Get tickets to see Tad Toulis at the 2015 Core77 Conference coming up this October in Los Angeles.
Name: Tad Toulis
Occupation: Designer, and I'm the vice president of design at Sonos
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Current projects: You know I can't give you an answer to this question. [Laughs] The projects I'm working on are all various aspects of how we try to extend the mission of Sonos, which is to deliver the ultimate home-music experience. So we're working on ways of reinventing and keeping fresh that mission in a marketplace where streaming is becoming more and more relevant.
Mission: Sonos has this wonderful statement, which is that we deeply believe that music makes a house a home. So the way I think of design at Sonos is to get people to experience joy, and the interesting challenge is to create that experience through our hardware and software.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I grew up in New York City, and my father and mother taught at Pratt Institute. And when I was young, I used to go with my dad to work a fair amount. His department, which was print-making, was in the same building as the industrial design department. When I would get bored, I would wander around, and I would walk into these design studios where I would see objects that I knew from real life, but that looked more interesting than the ones I knew in real life. And I think that got me very curious about why people do that.
So I got exposed to it very young, and I had this deep interest that waxed and waned over the years. When I got done with my undergraduate degree, which was from Wesleyan University, I was fortunate enough to graduate into a really crappy economy, and I started auditing classes at Pratt. That's when I started falling back into a path that led me to becoming an industrial designer.
Education: At Wesleyan I was a fine arts and English lit major, and then at Pratt I eventually got a master's in industrial design.
First design job: My first real professional gig was just after Wesleyan; I somehow landed an internship at Milton Glaser Associates in New York. That was for graphic design. And then my first job after graduating from Pratt was at a medical manufacturer based in New Jersey.
Who is your design hero? I was dreading that question. There are a lot of designers whose work I really like, but my heroes actually tend to be in related industries. I get really jazzed about artists like Donald Judd or James Turrell, for instance. Any visual or artistic endeavor where you're re-filtering the culture around you through a creative lens—that really gets me going.
But I will also say that I'm very fond of Scandinavian design—and since I've been at Sonos, that has actually been one of the more resonant things to think about, because I think the Scandinavian designers do a great job of having a more poetic observation of the rational. Whereas German design is crazy rational—and everybody loves it for that—Scandinavian design has a bit more of a poetic mindset. It's still very clean and rational, but it has more humanity and subjectivity in it, if that makes sense.
The PLAY:1, PLAY:3 and PLAY:5 wireless speakers
Describe your workspace: We're in Santa Barbara, which is pretty amazing. I'm a big believer that environment impacts your work—years ago, I read an article about the Eameses, and it said that when they were leaving Cranbrook and deciding where to work, they went through the list of choices, and they didn't want to go to New York because they thought they would be too occupied by the social calendar; they didn't want to go to Chicago for the same reasons, and they felt like in Los Angeles they could get down to some really good work. And I feel like Santa Barbara is an awesome place to get down to some really good work. It's a little quiet at times, but LA's not that far away.
The Sonos facility is this classic Spanish Colonial–style building. So it's really charming—wooden floors, probably 1940s construction, light and airy and just a homey place to do design, which feels like a good place to be tackling the types of problems we're tackling.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? My curiosity. I think the best design tool I have is a deep curiosity that allows me to kind of naively go into problem spaces that maybe I don't know that much about, but also know how to navigate being naive and how to harness being naive.
I'm not particularly in love with technology—I think technology is an amazing tool that can do amazing things—but being a bit naive about how it all works actually helps me to keep more of an expectation of the end user. It kind of ties in to how Picasso said, "I've lived my whole life to learn how to draw like a child." There's a lot of truth to being super-experienced but still being able to tap into an almost naive perspective.
I'm not particularly in love with technology—I think technology is an amazing tool that can do amazing things—but being a bit naive about how it all works actually helps me to keep more of an expectation of the end user.
What is the best part of your job? Doing something every day that I'm really passionate about. More tactically, it's about working with people who are talented and helping to move groups of people through relatively ambiguous problems toward concrete results. The dynamic in design teams and creative teams—whether they're in the kitchen or in the theatre or in industrial design or product development—is there's so much interplay of personality and aspiration, that I think the best part of the job is just getting to spend lots of time with people who are great "pessimistic optimists." They can envision things that don't exist, and they can also do the hard work required to make those things happen. It took me a long time to realize that you have a big impact on culture when you do those things.
