Q&A: Melissa Rivera Torres — Delphi Designer, HGTV Star

Melissa Rivera Torres

Like many of Group Delphi’s talented creatives, Melissa Rivera Torres is a design rockstar with a diverse portfolio of amazing work. But unlike the rest of our team, Delphi’s new Environmental Designer is also a TV celebrity! Melissa competed in HGTV’s White Room Challenge in 2012, and tonight at 6 p.m. PST she will appear on the season-two premiere of Ellen’s Design Challenge.

Of course, Melissa’s experience goes far beyond the soundstage. In addition to creating an impressive array of projects for clients in museum, medical, and corporate, she has also taught at the college level and founded her own company, Unleash Studio.

Long story short: Melissa’s got chops and the CV to prove it.

With her second TV adventure mere hours away, we sat down with Melissa Rivera Torres to get a glimpse of the journey that brought her to Group Delphi — and the innovation that makes her just as at-home in the Delphi hangar as she is onscreen.


Q&A

Thanks for your time! Tell us a bit about your background prior to joining Group Delphi. 

I grew up and went to school (K-12) in Mexico. I graduated at just 16, so I had a bit of time to work on my English skills, get a portfolio of work done and apply to design school as a freshman. First I went to University of Colorado at Boulder for a year, and after that I was able to get into the Rhode Island School of Design. I majored in Industrial Design and loved it.

In 2001 I got a job working as a designer for the Papalote Museo del Niño in Mexico City (the largest Children’s Museum in Mexico), collaborating in designing exhibits and helping with a huge renovation they were working on.

In 2004 I went back to RISD to get a Master’s Degree in Art and Design Teaching Education. After completing my M.A., I took an opportunity to move to Hawaii, and since then I have worked for several schools and institutions, teaching students of all ages about design.


So many people out there don’t even realize that design is all around us, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep every day … and it affects our lives.


Where have you taught?

Some of my places of employment include:

  • The Honolulu Academy of Arts
  • The Honolulu Contemporary Art Museum
  • Art to Go (a non-profit outreach program specifically designed to serve Hawaii’s at-risk youth)
  • Hawaii Pacific University

Aside from teaching, I have been working on the development of Unleash Studio since 2009, creating things that I believe will make people smile while also offering them something unique and different.

Melissa Rivera Torres in Unleash Studio

Melissa Rivera Torres in the design studio she founded, Unleash Studio. (Photo: Marco Garcia)

What were some of the most meaningful aspects of your experiences teaching design?

When I design things, I do it with passion because I believe design can really improve and change people’s lives. I felt compelled to share this passion and knowledge with others, no matter what age they were. (I have taught K-12 all the way through college.) I absolutely love sharing the knowledge I have and my passion for what I do.

So many people out there don’t even realize that design is all around us, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep every day … and it affects our lives. I feel that as a designer, it is my responsibility to educate people and share what I do with others. Design is the result of lots of work that goes on behind scenes.

At the same time it pushes me to try to be better and to learn more, while allowing me to push people to see things from a different angle or perspective — to see beyond the obvious. There is something magical when you see the look on a kid’s face when he realizes that he wants to be a designer when he is older in order to help this world we live in. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s kind of cool.

On Design

What do you consider the vital elements of good design?

Good design is the result of a creative process. This process is about understanding how things work, knowing how to work with others, solving problems, choosing the right materials, finding good form, imagining how things will be, expressing yourself creatively through the use of invention and imagination, not being afraid to face challenges and wanting to do something good for others in order to make other’s lives better and happier.

Describe your workflow. Are there must-have tools? Are there essential steps for every project you undertake?

When designing I always like going through a natural design process. I really like to understand what the project is by asking myself a couple questions: the Who, What, Why, When and How. I go through the process of Researching (lots), Sketching (lots), Rendering, Modelmaking, Presenting. Some of these go back and forth a couple times as the process goes on … actually, I guess they all do! Designing is complex, but fun.

  • Who and What: Who I am designing for? What do they need? What is their budget? Is it an older person? A bunch of people? A teenager? In order for me to design something I really have to research these things.
  • Why: Why does the client need this? Why they need my help and what I need to do for them all tie together.
  • When: The timeline — when is the project due? — also applies to when we make specific things and what is relevant at this specific point in time.
  • How: How am I going to make this design for them or make this a successful product? This is when the actual design process starts taking place.

 As the saying goes: “Whence inspiration?” What gets your creative juices flowing?

I get inspired by everything, and when I say that I mean it. It can be from seeing random objects (even those where I have no idea what they do), to watching kids and pets playing at the park, to blowing bubbles, to working with other people. Having great conversations, playing, listening to music, watching nature, watching a city come to life, seeing cool patterns, smelling fresh snow, being around others, being alone. Skateboarding, laughing, eating a delicious cookie, learning about other cultures, traveling, taking a walk, putting myself in unique situations. Going to museums, taking a bath, going to the hardware store, jumping on a pogo stick, I don’t know … anything really inspires me! I mean, we are surrounded by feelings, objects, things, people, and sounds everyday. I can’t help but just be a sponge when it comes to inspiration. I love life.

