“My work has been constantly involved in the struggle between fine arts and their development into some functional form of what we call the applied or commercial arts. It took many years for me to realize that they need not conflict.”
That’s Viktor Schreckengost, a visionary and pioneer of industrial design, as quoted in the biography American da Vinci. Schreckengost blurred the lines between art and product development and his philosophies influence Nottingham Spirk to this day (John Nottingham and John Spirk studied under him at the Cleveland Institute of Art).
We recently gathered some members of our design team for a wide-ranging discussion about the past, present and future of design. Participating were Jesse Carlson, Bill Nottingham, Dave Pehar, Evan Spirk, and Lindsey Tufts.
Common traits among designers
Lindsey: It’s that little kid who’s always drawing, always making something. The ones who end up in design are the ones who are always fluid, always changing, always trying to solve a problem and artistically inclined in some way.
Dave: Starting out, as a young designer, all you’re really passionate about is aesthetics, but then as you learn the business part of it, it’s another thing that helps you make decisions.
Bill: We all gravitate to things that are cool, but it also has to work. Design is art with a business mindset.
Jesse: I think it’s the ability to observe — and I mean that on a lot of different levels. You observe your environment, you observe people. If I’m working on an automatic teller machine, all of a sudden I am hyper-aware every time I roll up to an automatic teller machine. I’ll notice them out of the corner of my eye. It becomes almost all-encompassing. It’s rattling around in the back of your mind all the time. It’s like that with everything I work on. If it’s footwear, I’m like, “Why am I paying attention to everyone’s shoes at my son’s soccer game?”
Evan: You can’t be self-absorbed. I’ve seen creative sessions at other companies where the dominant person wants their idea to go further, and you can tell, it just shuts down everybody. Here, I’ll try to push other people’s ideas, and they’ll try to push mine, if they’re good. The first few weeks here, I realized you can’t fall in love with your own idea, because even if it gets to market, it’ll change so much.
Jesse: Being able to adapt, and part of that is being selfless with your ideas and your designs and, as Evan said, not falling in love with them. There’s stuff out there that designers designed for themselves, or to get props from the design community, and that’s the worst way to go about solving a problem.
Getting started and maintaining momentum
Dave: The scary and exciting part of it is discovering all the variables that you’re eventually going to incorporate into a concept. I think that’s the fun part of new programs, but the scary part as well.
Evan: Our Design Team has a lot of business sense and commercialization sense. But you have to start off crazy sometimes, not thinking about commercialization, and work backward.
Dave: The more things you try, the more real-life experiences you can incorporate into your designs, the better.
Bill: That’s a good point, because a lot of our clients are specialists, and so we may try things that they wouldn’t because they think it couldn’t work that way. We value the concept of play. You start with the “Art of the Possible” and then onto reality. There should be no bad ideas when starting the creative process.
Dave: Right. And for me, there’s not one project that’s more exciting than another. If you have to redesign, say, a shoelace, it sounds kind of mundane but there’s a lot you can do with that.
Lindsey: If somebody came to me with that problem, which is a big problem — they break, they never stay tied — how do you solve it to the point where nobody needs another shoestring again. Do you change the shoe design, or just the string? Or, what if in the future we didn’t have to wear shoes — how can I solve that problem? That’s what I try to think about up-front, to end up with a real-world solution. As designers, we all come across that one design where it’s like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Everybody missed it for a hundred years, then that one simple solution came up out of nowhere and everyone else feels stupid. That’s what we try to do at NS, to solve the problem so well that no one else can do better.
I've seen companies try to hold creative sessions when that culture isn't there. They're looking over at their boss, like, "Is it OK to have fun?"
There are no bad ideas
Lindsey: I try to ask the bigger questions: Do I stay within the confines of the objective? Or do I find just the best solution I can come up with? So then I start asking, in a perfect world, where I could have everything I wanted, how would this be done? Then I’ll research new technologies, new materials, new ways of thinking. I can’t solve the problem until I change my thinking, and I approach it that way, along with the more traditional ways of doing things. And that helps fuel my creative, acrobatic way of thinking to come up with something brand new.
