Interview: Helen Han

Living in this part of the world, it’s hard to imagine working in a role where your projects are showcased at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), The New Museum (NYC), and The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Whilst Helen Han hasn’t realised her early dream of becoming an astronaut, she has achieved some amazing things as a design consultant and, now, Principal of her own firm, HelenHanCreative LLC.

We interviewed Helen to get some insights into her life, including how perseverance, respect, learning to listen and maintaining a constant state of wonder have helped propel her career and landed her roles working for a host of admirable firms.

Please provide your name, job title and company name.

Helen Han, Principal, HelenHanCreative LLC

How long have you spent in your current position?

I started working as a consultant on my own in 2011 but only formally created HHC in 2018.

What job did you have before your current role?

I was a designer at Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects (MSME Architects) in Atlanta, Georgia and had been there since 2002. I still work with them but as a design consultant.

To date, what has been your career highlight?

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a variety of admirable firms and institutions and through them I have been able to showcase projects at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), The New Museum (NYC), The Whitney Museum of American Art and participate in the 2016 Venice Biennale. Through the Harvard X platform, my work was able to reach over 25,000 students. To know that your work has been experienced by so many different people brings me great joy.

Who have you admired or learnt from the most in your career and why?

The obvious choice is my time working for Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam. By far, they have the most unique and fantastic architectural imagination I have yet to personally encounter. All the while maintaining a profound sense of humility and generosity. I’ve had the privilege to teach with Mack Scogin at the Harvard Graduate School of Design since 2009 and have learned the importance of continued intellectual discourse and discovery.

Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing when you were younger? If not, what type of job did you expect you would have?

When I was younger, my mother wanted me to become a doctor (she still holds on to that hope). However, I dreamed about becoming an astronaut. Although I am neither, architecture demands a similar sense of discipline, an understanding of global responsibility and relies on a constant state of wonder.

What do you think is the most important quality or skill you need to succeed in your current role?

Learning to listen and developing a variety of modes of communication in order to foster relationships. Listening is not an inherent ability but a trained skill. You have to train yourself to focus your attention on the speaker and tune everything out; to prevent hastily jumping to conclusions and to try and understand their perspective. Only through listening, can one begin to formulate the best way of communicating with that person/client – both verbally and visually. This may seem a bit obvious, but in fact it’s often overlooked and people tend to rely on simply one form/mode.

What’s one thing you hope to achieve this year, either at work or in your personal life?

To continue to expand my audience and further my relationships globally. This interview is one example of making this happen!

Do you have any tips or advice for those just starting out in the industry?

First and foremost, treat people with respect even when dealing with difficult situations. When I first started off on my own, I was often second guessed, patronized, and even talked over both by colleagues and clients. It was infuriating but I maintained a level of control and professionalism. And now, to my amusement, I am actually called upon when there is a project dealing with difficult people who need to get along and come together.

Also, perseverance – creativity is actually a lot of hard work and the process of working through an idea and understanding one’s own creative instincts takes time. In a cultural moment that revolves around immediacy, deny that impulse and relish in the process and evolution of an idea. It will further enrich your work and give your work a sense of personal purpose.