Photo by Winston Struye

My experience being Filipino American Designer right now (and this literally happened to me last night):

New Person: “So, where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from Tennessee.”
New Person: “Oh, really? Huh… (awkward pause) but…”
Me: “But, yes I was born and raised here, so I’m American, but, yeah, my parents are from the Philippines. They came to be the doctors of a rural town, and had me there.”
New Person: “Oh, the Philippines! I was wondering…”

What is interesting to me about this exchange is the awkwardness in my responses. I feel obligated to relieve the asker of the discomfort of the dissonance between my physical appearance and the reality that I feel more Tennessean than Filipino. I have never visited the Philippines. (“What? Really? Never?” “Yes, never.”) And I need an easy story—the story of how my model immigrant doctor parents moved to Tennessee to take care of a rural town where no white doctor would move—to justify my existence. What is funny in the resolution of the exchange is that I feel like I justified my case that I am American while the asker walks way thinking I’m Filipino, and both of us feel satisfied.

Ironically, this is not that dissimilar to my relationship to being a Designer:

New Person: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a designer.”
New Person: “Oh really? Huh…. (pause) Fashion?”
Me: “No, actually, Interaction Design? It’s a combination of computation, design, and storytelling? So I went to MIT, to be an engineer, and studied computer science and filmmaking, and tried to find a way to combine the two things.”
New Person: “Oh, MIT? that sounds interesting…”

So I sound equally awkward at being a designer, as I am being a Filipino. Still holding up credentials, like MIT and engineer, to give other people a comfortable handle on an identity I still struggle to own. Happy Filipino parents have doctors, nurses, and engineers. So when I look at the description:

Filipino American Designer Phillip Tiongson.

My first reaction is, “Is that what I am? Am I that? What’s that?”

My next instinct is to retreat into defining the labels, to try to make others (and myself) comfortable. Racially, I am Filipino, check. I was born in America, check. I built a design studio, that does design, so I must be a Designer, check. Done.

Filipino + America + Design = Filipino American Designer.

BUT, I think that the sum of those words should mean something more. So what do I do that is Filipino American in my Design practice? Is Potion (the design firm I built) a Filipino American Design Firm?

I really had no idea, until I began to write this article, but I think I had to work through some of the possible meanings:

Am I a Filipino-American (FilAm) Designer? Well, not really… My design work does not derive from the aesthetic or cultural traditions of the Philippines. Although I actually do love pork adobo, karaoke, and the weapons of Moriland, I have never been immersed in contemporary Filipino or Filipino American culture, and do not feel entitled to be called a FilAm Designer, though there are many who are.

Am I a Filipino American Designer? When I see this, I read American Designer first, who happens to be racially Filipino. In this reading, being Filipino has no material effect on being a designer who was born, bred, and trained in America. For a long time, this is exactly how I thought of myself. As we used to say in my hometown when I was a kid, “I’m American by birth, but Southern by the Grace of God.” Googling that phrase horrifyingly brings up a book emblazoned with the Confederate flag, and now, as an adult, I recoil at the supremacy implied by the phrase. But when I was in high school, I claimed that phrase as my own culture, which it clearly is not.

So that leaves a phrase that can’t be divided: Filipino American Designer. As I have begun to dig deeper into what it really might to me, I realized that when I looked around at Potion I saw this:

Out of twenty-four people,
We are Mash-up Americans* from five continents;
Ten are immigrants, and eight are children of immigrants;
Thirteen identify as men and eleven as women;
They are proud to love whomever they want; and,
They each chose to work here.

*Thanks, Amy!

And Potion looks like that and behaves like that, because a Filipino Tennessean Designer Entrepreneur Computer Science Electrical Engineer Filmmaker built it.

It may seem totally obvious, but I built a place where people like me would want to work. People who would rather not be described by a single label, title, or moniker. People who are mashups and hybrids, who cross disciplines with ease and seek inspiration through collaboration, and who deeply care for each other and the work they do.

What I inherited from my Filipino parents:

  • They were intensely curious. At 23 years old, my parents immigrated to discover America, and chose to stay, raise a family, and work in a foreign culture.
  • They were insightful and really good at what they did. To stay in the United States in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they had to be great doctors and be willing to do things (like move to Tennessee) that other doctors would not do.
  • Fighting their own implicit biases, they had the upmost respect for human life and dignity. In the twenty years that my parents practiced medicine in Celina, Tennessee, they never turned anyone away because of race, class, or ability to pay.
  • They were a team, before collaboration was a “thing.” My parents mentored each other in school, immigrated together, raised a family, and cared for an entire generation of a small town in Tennessee, just the two of them.

When I look at Potion’s “Core” values: Collaboration, Curiosity, Inspiration, Passion, Insight, and Respect, I can now see how much my being Filipino American influenced its creation and what I do. In that sense, Potion is a Filipino American Design Firm that happens to employ a diverse staff of mostly non-Filipinos.

What I am realizing is that there are going to be a lot more people that look like us, that do things like us, and feel awkward being contained inside a label. And what’s more, what we are creating at Potion is a sense of implicit diversity that helps us to illuminate our implicit biases. If you had asked me eleven years ago to define what kind of company that I would build, “Filipino American” or “diverse” wouldn’t have even been on my list, but that is what we are right now. And now, I am learning how to do it better, not just by instinct, but with awareness, understanding, and intention.

❔ Whois

Phillip R. Tiongson is a Filipino American designer, entrepreneur, and leading authority on interactive technology. Tiongson is the Principal and Founder of Potion, a design studio dedicated to transforming the physical with the digital. His clients include the Smithsonian Institution, Northwestern University, Nike, HarperCollins, and Maharam. He serves as a member of MIT’s Council for the Arts, a catalyst and funder for the development of a broadly based, highly participatory arts program. Tiongson has spoken about technology, design, and culture at events around the country including PopTech, Gravity Free, and interaction16. He holds two US Patents and was twice a Finalist for the National Design Award. Tiongson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a BS in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, a BS in Film and Media Studies, and an MS in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab. He later earned an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University. Born and raised in Tennessee, he still can’t believe that he lives in New York City.

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Posted by philliptiongson


  1. Everyday With Gad November 3, 2016 at 10:34 am

    such an inspiring story… # Filipinohere

  2. Thoughtful article! I just started my first design/art blog and I my first post Is called what do you do. My initial point was people have a need to label others. Or worse in your experience, making sure the label matches with the preconceived label they have as soon as the see your racial features.

    Thanks for writing your experience

  3. Thank you! Yes, there is no defining a mish mash of culture etc. You are your own unique footprint and fingerprint with your God given gifts and talents. I fit into that mish mash description too – undefinable as I was born in a country that no longer exists! Hence my need to write up our family saga so future generations may find some roots!

  4. I would like to add writer to your list. A wonderful, well thought out piece. –Curt

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