Making Science Wearable: An Interview with Ariele Faber of Cerebella Design

Entrepreneur, scientist and fashion innovator Ariele Faber, founder of Cerebella Design, has been one of the pioneers changing the way we see the intersection of art and science by bringing us science we can wear.  The marriage of fashion and science is something that has continued to grow in popularity and explode on the market as computer generated and printed clothing, personal health monitoring devices and 3D printed jewelry and accessories.   With it on my mind, now seemed like an ideal time for me to start exploring this burgeoning trend.  Thankfully, Ms. Faber, who I met at the Descience Fashion Show last October, was good enough to “sit down” with me via Skype and talk about the creation of Cerebella, the innovation behind her design process, what it is like to be an entrepreneur and what it means to be creating new science dialogue through fashion. It was a long and fascinating discussion with such a passionate and creative person and I cannot thank her enough for her time, the interview is presented in a slightly edited form below.

JS: First of all, thank you so much for doing this…  3D Printing, textile fabrication and science based jewelry and fashion design seem to be really hot right now.  But, you started Cerebella Design back in 2013, do I have that correct?
AF: Actually that’s when Cerebella launched, but it was in process through 2012.  I guess the R&D side of Cerebella started in August of 2012.  I had taken a summer course at RISD and I had known for a couple of years that I wanted to kind of dive into this, but I didn’t exactly know how to approach it so I figured “take a class with the intention of doing something with it.” As it turned out this was just starting the idea of science and design, and I think historically that science and art have gone together for a while but to actually be able to turn the idea into a marketable product has seemed to be very challenging.  So I thought, why not tackle that.  It’s been absolutely awesome to see this essentially blow up especially this year so the timing couldn’t have been better.

JS: So at what point where you like this is officially a company now?
AF: That’s a great question.  So, when I first got the idea in my head I was a sophomore in college.  I‘ve always been a person that thinks of a lot of ideas for businesses, and then I mull them over and I kind of debate for a while.  The way that I typically measure those ideas is if it is an idea that’s stuck in my head for a while and I can’t shake it then I think to myself, wait a minute this is something I should pursue.  That’s what happened with Cerebella.

Even though the idea came up in my sophomore year in college, I was in an intro bio course in cell biology and genetics, and I saw the potential in being able to communicate science in a more artistic and creative way to reach people outside of the lab.  So that kind of kernel stayed with me and I would say in the summer of 2012 when I was at the class at RISD I was ready to dive into it and make it a company, but it wasn’t honestly until the last year where I really felt like this is a real thing.

JS: I know you have always had an interest in science, you were a double major in Neuroscience and architecture but have you also always have an interest in design or fashion design?
AF: The interest in Neuroscience and architecture came from a broader passion for child development, understanding how people learn and being able to use design whether it’s the design of buildings or the design of products, to be able to teach people something.  The fashion component, I’d say, started as a vehicle through which I was able to broaden my experience in science communication.  But the love of art and clothing and everything in between, I’d say that’s been my whole life.

So the business of fashion I’d say was the most uncharted territory for me when I first started Cerebella.  I sought out advice from a lot of people initially because I knew I wanted to do surface design, but you can apply these patterns of science inspired images to virtually anything.   I knew that the digital printing process would allow me to put those patterns on fabric and other materials, but fashion just seemed like a really good place to start because I wanted to start by reaching people that were looking for a conversation starter.

JS: Now, for people who don’t know, can we just define what “surface design” is?
AF: Sure.  Surface design broadly, is applying some sort of pattern to a surface.  So a surface designer would be the person who would create the artwork that is applied to fabric that might be upholstery on a piece of furniture, it could be the pattern that ends up on wallpaper, really its the patterns that are applied to everything we see

JS: So when you say you’re getting surface designs, where do you get those from?
AF: I make those.  The way that the process on the design side started, when I first launched Cerebella it was a soft launch it was September 2013, I was doing my own photo microscopy, imaging from a microscope in a lab.  I was using those images to create patterns that I could then apply to various surfaces, and these patterns are created by using various types of photography editing tools and other graphic design tools. There was a huge pivot for the company this past September when I launched “Cerebella Submit”, where scientists are artists.  So now it’s not just me imagining these various organisms and creating patterns but scientists from all around the world are submitting and we are collaborating on designs that are then applied to our products.

