Making Moves: Katie Okamoto on Design as Culture and Her Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Making Moves: Katie Okamoto on Design as Culture and Her Multi-Disciplinary Approach

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By Julia Gamolina, portrait by Maya Moverman

Katie Okamoto is a culture writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in a range of print magazines and online publications, from Lucky Peach to Newsweek. She is the former senior editor of Metropolis, where she launched the social equity beat covering gender, race, and other issues in workplace culture and policy. While there, she also acted as managing editor on annual special projects, including Specify and the official NYCxDESIGN guide. She continues to contribute to the magazine.

Katie earned a Master of Architecture from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from Brown University. Thanks to her dual background, she has contributed to a number of interdisciplinary-minded design platforms including Metropolis, Volume, and the Urban Landscape Lab. She also writes about food and other topics outside design. In her interview, Katie talks about the variety of roles she’s held, advising young architects to be kind to themselves and to remember that there’s more to life than studio.

JG: How did your interest in writing first develop?

KO: I’ve always loved reading. My mom was a teacher, and she nourished my reading and writing habits. I then attended a public high school with a journalism program and an independent weekly newspaper. My teacher, Mr. Walsh, really impressed upon us the role of journalism in a healthy democratic society and I went to college wanting to be a journalist. At Brown, I wrote for the newspaper before finding my people at a weekly magazine, the College Hill Independent, which was run by students at both Brown and RISD.

At the same time, I was majoring in environmental science and policy and found myself alienated from some of the wonky writing. I was drawn to general-audience writing, especially longform nonfiction. I read a lot of John McPhee and Elizabeth Kolbert. They showed me there’s a craft to science writing, which makes it a joy to read as a story, and still conveys a topic’s nuances and complexities. I wanted that command of language.

How did you then find your way to architecture?

From my interest in the natural environment grew my interest in the built environment. At Brown, I took a few classes in architectural history with Dietrich Neumann. Those classes sparked a latent creative interest in art and design that I’d also had when I was younger, but which I’d drifted from while focusing on environmental studies. I liked that through architecture, you could study this intersection of cities, nature, and people, and propose physical ways forward. Coming from such a verbal background, it was important to think about physical things.

Katie’s architecture inspiration at Shinto Shrine in Hamamatsu, Japan.

Katie’s architecture inspiration at Shinto Shrine in Hamamatsu, Japan.

When did you decide to pursue your M.Arch?

I graduated in 2009 during the economic implosion. I wanted to be in journalism or media, so I interned at Rhode Island’s public radio station and then worked as a producer on an early podcast, Radio Open Source. I enjoyed it but was barely making money, and I felt unsure about my future. I didn’t know how to make this career work and be financially independent.

I started thinking, “What else could I do?” In 2010, I’d gone to the Rising Currents show at MoMA, which was all about proposing design solutions for living with sea level rise. Those projects spoke to me because they weren’t trying to resist climate change, but to adapt to it. They were also collaborating with non-architects—the solutions were very interdisciplinary. That sparked something. I thought, “I’m going to look into architecture as an alternate, creative, and productive way of thinking about extremely complex issues.” I did the Intro to Architecture summer at Columbia GSAPP and got hooked.

What were your main take-aways from architecture school?

Number one was that I didn’t want to be an architect [laughs]. But I expanded my toolbox to include design thinking, which is a life skill. I was constantly around super smart people and connecting multiple modes of research. GSAPP had incredible critics and professors. I learned a lot from Kate Orff, Janette Kim, Jeffrey Inaba, and Enrique Walker, and through them recognized that my interests lay outside the traditional architect’s path.

And I started to listen to myself. Architecture school can be so unhealthy. The culture of sleep deprivation and lack of boundaries taught me to be firm in my own personal health. It taught me how important it is to work somewhere humane. And it taught me that I always need to explain the why and how behind things, to get the holistic view and translate that to people. I’m a communicator.

“I’m interested in cultural writing, period. Not just architectural writing for architects, but architecture as a part of culture for everyone.”

What did you do when you first graduated from Columbia?

I gradually found my way back to writing and media, but it wasn’t direct. After grad school, I felt a lot of pressure to earn enough. I worked at a few jobs - I was at Knoll briefly as a writer for their blog “Inspiration.” I then worked for Project Projects, a graphic design studio now known as Wkshps. I was attracted to work there as a way to learn more about strategy. We did a competition with Van Alen, for example, that was looking at how small national parks can better serve the public, exploring design-driven ways of engaging with communities.

