Tanner Woodford's Chicago

“Design is about process and community, not products.”

Tanner Woodford, co-founder of the Chicago Design Museum and one of Newcity’s Annual Design 50 for 2015, is an irrepressible cheerleader for his city and its design heritage. He says design is about process and community, not products. And he wants to share a few Second City secrets you probably don't know yet.

Tanner will open the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience ChicagoJune 4-6 with HIS perspective on Chicago’s design community. Join him there! 

He spoke with us this week as he was preparing for the conference.

Let’s talk about you for a minute. Can you trace your design path for us?

I’m from downstate Illinois. I grew up on a farm outside a small town where community was everything. That sense of community has stayed with me my entire life and drives everything I do. I moved to Arizona to attend Arizona State University, got a degree in design, and stayed there for 10 years. I’m a trained print designer, then worked as a web developer, then merged the two as an interaction designer. I did an internship with Intel and got on the path of R&D with a patent for a product design there. Five years ago, I returned to Chicago and worked at the financial investment firm Morningstar, where I did software design and learned a lot about creating design solutions based on user research and needs. I'm also a lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Tell us about the Chicago Design Museum.How did it come to life?

For all intents and purposes, we are a community-based organization that is backing into museology. When I say that, I mean we’ve iteratively evolved into becoming a museum and a better, smarter institution. We started out with the mission of breaking down disciplinary silos and building a strong design community. We opened in a pop-up space in Humboldt Park in 2012. Two years ago we moved into a permanent space inside the Loop, at Block 37 (108 N. State St.).

At this point we’ve mounted five exhibitions and we’re going strong. Now we see ourselves as a very public institution, but at our core we are still very collaborative and community-based. When we’re closed, our volunteers are tearing down walls, curating shows, and working together to build the next exhibit.

For me, the museum is that moment when we hand over all the collaborative work of designers for the public to see and appreciate. Our mission now is to create unexpected cultural experiences through our physical space and through other means that we’ll be announcing eventually.

What is the current exhibit, and will SEGD conference-goers be able to see it?

Yes, they can. The museum is open 12-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Now we’re showing The State of Detroit, an extremely collaborative show that is part of our larger narrative on cities—both how cities affect people and how people affect cities. We’ve done Chicago and Los Angeles, now Detroit, and will start a show on Dublin in October.

For the Detroit exhibit, we’re redefining the way we talk about design and its impacts. In the past we’ve tended to talk about it in terms of graphic design, or environmental graphic design, or architecture. This show highlights how design thinking, urban planning, agriculture, product design, community design, and graphic design are all working components of how design can be used to evolve cities and improve the quality of life. It’s an amazing show that we’re very proud of. 

What will you be talking about at the conference?

I get to jumpstart the conference with opening remarks, and am also moderating a session. I’m really excited about getting people in a headspace where they’re open to new ideas and ways of thinking about design. I have a great set of images I’m curating to show 100 years of Chicago’s design history, including its DIY and collaborative, community-based design culture.

What do you think is unique about design in Chicago?

We’re a community that likes to get shit done, and we don’t like waiting around for other people to do it. We apply our hard-working Midwestern ethos in the urban context and that produces some innovative and unique results. We are a community that often reframes challenge as opportunity, and we look for opportunities to improve the quality of life for people. For me on a very personal level, design is the fundamental improvement of the human condition. Chicago understands design as a community-based exercise where we rally together and make positive change in our scrappy way.

Tell us a couple of things we DON’T know about design life in Chicago? What are some of your favorite design spots?

Obviously there’s no shortage of things to do. I recommend you check out the Chicago Cultural Center(78 E. Washington St.) and the Arts Club of Chicago,whose gallery (201 E. Ontario St.) is close to the conference hotel. The exhibits are always free and open to the public, and they’re always high caliber. And of course, for the summer months we have music in Millennium Park on Mondays. That’s amazing.

What about your personal favorite spots? Places to eat? Hang out? Shop?

My favorite bar is Three Dots and a Dash. It’s an underground Tiki bar in the Loop (435 N. Clark). My favorite restaurant is also in the Loop—Oasis Cafe,a Mediterranean place tucked inside the Jewelers Mall (21 N. Wabash). It’s the best falafel and hummus I’ve ever had. Just walk right past the master jeweler and up to the master falafel maker.

There’s also a great Cajun-Creole place on Wabash called Heaven on Seventhat I love. Great spicy food, but bring cash (111 Wabash).

>>Meet Tanner at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience ChicagoJune 4-6! Register today!

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