Chris Lefteri: Let's start with a simple one, Nick, Jonathan – what are your roles?
Nick Garfias: I'm Vice President of Design, so on a day-to-day basis that means a lot of negotiation, a lot of up and down. Maybe that's the political statement here but my passion is definitely in design. Oakley is always going to be a passionate place to work. My roots are in the automotive industry, and I've worked at several car companies in the past. I love Oakley's history, and the constant innovation and problem-solving will always keep me using my brain.
Jonathan Thompson: My title is Director of Engineering, New Product Development. On a day-to-day basis that means collaborating with the teams to optimize the product for manufacturability and commercialization, and then above those two is performance in the hands of our athletes and our consumers. My team is like a systems engineering team because we're trying to find the right balance between aesthetic, performance for the athlete, performance in a lab test environment, production quality, manufacturing yields, ticking all these aspects where there are sometimes tension or friction between them. When we start to optimize one over the other do we begin to lose an important part of the spirit or soul of the product.
Nick Garfias, left, and Jonathan Thompson, right
NG: The interesting part of both of our roles – my role in design development which is part of Advanced Product Development and Jonathan's in manufacturing – is that our roles are under different org structures, but we both reside in the Design Department physically. It is key that we work in the same space. In order to collaborate and understand what is happening in the beginning stages of the process as well as the impacts down-stream. We are the integral entities that bring design and innovation to final fruition.
JT: That's the magic in pill form right there, combining these two aspects together.
CL: You mentioned negotiation, what does that mean, and are there any products you can cite to help explain that?
NG: An older example, but on that definitely pushes limits would be Jawbreaker. Here we're talking about a dynamic product design-wise, with very high functionality, and pushing the limits of what we could do with plastics. It's one of the thinnest sections that I can think of in a performance piece. As far as negotiations go, it was at a process level between having a beautiful design in CAD and then talking about how to industrialize it and keep the beauty that you see and the function within what it was serving for at the time. It was very, very challenging. I don't know if we went over on time. I'm sure we went over.
JT: It was a successful product launch. It was the right product at the right time. What does it look like as we collaborate? Nick's team of industrial designers are so talented. We'll get a one-page product brief and then they go off in their area and just blue-sky brainstorm what emotion or design aspects they want to evoke and how they can speak back to their consumer with the aesthetic design. But each one is a Rubik's Cube to solve, too, because there are unique design challenges to each. That's that magic I was talking about – it's that mutual respect and understanding of knowing that at the end of the day we're not going to sell the piece of paper that the concept was drawn on. We need to sell the finished product in a 3D-world. We need to be able to produce it. We can make a 3D model of it but maybe it's not manufacturable. Or maybe we can manufacture it but then it doesn't perform well because the fit is compromised. Or it will work OK for a while but doesn't hold up in extreme environments. Things like that. We leverage mutual respect to work in a way that ultimately benefits the consumer because we produced a product and we worked in a way that other companies aren't willing to do. And at a level of depth, personal sacrifice, and ego checking to make sure the consumer wins in the end.
NG: I think also to Jonathan's point, it shows a lot of empathy towards each other's needs. It starts with understanding where the other team is coming from, and then saying "Alright, now let's get into this, let's figure out how we can do this."
CL: Jonathan, you mentioned that in Nick's briefing session he explained what emotions you want the product to evoke. That's very interesting. How do you build a bridge between that as a starting point and what the materials can achieve in terms of fulfilling an emotion?
JT: Yeah, we always start with the human in mind and lead with design. So, what are their needs? And then we go with pencil on paper.
NG: We start with the brand and what it stands for. Then we ask what are we doing with it, who are we catering towards, what are the athlete's needs, what is the problem that we're solving for first? And then we figure out what that looks like. The materials come into play when you start to understand what the needs are and what it's used for. Then you ask is it plastic, is it metal, is it some derivative of plastic, are we putting an additive for structure, what are we doing for it, and then what it is forcing us to do, what are the answers at the end that will give us that solution?
JT: That's right: you work the equation backwards. The materials are super important but that's not the answer, that's part of the structure that brings us to the answer.
CL: And where do the materials come in during that product development process? Oakley products are so rich in materials both in terms of the marketing story and in terms of what they look like. Do you tend to bring them in early on? Are you experimenting with them? Are you hands on in any way?
JT: It's in the first 20% of our product development cycle. Outside of the product execution function, we have an R&D function that's approaching the problem from a different angle. They're actually starting with material first to solve some specific consumer needs that are agnostic or separate from a specific product. Then we find ways to leverage them in the future.
