Campus Conversation: Rachel Switzky

Campus Conversation: Rachel Switzky

After 10 years in Silicon Valley, Sycamore native RACHEL SWITZKY is back in the Midwest as the director of the new UI Siebel Center for Design.

And her plans for the center, set to open in 2020 just south of Huff Hall, involve a lot more than just creating innovative new products.

As an executive at the IDEO global design firm — which has worked with Apple and Microsoft, among others — Switzky helped clients keep humans at the center of design, whether it was creating the best knives to cut pizza, persuading Los Angeles Times readers to go digital, or improving the experience of mental health patients.

In this week's "Campus Conversation" podcast, the UI alumna explains to staff writer Julie Wurth how she's applying her passion throughout campus, piloting more than a dozen courses that incorporate "playful" elements to design or require students to apply design thinking to their work in education and other fields. She's also trying to organize events that engage all levels of the campus, starting with a "pop up magazine" about love for Valentine's Day.

"I feel like I'm Dorothy and I've arrived in Oz. I'm here and ready to go," Switzky says.

Here's more:

It sounds like the center involves more than students and faculty coming up with new products.

What I'd like to help people understand with the Siebel Center for Design is that everything we do doesn't need to equal a product at the end. I think it could be an improvement in the world, and how do we define that? It could be new services or new interaction models or new ways that we engage with people.

It doesn't have to be a new trinket — though it could be "Here's a new trinket that's a really cool new innovation," and that's great. But it doesn't have to be. Which is part of my strategy: How do I extend the reach of what it is we're trying to do, and how do we cast a much, much, much wider net for people to see themselves as design thinkers, and how human-centered design applies to their world?

How did you choose design as a career?

I came in as a liberal arts major, undecided. My parents both have a Ph.D. My father was a professor at Northern for 30 years.

I didn't know what design was. I'd grown up with design principles and didn't know it. I knew that my parents had some cool '60s furniture, but it's just what I'd grown up with.

I think I had a lot of AP credits, so I had a lot of freedom my freshman year. So I took this jewelry class. I loved it, though my jewelry was terrible. But I really, really loved the process of design, that you have to think about what it is that you're putting together.

I came home, probably for Thanksgiving break, and I was like, "I'm going to major in jewelry." My parents were like, "Uh-oh, no, no, no you're not." So they did some research and helped me. They said, "You should look at industrial design." So they kind of pushed me over to the School of Art and Design, and then I discovered industrial design that way.

I was like, jewelry is cool, but I have to make a career of this. Not that jewelry couldn't be a career. It's just not the career for me.

Anything you're enjoying about being back in the Midwest?

Jarling's Custard Cup. And it's open year-round now.

I want to be able to order in advance. Does Jarling's have an app yet? Maybe I should do that.

But I should also say that I have discovered "Tom's Mailbag." I don't remember this from when I was here before. I love "Tom's Mailbag."