Dave Elfving is an experience designer and educator. He spent eleven years at apple, where his last role was as Head of Interactive Strategy. These days, he’s my colleague teaching interaction design at the California College of the Arts. He’s also co-chairperson at Gray Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit interdisciplinary cultural incubator. Gray Area is fostering fascinating work, and I wanted to discuss it with Dave.

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Jorge: Dave, welcome to the show.

Dave: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Jorge: It’s great to have you here. You and I have known each other for a while. I wouldn’t say that we know each other super well, and I’d love to take this opportunity to learn more about you and your work. Before we get into it, would you mind introducing yourself for our listeners?

About Dave

Dave: Sure. I’m Dave Elfving. I’m currently an adjunct professor at the California College of Arts, a position that I owe in large part to my connection and interactions with you. Prior to that, I worked for 11 years at Apple as a user experience designer, and I ultimately worked in their overall interactive strategy from 2008 until about 2019.

So, I left that job right before the pandemic. And one of the things I knew I wanted to do was find opportunities to learn and explore in areas that sometimes we become, in our professional careers, very attenuated in our focus. We have a very specific job, a very specific team. And so there were things I wanted to explore and learn beyond that, and I also knew I always wanted to teach.

And I’m really grateful that has worked out with CCA and with Gray Area, a nonprofit organization here in San Francisco. That’s where I first discovered them, as a member and a person who was learning from a lot of their educational programs around technology and experience design. And just recently, I joined the board of directors there.

So I’m really happy to support them and work with a very inspiring group of people there to think about their education programs and the things they offer to the community of folks who are learning the kind of design that you and I have been a part of for a long time. They lean more towards artistic expression as opposed to just functional expression, not that these things are ever really separate, but I think they lean more in the artistic direction where often our corporate work is perhaps less so, right? It has more of a means to an end as opposed to just pure experience design. So it’s been an interesting journey and now I’m pleased to identify mostly as being a teacher.

Jorge: I know very little about Gray Area. I’ve been there once; you invited me. You were exhibiting some work there as part of what I understood to be a collective show of mostly digital interactive pieces that were also environmental. I don’t know if that’s a good way of describing them, but I would love to hear more about Gray Area. You said that it has this educational focus, but what is Gray Area and what does it focus on?

Gray Area’s Mission

Dave: I wish I had more of my colleagues from Gray Area that could weigh in because I know I’m not going to do it justice. They offer a really wide range of programming. It’s the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. I think it first started in 2002, in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco in 2005. I’m not exactly sure. I think it was maybe 2014 moved to a really wonderful theater in the Mission, the Grand Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, which anybody familiar with San Francisco in the mission knows that there’s a lot of these abandoned theaters, this old form of… not old, but a form of entertainment that we still go to, but these huge opulent theaters are a thing of the past and Gray Area has taken over one of them as a performing arts space, a theater space, an education space, a gathering space. It’s interesting.

So, I don’t know that I’ll do justice to its overall mission but their focus is combining art, technology, science, computer science, interaction design, the humanities, and I’m looking at our mission statement right now. but combining these areas of expression and inquiry and art toward a more equitable and regenerative future. I think in practice that is broadly in two areas. One is education, where there’s a variety of workshops from learning how to use a modular synthesizer to creative coding to creating immersive experiences inside the theater, AR and VR experiences, creating art on the web.

And then there’s a whole performance art aspect of the organization. Really interesting multimedia performances from artists all around the world. A lot of local artists. A focus on music, but also multidisciplinary video projection sound… the sheer number of creators who come through the space is incredibly inspiring and the educational programs are geared towards helping others find these new…

The words that come to mind are “cutting edge.” The folks who are experimenting artistically with AR and VR, with projection mapping, with circuits and servos that respond in an environment, to create a certain kind of impression. There’s not a lot of outlets for that kind of work. And I think there’s even fewer places where you can really focus on learning how to create with these kinds of technologies.

And I think that’s the two aspects of the organization, the performative one, and the educational and learning. And these two things I think really combine together well. A number of the performers and artists who are producing work for the space will also be teachers in workshops, creative coding immersives.

Every year there’s a Gray Area festival with a different focus. And the last one I recall was really focused on accessibility, inclusivity, thinking about different abilities and making systems and artistic expression radically inclusive, which I find really important in all of the kind of design work we do, but particularly in the art space that Gray Area is thinking about.