NG: From a high-level brand perspective we've been doing it for a long time. We continue to learn from what we get, but at a design level we understand that we want to answer these questions for this consumer, and they can say this is going to be a plastic piece because this, this, and this. We already get the space we want to play. It's up to us at the point of brief to ask questions. Is this what we need? When we get into the consumers and their needs and then when we start to look at the sketches, that's when you start to ask even more questions. Is this manufacturable? Can we get it this thin?
JT: The bottom line is: if the material doesn't deliver what the customer needs, then it doesn't belong in our quiver of materials. Performance is king.
CL: How do you find your customers relate to these incredible materials? I'm referring to Unobtanium and the other unique materials you own.
JT: This is an important target, right? How our customers respond to our materials. There's how it feels in someone's hand – that's important. There are these tactile qualities that can have incredible value. When it feels right, it can give athletes the confidence to perform at their best. We do weekly team mountain bike rides: we wear knee pads and gloves and helmet and glasses. Something changes. You're gearing up. You're preparing for that activity ahead, it evokes something. You feel prepared and ready. We need to be cognizant of that in the eyes of our consumer. How it feels in the hand. I'II give you an example. We're working on a new foam (I don't want to give details for what the foam is used for, it's all still in development) but this particular foam we have now meets the cold hard requirements of the lab test environment, but when you feel it in your hands it's crunchy and rough and it peels at the edges very easily, and scatters particulate everywhere. So, it meets the lab requirements yet it doesn't feel good in the consumer's hand. For me that's a hard no, we can't go forward with it. We want consumers to have a good response, we want them to feel it, and love it, and have a connection to it.
CL: And that's what you meant when you talked about the emotions you want the customer to feel?
NG: Perception is everything!
JT: There should be an emotive response. A connection. In the eyes of an athlete, it should be an extension of their body, not a distraction. Take a piece of eyewear when you're running – if it's flopping all over or pinching the side of your head, that's no good, it needs to be fully integrated with your bios.
NG: It's interesting too because we can say from an easy beginning statement that lighter sections, lighter weight, plastic is always going to be the answer right now, or an answer. But really when I go back to the perception of the athlete and what they see, it's how you manage the weight of something and how it feels to them which gives them that emotional confidence to want to perform in it. I think you can actually take two frames and if the weight balance is not biased correctly, the lighter one can actually seem the heavier piece because the weight balance is not correct on it. When you build that perception into the design, there are lots of key components in how you weight the bias of the frame. Jonathan brought up how we try a product out – and give feedback to each other. The truth is when you put the piece for the first time on an athlete and the emotional response is I didn't know it was there, it becomes an extension of their person, then they can feel the confidence that they're protected and it doesn't hinder what they're doing.
CL: That's fascinating how you're fine tuning weight and balance to really give that emotion that you want the athlete to feel. That's really interesting. Let me go back to some of those unique materials – O Matter, X Metal, Unobtanium – how do they evolve? At what point do you know you have something so exciting that you want to christen it with a name – when does that happen? Or do you start out by saying you want to develop a whole new material?
NG: I think from the design department we've always got our opinions on things and we've always got ideas. We're the design department! We're creative, we come up with ideas. They're not always adopted or used, but I think marketing plays a good role and has a great interaction with us and we talk about things like this and why it's doing what it does and what the performance benefits are. And then to name something and give it a tagline makes it brand-centric, and the consumer thinks this is special, they thought about it, it's not a generic name for the material, we own it, we can talk about it as our special secret formula, it makes the story more compelling. We talk about emotional competence, that's key too.
JT: Thank you for noticing that, Chris: this is steeped in our history. Some of the names go back to the 70's (long before I started working here!) and we still use them, they're still recognisable, and they carry a compelling story – like Unobtanium, O Matter – both of those are pretty old names. It's a concerted effort. The most important part is that we're conveying a new technology or innovation in a way that's accessible and digestible to the general public. We want people to immediately recognise the benefits of the material or the competitive advantage that this Oakley technology provides. Sometimes we use a trade name to represent a cluster of materials that perform in a similar way. We don't necessarily need to get down to molecular level of what the materials are. But we do get down to what the consumer cares about, meaning what does it do for me? I don't care if it's this plastic, this resin, this so-and-so. Instead, the question is simply what does it do for me? By coming up with brand-specific names we can tell that story.