I eventually found my way into communications back at Knoll. Part of that was I wanted a design-related job with clear hours, more or less nine to five, so I could write afterwards without relying on the writing for income. This is when I started to be able to call myself a writer, and I focused on environment, design, and food, because those were things I was already obsessed about; I write best when I’m obsessed. I wrote a piece for Newsweek about sea level rise in Honolulu, and I wrote a piece for Vice about my anxiety around food allergies. Because I had a day job, I had the ability to be picky about what I wrote.

When did you focus on writing full-time?

Right after the election, I wanted my day job to be more public-minded so I moved to the City of New York’s Department of Environmental Protection, in the Office of Green Infrastructure. It gave me that perspective of how design works in the public sphere and on a replicable urban scale, but it wasn’t a good culture fit for me to stay long-term. When I left, I knew I needed to take my ambitions in writing seriously or be sorry. It was really scary to write freelance full time, but that leap helped me become an editor at Metropolis. 

A selection of Metropolis issues.

A selection of Metropolis issues.

The Metropolis NYCxDESIGN 2019 Guide

The Metropolis NYCxDESIGN 2019 Guide

Tell me about your time there.

I love that magazine, its mission, that it’s technically a trade magazine but is also an ideas magazine. I feel so lucky that I worked with the people who were on staff while I was, under Avi Rajagopal, the editor in chief. We’re a very lean operation that somehow produces a beautiful issue ten times a year. I learned so much about the publishing business and how to juggle being an editor with being a journalist.

I’m very proud of the staff’s continuous push to cover issues that impact more than the uber-wealthy. For example, one of the last pieces I edited was by Audrey Gray, a really talented journalist. She wrote about Climate 2030 and the responsibility that the architecture and construction industry has. We had a lot of work like that, alongside the trend pieces.

“What receives media attention and what doesn’t? It’s our responsibility to seek out work by people who have historically not been at the center of design stories.”

As a journalist and editor, what do you feel your responsibility and role in the industry is?

What defined my time at Metropolis from the get-go was that as soon as I joined, the Richard Meier story broke. Even if I hadn’t come in with a desire to write about issues outside the so-called ‘design bubble,’ it was unavoidable after that. I was mad for a good part of that year, and that anger drove me. I ended up starting an equity beat, and part of that was to cover issues of gender and racial equity in the workplace. Through that lens, I interviewed Kimberly Dowdell, the president of NOMA, and Justin Garrett Moore, the director of the Public Design Commission in New York. I interviewed a number of architects who are pushing equity to the center of workplace conversations—from Girl UNInterrupted, Equity by Design, and employee groups at firms. I have unfinished stories and work I hope to continue, and I don’t want to forget that feeling of being mad. It’s very motivating.

Back to your question, it’s crucial for editors to look beyond the PR emails that we get on a daily basis, and to zoom out. What receives media attention and what doesn’t? It’s our responsibility to seek out work by people who have historically not been at the center of design stories, and to be open to new voices. Sometimes that means a story won’t be a known quantity, so you have to be willing to take risks. My goal with everything, even in our product coverage, was to highlight the team effort, not prop up the narrative of one ‘genius,’ which contributes to a toxic and false notion of design and contributes to keeping credit from women, people of color, and queer people.

Katie with Just City Lab & Toni Griffin. Photo by Erik Bardin for Center for Architecture.

Katie with Just City Lab & Toni Griffin. Photo by Erik Bardin for Center for Architecture.

Where are you in your career today?

I’m self-employed after a recent cross-country move to Los Angeles, and I’m excited about that. The move was more life change than work change, but of course it means a new work chapter. I’m excited to learn how I write and what I wite about when it’s just me. As an editor, it can be hard to write what you want. I grew five professional years during the year I was at Metropolis, because of the many hats you have to wear, and I had the support of the art and edit team. I could have stayed much longer and been happy, but I was ready to see what happens outside the infrastructure.