JS: I know you’ve already had a couple of featured scientists, how has that gone? How was working with them and getting them to submit? What were they like when they submitted their designs or images to be used as designs?
AF: It’s been absolutely amazing.  Probably the coolest part is that in terms of having some sort of business model where scientists and artists can work together to create products and communicate the science while actually reaching the mass market with tangible goods.  This has never been done before.  So, first just being able to have a passion for science and art myself, as well as help and be able to communicate with scientists about their research, has been wonderful.  It’s really allowed me to bring a lot of my own personal passions into Cerebella while also engaging worlds that don’t typically talk.

When Cerebella Submit first launched I reached out to press alongside the scientists and part of the reason for that was because I realized that for any sort of crowdsourcing to take off we needed to get word around.  So I’d say initially the biggest challenge was figuring out how to actually let scientists know that this exists because as soon as they started to find out, submissions came in.  So, that was pretty amazing to have real people on the other end of the computer actually sending in these images and the conversations that would continue from them were amazing.

So, the process by which the images are actually chosen… we look at the quality, we look at the aesthetic opportunity, maybe there is an image with a great story but it would be hard to translate that into a pattern that people would actually be interested in wearing.  After that process the first group of three scientists were selected for the end of fall.  So right now we’re actually in the midst of getting the next group of scientists, and I’m very very excited for those.
What I also realized in doing the submission platform is that its been more important to provide either a theme or essentially provide a set of boundaries for the scientists to submit within because there’s this kind of this understanding in design that the best design works under constraints.

JS: When the products are done how do the scientists react to seeing their work represented as wearable art?
AF: They’ve been very excited.  The first group of scientists was amazing because there was a substantial range in career stage, in age, in academic background and in personal story that they choose to tell to be featured on the blog.   I think it’s safe to say that when you do a first round of anything it’s a bit of a experiment.  So, there was a clear idea on the side of Cerebella what this would look like but it wasn’t until we put it out there that it really became real.  The scientists communicated very positively once the products were ready.  It’s been amazing to see also how other people within their networks respond because putting these products on the market through our online shop is one thing when we’re kind of throwing them out there and everyone who is interested is looking at the site.  It’s another thing when we’re actually featuring a scientist and it’s their co-workers and their friends and family who know them intimately and actually see them in potentially a different light.

JS: Once you get the patterns set then how does the rest of the process work?
AF: Once the patterns are designed the end product, so to speak, of the design process for the textile side, or the surface design I should say, is an image file.  This image is then basically sent to digital printers where the image is printed onto fabric.  I had first learned how to do this printing myself at RISD, and to scale up it just made a lot of sense to work with other people.  Everything we do is in the US, including the printing.  That’s been a very amazing experience on the business side,  to actually set up the supply chain to figure out what comes next once this design exists.  The design is printed onto fabric on a printer that is over five feet long, the fabric comes out of the printer, it’s then sent to the Cerebella office up in Burlington, Vermont and then the fabric its self is brought to various places to be sewed.  So all the products are sewn in Vermont.

JS: Would you say that it’s a priority for you to have products that are both locally and American made?
AF: Definitely.  When I first started to think about what I wanted Cerebella to represent on the side of production that was very important and the idea of collaborating with people locally to not only provide but also be very thoughtful about what goes into making just one product.  What’s been a very interesting balance for Cerebella is to the extent it’s possibly I focus on locally made, however the reach of the actual idea is global and so, over time it’s going to be very interesting to balance what local means.  I think it would be very interesting to get to a point where we have our supply chain in the US and that’s where we’re doing our main production, but at the same time thinking about what happens if we have more and more scientists abroad and are also supplying products to other countries.   I mean it’s really cool to think about.  I think it again comes back to designing with constraints and that was a constraint I had placed on the business, and I think it’s turned out wonderfully because I also happened to live in a state where the idea of locally made, sourced, or collaboration is very easy to come by and so it was a really supportive environment to start this business in Vermont.