I don’t feel I’m doing this justice, but grayarea.org is the place to learn a lot more about the mission and the different programs that they have. But it’s something I’ve been excited to be a part of for about, gosh, it’s going on ten years. I started purely as a fan, as someone who saw the space, saw people exhibiting, and I really wanted to see what was happening there. And that’s what drew me in, I think, around 2015, long before I ever really started going regularly or was able to participate. I started visiting and seeing the work and performances that were happening, and I just knew someday I really wanted to be more involved. Someday, I really wanted to take these courses and learn these new ways of expressing and creating that I found I wasn’t really able to do in my corporate job.

Empowerment Through Creativity

Jorge: I think that when I went it was for one of these festivals that you’re calling out, to see the exhibits. But, what I’m hearing here, and I’ll reflect it back to you as I’m hearing you describe it, is that it’s a… gosh, I don’t want to diminish the experience by describing it like this, but it feels like a play space in that it’s an opportunity for folks to play around with fascinating new technologies with no kind of commercial goal in mind. Just for the sake of experimenting with what these things can do.

And I think of design… This might be true also of art, but for now, I’ll just talk about design. I think of design as a way of exploring alternate ways of being in the world that entails somehow making stuff. You can explore different ways of being in the world by thinking about them, by writing. But design is particular in that you’re making something, some kind of intervention in the world, and then gauging how the world reacts to it and then iterating on that. And that allows you to create new products, new services, new ways of communicating. Which usually have some kind of profit motive. And what I’m hearing here is that this is a space to embody this way of knowing the world without being driven by the profit motive. Is that true?

Dave: I think that’s true. I like the description of a play space. I have often thought of it as a maker space. There’s the various intensives, which are basically semester-long educational programs that are far more accessible to a much broader spectrum of people than, say the California College of the Arts or Stanford or any of the other universities that are around here. Colleges and universities. There are some options that are free or more accessible to folks, but often this type of freedom, simultaneously, the teaching that shares technologies and techniques with a broad range of people. That’s democratized. But then also the space to be able to create and share something that reflects a personal or a community vision.

And you’re right, it’s not tied to a particular brand or any kind of profit motive. I think people take it seriously. It’s often playful. But people often create works that have serious subject matters or they’re trying to reveal or explore something that might be difficult to talk about or that needs to be talked about more. But there’s a freedom to create with technologies that I think because of barriers to entry for learning how to create with these technologies, are often relegated to profit-seeking brand-centered experiences.

So if you wanna just create something with augmented reality, say, or an immersive experience that is using projection mapping that visitors will walk around in three-dimensional space to form an impression of whatever this work is. Those are complicated endeavors that I think we often experience as tied to a brand. We’ll walk into a stadium and see some incredible installation or perhaps we’ll go to a museum where an artist who has the means or a big commission is able to create a space.

Gray Area, I think, cuts through all that and allows the expertise and the support and the space to create these multisensory experiences that I do feel like we tend to see these more tied to entities with a budget, entities with a mission to advertise or promote, not exclusively. I don’t want to demonize all those things. Those are important too. But it’s difficult.

There’s a lot of gatekeeping in the industry around coding, around programming, around having space to do something that is technically challenging. There’s a lot of hurdles to overcome, and one of the things I’m most proud of with Gray Area is that it removes those hurdles for a lot of people who are curious, who want to create something but they’ve been told that, “oh, you’re not programmers.” Or who want to learn some new technologies or new approaches but don’t have the means to pay tuition at an expensive school like CCA or perhaps they don’t have the time to go to other schools where they might learn these things.

So yeah, it’s a play space and an empowering space for teaching and sharing various technologies. And it’s a real performance space that’s drawing people from all over the world who are also using these mediums in a way that’s just incredibly compelling. Like, some of the exhibits that I remember most fondly from, it was just last year. I wanna make sure I get his name. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, I think. It was a really incredible installation. It was a program last year called TechsMechs, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. And the work was described as a survey of Mexican technological culture, and it’s just a beautiful series of installation works Lozano-Hemmer has displayed at the Tate Modern and other really interesting places around the world.

It was interesting and important that this work focusing on Mexican culture and technology was taking place at a setting in the Mission here in San Francisco, that has a large Mexican community. But the other thing that was important about it is you have this really world-renowned, respected artist creating just an incredible installation in San Francisco in the Mission.

