Our Skillcrush: Rena Tom

Rena Tom is a strategist who helps small business owners, designers, and boutique owners through the process of designing and manufacturing their wares. She is also the founder of Makeshift Society, San Francisco’s first coworking space and clubhouse for “creative” freelancers, those creative folks who often work on their own, but still want a community of fellow freelance workers (check out the video at the bottom to learn more).

Rena is going to be speaking at the Typo conference in San Francisco about the future of creative work in the Internet age, and in particular, the coworking movement and how its changing the work landscape.

We sat down with Rena to discuss some theoretical ideas about design and contrast, as well as her feelings about technology, and what font she would ban from the Internet (if she could).

How can people use technology to create change in the world?
First think of the change, really think through it, and *then* figure out the best technology. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the tech space that’s a waste of resources. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and so thinking things through beforehand is so important.

How did you discover and first become engaged in technology?
Hm, in the 80s, my dad brought home a giant clunky computer to try and do inventory for our store. The thing must have cost $6000. And then he had to hire a programmer to write the software. I remember learning BASIC and making silly scrolling patterns on screen, and wasting a lot of paper on the dot-matrix printer. I guess I was about 8 or 10.

What is the most beautiful piece of technology ever created?
Screws! The type you buy in the hardware store. I like unexpected results, so something that turns in one direction that causes action in another is pretty cool.

Typo has us thinking a lot about this idea of contrast. When you are working on new collaborations how does contrast in people, materials, design, environment affect the project?
I think having the right people on board with complementary skills is the key – for me, they may not all have the same aesthetic but they need to all have the same brief and agree on the overall vision. At that point, I let people do their thing. For Makeshift Society, my coworking space, we did use contrast in the design. The “bones” of the space are very minimalist and monochrome, but the decor is bright and varied, and it’s this contrast that makes it feel special.

Contrast literally makes things easier to see. Is there ever a time when designers should avoid contrast?
I’m actually a big fan of subtlety, because it leads to self-discovery. Sometimes it’s appropriate to lead people down one path or the other, and sometimes you should let them figure things out on their own. Designers should know when to deploy each approach, as necessary, depending on how much latitude you want to grant your audience.

How do you know that you have achieved good design?
Ooh good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer to that. I guess design is “good” if people use it – if they willingly, easily engage with it.

If you could banish one font from the internet, what would it be?
Oh, I’m pretty done with Papyrus!

Learn more about Rena and her work, and follow her @rena_tom.