Creative Lives — Paper, Play-Doh and a PlyPhone: We talk tools with service designer Maya Alvarado

Posted 20 November 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Not many kids would be resourceful or cunning enough to request that their detentions take place in the school’s workshop. But when Maya Alvarado got in trouble, you could argue that she was really prepping for a career as a service designer. Now working at socially focused design studio Snook, she spends her days in search of vital insights into peoples’ lives and behaviours – using research to highlight the difference between what people say they want, and what they actually need. Passionate about equality in the workplace, Maya also co-runs Power Project. Founded in response to the fact that women only make up 1% of the skilled trades workforce, the initiative sets out to break down the barriers of using power tools. She tells us more about how studying graphics, and later product design, put her on the path to helping others. 

Maya Alvarado

Job Title

Service Designer, Snook, full-time (March 2017–present)
Co-Founder, Power Project, (January 2017–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Fixperts Resident (2015–2016)

Education

BA Product & Furniture Design Kingston University, (2012–2015)
BA Graphic Design (Just the first year), Kingston University (2011–2012)

Website
Social Media

Maya during the Fixperts Residency at Benchmark

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
I design services for the public and private sectors. This involves researching with people and running workshops to design elements together. I spend a good amount of my time pulling out insights. I use these to inform user-centred digital and physical systems, products and services. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
We start at 9.30am, or earlier if we are travelling. Snook has studios in both London and Glasgow and we work between the two. A typical day could be working from our Shoreditch studio or anywhere in the country. It depends where our clients and research takes us. As a team we are often out and about, so we like to make time to come together. We do morning stand-ups to discuss the progress of projects and to plan that day. My favourite days are those spent researching; that might be working in council offices or visiting individuals at home.

How did you land your current job? 
A friend, Charlotte Fountaine, who I studied with, was working with Snook in Glasgow. I followed her activities on Instagram, which always looked so vibrant. I reached out to Snook after finishing the Fixperts Residency [a creative social and education platform that invites people to repair things for others]. I was looking for something involving ethnographic research. Fixperts gave me lots of experience in prototyping and recruitment. I developed the skills to approach new people and pinpoint what they need rather than what they say they want.

“My favourite days are those spent researching; that might be working in council offices or visiting individuals at home.”

Fixperts - Heidi’s Utensils

What do you like about working in London?
I’m from London and thought I would have moved further afield by now. There is definitely something about the people here in London. We held a CycleHack event in Hackney this September, and there was a great mix of people participating: students, engineers and transport planners. They spent their weekend on something they felt passionate about. There is always something to get involved in and excited about in London.

How collaborative is your role? 
In my work I collaborate with the team every day in sharing projects, ideas and research. Our relationship with clients are very collaborative. We build shared spaces and work together, live, on documents. It is super-important that our work connects with those who will interact with it. To do this we run co-design sessions with both service providers and the users of a service. These are creative workshops filled with sketching, lego and Play-Doh. We map journeys and design details. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
It’s busy and fast-paced which can sometimes catch up on you! I am lucky to design with the clients we work with and to work alongside the Snook team. They are a fun and passionate bunch – always teaching me new things! 

CycleHack, London with Snook

CycleHack, London with Snook

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London Midland CycleHack with Snook

London Midland CycleHack with Snook

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I ran a Build a Fast and Dirty Chatbot session at MozFest 2017 with Charlotte Fountaine. We showed people an effective way to streamline public service information online. Often on a website you have to read a whole article before finding what is relevant to you. We created chatbots to tailor information for specific-use cases. 37 people joined us and built bots in 60 minutes! 

Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
I am passionate about our rights and in particular equality in the workplace. Last year I co-founded Power Project. It is a programme of free DIY and making workshops for female and non-binary individuals. We aim to achieve a representative workforce in the manufacturing and fabrication industries. Women currently only make up 1% of the skilled trades workforce. On the weekends and evenings, James Green, Louise Colgan and I work out of the Livesey Workshop in Peckham.

