We had the good fortune of connecting with Varun Bather and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Varun, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Before even talking about Risk, I would like to acknowledge that it has been a very privileged journey supported by my parents, and people around me. This support has allowed me to be stubborn about my path, even when I have “failed” or learned. Hence, I think about risk as a way to run, fall, get up and run again towards “following my heart.”

The first time, I saw a glimpse of the above feeling was when I started my One Year(OY) course in Car Design Tools at Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) in Milan, Italy. Before applying for the Car Design course, I had finished my bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from Vishwakarma Institute of Technology (VIT) in Pune, India. Now, even though solving problems of Mechanics and understanding the working of varied parts that make a system was fun and interesting, it never gave me the feeling of immense joy while learning something. My hands and heart would always take me back to learning new techniques of sketching and designing cars. Hence, even though it was a big risk to pivot from my Engineering major to Car Design, especially as there were really less opportunities if I had to return to India without qualifying for Masters; the excitement and hope of studying something that I loved, overruled all of the anxiety.

The OY course was an intense foundational program that covered a whole gamut of subjects like sketching, history of cars, digital visualization, and color & trim. This was the first time I had so much fun just learning, from anyone and everyone with the least amount of bias. Further, even though it took me more time, I had to work day and night; but it never felt like I was burdened by it or it didn’t feel like I was doing it for someone else. Finally, even though I couldn’t qualify for SPD’s Masters program, I think this expensive gamble taught me valuable life lessons; always have the courage to follow your heart, and be persistent.

These lessons encouraged me to not lose hope, get back up, ask for help and finally qualify for the Master’s course of Transportation Systems & Design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, one of the top schools to study Transportation Design. Further, this journey has led to finding my true passion as a Design Researcher, facilitating dialogue between bottom up practices from historically underinvested communities and top down authorities. Hence, I truly believe that “risk taking” or rather “following my heart” has played a big part in my life.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I have worked as a Design Researcher, Policy Strategist, & Co-design Workshop Facilitator at Mobility and Non-Profit educational spaces. My career as a Design researcher started while I was studying Masters in Transportation Systems and Design at ArtCenter College of Design. The different sponsored projects at ArtCenter, whether it maybe working with the Long Beach community & Police Department or my thesis on ShAREd Transportation: Accessible, Responsible & Empowering, I was always exposed to the importance of really understanding who we are designing for and the research methodologies needed to find this out. This passion for doing design research, allowed me to conduct co-design workshops, design frameworks and toolkits to involve the communities – “the living experts”, that we are designing for, and really practice Bottom Up approach to design.

Further, I took these learnings and started my professional career working as a Policy Strategy Intern with the amazing team of May Mobility. May is an autonomous mobility startup who’s mission is to build a safer, greener, more accessible world through partnership with different civic organizations in the USA and Japan. This was an amazing experience as it allowed me to conduct rigorous and intentional research at one of the service locations. It led to a better understanding of the history, transportation landscape, and community, ultimately building out recommendations on policy and strategy to develop more inclusive service models, guided by meaningful community engagement and partnerships.

Furthermore, the non-traditional choices that I made at ArtCenter, gave me the opportunity to work with the amazing team of Creative Reaction Lab (CRXLAB). Their mission is to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become leaders designing healthy and racially equitable communities. This experience allowed me to wear multiple hats, starting from a researcher, to co-facilitating the Redesigners In Action public webinars, and finally supporting the content development for our social media platforms. But, among all of the above responsibilities at CRXLAB, the most important learning for me was to practice introspection towards my own biased processes, and understanding that it’s a lifelong process to cherish.

Finally, all of these experience has always taught me to have faith in oneself and follow my heart. Achievements, success and “failure” will always be there, but the important aspect is to have fun with it all.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would start their day by an amazing breakfast at my favorite local Taco place, Yucas in Pasadena. I love this place because of the people that make and serve the food, who always have a wide smile and cheerful energy. I would like them to try their American Bean and Cheese Burrito with rice and the amazing salsasss. Next stop would be to sit with some books and snacks at the Del Mar central park, looking at the different trees, squirrels and how people interact with this space. After a wholesome afternoon, evening would be celebrated by a game of soccer at the Pasadena Adult Soccer league at Villa Park or an informal game of soccer at the Del Mar central park, with my Fooz friends. Finally, if we still have energy, the day should end with an amazing concert at the Hollywood Bowl concert hall.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are so many people that I would like to give a Shoutout to, but first and foremost my parents. My mother has always been a big support and inspiration towards keeping faith in oneself and following my heart. I cannot thank her enough for always being by my side, encouraging at every step of the way. Similarly, my father, who himself followed a traditional educational path due to the financial circumstances of the family, but was open to my non-traditional choices and had faith in my half-baked ideas. Further, it is because of their upbringing and principles that I have developed a passion to work towards social justice. I would also like to give a huge Shoutout to all my mentors, especially Professor John Britton, who currently teaches in the Graduate Transportation Systems and Design and Humanities and Sciences Departments at ArtCenter. He has supported me throughout my ups and downs at ArtCenter and beyond. Also, it is because of John’s encouragement to push my boundaries, which has led to finding my true passion as a design researcher and facilitator. Finally, last but not the least, I would like to give the biggest Shoutout to all my friends, my second family, who have patiently listened to my rants, advised me, but most importantly, have always supported me in everything.

Website: https://varunbather.wixsite.com/mysite-1

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/varun-bather/

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