared through the region on November 3rd. Next came Iota, a category 5 hurricane that hit the region barely two weeks after. So far, over 200,000 people have been displaced, many of them permanently.
Q: Jessica, can you share with us your involvement inthe relief initiatives for this region?
It’s hard for me not to mentionwhat’s happening in Central America and specifically in Honduras, because I’m originally from there.Honduraswas hit by two major hurricanes in the middle of a pandemic crisis that also saw a rise in unemployment and poverty. Because of the conditions in the country withdirty drainage systems, and the government not investing in good infrastructure and services, there was no capacity to hold the water overflow from the rain. Houses were flooded up to the second floor, or up to the roof, resulting in people standing on the roof for 72 hours in some towns, and even longer times in other communities.
“Our ability as designers to communicate with others – whether it’s by design, words, or by a rendering – can help create awareness of things that are happening all over the world. Right now, we must be willing to help actively, be ready to say “Hey, this is how I can help the people living in shelters”. Take a step forward.”
I have been trying to send help in different ways. One way is through monetary donations for different organizations that could provide first necessity items for the people in shelters, and another way is working with my family and other members of the civil society by sending clothing and food to this region. However, the most important thing is to have monetary donations so these organizations can get hurricane victims exactly what they need.
The first time I encountered a tragedy like this was 21 years ago with hurricane Mitch. It was one of the strongest storms that hit Central America, and it stayed in Honduras for three days. The rain caused mudslides and the rivers carried a lot of debris. My hometown of Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) was hit the hardest, with everybody losing power, plus water covering buses, houses, and people – nobody had a chance to leave. There were so many casualties and residents being displaced and it took a long time to rebuild. This is also what is happening right now, where lots of people have lost their homes and are living in shelters, people that were already struggling with COVID. There are also other issues that need to be addressed, including dengue fever, polluted water, and people getting gastrointestinal illnesses at shelters. Therefore, it’s important to donate.
Q: What channels are you using to make these resources reach the people who need them?
Oneof the organizations is the Red Cross. Cruz Roja Hondurasis where people can make donations, or it can also be done through Red Cross International; just mention hurricane relief, relief, Central America or Honduras specifically with your donation. Leadership Mission Internationalis another organization that helps women become leaders in a leadership mission. They provide grants for girls to take part in atwo-year academic program. Graduates then become leaders in their community, continue their studies, or become entrepreneurs. During the start of the pandemic, Leadership Mission International has helped provide meals, supported people who have lost their jobs, and provided biosecurity. Currently they are putting their efforts towards hurricane relief for victims of both hurricanes Eta and Iota.
Another organization, calledCEPUDO,also works the same way. In countries like Honduras, where it is hard to trust where the money is going, these organizations have been able to show transparency and where these funds are going towards relief efforts.
Q: Moya Design Partners recently donated to Leadership Mission International and is making a pledge for people to get involved in helping Honduras and other affected communities.
Besides direct help, how else can designers help to improve existing infrastructures and reduce vulnerability?
There is work done here in the USA. There’s research and there isinnovation and literature, but sometimes it is not connected with practice.Firms need to get more involved with their communities.
I keep on going back to MOYA’s philosophy about helping the community, whether it is done locally or abroad. Our ability as designers to communicate with others – whether it’s by design, words, or by a rendering – can help create awareness of things that are happening all over the world. Right now, we must be willing to help actively, be ready to say “Hey, this is how I can help the people living in shelters”. Take a step forward.
MOYA is doing the work for DASH pro bono, and I think more firms should do this. It is one of the crucial things right now for hurricane relief, getting involved. It would be nice if people at least tried to learn what’s happening. Because hurricanes havehappened here; it’s happened in Houston, Louisiana, and New Jersey. Develop empathy for others, try to put yourself in their shoes.
In 2014, I participated in a designathonthat was sponsored by Google on behalf of the United Cerebral Palsy organization. Industrial engineers, architects, designers, and artists attendedthis three–day event. On the first day, the attendees completed empathy exercises where you are put inchallenges where you don’t have the ability to use your handsor arms. Some examples are trying to open a restroom door without being able to use your hands, or how to put-on socks if you have a physical disability that restricts mobility.
After these exercises, you are tasked with writing down your thoughts about the experience. On the next day, these different creative minds were all working together to come up with a device solution to one of the problems that we faced.
On the final day of the event, the different teams presented their ideas to all attendees. The winning idea was a little latch that could be attached to something, such as a door handle. Someone with limited mobility in their handsuses this latch and opens the door. While this was a simple solution, it took a team three days to develop this innovation. One small challenge that we might not think is a big deal for us might be for someone else. I think innovation is always needed and is crucial.
Q: Do you think we are finally understanding that good design does not necessarily mean lavish expenditure and top-end technology or materials?
Aformer professor of mine in a Healthcare Studio,Moira Denson, haswritten about the empathic design process and design for senior citizens. Her thoughtshave always been looking through the eyes of others and their needs.You don’t necessarily think of design needsfor different groups of people until you experience the situation yourself or have somebody go through it. That is when you come up with a design solution. I might think as a designer, I like to have color and I want to be bold, but is that what the end user wants? I need to use my knowledge in applying elements that would create a good design for someone who would really enjoy it and feel comfortable with it. It is my job to interpret the needs of the end user. To me aesthetics is important, but functionality is a larger factor, combined it can be great.
“What these tragedies teach us is that designers cannot be reactive and just wait to try and solve situations and emergencies when these occur. We need to have foresight, think ahead and a anticipate what people may need based on the knowledge we have of a situation, but also have empathy.”
Q: Do you mean that empathy allows designers to anticipate and think ahead? Designing with more people and more situations in mind, consider functional diversity, changing circumstances.
Exactly!If you think about it, when you’re creating shelters, we need to consider rooms, an open community area, somewhere where people are going to cook.
After a tragedy like a hurricane, there is a situation where there’s a housing crisis. After a tragedy like a hurricane, you need to think about what those people have experienced as well. It’s not just let’s open our garage and have all these people come in. It is small things like designing a space thinking about a child that comes in with that mom or that dad who just lost everything. That child whoprobably saw his pets get taken by the water, or even worse,a child who just lost a relative in the flood. It’s very tragic. We must consider all the things that we can contribute to changingthat experience, to at the very least, make sure they get everything they need.
You must think of each one of them. And it is a challenge, a real challenge to do it in real-time. What these tragedies teach us is that designers cannot be reactive and just wait to try and solve situations and emergencies when these occur. We need to have foresight, think ahead and anticipate what people may need based on the knowledge we have of a situation, but also have empathy.
Takesocial housing for example, to me, one of the things that you don’t think about enough as designers or architects is that we need to make sure that we provide green areas, that we provide areas that have enough light, areas where people can feel ownership and the ability to grow.
There is a great architect that I love from South America. His name is Alejandro Aravena and he won the Pritzker Prize for his socially conscious building projects. He created this housing project where the idea is to leave open spaces to allow the family to build it and grow. They can feel like they left something for the next generation that might still be living there. That is one of the things that we need to consider, to provide elements that allow people the opportunity to grow and have a sense of belonging and ownership.