It took a bit longer than he planned, but Dave finally escaped from Los Angeles and made it to San Francisco in time to speak with the designers behind the future of cool. Keep up-to-date with all of the adventures on Route 77 by following @DaveSeliger on Twitter!
With so much amazing design and technology happening in San Francisco, it was extremely hard to choose whom I wanted to visit in the area. I eventually settled on two design consultancies who moonlight as entrepreneurs, but who combine design with cutting-edge technology to bring extremely innovative and disruptive products to market. First up I sat down with Charlie Stabb from the new Bay Area branch of Artefact, with Adriana Gil Miner and Robert Murdock (the new studio lead for the San Francisco office, formerly of Method) video-conferencing-in from Seattle.
Artefact's Robert Murdock, Adriana Gil Miner, and Charlie Stabb
When I first heard about Artefact, the firm's name struck me right away as something different. Although many design firms improve on poor products while trying to create better user experiences, I still believe any firm making products is, in the end, adding to the giant pool of stuff that our world is made up of. Choosing a play on the word "artifact" as the firm's name suggests creating products that embody longevity and are not simply meant to be replaced a few years down the road. What happened to heirlooms or products that have such value that they are passed down from generation to generation?
Artefact defines their firm's mission as the Principles of 21st Century Design. These include some rather unexpected values, like dignity, liberty, and well-being. Yet the most surprising value, and one I was pleased to see, was timelessness. "It's not about designing a new version of a car each year," said Gil Miner, "but establishing a new model of interaction that changes the market entirely." Gil Miner went on to elaborate that timelessness in modern design could mean developing a robust technology platform and hardware that could support future iterations of software; for example, a single iPhone that supports multiple future versions of iOS. In this way, Artefact can create timeless products that stay up-to-date with revisions. "That's the beauty of matching software and hardware," said Gil Miner.
Although Artefact has a vast portfolio of great product consultancy work, it is their growing entrepreneurial side that really defines the firm. "Consultancy allows you to work very closely with a company," said Gil Miner. "Incubation allows you to take these experiences and learn from them, but then also feed your entrepreneurial experiences back into consultancy." Artefact has a range of concepts in various stages of development. Ideas like Wireless Viewfinder Interchangeable Lense (WVIL) and See What You Print (SWYP) take technology and design to the next level, but are currently in the proof-of-concept stage.
More refined concepts like 999 Bottles, which failed to reach its goal on Kickstarter, help the firm to learn about the process of product development. These lessons paid off and Artefact recently launched their first fully realized product, 10,000 ft. The collaborative management tool aimed at creative studios was a "natural starting point" since the product solved a need Artefact itself had. "We want to cultivate that entrepreneurial spirit in all of us," said Gil Miner, whether product concepts come from product designers, UX designers, or even the business side of the firm.
When asked about the future of design, Murdock described the multi-disciplinary approach to engineering embraced at Bell Labs many decades ago. "It's taken us fifty years to come back to this concept of multi-disciplinary design," said Murdock. "It's all about creating the right work environment with the right team and the right clients." Since Artefact started as a small UX design firm (founded out of Mircrosoft), each designer at Artefact was able to take on multiple disciplines of design, reinforcing the entrepreneurial mindset. Design in general is headed down a similar generalist path. "We need to reframe design from small d design," said Murdock, "to big D Design."
My second visit was just down the street from Artefact at ASTRO Studios with Creative Director Dana Krieger. From Sol Republic to Boxee to Looxcie, ASTRO Studios excels at taking product concepts and building a complete identity and brand around that concept all within their cigar-factory-turned-design-studio, complete with a full-size astronaut inside, that has hosted runway shows, art exhibits, and photoshoots.
I was surprised to find out that ASTRO Studios has been around for nearly two decades, given the dynamic and vibrant work the firm is constantly producing. "We hope we don't have a look," said Krieger. "It's our personality that's constant." And that personality is one that's always seeking the hottest evolution in culture and lifestyle, while still creating products that consumers can connect with. "Like it or dislike it, at least there's a difference here," said Krieger.
ASTRO Studio's Dana Krieger
In order to stay at the forefront of the consumer electronics market—and to push the boundaries of design—ASTRO must walk a fine line between creating products that embody the future, now, and that are recognizable to the average consumer. The firm's designers must respond to trends and cultures that are developing on the street and then create products and brands that embody the visual cues unearthed. "We're looking for things that are new to people," said Krieger, "but that also still have relevance and meaning." Designers at ASTRO absorb the various cultures, styles, and trends around them as a means of influencing their work; Krieger described this talent as a "sixth sense": "It's the designer's filter that notices things that are different and things that are common," said Krieger. "We must see 100,000 people on our way to work. Maybe someone's mashing up a hip-hop brand with something from Marshall's."
For the Sol Republic headphones, ASTRO was able to demonstrate exactly what they excel at doing: designing an entire design language around a basic concept, in this case headphones. "We were able to look holistically at the product and create a lookbook, brand, and website," said Krieger. "We could shape their entire identity so that it speaks consistently." A number of years ago, ASTRO started to do a similar holistic redesign for the gaming industry with sister company ASTRO Gaming (recently acquired by Skullcandy). "Gaming didn't have a visual language when we started," said Krieger. Now, thanks to ASTRO Gaming, the entire industry has been reshaped around a branding concept—one that is in the same vein of high-end DJing equipment. "Design in America is whatever you want it to be," said Krieger. "Are we consultants? Are we starting our own businesses? It's hard to explain to people what we do because it's always changing."