A great recent example of that is our Prizm lens technology – the name Prizm is accessible. Everyone knows what a prism is. Whether it's from a grade school science project, or the ubiquitous Pink Floyd dark side of the moon album cover, we've all seen it. We know that prisms are transparent, and they have to do with color. Oakley Prizm technology is having transparent lenses that are designed to enhance color and contrast specific to the environment. So, if you're snowboarding you can see features in the snow you might not necessarily recognize with a standard grey lens. Or if you're mountain biking you can see differences in the terrain that are specific to the various tones of brown and green you would see on a trail. So, this is powerful and useful, it doesn't matter how Oakley invented it, or how it works. What matters is the consumer recognizes the benefit, and the value it brings.
CL: You must have great relationships with your materials suppliers.
JT: Yeah, absolutely. We also have chemical engineers within the EssilorLuxottica network. We are vertically integrated and, in addition to our supply base, a lot of innovation comes from within. It's a mixture of both. We're challenging industry to bring solutions back to us, and we're bringing them from the inside out too.
CL: Yeah – you're a great case study for other organizations – not just in sports, but in electronics, appliances, cars – in terms of how to bring about innovations. That's great to hear. Before we leave materials, is Unobtanium something that you developed? Because you do have it trademarked, right?
JT: We do. Unobtanium is a funny one. Did you see the movie Avatar that came out a few years ago, where they went to this planet, for Unobtanium? Meanwhile it was a name we'd been using for decades. I don't know if you want to include this for the interview. It's just a fun factoid.
CL: I just wanted to make sure it was your name that's become a part of common usage and it was part of Avatar so I wanted to make sure that it came from you.
NG: It was part of Oakley a long time before I arrived. It came from Jim Jannard creating the first grip. Jim is the founder of Oakley.
JT: Before we made goggles, or eyewear, we made Motocross grips for motorcycles, they were made out of Unobtanium, which is kind of a proprietary blend.
NG: Yeah, so as your body heated, your hands gripped this material, and with the sweat, it became stickier and sticker on your hands.
JT: Which was so important for BMX and Motocross. That has an application in nose pads, and ear stems, as well: as you sweat as an athlete, if those touch points become more tacky with sweat, that's a huge benefit.
NG: Obviously, we don't make grips anymore, but the grips now transferred to our eyewear – the properties are the same, like Jonathan said.
CL: What's the product you're most proud of, Nick?
NG: Wow – That's a tough one! I've been a designer and now I've got a great team that I'm very proud of and I feel I've given them the legs to fail and succeed – mostly succeed! – but definitely to use both of those to their benefit, and to bring the next of what the future is, and I think currently I have to say I'm really, really impressed and proud of Kato. It started life as a thought in our secret chasm, it was not exposed to anybody within the building, it was just a design exercise for us. We started with a provocative question - how would you rethink the next high wrap? It didn't focus on an athlete specifically, but how do reinterpret that, how do we tear down what we know as a brand and rethink something? They took the idea and created something that was very, very provocative and very compelling – with a team obviously – and we managed to bring what was a design thought and a brand statement to life, with everyone's help. It is the prodigal son of innovation for us.
JT: Chris, high wrap means it follows the anatomic features of your face more closely. It wraps around your face. If you look at the Kato frame, it looks like fabric draped over someone's face. It's a wonderful piece.
CL: Fantastic. Last one for you Jonathan – what are you most looking forward to at the K show?
JT: I love the K show because it confronts you with things you probably wouldn't have found just by Google searches or by your own means. You're walking around the show and it sounds a little silly but it's like a treasure hunt, there's a small booth here, or a large booth there, you look at each one, you try to pull something out that will solve a problem you've had, maybe it's a decades-out problem, something kicking round the back of your mind. You'll have these Aha! moments, even if it's not immediately at the show, you make connections and relationships to explore further. Kato is a great example. There were some unique challenges around Kato including how to build an optically correct injection mould to achieve the geometry that the design team proposed. Last year at K show we made a couple of key connections to make those optical-level tools.
NG: I've never been to the K show but I remember an old employee tell me how awesome it was and how impressed he was to see a complete hydraulic stamp sideshow. I need to see that!
JT: Let's go Nick – there's lots of schnitzel and beer too, it's a good time.
NG: Right up my alley!
Chris Lefteri will be repeating his successful design focused tours at this years K 2022. If you are around join Chris on the 23rd & 24th October in Düsseldorf for his curated selection of the most inspiring plastic, design relevant exhibitors at this years show. Discover what he sees as the most important future plastic innovations.