Jesse: That far reach that Lindsey’s talking about — a lot of times that’s not where we end up, but it gives us the basis for determining the right-now, realistic solution. The old-school terminology for that is the rule of 80-20. They ask for what they think they want, and we propose 10 solutions, but then we also give them another 20 percent and say, “This isn’t what you asked us for, but we think this might be what you’re looking for, and we can apply it to the more expected solutions.”
Evan: You need to structure the craziness of inventing a new idea. And sometimes the blank piece of paper is good because there are no bad ideas. If you come into a creative session and there are a thousand sketches already on the wall, it’s like, “Oh, well, there it is.” But if you go in there and say there are no bad ideas, and you make it fun — I think that’s the most important part of the projects I work on. If it’s fun it’s like a chemical switch, it releases any fear. I’ve seen companies try to hold creative sessions when that culture isn’t there. They’re looking over at their boss, like, “Is it OK to have fun?”
Bill: And it’s not going to be the last meeting. And if you have that in your mind, you’re not going to feel like, “I have to solve this now.”
Balancing ideal with reality
Lindsey: I’m learning all the time about all aspects of creating a product, from marketing to engineering, and that expands my opportunity to be creative within that narrow corridor.
Jesse: We work with Insights here early on, and we also work with engineering before, traditionally, it would be considered necessary. Everyone has a voice very early in the project and still has a voice late in the project. As industrial designers, we have training in materials and manufacturing. We trust and rely on the engineers, but I will question their answers sometimes. We’re looking at things from different standpoints, but we find ways to arrive at the solution.
Bill: What’s great about the engineers here is that if we’re able to challenge them, and show them something they didn’t see, they’ll actually appreciate that. At other places, they may almost feel threatened.
Lindsey: We’re all learning from each other. Our engineering team has learned to be more sensitive to aesthetics. I like to offer alternatives. You’ll always get some kind of push-back. So I ask, How can it be done? And they might end up developing a brand-new process. So now we not only have a brand new product, we have a new way of manufacturing it, a new system, and that grows a business in a brand new way, and there’s IP across the board.
Bill: We’ve all been in sessions here where it’s engineering that comes up with the new idea, and we’re cool with that.
Dave: Sometimes we want them to go first, and we help optimize.
Bill: That’s why we have engineers in our design meetings. And insights people. And team members from our prototype shop — they’re the ones who will build the models eventually.
Evan: Ford is a good example of this too. When I was hired right out of design school, I didn’t have one car in my portfolio. I asked, “Why did you hire me?” They said, “We have enough people who can draw cars, we need more idea people.” That said it all. If you just try to attract people who draw pretty things, that’s all you’ll get.
Designing the future
Lindsey: I’m looking more at student work now. They are thinking about things that they want in the future, and they’re going to be the next generation of designers, changing our lives. And we’re at a point now where making things is going to change. That’s happening so fast, and as a designer, I want to keep up with how technology is evolving so I can participate.
Evan: We’re lucky. We get to take the benefits of advancements in all these different areas and combine them.
Bill: Our jobs will never get outdated because we evolve every day. We need to be ahead of the curve before it happens. We need to create the curve.
Lindsey: But your kids, and their kids, will, in a sense, be designers. They’ll be able to create whatever they want, in the very near future, without needing us to do it for them. It will be an everyday activity.
Bill: Wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Lindsey: I can’t speculate. But if I had a computer and a 3D printer when I was 3, imagine what I could have done by the time I was 12.
Dave: 3D printing is amazing, but sometimes I think technology is limiting young people because they aren’t getting hands-on. When you get hands-on you really learn a lot about form and about craftsmanship.
Bill: As a Designer, you need to respect the materials, the machines, the physical and the electronic, and now the virtual and augmented. With VR/AR and mixed reality like HoloLens, we are not only disrupting our own physical development process but adding new abilities to what and how we create new design solutions.
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About us: Nottingham Spirk is a business innovation and product design firm with an unrivaled record of delivering disruptive consumer goods, medical devices, and packaging design solutions to market. We collaborate with Fortune 1,000 companies, funded start-ups and non-profit organizations to discover, design and execute product programs and strategic business platforms that will wow customers, grow markets and generate new revenue streams. Learn more about what makes us different here.