Irony: In years past, one could use Google to find Mike & Maaike. In the years to come, it may be the other way 'round.
The husband-and-wife creative team of Mike Simonian and Maaike Evers, better known as Mike & Maaike, first hung their shingle seven years ago. But interestingly enough, at first the experimental design duo purposely avoided seeking clients—and income. "This allowed us to establish a voice and an approach that is experimental, authentic, and optimistic," they explain. "We wanted it to be clear that we were starting a design studio, not just a business."
Google came calling just a year later, and the result was the Mike-&-Maaike-designed G1 (later rebranded the HTC Dream), the first smartphone to run Android. And while the pair subsequently continued to crank out projects for other clients like Belkin, Steelcase, Incase, Coalesse, Fritz Hansen and others, as well as (literally) self-driven projects like their ATNMBL, it was the Big G who quietly acquired them earlier this year.
In advance of the 2012 IDSA Conference, Simonian and Evers kindly carved some time out of their busy schedule for a quick Core77 Q&A.
Don't forget to REGISTER TODAY for the conference; registration closes on Monday, August 6, at midnight EST.
IDSA International 2012 Conference
The Future Is...
The Westin Boston Waterfront
August 15–18, 2012
Clockwise from top left: SWARM for Council, G1 with Google, ATNMBL transportation concept, Android Smartphone.
Core77: Is there a clear-cut division of labor between the two of you? Are there aspects of a project that Mike would prefer to do more than Maaike, or vice versa?
Mike & Maaike: We are both exposed to all aspects of the projects that we work on and have overlapping roles. We have very different backgrounds and this is what brings an interesting broader viewpoint to the table. We are fortunate that we are able to work together so well and are able to ask each other some tough questions. We often don't agree with each other and we believe this makes the work better and increases its depth.
Short answer: We work together on everything, including answering interview questions :).
Your work encompasses products, technology, furniture, environments, transportation, and more. What are the challenges from category to category, and is there one you prefer over another?
We see no distinction and have no preference in terms of different categories. Each project, rather, comes with its own challenges and excitement. We do gravitate towards projects where there is an opportunity to move the category forward into interesting new territory.
Rather than the subject matter determining a set of categories, we prefer to think of projects in terms of their potential for progress. Conceptual projects can be extremely interesting because they often lead to new ways of thinking about old problems and can define the future. Projects that involve new technology inherently lead to this sort of progress because emerging technologies always need to be interpreted from the perspective of the user.
How did you guys start out? And how does what you're working on now, and will be working on in the immediate future, differ from the early days?
We started our studio in 2005 with two rules for our first year: No clients and no income. This allowed us to establish a voice and an approach that is experimental, authentic, and optimistic. We wanted it to be clear that we were starting a design studio, not just a business. We also wanted the work to be very personal. This is why we named our studio Mike & Maaike rather than some sort of fictional name. We wanted to stay personally connected with the work and therefore, to stay small.
In the first year, we explored furniture, technology, jewelry, architecture, environments, softgoods, and design as political discourse. These projects created a foundation that has led to all of the opportunities we have experienced ever since.
Over the next few years, we struck a balance between work with clients and independent design explorations. The mix has typically been 50/50. The subject matter has been purposely broad so that different project types can influence each other in new ways. Our work in furniture has influenced our work in technology. Our conceptual work has influenced our non-conceptual work, etc.
We've worked with Google at various levels of engagement since about 2006 so the relationship has been a natural evolution. Recently, working much closer within Google, we've been exposed to an incredible group of people who share a passion for progressive technology, design and creating beautiful user experiences. We've been working primarily with Android on new products, including the Nexus Q and emerging product opportunities.
The biggest change for us has been the realization of the scale and potential of Google. Projects we would in the past consider to be only conceptual have the potential to be real when introduced in the context of the technology and spirit of possibility within Google. Our approach is and will remain experimental, authentic, and optimistic.
Can you tell us about the G1 project?
Late in 2005 we were approached by a group of people who were interested in talking to us about our work and design approach. After the first meeting, we still did not know which company we had just met with and didn't know specifically what they were looking for. We were very surprised to learn soon after we were about to start a project with Google, which we did in 2006. The G1 was a vehicle for Android to solidify as a new mobile OS.
Did you have any idea that project would lead to you being acquired by Google?
Definitely not. Our sole intention has been to stay passionate and connected to our work, while working beyond the edges of our comfort zone. With enthusiasm to develop hardware within Google and a desire to work even more collaboratively with a growing team, a closer relationship made sense.
Google did not have any iconic products with a predefined aesthetic, in the way that, say, Apple does. Did that fact influence the design process of the G1 in any way?
In fact, Google did have a predefined aesthetic, just not in physical products. Their aesthetic was and remains very recognizable. Our challenge was to understand and evolve the underlying philosophy and principles that drive their online products and to incorporate some of these qualities into physical products.
Our initial understanding of Google's aesthetic was actually overly simplistic. What we saw as a clean and minimal website aesthetic at the time, was actually driven by metrics like site loading time, not an inherent desire for a minimalist look. Balancing metrics vs. aesthetics, the quantitative vs. the qualitative was really challenging at the time. Things have evolved a lot since then. One thing for certain is that Google's approach to design will be authentically Google.
The timelines for industrial design projects can vary widely; ATNMBL saw press in 2009, but was conceived of in 2006, I believe. What are some of the shortest—and longest—project timelines you've had? And do you have a preference for short-run versus long-run projects?
Actually in 2006 we first felt the desire to envision a different car offering but we did not start the ATNMBL project till 2009. It took three years for Mike to convince Maaike that working on a concept car was a worthwhile project.
Complex system-like projects traditionally require more time and stamina. However, it has been our experience that long development times come with the potential for doubt and detractions that can cause you to go astray from the original intent and initial spirit. Accelerated projects on the other hand are exciting as decisions are made fast but cutting corners during development usually results in marginal end results. So the perfect project requires a fast timeline but ensures a thorough process with all the steps required to do it right.
You guys are located in San Francisco. How does being in that particular city affect your work, your designs and your lives?
We were initially drawn here because we were inspired by both nature and the city. We like living in an urban center and we both love to surf. Thinking about the larger Bay Area, San Francisco exposes us to progressive points of view while nearby Silicon Valley exposes us to progressive technologies. It is uniquely Californian and has a diverse international population. Unique and alternative points of view are encouraged and flourish here, which is good for our work and our personal lives.
Mike & Maaike is a progressive industrial design studio led by Mike Simonian and Maaike Evers.
Formed as a design laboratory, the San Francisco studio works both independently and with clients to create new opportunities through products, technology, furniture, environments, packaging and transportation.