The Clay Wisdom: How pottery shaped my path of growth as a product designer

Phuong Lu
4 min readMay 18, 2023

After quitting my job earlier this year, I had quite some time to explore a new field, so I ended up going to a local ceramic class thinking about the potential of becoming a potter. Little did I know that my passion for pottery would become a source of inspiration and shape my design philosophy as a product designer.

Photo by Галина Ласаева on Pexel

From personal perspective

Pottery is therapeutic. Pottery has proven to be more than just a hobby. Studies have revealed the therapeutic benefits of artistic expression, and pottery is no exception. It has become a sanctuary where I find solace and tranquility amidst the chaos of the digital realm. It enables us to be present and mindful. When I sit at the pottery wheel, my mind becomes attuned to the sensations of the clay beneath my fingertips, the rhythm of my movements, and the shaping of form. In this state of flow, the ceaseless chatter of what-ifs and what-has-beens subsides, allowing me to embrace the beauty of the now. A sense of fulfillment washes over me, triggering the release of dopamine, the happiness-inducing neurotransmitter. It’s a form of magic, an enchanting drug that comes without a cost or adverse health effects.

Embracing success and failure as valuable learning experiences. Pottery has given me a sense of accomplishment, especially when I see the end product of my hard work. Nevertheless, life often throws unexpected curveballs. Once, I crafted a dish that seemed flawless, but it unexpectedly split into two halves during the air drying process. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous stories about people investing weeks of hard work into a batch, only to have it shatter inside the kiln during firing. These experiences have instilled in me the understanding that failure is a part of the journey of learning. Without failure, we would never progress. It teaches us to bounce back from setbacks and develop resilience. Embracing each misstep as a stepping stone to growth has become a cornerstone of my journey as a designer and potter.

Pottery fosters human connections. Last year, after relocating to Dallas with few acquaintances, I experienced homesickness, seasonal depression, anxiety and stress all at once. However, everything changed for the better when I stumbled upon a local ceramic studio where I met a bunch of kind and compassionate people, enabling us to share our knowledge and experiences about clay and life. In no time, I felt a deep sense of belonging, eagerly came on a weekly basis to connect with my clay-mates.

Photo by Taylor Heery on Unsplash

From professional perspective

Attention to detail. In pottery, every minute detail can transform a creation into something extraordinary. This principle also applies to digital product design. Whether it’s the placement of a button or the choice of font color, attending to even the smallest elements can profoundly impact the user experience.

Patience. The art of pottery requires time and persistence. Rushing through the process can lead to irreversible mistakes that can ruin hours (even days and weeks) of hard work. One of the most common mistakes that new potters make is rushing through the building of a wall without properly centering the clay. When the clay is not centered, the wall will be uneven and unstable, which can cause it to break during the drying process or even later when the piece is being used. Similarly, if the potter rushes to fire the pottery before it is fully dry, the consequences can be disastrous. When the moisture inside the clay heats up, it turns into steam and expands rapidly, causing the piece to explode inside the kiln. The same principle applies to designing digital products. By dedicating enough time to repeat, try out, and improve, we unleash the possibility of outstanding outcomes.

The power of imperfection. In the realm of clay, no two pieces are alike, and the beauty lies in the unique flaws and quirks that grace each creation. This wisdom translates seamlessly into the realm of digital product design. Striving for perfection is not always necessary. Instead, embracing imperfections adds character, personality, and innovation to my designs. Embracing the imperfection is the secret weapon in standing out from the crowd.

Nurturing creativity and enhancing design thinking skills. Pottery involves an iterative process of creating, shaping, refining, and firing. This process encourages me to embrace experimentation with shapes, textures, and colors, allowing my imagination to soar. It cultivates a mindset that values iteration and continuous improvement, promoting creative problem-solving and the ability to think outside the box. Just as a bowl can be crafted without a pottery wheel through hand-building techniques, a design challenge can be conquered from various angles.

Environmental consciousness and sustainability. As a designer, I am acutely aware of the environmental impact digital products can have. Pottery has taught me the value of reusing and recycling materials, highlighting the importance of responsible design practices.

My journey as a digital product designer has been profoundly enriched by the wisdom of pottery. It has shaped me into a better designer. Through pottery, I have discovered a fresh perspective, a critical eye for the user experience, and a passion for crafting engaging and eco-friendly designs. As I continue to evolve on this path, I will forever carry the timeless lessons of pottery, deeply ingrained within my very being.