Karen Hofmann of Art Center College of Design
Reporting & photo by Lisa Krohn
Remember the days when all you needed to be a crack industrial designer was a knack for drawing, rendering and model making? Then we added the skills of how to talk to clients and well, that already seemed like enough. But then throw in 3D modeling and rendering, the understanding of materials—how they interact, their underlying structure—and how things are made, both for prototypes and for mass-produced objects. But wait. Now the online world is possibly more impactful than the "meat" world—so add web and mobile savvy, search engine optimization and you haven't even gotten started, because guess what? Now we all need to be fantastic entrepreneurs too. Oh, and that corporate job you might have hoped for after racking up a sizable student debt for your design training just might not really be around any more. Why? Because we are living in the era of downsizing and shifting jobs from full to part time to freelance to overseas. Now this may all seem gloomy, but the speakers at this year's IDSA Western District Conference—held at the Long Beach Hilton Executive Meeting Center on April 12–13—presented some serious silver linings to these storm clouds.
Dario Antonioni of Orange22 Design Lab came to the podium singing the praises of this new order, declaring that the design consultancy model is obsolete. His company had 15 full time employees until 2008, but now he has none. Instead, he works with a network of services and partners throughout the world—he's done with working 9-to-5 (or more).
Antonioni and his fellow "venture incubators" believe that if you look at it the right way, we are in the midst of a renaissance for designers in that funding for independent entrepreneurial projects is more accessible than ever before. It turned out that most of the speakers at this conference share his belief that there is a much more democratic system emerging for "pitching" your ideas. Unlike even the recent past, when designers needed a great job, client, investor, angel, venture capital group or independent means to take an idea beyond the drawing board, there are three cool new ways to bring your ideas to life:
- Preselling - Where 50% of the retail price of an item is collected at the time of the order, used to produce the item, for which the balance is charged at the time of shipping.
- Licensing - a.k.a. renting your ideas and designs.
- Crowdfunding - The best known platform for this is Kickstarter, where you go public with your design in the form of a video similar to a movie trailer and raise the money to produce your project from friends, friends of friends, family and strangers.
Dario related his recent success with a furniture venture, the Botanist Series, which he marketed by inviting high profile designers to decorate a minimal but otherwise generic bench or table with color, etching, graphics and perforations. Each guest designer chose a charity to support with a percentage of each sale. All of this contributed to the buzz, which allowed Dario and his now virtual team to raise almost $37K to be funded on Kickstarter.
But Dario wasn't the only designer in the house who is streamlining his company while increasing its global reach and recognition. Art Center graduate Gabriel Wartofsky also successfully used Kickstarter to raise the $25K he needed to produce his brilliant Conscious Commuter folding bike, which has a rechargeable electric motor for the urban commuter. He felt that the three keys to a winning new product are: marketability, technical feasibility and protectability. He also mentioned that research is about "getting out of the bubble of your own mind."
Conscious Commuter by Gabriel Wartofsky
All of these "designeurs" agreed that enthusiasm, the ability to see failure as a minor obstacle along your path, and the need to demonstrate to potential investors that you have "skin in the game" (you are invested in this and fully committed yourself) are critical. "Investors need to see that you have more to lose then they do." In concrete terms, your costs need to be about 20–25% of the retail cost, and we were warned not to sell ourselves short in the calcs.
If I hadn't known that this was a conference for industrial designers, I might have mistaken it for a business training meeting—the new order dictates that the days of the designer in the ivory tower, insulated from the filthy lucre of commerce, is a thing of the past. The designer as wheeler dealer—show-wo/man and promoter—is here to stay. But it also follows that the days of designer as sophisticated cake decorator are also waning: we're now free to be visionary, prophetic, problem-solving, trailblazing leaders, sitting at the decision-making table and not relegated to the art department.
Mike Mayberry from Magpul Industries was an interesting addition to the speaker line up. The arc of his career is fascinating, to say nothing of his subject matter. He talked about the advantages of taking on a market where there has been little innovation for a long time. Along with his "visionary" partner—an ex-marine—he has designed, developed and improved upon a few key firearms, winning some huge military contracts. Mayberry had worked as a consultant had prior to starting Magpul, and it was during this time that he realized that he "was a realizer, and that is equal in importance to being the visionary." He had a fabulous success in his collaboration with his partner: "You don't have to do it all—partner with people who will elevate your game."
Mayberry's three pieces of advice were to: 1.) "Capitalize on your talents"—deduce what you are good at and focus on working in that area; 2.) "Have a vision or capture your philosophy" and make that your focus; and finally and most importantly 3.) that you "Own your design DNA"—you are a stakeholder in the fruits of your creative labor and elbow grease. His best advice was to design and build what people need and not what they want. Here he quoted Henry Ford's oft-repeated saying, "If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said, 'fast horses.'"
The last really memorable part of the conference was the education panel, comprised of Karen Hoffman, chair of Art Center's undergrad product design department, and Steve Boyer of Otis product design department.
Karen talked about the amazingly long and growing list of key competencies necessary for emerging design graduates. In addition to all of the skills required to be a great designer (mentioned in the beginning of this report), we now also need to have business, legal and ethical chops. To help students acquire these skills, she mentioned an emerging concentration in entrepreneurship, a partnership with a business school, and all manner of assistance to students in getting their own business ventures off the ground.
Inventor, programmer, digital music phenom and Otis product design instructor Steve Boyer started by quoting Allan Kay, who invented the precursor to the iPad in 1972 as part of his PHD thesis: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." In fact, the panelists unanimously agreed to the lack of the sort of jobs that product designers used to land upon graduating, as well as many references to a new need for adaptability, survival mentality, and both entre- and intrapreneurship skills.
If we were not thinking strategically enough by this point, Robson Splane capped it off for me by telling his story about how he ran a large design consulting firm until about 2008—the turning point for just about everyone, by the way—and he finally ditched the rat race of taking all sorts of work just to keep his people busy and make his payroll. Like so many other designers who have successfully 'pivoted' in the current economic climate, Splane shifted to a practice with a few handpicked freelance collaborators who were developing their own best ideas and licensing them. He now talks about making money while he sleeps, which sounds a lot more appealing than the now seemingly Jurassic "design for hire" model. He is putting together an e-book to share what he has learned with other designers; check out his site for updates.
All in all, it was a worthwhile experience—I came away from this stimulating pow-wow with some cool new colleagues whom I admire for their moxie, my Amazon.com shopping cart full of books to help me retool my relationship with time, money and my drawing board, and Steve Jobs' idea that he wanted to "put a ding in the universe."
What more can you ask from a day and a half in Long Beach?
About Lisa Krohn
Lisa Krohn is the creative director and vision behind Krohn Design. Lisa has served as designer, consultant and strategic thinker for clients including Herman Miller, Alessi and Walt Disney Imagineering. She has received numerous design accolades, including Grand Prize in the Forma Finlandia competition, the Daimler Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design and the Rome Prize. Her pieces are in permanent collections of design museums the world over and she has taught at various schools including Art Center College of Design and Otis.
Follow her on Twitter @Designatrix