JS: How important is sustainable production to you?
AF: I think it’s really important.  Growing up, and especially in fashion, I was not very aware of how things were made and I think that to be able to contribute in a positive way, and in a small way to the best of my ability through Cerebella to participate in that conversation and in the production process to try and make things a little more sustainable has always been a goal.  I also think there is always work to be done.  For example the fabrics that are used now we use 100% organic cotton that is from the United States, but then we also use cotton-silk and 100% silk.  Something that I thought a lot about was to what extent is it important to only use USA products etc… and I came to the conclusion that there is still a lot of tradition in using certain fabrics and that the quality is also very important.  So what’s been kind of the next adventure has been seeking out fabrics that are also made in the US and that are even more non-traditional but that have kind of a new story, even on the science side, to tell.  I think that it’s been a great learning experience as well as opportunity to contribute.

JS: One of the things I know is that you have also been doing some outreach and education, How passionate are you about the STEM to STEAM movement (STEM = Science Technology Engineering and Math, STEAM = Science Technology Engineering Art and Math)
AF: So the education portion, I am really happy that I was able to start that when I started Cerebella.  I think that when I first started I wasn’t exactly sure how to integrate it into the company model.   I absolutely love to, aside from working with kids, just being able to communicate things in a really creative and accessible way.  So with Cerebella there is definitely a focus on informal learning and whether its navigating a website in a certain way or seeing blog posts and social media pop-up and kind of connecting art and science for people on a platform, I just find that to be real exciting.

In terms of trying to figure out how to more formally can we support STEM to STEAM education that’s been an ongoing conversation.  So when Cerebella first started up we partnered with UVM College of Medicine’s, Project Micro.  Project Micro, is basically this education outreach initiative that brings microscopes into classrooms for middle-schoolers in Vermont, there are other chapters in the state and there is an active one in the Boston area.  So, that was a really great way of actually getting my hands dirty in the STEM to STEAM movement in the classrooms and while that’s still something that’s done through Cerebella now it’s become also more of a conversation about how you scale that sort of outreach.  So, one way that we’ve been able to do that is through partnerships though other non-profits and businesses that do have some sort of educational component to them and we figure out way so actually supporting those efforts.

So, two concrete examples.  One is that through our Cerebella Submit scientists do receive an award for each product that is sold with a pattern they’ve inspired and so they can actually choose whether to receive that award themselves or defer it to a science education organization and one of our scientists has already done that.  I think that that’s a really great example that education can take lots of forms and advocacy can be one of them.  Another example is that in a recent project with the International Year of Light through UNESCO we developed a pattern that was inspired by the Morphol Butterfly with physicists that were in France for this event, which was an amazing process in itself.   We’ve collaborated with them such that for the next year a percentage of sales from these products are actually going towards science education initiatives globally, because that’s something that they’re a part of as well.  Its just amazing to figure out what scale at what scale can you make an impact educationally, and if that’s always a part of Cerebella’s mission there is always a way to figure it out.

Ariele Faber in the Koch Institute Public Galleries during the Descience Showcase in October 2014

JS: Can you explain what the International Year of Light is and how that came about?

AF: The International Year of Light is an initiative that is supported by UNESCO and it’s basically to bring awareness to light and light technologies in international development,  and the way that Cerebella got involved with this initiative goes back to last May.  So something I learned early on with Cerebella is that when working with other corporate or non-profit entities those conversations start really early on.  You’re building this relationship and you’re trying to figure out how to work together, and what you can offer one another, and so I came across this series of events that occurs throughout 2015 because UNESCO basically has these “Year of _____” and so once I found out about it, I think, last January I got in a conversation with the physicist who is chairing the event, John Dudley.  We were talking over the course of months and it transpired in such an amazing way and I never would have thought again that this is something that Cerebella would be able to do so early on in the company.

We basically developed, with them, a selection of products were sent to Paris to the UNESCO headquarters for the opening ceremony of the Initiative and we now have these products available that are inspired by the Morpho Butterfly.  That image was chosen because of the physics behind actually seeing the blue of the butterfly and those products are available in our store through December 2015. I think it has served as an example for other sorts of partnerships and collaborations not only between artists and scientists but between businesses and non-profits at all different stages…That set off a really exciting domino effect because Cerebella is now beginning to work with other companies and organizations that became aware of what we are doing with International Year of Light and thought wait a minute we can do something like this too.  So that’s been the most recent chapter.