What is the worst part of your job? It's actually not that different from the best part. I think the worst part of the job is realizing how hard it is, and how exceptional it is, to communicate effectively across wide groups of people, in a way that supports the type of work we're trying to do. I think about this a lot. Like, someone can give a really good speech and resonate with people emotionally. And that certainly comes in handy when you're working with a big cross-section of people. But when you're trying to get those people tactically to achieve certain ends, it's not just about appealing to their hearts. And one of the things that never ceases to fascinate me is how much words have such different meaning to different people. Some people like to be very specific with their words, and that can be great, but it can also create huge disconnects.
So the thing that takes up the most time—and I wouldn't say I like it the least, but it's probably one of the greatest challenges—is figuring out how to be really effective in communication across technical teams, emotional teams, strategic teams. Because while they'll all get on board for a good story, the hard work happens a couple layers below that, and that's where stuff can either get pear-shaped or turn out really elegant.
Sonos's first limited-edition speaker, the Blue Note PLAY:1, commemorates the legendary jazz label's 75th anniversary.
What time do you get up and go to bed? I get up around 6:30 a.m., and I usually go to bed around 11:00 or 11:30 p.m. I try to squeeze in eight hours, because once I'm up, I just go; I'm all in until I go to bed again. And that takes a lot of energy and stamina. So I try to make sure that I capture as much of an eight-hour night as I can; otherwise, you're working from a deficit.
How do you procrastinate? Read e-mail. [Laughs] Or go to a meeting. That sounds a little unfair, but it's probably true. Because the ways that I used to procrastinate are now my pleasures—like, reading or surfing the web. And I feel like the real procrastination tools now are, like, "Well, I'll check some e-mail before I get going."
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? I grew up in New York City, and I've lived now more than half my life on the West Coast. And the thing that used to surprise me here was that I would be having a bad day at the office, and then I would walk outside—and in Southern California, nine times out of ten it's gorgeous out—and that would give me a totally different orientation to the problem. That still works pretty well, and I've got to say that Santa Barbara is kind of ridiculous on that front. So my best trick is just walking outdoors and coming back inside.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Stamina and thick skin. Design is an activity where you're daring to think of something that doesn't exist. And that takes a certain amount of hubris. And you hear no so much, and you're told why things won't work so often, that at some point it really does engender people who don't seem to listen to that. And that's a strange trait; I think it happens because you just get immune to it. But I do think perseverance and stamina are tremendously important traits in being a designer.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? I think that one of the worst ones is something that some designers actually encourage, which is that somehow designers are these special entities endowed with a magical power. There is some nominal truth to the idea that we see things in a different way and we think differently than other parts of the culture. But there is logic inside of design—it's just not all logic. And so I think the myth is that somehow designers are, like, super-sentient beings on this unique wavelength, and they have to be handled in a certain way, and what they do is just intuitive.
Sonos's complete product line
What is your most prized design possession? It's hard for me to identify one thing. As I've gotten older, I don't really buy a lot of stuff. Increasingly, my most prized possessions are heirlooms or other things that have deep personal memory and associations for me. Like a sugar dispenser that my grandmother had in Cuba that my mother has used every day of my entire existence, and that every time I see it I think about it.
What is exciting you in design right now? There is an interesting thing happening where lots of parts of design are finally meeting. What's fascinating for me, and what I feel really blessed by, is to be in a problem space where I'm sitting across from the hardware/software part of that problem in a way that lets me see how these two camps of design—physical and digital—are actually in a place where they can meet relatively well. The nature of the problem right now for a lot of companies is we're trying to gin up experiences. And that is the sum of those parts; it's not one or the other.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? I don't really like to think that way. There are some things I've encountered that I think could be done better, but I feel like I'm always looking to "What's the next problem to be working on?" And I find it odd that we still train students to think that they're just going to make things, versus that they might make a few things, but maybe a lot of their career is going to be arguing why something shouldn't be made but still get paid for.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? Pretty much the same thing. I really love this work; it's a deep passion and philosophy for me. It's about really remaining curious, remaining pessimistically optimistic, trying to figure out where things are going, trying to do them in a way that is meaningful to people—and also at some level, protecting people from technology a little bit.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers? Hands down, industrial designers. They're just an interesting group of people who have the same scar tissue. They tend to somehow bounce back regardless of what's happening. So they're a fun crowd to be with. But I'd be happy to have a beer with pretty much anyone, if they're paying for it.