Why you should care
She brought a background in physics and computer science to the world of “interaction design,” attacking problems no one has solved.
When Roya Ramezani was 11, she was convinced she wanted to attend music school. She studied music theory for nearly a year before she could make the cut. It was only when she went to enroll in the program that her parents realized that their daughter would not be learning any math. “Long story short, I didn’t go to music school,” Ramezani laughs. “It’s kind of what I consumed from my parents … that I could always be a musician on the side, that art could be your hobby.”
Ramezani eventually moved with her family from their native Iran to Canada, where she pursued studies in physics and computer science at Toronto’s York University, all the while believing that art and science could run parallel to each other but never intersect. Then she made a friend who was studying design, and Ramezani realized that there was a way to marry the two. She promptly enrolled in interaction design, a burgeoning discipline that focuses on design solutions as viewed through the human, end-user lens. If you find an app on your phone that’s really simple to use, for example, you can thank an interaction designer.
Visual thinkers envision. Their mind is able to illustrate the possibilities, and I think it came for me from reading books.
“I really like problem-solving, and I realized that most of the time I knew the exact outcome of the problem, and I was going down the path trying to solve these problems that physicians and mathematicians had already solved before,” she says of her work in the sciences, “whereas in design, you deal with problems that no one has solved. You can come up with a billion results, and no one can say, ‘Oh, this particular answer is the right answer.’”
After completing graduate study at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Ramezani, now 27, lives in San Francisco and works at JPMorgan Chase as part of the branch innovation team. The self-described visual thinker explains her job this way: “I work in the intersection of technology, digital experiences and physical space.”
Ramezani was born in northern Iran and moved to Tehran with her family when she was 8. She describes an idyllic childhood, with summers spent in the small town of Bayjan. “My siblings and I grew up climbing trees, walking across water streams, picking butterflies and wild flowers and planting trees,” Ramezani says. “Every week we would get new magazines and books, and that was our media to consume.” She attributes her visual imagination to the extensive reading she did in her native Farsi. “With TV, it’s visualized for you, you consume whatever the creative director of the show decided. With books, you have to create your own world and in your own frame,” she says. “Visual thinkers envision. Their mind is able to illustrate the possibilities, and I think it came for me from reading books.”
That same visual imagination led Ramezani to hone in on women’s issues as part of her master’s thesis. During an internship at Google, she had noticed that women weren’t active participants in meetings, and she seized on a quote from diversity advocate Verna Myers: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” “I felt like [the women] were invited to the party,” Ramezani tells OZY, “but were just being quiet.” Her thesis focused on a suite of products — such as a wearable connected to an app — that alert women in the workplace to self-undermining behaviors so they can replace weak phrases with more assertive ones.
Allan Chochinov, chair of the MFA in the Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, was Ramezani’s thesis adviser and remembers her as a multidimensional designer. “She can work in services, with physical objects, interaction design, apps, systems design, design strategy. She is capable and creative in each of these areas,” he says. Chochinov adds that he occasionally pushed a reticent Ramezani to take her work where it would lead, instead of prejudging outcomes.
Marco Perry, founder of Pensa, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based industrial design and innovation consulting firm, says that while visual imagination is vital currency in the field of design, it alone is not enough. Pleasing aesthetics are good, but it’s important to incorporate sound functionality in products, he says, otherwise they’re useless. “A good product designer needs to have a lot of empathy for the people who are going to use it,” Perry adds. Ramezani, who is in the midst of designing a few gift items for the store at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has a background in physics and computer science, which gives her that necessary perspective. It lets her see the big picture from many angles — and break it down into discrete tasks or functions. “One of her design superpowers is that she can move things through a technological lens, and she also has this great energy; it’s such a wonderfully propulsive force,” Chochinov says. “It’s the creative thinking that I enjoy the most, regardless of what my medium or material of design is. Sometimes it’s wood and plastic, sometimes it’s pixels or data,” Ramezani says.
Ramezani channels some of that propulsive force into photography, a hobby she loves, even if she spends a lot less time on it these days. “If I have a deep concept I’m trying to convey, sometimes it’s hard to say in words. So I stage a photo. I think about the frame and the elements and how they could play out in creating this story,” Ramezani says. “My photographs, they set the stage, they give you some parameters for a conversation, but it’s open to interpretation.” In other words, it’s visual thinking — and all about the big picture.
* This feature was brought to you as part of the BBC 100 Women project and is not part of OZY’s ongoing collaboration with JPMorgan Chase & Co. on Good Business Creates Good.