And a few weeks later, students, several of whom are on scholarships, who are learning how to use these technologies at Gray Area, are exhibiting their work there as well. So you have students and really established artists using this space in a way that I think is self-reinforcing. It builds curiosity, it draws people. It’s one of the things that really inspires me. It informs my own work, but more importantly, it really sparks creative work from audiences who might be new to this, and puts their work at the same level as more established artists. And that’s not something we see very often.

Jorge: It feels like it’s a space that validates this as a field of inquiry in that if you are bringing in more established artists and exhibiting their work, you’re drawing boundaries around the space and saying, “look, this is a thing that can be shown much in the same way that you would show artworks in more traditional media. It elevates the medium, somehow. And also it sounds like it gives folks the opportunity to learn how to do it, because… I’ll speak from my own perspective. If I visit a museum where paintings are being exhibited, I may have had experience as a child with paints like sloshing tempera on paper or whatever, and I have a mental model for how paint works.

But if you see something like projection mapping, a lot of that stuff, frankly might come across as magic. I think that perhaps people have had experience with projection mapping and visiting theme parks and stuff like that, or seeing kind of large-scale installations in cities, but it’s something that I suspect feels more out of reach than something like paint, just because we don’t have as much firsthand experience with it. And it sounds like part of the mission here is to… I was gonna say demystify, and I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but just to make it more accessible.

Overcoming Barriers to Learning

Dave: These technologies — I think design as a whole — there’s gatekeeping at every step of our profession, and, what we do, whether it’s getting a job or developing the expertise in order to work in the field or to be taken seriously in the field. And I think that’s often bound up with technology where, not exclusively, but you find this gatekeeping hidden in things like, “oh, this is… it’s just too complicated.” Or, “you just don’t have the right kind of… you’re not a programming kind of person. You’re not a technical person.”

And we hear that at various phases of our curiosity, and I think people from underserved communities, women in tech, hear this all the time. And one of the things that’s really special about Gray Area is it tries to sweep that away and offer a platform that says, “this is really accessible to anyone.” The only thing you really need is curiosity. Did you see something inspiring? Now you wanna learn how to use these techniques to create something on your own. If someone sits you down with a thick computer science textbook and starts lecturing you about variables of loops and things, now the expression that you want to create seems infinitely far away.

I think spaces and instruction that happens at Gray Area cuts through all that. I’m also really excited to see how new technologies, particularly around AI and programming and coding help to reduce barriers for expressing ourselves in this medium. It’s controversial when it comes to writing and creating images, but I think about tools like AI when it comes to creative coding, learning how to push the boundaries of what we can do, even if we don’t have encyclopedic expertise on how to code in a particular language you can now learn the basic frameworks of computational thinking, use AI tools, and create something that’s wholly unique and powerful in a way that I don’t think was possible just a few years ago.

So one of the things I’m excited about Gray Area is rethinking the curriculum for the creative coding intensive and a few other courses and workshops that it offers in part to think about how can we leverage new technologies to carry on the same mission, which is to empower people with these techniques and tools and technologies to create relevant expression for themselves and their communities and so on. And that’s powerful and exciting.

That’s what inspired me to just be a student. I got involved with the organization because I saw what others were creating, and I saw a path towards learning that I felt was closed to me. And in my case, it was not because of means, it was because the confines of my full-time job had become very focused and very narrow. So you and I met, the very first time I took the Gray Area intensive, and I was just a paying student. I was a member of the organization. I wasn’t involved in the board. It was my first time really learning about what they offered. It was in 2019, right before the pandemic. And I knew I wanted to create something in augmented reality.

It feels like a long time ago, 2019, but in some ways, we’re still trying to understand what’s the role of augmented reality in design in our everyday interactions. It’s not really common, but it’s something I wanted to learn more about. And I had friends that were working on projects at Apple related to augmented reality. They were showing me stuff and I was really intrigued and curious, but my responsibilities and my job and my team and the things that I was responsible for didn’t give me any space to experiment with these things on my own.

And it was one of the contributing factors that made me leave that job. Not on bad terms, but I just realized my curiosity is no longer going to be sated by the way my career has developed professionally. And I needed to take a step back from that and then reengage as a beginner with an intimidated frame of mind that like, “I know a little bit of JavaScript, but I don’t know how to do any of this stuff.” That was really welcomed at the Gray Area educational experience. At the time, we called it the Creative Coding Intensive. I think we still do. We called it an Immersive, now we call it an Intensive.