I’m interested in cultural writing, period. Design has to be thought of as part of culture. Writing about it should be part of culture for everyone, as accessible as writing about sports and TV. But I’ve always written about issues outside of design as well. I can’t stay in a bubble—one corner of culture is always connected to wider themes and preoccupations. That’s what drew me to design in the first place. I’ve always had the impulse to make sense of how a seemingly sequestered thing fits into a bigger, almost novelistic picture. I want to see through the obvious question to other questions behind it. I pin down my thinking by writing, so in a way this is how I understand my views.

What have been the biggest challenges throughout your career?

Certainly, there’s the challenge of wanting to work in media, and that not being a stable career path. I’m a child of immigrants, and I’ve internalized the idea that I need a predictable profession. Risk-taking and following my dreams were encouraged by my parents, but to a point. They value stability and to be honest, so do I. There’s always a voice in my head saying, “This isn’t practical.”

Sometimes the biggest challenges are internal. It took a long time to feel brave and self-confident enough to take risks that were truly for myself. I’m still working on that. There’s also the internal pressure of thinking you’re not good enough when you’re surrounded by peers who by now have more experience or apparent success. I have to remind myself that I can’t compare my career to my peers’ who don’t have the same experiences and professional history. I have to keep my eye on my own ball.

Metropolis issues highlight.

Metropolis issues highlight.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of pushing for including more women, especially women of color, in Metropolis, both as subjects and as writers. If you value diversity, you have to put in the effort. You have to put in the effort to solicit work from writers who you don’t normally work with. I really enjoyed that part of the job, connecting with new writers.

On a personal level, I’m proud of being more vulnerable. A couple years ago, I wrote a piece for BuzzFeed about grappling with my identity and an eating disorder. What I’ve learned from that is that it’s okay to be vulnerable in your professional life. Some of what has held me back is the desire to be perfect, to know exactly where something is leading. In the last year, I’ve let go of a lot of that.

“...it’s okay to be vulnerable in your professional life.”

Who are you admiring in the field right now? 

There are so many people I admire – I’ll mention a few from the design field. I mentioned Kimberly Dowdell, the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. She works between real estate and design, and she’s spoken very frankly about her career choices and the financial challenges of practicing architecture, especially those stemming from the field’s inequity. I admire her openness in discussing those facets of her career choices.  

I admire work being done by groups like Equity by Design and the Architecture Lobby. I admire their desire to further quality—and equality—of work-life, and their spirit of sharing the shine, spotlighting firm leaders who have gotten it right. The conversations they’re sparking are relevant to people working across many fields, not just architecture. They’re political conversations.

I admire people like Toni Griffin from Harvard GSD, who is explicitly multidisciplinary in the ways she thinks about justice in design. The effort has to be a planning conversation, an economic conversation, a community organizing conversation, a real estate conversation. Architects have a tendency to think they can do everything, and they can end up talking amongst themselves. 

In design media, I think about Kelsey Keith, the editor-in-chief of Curbed. What she’s done with Curbed is phenomenal. She took that website from a fun scroll to a site that—from my view at least—invests in serious reporting and criticism. It’s been so great to read Alexandra Lange’s work there. And I was blown away by their United States of California and Texas special feature.

Other publications featuring Katie Okamoto.

Other publications featuring Katie Okamoto.

What has been your general approach to your career? 

Finding a balance between my long-term vision and the immediate next step. Sometimes thinking far ahead can be paralyzing. Even though I’ve been a planner, what’s worked for me better and been more actionable is to know what I’m getting out of my current moment and next step, rather than trying to project exactly where it’s going to take me. I’m an impatient person, but things take time.

I have also learned to listen to myself with compassion. I had to learn to advocate for my own health and happiness, to find and then honor my boundaries. More than anything else, this approach has driven me to veer away from a straight path that wasn’t working. I’m grateful for giving myself that permission.

On that note, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers in architecture and design? 

No matter what you decide to do in the field, talk to architects and consultants. Don’t just listen to how people talk about projects in retrospect. Understanding how things actually get made will help you understand architecture much more deeply. Especially in architecture writing, if you don’t have that background, it can get easier to take the PR boilerplate as gospel. Always be skeptical of marketing and visit buildings to see for yourself. Talk to interns and first-year employees. It will empower you to design better, to choose better firms to work for, and to write about architecture if you so choose.

I would also say, for anybody who’s pursuing architecture, remember that there’s more to life than studio. Leave the building, eat good food, and get sleep. Be kind to yourself – it’ll make you a better participant in the world.

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