The workshop is part of the Livesey Exchange – an ideas-sharing project for the local community. This year we ran a series of Make Your Own workshops; we’ve built clamps, toolboxes and work lights. We invite people to build a collection of objects to continue a career in fabrication. We design objects that take participants through a range of processes and machines, and our aim is to break down the barriers of using power tools

What tools do you use most for your work? 
For my work with Snook we use a wide range of tools. I use the Adobe suite when prototyping and Google for working live with clients and within Snook. In my research kit there are post-it notes, sharpies, a sketchbook, pens, an audio recorder and a camera. We do lots of paper prototyping before jumping on the computer. We use paper tools, Lego and Play-Doh when co-creating with others. My favourite tool is a PlyPhone designed by my colleague Keira and her partner. It is a fake phone made of laser-cut plywood. You can run receipt roll through it for sketching on. This is great for testing wireframes for a digital product.

“It is super-important that our work connects with those who will interact with it.”

Build a Fast and Dirty Chatbot workshop

Build a Fast and Dirty Chatbot workshop

Build a Fast and Dirty Chatbot workshop

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
A fashion designer, I was always making clothes out of paper with my sisters.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work? 
When I was at secondary school, I arranged for my detentions to take place in the wood workshop. I’m not quite sure how I was allowed to do this, but looking back this was time well spent!

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role? 
At Kingston University, I studied graphic design for a year before switching to product and furniture design. I use the software skills I learnt on the graphics course every day at work. The knowledge I gained on product feeds into both Power Project and service design. 

The Snook ‘PlyPhone’. Running receipt roll through it means it can be used for sketching out wireframes for digital products

What were your first jobs? 
My first internship was in 2012; I was the studio assistant for designer Bethan Laura Wood. I spent a fun summer with her, model-making furniture and lighting products. My first longer-term creative job was at the Royal Academy of Arts as the learning assistant. I helped to curate and facilitate their youth arts programme. Whilst studying I also interned with Silo Studio. I assisted with the production of their fabric-moulded glassware and jesmonite bowls. Then later with Vitra, which introduced me to the London design industry. 

What one move helped you the most at the start of your career? 
One night in first year my housemate Barbara Ryan insisted that I should send my CV around to the people I liked. I didn’t think it was ready, but I got responses back and found my first internship through doing that – you’ve got to start somewhere! 

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development? 
In my first year of university I took part in the Fixperts pilot in the Stanley Picker Gallery. It was a short cross-disciplinary side project, but I ended up volunteering with Fixperts for years. I learned lots about designing and facilitating workshops. It instilled in me a want to design for social good. I take forward the skills I gained in ethnography, prototyping and creative problem solving into my work today.

Maya at Power Project

Power Project

Power Project

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What skills have you learnt along the way? 
Service design is a new industry and techniques are always evolving. This creates space for you to build and test new tools. There are always new principles to learn, but the core skills of communication and research run through all projects.

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
Yes, in the way that it’s an amalgamation of making stuff and designing for social good. I never expected to go into design for industrial manufacture and for sustainability reasons. I love making and Power Project keeps me close to fabrication. Making and collaboration holds the power to transform communities. Service design prompts me to be critical about topics – to seek evidence before moving forward.

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I would like to run a discovery project around equality in the workplace. Followed by a hack event to explore the best way to make change.

Could you do this job forever?
Definitely, I feel like my job and Power Project are always evolving and reacting to research findings and technology. The topics and types of activities I am involved in are therefore changing which makes it incredibly interesting.

Power Project

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to be a service designer?
Be curious, don’t be afraid to ask questions and talk to people – whether that is with a designer at the end of a presentation, or someone you see out in the world that has fixed something.

Posted 20 November 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Interaction Design, Design
Mentions: Maya Alvarado, Snook, Charlotte Fountaine, Fixperts, Vitra, Bethan Laura Wood, Silo Studio
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