JS: Would you say you are meeting more companies that are interested in doing what you’re doing? To work with, or exploring this type of design?
AF: Definitely both.  Something that was also an exciting process when Cerebella first started was the question, Who is our market? It was clear to me from the get go it was going to be scientists, it was going to be fashion aficionados, it was going to be people in between.  I had very specific details about what each of those customers would look like.  I had mentors tell me you have to come up with a profile of who your customers are.  Do they have kids? Are they part of health and science organizations?  I was surprised around every corner when I started actually selling the products B to C.  Because as it turns out it’s not only scientists and artists who are interested in these things but there are professionals in finance and in law who are wearing a certain type of clothing to work so they’re more likely to purchase an item like this as part of their day to day work clothing.  So, that was really interesting.

There was a change happening with Cerebella Submit.  Suddenly there was a conversation with larger groups of people were  this was not only a B to C, but a B to B model that could be implemented to the business.   But I think tapping that opportunity and being able to cultivate it, there weren’t that many models out there for what we’re doing in a sense that we’re dealing with a lot of unique pieces with science images and collaborating on the finance side and figuring out how this science education piece fit, but it worked.  I think that the more that I’ve gotten into Cerebella the more I’ve interfaced with people who have been asking questions about, Are other people doing this? and How do you fit into the ecosystem? I think that a lot of the science inspired design work out there right now is definitely being pushed by technology, whether it’s 3D printing or this digital printing or what I found to be very fascinating, the creation of new materials.   I think that this trend is going to continue and I think that there will be a point where we will see even more intersections that are just starting to bubble up.

JS: So would you say that this is potentially the future of fashion?
AF: That’s a great question! I think with Cerebella we’re just on the surface of it.  I definitely think that the direction of fashion, especially with wearable technology and integrating these health monitoring components and things, that are more about quantified self. I think that there is a component to it that is trendy but it’s also reflecting how people want to express themselves.  That cross between the artistic expression and you know, fashion with a purpose.  Suddenly you have some really interesting things happening on the science side.  I think that the goal of Cerebella and the big picture is to not only be a a company that is communicating the science that is happening in the lab but actually be a voice for the new tech that comes out that you can wear, or the new products that have this kind of science component that people maybe just don’t get and the surface design can maybe help explain what is going on.

JS: Did you ever think, back in the day whenever that was, you were going to be a small business owner or entrepreneur once you finished school?
AF: I have a very funny confession, I didn’t even really know the world “entrepreneur” and what that meant until very late in college.   I always thought if you have an idea and you can make it tangible and you can make it a reality then you can do it.  I think that very naive perspective going into Cerebella served me well because when I first started the company I didn’t think twice, I just did it.  I think there have been times where I wonder, did this come from somewhere else and I think I have always been the type of person who excels in environments where there is always a lot going on and there is a lot of planning and collaborating with other people and being at the cutting edge of something, you know I plan on doing that for the rest of my life.

JS: What do you see happening down the line for Cerebella, lets say a year from now?
AF: In a year, I would definitely like to see Cerebella Submit expand even more.  I would love to also see more partnerships and collaborations with labs, with science education organizations and with large companies that are really having an impact in the health and science and technology space.  I think that being able to establish ourselves in the market as a new kind of science communication where science is in style, that’s something that takes time to gain traction and we’re already at that point where people are buzzing about science and art and science and design.

JS: What would you say to anyone who might be interested in trying their own hand at something like this?
AF: Do it!  Definitely think through it a lot.  More so than the idea, make sure you have the personality to throw yourself into something new, not know what to expect, be poor for a while.  Be extremely pro active and develop a resilience to failure, because if you can’t do any of those things or you can’t do at least a few of them it will be very hard to get through the first month.  I think that with all those things comes a passion for what you’re doing.   Especially right now, and in the time I was in college, the idea of starting a “Start Up” and being part of the Start Up scene and having a business, it’s been a hot topic, it sounds really exciting and very romantic.   I can tell you there are lots of different variations on that story.   You know it’s very different to be essentially where I started which was, at the art business in a way and shifting into the fashion business and then figure out is that what this really is? How do you define a surface design company? So definitely figure out what you want and do it as early as possible.  Make as many mistakes as early as possible as you can… I think it’s just awesome to take that dive.

JS: Ariele, thank you so much for your time!

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