Work inspiration with Chris Palmieri

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Chris Palmieri

Director and co-founder of AQ

My name is Chris Palmieri, director and co-founder of AQ, a product design studio based in Tokyo and Paris.

How did you get started in design?

As a teenager I spent hours each night wandering around the web, when it was still this little settlement of self published oddities outside of the AOL garden. When I entered university, I got my first personal web address, my first LAN connection, my first illegitimate copy of Photoshop, my first HTML editor – everything I needed to join the fray.

I remember a lot of time spent wrangling the web page editor into producing consistent typography and making photo compositions, for no greater purpose than getting a reaction out of my friends. Soon I was making websites for my band and for family businesses, and my interest in getting things to look just so led me to study design.

After school I moved to Tokyo and freelanced for a while, mostly making informational sites for small businesses. I met my co-founders, and around 2004 we began creating websites that worked like physical spaces, services or products – more transactional, temporal, social, and generative – all the qualities we expect of technology today. We’ve spent most of the decade building tools like these and studying how people use them.

What is a turning point in your professional career?

Starting my career in Tokyo remains the most consequential decision I've made so far.

In order to design for a cultural environment in which I didn't grow up, I needed to throw away all assumptions of shared experiences and points of view – aesthetic sensibility, symbolic associations, use of and uses for technology, sense of humor, and on and on. This was paralyzing at first – like trying to write jokes that space aliens will laugh at. But over time you learn the language, build up your powers of observation, you ask questions, you interpret, and put your ideas out there, then gather feedback. Eventually some things start to stick and it all gets easier.

We now design for people all around the world, a diversity of context and experience we can’t ever hope to fully grasp. I think working in Japan has given me the respect and curiosity to understand as much as we can, put something out there, knowing we will still be surprised, we’ll still fail some people, but we will learn and get better.

What is your ideal work environment? Do you prefer to work at design studio all day long or mix a few activities?

My day is certainly a mix of activities, but most of them happen at the studio. We have a good mix of space – private and social, light and dark, quiet and stimulating — so it's quite easy to match my surroundings to my mood and work without going too far. There are a few exceptions though: some conversations just require a brisk walk around the neighborhood, and certain types of writing are easier at a cafe.

Where does your work inspiration come from?

I think the quality of my work depends on two sources of inspiration, one direct and one indirect.

The direct inspiration comes from the people I work with – their viewpoints, their energy, their determination, and their company. There are times I wish I was a bit more self-driven, more self-inspired, but I've always been happier, more productive and more critical when I'm working on something with other people.

The indirect inspiration comes from my lived and observed experiences of the designed world.

Frustrating experiences like getting lost in a mall, watching my parents use their phone, losing money because I didn't tap out with my transit card, logging into a scale to weigh myself at the gym; and good ones like watching sunlight move through an old Japanese house, buying movie tickets from my phone, unwrapping a gift, or chatting with a bartender.

Where are your favorite places in your city or outside?

When I want a change of quick scenery, I go to Nezu Museum, just a few minutes on foot from the studio. The museum sits on the former grounds of a railway industrialist and art collector's private residence, and exhibits collections of ancient Japanese and Chinese art objects. The building, designed by Kengo Kuma, balances stark geometry against the natural elements of a massive Japanese garden. The garden is the real show – dotted with tea rooms and sculptures from the collection. I love to write and read in the glass caf? perched over the garden, then wander through the winding pathways of the garden.