Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Tejas Raj’s passion for design started with Legos. Even as a kid, the now 17-year-old wanted to know how to put things together and, more interestingly, how to tear them apart. How, he wondered, does it all go together?
Now a senior at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, Raj has taken on an even bigger and more exciting project: the Seattle Design Festival. He’s one of a select group developing an interactive installation that’ll be on display during the festival’s Block Party on Sept. 8 and 9. The installation focuses on the Festival’s 2018 theme of trust.
Rather than overtly name the theme in the project, Raj and his team decided to try something more subtle. They want to foster trust between strangers. Their 10-foot by 10-foot booth will include seats and bowls filled with conversation-starters that’ll prompt attendees to do the unthinkable: Talk to one another.
“It’s a chance for people to come together and share a moment,” Raj says. “That’s unusual in our world where we’re often like ‘You do you and I’ll do me’ and then we move along with our day.”
Raj got his first real taste for that kind of interaction thanks to a weeklong workshop at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center. A sophomore at the time, Raj admits that he hadn’t given much thought to his future. “I planned for like one day ahead,” he says.
That changed after he attended the Take Action workshop. There, he met local students who were as motivated (and sometimes quite a bit more so) than he was at the time. “Everyone had an amazing attitude,” he says. “Most importantly, they all wanted to take action.”
Inspired, Raj applied for an affiliated program at Gates: the yearlong Youth Ambassadors Program (YAP). He got in and has spent the past year participating in a number of different local service projects while fostering a new love for design and engineering.
“In the past year, I’ve learned that I really love design,” he says. “I’m very hands-on and I like to build things.”
Now, he’s taking that talent to the Seattle Design Festival. The resulting display of candid Polaroids will, he hopes, get people to open up.
“We want strangers to become acquaintances,” Raj says. “We want to get people talking. To break the ice. To make connections.”
That’s also the goal of the next exhibit at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center: “Design With the 90%”. Organized by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the exhibit features 26 projects that show how design can address some of the world’s biggest problems. On the docket: a bike that charges phones, a portable solar kit and a crowd-mapped anonymous reporting system that’s keeping people safer from sexual assault.
“Design With the 90%” opens Sept. 13 and runs through May 19, 2019, at the always free Discovery Center located next to Seattle Center. It’ll also tap into what Raj says he loves about design.
“Design is about seeing different possibilities and trying out different combinations,” he says. “So much of it is about creativity and I’m excited to see how different people interpret different challenges from their own perspectives.”