On Group Delphi

How did you discover Group Delphi?

As soon as I moved to the Bay Area I started really looking into the kind of design companies that were here and what they did. (Living on an island for 10 years was a long time to be away from civilization … ha ha!) This is a time in my life when I want to collaborate with other designers, expand my knowledge and also feel inspired to create things that many people can enjoy. I wanted to challenge myself and not just sit in front of a screen by myself, but experience the collaborative process of design while feeling inspired.

I stumbled upon Group Delphi because I was researching Exhibit Design and places that created environments for people to learn. When I saw Delphi’s website and read more about what people do here — how things are done here, the level of quality, the clients, and most importantly, the “feel” of this company — I just had to apply. This was my dream job.

 You’ve been working in the Alameda hangar for two weeks. What are your first impressions?

Melissa Rivera Torres, Group Delphi Environmental Designer

(Photo: John Hook)

These are some words that describe how I feel working here:

  • WOW
  • SUPER FORTUNATE
  • INSPIRED
  • APPRECIATED
  • CREATIVE
  • HUMBLED
  • MOTIVATED
  • CHALLENGED
  • EXCITED
  • IN AWE of this COMPANY!

Pretty much everything about Delphi is inspiring and appealing. I love the feeling I got when I was invited to come here for my interview. I felt very special being actually treated well, greeted with open doors to experience what Delphi was about. I feel like everyone here is amazing at what they do. There is lots of collaboration, which I think is fabulous.

I absolutely love the location and the fact that things are made here. From a design perspective, this is extra amazing since it reminds me of school where you had your metal shop, wood shop, et cetera, all in one place. But this is taken to a whole other level of awesomeness.

I like that people are kind and helpful, and the clients we work for are top-notch. I love the variety of projects that Delphi is involved in, and of course, the quality of work that I have seen is impeccable! What’s not to love about this place?


I get inspired by everything, and when I say that I mean it. I can’t help but just be a sponge when it comes to inspiration. I love life.


An extra factor is that I get paid to do what I love at an amazing company with the best of the best! I feel extremely, extremely happy and fortunate. Delphi is a company that believes so much in the people they hire that, at least in my case, they are willing to be patient and offer me time to train myself in a new computer program. It speaks volumes when a company invests in their employees to improve their knowledge and capabilities; it means they are willing to believe in their employees and encourage them to feel at-home and at the top of their game. I thought that was amazing and unique!

On Television

Tell us a bit about the HGTV White Room Challenge. What did you have to do?

In 2012 I was invited by HGTV to participate in a Design competition show called “The White Room Challenge,” hosted by David Bromstad. It was only one episode and a spinoff of a challenge from “HGTV’s Design Star,” where four designers are challenged to design a White Room within a given budget, materials, and time. My episode was called “The Candy Challenge,” and I had to design a room — children-themed, with candy and other things provided — in two days. It was a fun experience.

What wisdom did you take away from that show?

I guess I gained a new level of understanding as to how TV design competition shows are made. But most importantly, to stick to your gut and never forget who you are as a designer, even in stressful circumstances. You have to believe in yourself, take risks, and challenge yourself. Life is more fun that way.


Aspiring designers: Document your work. Take great photos of it and record the process of how you got there. Stay true to who you are and never forget to have fun doing what you do.


 

You’ll make another TV appearance on Ellen’s Design Challenge tonight! Without violating any non-disclosure agreements, what stood out to you about filming that show?

Ellen’s Design Challenge Season 2 was an incredible experience for me. This was a tough show! We had to create furniture pieces (with the help of a carpenter) in a very short amount of time. It was stressful, even scary at times since you are putting yourself out there. But it was rewarding … simply an incredible experience to see the level of talent of all the designers and carpenters. So much happens that people don’t get to see, including the crazy situations we are put in.

At the end I think it’s just so interesting how you learn more about yourself in these shows, given the circumstances. You learn to see how you react under pressure — with cameras and lights all around you, with crazy deadlines, outside of your comfort zone, working with someone you just met. (I got lucky; my carpenter was the bomb!) Adapting to situations and working around problems. It was a great experience overall. And one of my bucket list items was to meet Ellen one day, so how cool was it that I got to not only meet her, but be on her own show doing what I love most: designing and making things? I truly was honored to be on this show, and now I’m just super excited to be part of this amazing Group Delphi team!

Final Thoughts

Your career thus far has been a varied, exciting and illustrious one. (Don’t be modest; it’s true!) What do you wish you had known before you started? What would you like our aspiring designers to know?

I don’t regret anything in my career or my life, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunities I’ve had — and to have taken risks, too.

Aspiring designers: Document your work. Take great photos of it and record the process of how you got there. Stay true to who you are and never forget to have fun doing what you do. Don’t give up if you get frustrated. We are lucky to be creative people, so own it and enjoy it. Always give your 100 percent to anything you do, and make a difference. The world needs good designers.


Melissa appeared on HGTV’s Ellen’s Design Challenge on January 18.

New episodes of the show will run every Monday at 6 p.m. and replay at 9 p.m. PST.

To view the casting special that documents how Melissa landed a spot on the show, click here:  Ellen’s Design Challenge Casting Special 

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