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How a Mathematician and a Designer Ignite Each Other’s Creative Spark

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Designer May-Li Khoe (left) and mathematician Federico Ardila's (right) relationship is fueled by constant musical and creative collaboration.  (Camilo Garzón)

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hen thinking about the partnership between Federico Ardila and May-Li Khoe, you could imagine how design and mathematics intersect and strengthen one another, much like these two creatives do in their careers and lives. That’s what we talked about at first when they invited me over to their home in San Francisco’s Mission District, where we enjoyed afternoon arepas and some cafecito.

For the couple, mathematics, design, art and music are just languages they have a fluency in—pathways to explore, improvise, and have fun.

At San Francisco State University, Ardila researches and teaches mathematics, with a focus in combinatorial theory and geometry. He is a leading advocate for the creation of principles and practices that make math more human, for understanding our biases and making space for people of color and non-binary folks to think of ourselves as mathematicians. He and Khoe are both DJs and musicians. And Khoe is also a designer, start-up founder and dancer currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing, also at San Francisco State.

“Most of what I do in math, [May-Li] does in design,” Ardila says. But when they do work and collaborate together, “we do it in learning and mutual construction.”

Khoe ended up pursuing undergraduate and master’s degrees in computer science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (she was one class short of a math major). And Ardila went all the way from an undergraduate degree to a PhD in mathematics.

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Traditional mathematics sometimes feels too rigid for Ardila. He says that he’s gotten more interested in forms that communicate that value of flexibility, such as what Khoe does with interaction design, which feels more like jazz music: it’s about improvisation and the experience. But Khoe thinks that math is improvisational, artistic and creative, too. Ardila agrees: math needs you to give up control, he says, to see “what can happen, what can work.”

Khoe is Chinese-Indonesian and was born in the Netherlands. She’s also a twice immigrant, first to Canada and then to the United States. Ardila is a first generation immigrant to the U.S. from Colombia. (And a Bogotano, like me.)

Khoe has an impressive design resume. At Apple, where she spent seven years, she worked on some of the first mobile apps, and helped develop newer features such as Touch Force and Taptic Engine. At the nonprofit Khan Academy, where she was until 2019, she worked her way up to vice president of design. She also co-founded two collaboration software companies, Scribble and Sprout. She has also taught design classes and given talks at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard University, to name a few.

During the pandemic, Khoe began her masters program in creative writing after she and Ardila went on sabbatical to Colombia. There, she started writing a small travel newsletter that she shared with friends and family. People told her they loved the way she saw things, and that’s when she decided to go for it and enroll in SFSU. Although she started with a focus on nonfiction, she’s interested in many forms, in genre-breaking narratives, and integrating the personal and the global to “write in a way that resonates with people’s hearts and also surprises or expands their minds.”

“I have found opportunities to see things in different ways, from the peripheries and the edges of things, which I enjoy doing,” she says of her work across different disciplines.

Those lessons also happen in her marriage with Ardila: how they relate, how they show care in conversations, how they see each other as intellectual equals—and artistic ones, too.

Federico Ardila and May-Li Khoe play percussion instruments in a restaurant parklet in San Francisco.
Neblinas del Pacífico perform at Radio Habana Social Club on January 21, 2022. (Camilo Garzón)

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ancing and music are a connective tissue in their partnership that goes back to the beginning. As undergraduates at MIT, they got to know each other while dancing salsa together at a Cuban place in Boston, Massachusetts.

The duo co-founded the DJ crew La Pelanga Collective (side note, go eat some pelanga and understand the sabor behind the name if you haven’t encountered it yet). When they DJ, it is both a dialogue and a dialectic. One starts, the other responds and tries to up the ante. They read the room and assess how to keep “breaking people’s expectations and the illusion of where songs are from,” Khoe told me. Ardila concurs: “People are entertained, they can dance, but they learn something too if they want to.”

They express how DJing is organic, how it is always an opportunity to celebrate how cultures influence each other, taking down every wall, crossing every border. They see their DJ work as an extension of their advocacy, and have co-organized events with People’s Kitchen Collective and The Wall Project, among others.

To bring it full circle, Khoe recently gave a talk at her and Ardila’s alma mater MIT as part of a series titled “Infinite Careers.” There she described the different things she does for work and throughout her career as changes in a switchboard or channel mixer. “You’re dealing with audio inputs and outputs,” she explained, “and you can add channels, you can mix them, you can turn one down and make another more prominent.” That is what she does with music, design, researching, dancing, writing and singing. And it’s also what Ardila does too, especially when they are DJing and teaching together.

The couple co-taught a class together at SFSU a few years ago, about merging design and math together to study possibilities. They approached the class from a constructivist standpoint that values personal perspectives, understanding that their students already come with a lot to the table.

They also are both part of the bands Vallenato Gozaimasu (a bilingual pun that combines a Colombian music genre with “arigato gozaimasu,” the polite Japanese expression for “thank you,” the ending of which also sounds like “goza y más,” or “enjoy and more” in Spanish) and Neblinas del Pacífico. I was recently able to go check out the latter at a performance in the Mission’s Radio Habana Social Club. I was witness to the kind of alchemy that Khoe and Ardila know how to create. Respecting the music and instruments of the Afro-Colombian maestros—like the marimba de chonta that they got from maestro marimbero Hugo Candelario—and making sure that people enjoying the music know that Neblinas is borrowing and honoring this music.

They sent half of what they got in donations back to community initiatives in the Colombian Pacific Coast, especially to Puerto Buenaventura, to ground their performance in solidarity.

Khoe and Ardila are conveners. They create spaces to learn and to express. And they keep sharing with the rest of us, and each other, the out-of-the-box creative thinking that has connected them since the beginning of their partnership.

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And to study possibilities, to design our lives to be more meaningful, I will keep looking to Ardila and Khoe as they continue their cultural and fractal impact in the Bay Area and beyond.

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