In any case, that course and, more importantly, the other people — people who were coming from other corporate jobs, artists who wanted to expand the palette of creative tools that they can work with — the people who are drawn to Gray Area to take these courses and ultimately produce work in a show together have always been incredibly special. Because we, as learners, are drawing from the other folks in the class. And it brings together such an interesting group of people: amazingly technically proficient people who have an inkling to do something creative but have been told or don’t have the opportunities to be creative. And on the other side, creative people who see a possibility to do something with technology, but they have this vibe, or they’ve heard that they don’t have the technical skills to make that possible.

And the programs bring together this range of people and tells technical people, “you can be creative,” creative people, “you can be technical,” and the collaborations that happen are really exciting and that’s unique, in my opinion, to Gray Area. I think there are some other places that offer similar programs, but it’s very

And the programs bring together a range of people and tell technical people, “You can be creative,” creative people, “You can be technical,” and the collaborations that happen are really exciting and that’s unique, in my opinion, to Gray Area. I think there are some other places that offer similar programs, but it’s very different from what I’ve seen in colleges that often focus on students or people with a very specific major that they want to pursue. Gray Area seems to attract students and professionals at various points in their career at this critical juncture where they sense that they need to learn something new. They sense a desire to have a breakthrough to create something that they can envision but maybe don’t quite know how to do.

People find their way to Gray Area and they get through that block and leave, I think, not just with new skills, but with a sense of empowerment. “Oh, I can do this. I can make something with an Arduino and program servos to move in a certain way. I can play around with a projector and TouchDesigner or MadMapper and create something that exceeded my expectations. I can experiment with 3D modeling and AR and create an immersive piece in a theater that I thought was only the purview of, say, a big company that had the resources to do that.” It’s cool.

Jorge: That sounds so inspiring and I’m thinking that projecting my own experience in having learned some new technologies and currently learning about AI, for example. I’m working with AI right now and thinking through how I can bring it into my work. A lot of what I’m doing is playing with the technology. And I keep bringing the word “play” back in because, again, I feel like there is exploration that happens with some kind of fixed purpose or goal in mind beyond learning the thing. And then there is exploration that just happens because you want to learn about it. You want to learn the capabilities and constraints of the technology; you want to explore its possibilities.

And that kind of describes how I’m working with AI right now; just tinkering with it and trying to get a sense of what I can do with it. And it helps to have a community to work with, right? Because doing this alone, there are always going to be other priorities in the way. There are client projects, there are family responsibilities. Once you have a community, you start engaging with other people who are modeling the behaviors that you’re aspiring to and the knowledge that you want to acquire, and you can learn from them.

But you also start adopting commitments. If there’s going to be a showing, for example, it’s like I’ve now committed to exhibiting a work there and it gives me impetus to actually put in the time that is going to be required not just to tinker with this stuff, but to do something, whether it’s something beautiful, something interesting, something useful. And I will add one more thing. My tinkering with AI is something that I can do with just my laptop and an internet connection. But for the sort of technologies that you’re talking about here, servos and Arduinos and projectors, those happen in physical space, right? Like, you actually have to have access to projectors and actuators and all this stuff. And it helps to have, like you described it, a maker space where there are people working with these things where you can actually learn the ropes, something that you would be hard-pressed to do in the abstract just with an internet chat room or something like that.

The Importance of Physical Spaces

Dave: It was important to me to teach in person and to take these classes in person. So when I started teaching at CCA, you and I were talking before we started recording, you had the experience of teaching during the pandemic. I started teaching immediately after the pandemic. Like we were just coming back; we were all wearing masks. That was critical for me. I think teaching and learning are simultaneously, it’s performative to be a teacher, but there’s also this community connection that’s really important. We learn from others in real-time, we are inspired by others, and I don’t want to discount online learning.

If you go to the Gray Area website, you’ll see that there are in-person workshops and intensives, but the organization is really interested in online learning because it opens up opportunities for people who aren’t just local in this space. And I really admire that. I think the goal is to share the knowledge and passion and excitement with as many people as possible. That’s the mission of the organization, I think.

On the other hand, exclusively learning online, while powerful, I think we miss out on sharing our work with others, on getting real feedback in a meaningful way on something that is visual and tangible and present. If we’re just building a website or an app, it might be a little bit easier to collaborate online. But I think that interpersonal connection and learning, and particularly in making, whether it’s… I’ve been talking about the big Intensives that happen at Gray Area. And you’re right because it culminates in a show where you’re exhibiting work alongside your peers, it creates a really wonderful environment. I have never been motivated to work as hard to realize something as I have when I know I’m participating in a show with other students that I’ve been working with for three months, helping each other to realize our ideas, and really having that sense of celebration when we open the doors. It’s just, it’s magical and motivating in a way that I haven’t experienced before.

