Over the last few weeks, I've been lucky enough to talk with ten of the most important names in industrial design—not designers themselves, but the people who make design careers by manufacturing, exhibiting and selling original work. I asked them each a handful of questions about how they discover new design and how emerging designers can turn heads and gain recognition. These influential curators, retailers and creative directors were quick to share their insights (and in some cases their personal e-mail addresses), telling us how to get a chair into production, a piece into MoMA's collection (or its stores) and your name on the tip of Gwyneth Paltrow's tongue.
As a coda to the series, I've sifted and sorted the choicest bits of wisdom into seven simple pieces of advice. While our interviews focused on how to make it as an independent product designer, many of the gatekeepers I spoke to have experience across disciplines. Their pointers should help any designer looking to pitch ideas, make industry connections and win big commissions. Take one, or take them all—and good luck!
1. Be an interesting human being
For the curators, retailers and creative directors I spoke to, the most sought-after product may be a compelling, well-rounded designer. Yes, they're looking for good design. But just as importantly, they're looking for someone with an interesting story, who will be doing good work over a long career. "Design is for people—and it's from people," says curator Odile Hainaut. "I think the designer has to be interesting as a person," echoes Ambra Medda of L'ArcoBaleno. "I'm interested in them, not their thing," says Herman Miller's Gary Smith. So be that interesting, memorable person. Be curious, be adventurous, show you're multi-dimensional, and have more to offer than just your portfolio.
2. Concentrate on relationships
Some of the people I interviewed love e-mail; others hate it. Some don't mind being approached in person; others find that deeply annoying. Unfortunately, there's no formula for reaching out to industry leaders. But you can't go too far wrong as long as you focus on making personal connections first, before talking about a specific project or collaboration. It's a small industry, and word-of-mouth often acts as a preliminary introduction to potential partners. Council's Derek Chen summed this up best: "Everybody knows somebody who knows everyone, and there really aren't that many degrees of separation." Jerry Helling of Bernhardt Design adds that manufacturing a new product "is a very personal thing; you spend a lot of time with these people"—so getting to know each other first is crucial. And Matter's Jamie Gray offers a good rule of thumb for all your cold calls and other self-introductions: "Just don't be mean."
3. Get thee to Milan (or at least ICFF)
When it comes to establishing those all-important personal relationships, there's no better way to do it than meeting industry leaders in an organic, non-stalker-y way. And design fairs are probably the best venue for such targeted elbow-rubbing. Milan's Salone del Mobile was name-checked most often by our interviewees, but it's not the only event worth attending. Odile Hainaut loves the small and intimate Design Parade in the south of France; Jerry Helling counts the London Design Festival as a must-see. Stateside, there is ICFF, WantedDesign, NeoCon, and Design Miami. Big or small, these are great places to make new connections and maintain existing relationships. And younger designers should be sure to check out opportunities specifically geared toward them, like ICFF Studio and the Salone Satellite showcase.
4. Play a long game
The project you're working on now that is just perfect for Herman Miller or Council or another manufacturer? Even if you do manage to impress those companies, the project that you end up creating together will probably be something completely different. Most manufacturers want to collaborate on a product from the very beginning, not merely produce something that you've mocked up with them in mind. And going through that process start to finish can take years. So brace yourself for the long haul, and don't get too caught up perfecting a single piece you hope will make your name. And don't be discouraged if getting noticed takes time. "Keep working," advises MoMA's merchandising director, Emmanuel Plat. "Just because it doesn't work one day, doesn't mean it's not going to work another."
5. Obsess over production details
How much does it cost? What's it made of? Can it be easily shipped? Working through practical and logistical details is an essential step in getting your product into production. "The boring stuff becomes really critical," notes Ambra Medda. Or as Gary Smith advises, "If that chair is made of plastic, I'd like the designer to understand the material and the process. If it's injection molded: flow, sink, gating, ejection and draft." And keep in mind that what worked in a prototype might not work on a larger scale. According to The Future Perfect's David Alhadeff, sometimes "it's just not practical from a business standpoint." Your thing may be the most amazing thing of its kind in the world, but it takes too long to make, or it's too expensive. Working through all the possibilities ahead of time shows a curator or a retailer you're serious, and saves everyone a lot of time.
6. Learn to write and talk about your work
Take the words you use to explain your ideas as seriously as your material choices. "Language is important," stresses Odile Hainaut. "Even if it's just a few lines." For Ambra Medda, the difference between a collaboration and a pleasant (but fruitless) set of meetings can come down to communication. "The way you are corresponding, and how effective you are, is a defining part of whether things actually materialize," she says. Whether it's your website, a press release or a cold call to Jamie Gray, being able to clearly and succinctly express your thought process is imperative as a designer. Learn to write a pithy sentence, and get comfortable talking about your work and yourself.
7. Find your niche
When you're just getting started as a designer, you might be tempted to do a little bit of everything—spreading yourself and your vision too thin. Resist that temptation and focus instead on creating a cohesive body of work. People looking at your website or portfolio should be able to quickly determine what your "thing" is, and easily explain it to someone else. So work toward finding your niche and cultivating a distinctive point of view that's visible across commissions. "I'm looking for somebody who's going to do a great piece for us [Council], and a great piece for Bernhardt Design," says Derek Chen. "A lot of people can do one great thing, but I want someone who's going to be doing a lot for the industry at large." And it should go without saying that this work be original and compelling. Jerry Helling worries that young designers are too influenced by revered designers from the past at the expense of their own ideas. And Gary Smith insists that designers have a strong point of view and message: "You have the opportunity to say something, so say something important."
» Series Introduction
» Jerry Helling, Bernhardt Design
» Odile Hainaut, WantedDesign / Gallery R'Pure
» Emamanuel Plat, MoMA Design Store
» Derek Chen, Council
» Ambra Medda, L'ArcoBaleno / Design Miami
» Paola Antonelli, MoMA
» Gary Smith, Herman Miller
» David Alhadeff, The Future Perfect
» Ellen Lupton, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
» Jamie Gray, Matter