Inside The Designer’s Mind: Jenny Sullivan, Design Editor


When I asked Jenny Sullivan, Design Editor for BUILDER magazine, for an “Inside the Designer’s Mind”  interview, she hesitated, saying, “That’s kind of interesting, I write about design, but I’m not a designer.”  Her reaction reminded me that all too often we dismiss the designer inside of us… the one that sees possibility.

Jenny has earned  building industry respect and a seat on the judges’ panel of countless design competitions after years interviewing designers and observing trends. However, her ability to capture the essence of good design (whether she’s writing or judging) is pure Jenny. Her humble, playful, grateful-for-all-the-right-things nature guides an intuitive sense for what works for people and the world we live in – which, I’d say, is one of the most important skills a designer can have.

How do you gauge good design in buildings/neighborhoods and in the products you choose for yourself?

First and foremost, homes and neighborhoods have to be comfortable, nurturing, functional places.  They just have to feel good. Beyond that, I think that restraint is a necessary ingredient in good design. An unlimited budget can sometimes be a bad thing.  If your architectural proportions are balanced, you don’t need all kinds of bump-outs and fancy details to make a house attractive. It’s better to put money and attention toward a select few focal points – perhaps a beautiful front door, an unusual kitchen backsplash, or a custom fireplace mantel — that aren’t competing with other elements for attention. That means meting your resources in a smart way and investing carefully.

If you’re wearing a Rolex watch or a dazzling emerald necklace, it’s okay to pair it with a simple white shirt. The eye needs a place to rest.

How has your perception of good design changed over the years?

Attitudes about art and design are always a reflection of the times, and the building industry has slogged through a couple really tough years. I think our country is also finally awakening to the dangers posed by climate change.  Out of these respective crises, I see some really positive things happening on the design front.

I’d argue that today, good design is less about window dressing (the finest imported granite or zebra wood) and more about stewardship.

I have grown to have a much greater appreciation for design that minimizes waste, uses humble materials creatively, and considers the bigger picture.  By bigger picture, I mean how a single house fits into its neighborhood, its city, its geographic and ecological region, and of course, its world.

What was important to you when you first started observing design? What do you look for now?

Early in my career I wrote about graphic design and product design, and I think some of that training still influences the way I look at houses.

I like design that is playful and creative in its appropriation of space and materials, yet also disciplined and dead set on solving a problem – be it an odd lot configuration, a steep slope, a limited budget, a crazy set of planning board limitations, or all of the above.

I tend to look for the same exquisite simplicity in a home that one might find in an iPhone interface or a letter-pressed business card. Sometimes the simplest, most intuitive solutions are really the best ones.

Outside of writing for work, how do you enjoy expressing your creativity?

I know a lot of journalists who blog, tweet, or dream of writing the great American novel in their spare time. I am not one of them.

When I’m not at work, I usually prefer to use the non-verbal side of my brain for other things. I tend to cook a lot without recipes (my husband and son are great guinea pigs) and I like going places where I can simply observe people.  Our family travels quite a bit, and when we do, I always like to hit places like cafes, outdoor markets, and everyday neighborhoods to see how people live.

How do you prepare for creativity? Do you have a ritual/routine?

I procrastinate. Nothing gets those creative juices flowing more than a managing editor who is threatening to stab you if you don’t get your copy in.

You’ve traveled outside the U.S. a lot… What do you value most in traveling?

Seeing how other people go about their daily routines, organize their lives, make things, and solve problems. It’s a great way of getting out of your comfort zone and realizing that the way you always do things isn’t necessarily the best way.

How do you encourage creativity in your son?

I do try to expose him to new places, media, people, and experiences, but mostly I just try not to interfere.  Kids are creative by nature, but the forces of inhibition and insecurity start to set in faster than we realize.

What stops people from expressing their art, voice, vision?

Insecurity, ritual, routine, survival, lack of resources, laziness, life, TiVo.

What’s the biggest opportunity for designers today?

Reinventing the world to be more sustainable.

Thank you Jenny, for letting us inside your designer mind. Read more from Jenny, including Design Details, an ongoing series focusing on the little stuff, in BUILDER.