And then when the class is over, you’re almost, you’re really sad. But aside from that whole idea of this journey of months culminating in a show, which is really wonderful and there are other Intensives and long-form learning that Gray Area offers. There’s also the short-term workshops and hands-on learning, whether you’ve seen a modular synthesizer somewhere at a concert or online, and you want to learn the basics of it. There are meetups where you can get together just for a few hours and start to learn the essentials of this.

I taught a workshop, I guess a couple of years ago now, where I pulled all the materials together for folks to learn how to make a picture frame, a digital picture frame, using a Raspberry Pi so it can cycle through images. You can connect to live streams, you can play videos, things that are relatively basic, but I think there’s an intense curiosity that people have. How do I learn how to tinker with this thing called a Raspberry Pi, make it independent, have something useful that I can use at home, without necessarily the commitment of a semester-long course?

So even just a day-long workshop where we get together, build something with guidance and support, some folks will come from that feeling incredibly empowered knowing how to, the basics of working with the Linux operating system and they can hack a Raspberry Pi to do all sorts of things. Other students might go through that exercise, come away with a cool picture frame that goes through their family photos and never come back to learning about Linux or the Raspberry Pi or physical computing again.

Both of those are success stories and I think there’s a hunger — I’m speaking for myself, but I see it in a lot of folks — to be with people while we’re learning, and a hunger to really work tangibly with our hands to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, whether it’s this little picture frame or an immersive experience, projection mapping that folks are coming and walking around. Tangible things in our world have become increasingly digital, our interactions are becoming increasingly digital, you and I are talking over Zoom right now. You’re in another country, right? These are actually really amazing science fiction things, and yet I think they’ve become so commonplace so fast, and forced by the pandemic, that I see this resurgence for working with our hands, working together.

And Gray Area really is not trying to stop online learning — I think that’s going to be a big initiative — but always coming back to this idea that we have a physical space to work together where I can look over your shoulder and see what you’re doing and learn from you or help you solve a problem before you even encounter it. That’s special and important, and I think the opportunities for that, whether it’s just a workshop or a long-term class, it’s so difficult in our current time for people to have the space to do this, right? They’re working a full job, they’re taking care of their families. When am I going to be able to take a workshop? Maybe I can find three hours on a Friday night to go and learn something new. Or we can offer a longer-term course for folks who want to make a deeper commitment, but don’t have the tuition to go to a school or don’t have the flexibility to go outside of the city. There are online opportunities for that I don’t want to discount, but I think there’s something really special that happens when we are physically together, learning, and physically together sharing the work that we’ve created.


Jorge: That feels like a really great summary of the mission for what Gray Area is doing in the world, and it feels like a good place to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks find out more about both Gray Area and yourself?

Dave: I’m scrolling through the Gray Area website right now as we’re speaking. So, if you go to Gray Area, one word gray spelled with an a; G-R-A-Y, grayarea.org, you’ll see a lot about the events and programming that’s coming up. There’s a whole section on all the courses that are offered, and come back a lot. I think we’re going to see an uptick in this, at least I hope, in the coming year or two with more workshops and things. And just come by, sign up for a course, come by to something that’s open. A lot of programs are just open to the public on certain days. So grayarea.org is a great resource.

For me, I don’t have much of a public presence. You can find me on LinkedIn just by typing my name, but I also occasionally share my own projects on a website, aught.io. And that’s just simply a tiny little portfolio site of my own work. What I like about it is that I’m sharing work that is much more in the spirit of I am learning, I’m experimenting a lot of my Gray Area projects I’ve posted on this website, and it’s very different from the kind of portfolio and resume site that I had when I was working professionally or trying to find those jobs. This, for me, is just a place to share the experiments that I’ve been making. A lot of those experiments would not have been possible without the learning community that I had at Gray Area, which is what made me want to be more involved and to support them, and ultimately end up serving on the board with others.

Jorge: Thank you for sharing your work and for sharing a Gray Area with us. And folks, go check out both Dave’s work and the site. I hope we help contribute to that uptick in interest that you were talking about. Thank you, Dave, for sharing with us here.

Dave: You’re welcome.