Dani Balenson — Intercom
Dani is a designer currently kickin’ it at the Intercom Brand Studio in San Francisco, by way of Brooklyn and …
I was a theatre major at Northwestern University, chasing my dream of becoming an actor... yet, I was never very good at playing roles outside of “brooding angsty teen.” Along the way, I dabbled in disciplines like stage design, lighting design, and costume design, which led me to fall in love with design as a whole.
Due to my somewhat unorthodox degree, I ran into a lot of trouble when it came to finding internships in design. Taking matters into my own hands, I published an unsolicited redesign of Apple Music as a way of making a public debut on the stage of design. Little did I know, that performance would launch my career.
I later ended up transferring to RISD to study graphic design, before working with a number of companies and start-ups (including Apple). It's kind of ironic, looking back, because the soul that defines the designer I am today came not from the time I spent in design school or really any of my formal employment experiences—but from my time spent as a theatre maker.
I wish more people working in design (and in the tech industry) would spend some time in the theatre or with theatre makers. The role of a theatre maker, to me, is to tell stories that the world needs to hear... to affect change on an emotional and cultural level... to set the stage for the futures we want to see. And when it comes down to it—isn't that what we as designers and technologists should strive to do, too?
These days, I usually wake up 5 minutes before my first meeting (and if I don't have any meetings, I try to get up bright and early at like 1PM). After that, I indulge in a deliciously elaborate skincare routine that extends into makeup if I'm feeling myself. I find it very difficult to get anything done if I have meetings interspersed throughout the day, so I set aside “meeting days” where I do nothing but take meetings, and “don't talk to me days” where I procrastinate until dusk before settling in for an all night work session. I don't know where people get the energy to cook (?) or workout (??) or meditate (????????) throughout the day—I'm definitely not the face of productivity or personal well-being, but at least there will always be sunscreen on my face.
I prefer working at night because I can't stand it when Slack messages/Tweets/Texts/Meows/random miscellaneous noises interrupt my flow. When I'm in flow, I'm deep in flow and I want to stay in flow. I can spend hours tuning spring-damping parameters, or fiddling with particle simulations in Cinema 4D.
It's also worth mentioning that my typical day includes taking stimulant medication for ADHD and Lexapro to help with depression. Getting professional help has been one of the best things I've ever done, and I want to play my part in helping to reduce the stigma around psychiatric medication.
Staging an immaculately lit, Pinterest-ready set-up would be dishonest, so here's my design-prototyping-rendering-telepresence-XR-gaming-Zelens ProVitamin D Facial Mist station in all its glory.
My cat, Hermès, likes to join me from time to time.
The theatre is where multiple artforms and senses—visual, audio, kinesthetic—coalesce to create something greater. The theatre is a space that invites the coexistance of self reflection and deep immersion—where “lost in thought” and “engaged” can mean the same thing. I get all of my best ideas and moments of realization during live performances (both on-stage and off).
Stage design is especially interesting to me now due to the many parallels between it and interaction design. The idea of bending the limitations of physical space... extending and reinventing the world we live in through artful abstractions and metaphors...
Stage design maverick, Es Devlin, happens to be the reason why I became a designer in the first place.
Other sources of inspiration include Issey Miyake's architectural silouettes, Tokujin Yoshioka's rays of light, Alexander McQueen's subversive melancholy, Ghost of Tsushima's use of wind as a wayfinding metaphor, Madonna (just, in general), the stories buried underneath Ancient Egypt, and the mysteries that await us up in Space.
Interestingly enough, when I'm actually doing theatre related things, a lot of the inspiration I draw on comes from the world of human-computer interaction and graphic design (and not the theatre itself). So I guess the best answer I can give to “Where do you get inspired?” is simply... elsewhere.
I've been trying to unlearn the "function over form" mentality that I've been operating under for most of my life, and learning to celebrate form as a function... form for form's sake.
Recently, I've been enamored with Andy Allen's suite of Not Boring Apps. Unapologetically playful, oozing with artistry and Soul. It might not be for everyone, and yet—why should it be?
Mercury OS, my speculative design of what an intent driven OS could be, remains close to my heart. Through this project, I wanted to not only question long-held conventions of computation, but also to question why so many of us feel disempowered to question the systems underlying the worlds we live in.
Mercury sparked a ton of interesting conversations and was the conduit to friendships and opportunities that forever changed my life. My North Star for Mercury—to create a truly fluid computing experience—continues to guides everything I do in the realm of interaction design to this day.
MakeSpace is another invention (or, collection of inventions) that I am proud of. It's a real-time, collaborative canvas that brings together web-browsing and telepresence into a playful, fluid space. The project actually started during the beginning of the pandemic, when Aza Raskin showed me (over Zoom) a spatial browser he had hacked together with 300 lines of code.
I remember jumping up and down, screaming various utterances along the lines of “this...this is the future of computing!” into my mic before talking him into seriously working together on it. Overtime, the project accumulated a gravity of its own and is now under the care of collaborators Weiwei Hsu and Max Bittker.
I'm especially fond of the FaceDock and FaceStika interactions I designed, because they're fidget-friendly. And fidgeting is the best tool for thought.
Finally, the kinetic typography series I made for Klim Type Foundry's Maelstrom Sans will forever hold a special place in my heart purely because of how much fun I had simulating pubes, fungal growths, and pore-strips in lieu of my usual rounded-corner-with-drop-shadow schtick.
ADHD is a superpower, and it is also a disability. Things like finances, scheduling, planning ahead, prioritization, and many forms of collaboration tend to be challenging for my already executive-function-starved brain. I've been working with my therapist on strategies to survive operations armaggeddon, and on trying to be kind to myself for the times that I do inevitably fail.
In addition, I've found that the biggest difference between working somewhere and being independent is the lack of built-in community. So I always remind myself to be grateful for the community of friends, mentors, and chosen-kin who have gifted me with their presence, vulnerability, and warmth.
Question everything. Ask why, why, why, why, why. Keep asking why until you get to the bottom of something. "Because I said so," "Because that's the way it's always been done" is not good enough.
Don't ask for permission. Break the rules. Make trouble.
Practice self-compassion. Don't compare your trajectory or story to that of your peers or giants that came before.
Be introspective. Look at the Dunning-Kruger curve. Think about it often.
Be honest with yourself.
Your humanity comes before your art.
Take an acting class. Do some improv. Make Play.
Don't be afraid to be vulnerable.
Be wary of thought leaders.
Go follow my best friend's dog, Sahara, on Instagram.