Industrial design is like surgery, auto racing or a military operation in that things can go horribly wrong. And they often do, although no one really talks about it. In this new section for Core77, we'll take stories from working industrial designers—namely, our readers—willing to recount some of the humorous, maddening or just plain stupid things that have happened to them on the job. While the stories you'll read here are true, companies, clients, and of course designers are all anonymized to protect the innocent.
Got a "True I.D. Story" yourself? Find out down at the bottom of this entry how you can talk to one of our editors and win yourself a $25 gift certificate to Hand-Eye Supply.
This next True I.D. Story comes to us from "Design Minion."
I was the only industrial designer on staff at a small watercraft company down South. Working on boats was cool; as the sole designer I got to do everything from the earliest concept sketches to modeling the parts, designing the boats' graphics, doing the tool drawings, and I'd even be out on the line for the first builds. Real A-to-Z of product development.
I was also the only creative person on staff. My boss was the head of Marketing, and anything even slightly having to do with art—or really, just anything he didn't want to do—he pushed off his desk and onto mine. So on top of the rest of my workload, I was also doing POP displays, our tradeshow signage, our brochures, sketches for big-box stores on how to display our product, et cetera.
It was time for our company to produce our next catalog. I hadn't been hired yet when we did the last one—but my boss told me I'd be flying to the coast to manage the multi-day photo shoot. "Me?" I asked. I'd never done anything like this.
"Don't worry," my boss said. "It'll be easy, and I'll fly down there to take over, all you have to do is get things started."
The plan was to ship our boats across the country to [a small, picturesque beach town on the coast], where some photographer that my boss had met at a tradeshow would shoot everything. The way he made it sound, I would just be checking little boxes off on a clipboard until he got there.
The Equipment Drop
I got on a plane to [City A], then hopped into a rented Chevy Trailblazer and drove to [picturesque beach town]. On the single-lane highway I got stuck behind a convoy of slow-moving military trucks, and there was no room to pass, so the trip took forever. If I knew what was in store for me, I would have used the extra time to psychologically prepare myself.
The rendezvous point was a place called Wild Bill's Storage, and the title was only two-thirds accurate: It was a storage facility and the owner was wild, but his name was Dave. He was sitting on the lawn with a thousand-yard stare playing a country song on a guitar. I had to look twice to make sure it wasn't a banjo. After I approached and introduced myself, he offered me some Gatorade in his Texas drawl and immediately began telling me about the mob princess he'd married. (I wasn't sure if this was his life story, or if he'd simply started delivering song lyrics in a conversational tone.)
Over on the lot, a big-rig had left the big-ass 53-foot trailer containing all of our boats and equipment for the shoot. Soon more trucks started to arrive, and I met the guys I'd be spending the next week working with.
First, a Suburban pulled up, and out hopped a man I'll call Chum Guy. Because after he introduced himself you were hit in the face by the distinct smell of fresh chum. He was roughly the size of Terminator-era Schwarzeneger, and even if you couldn't smell him, he was clearly a man of the sea; immediately after meeting me, he opened a cooler in his truck, pulled out a piece of amberjack and threw it at me. I caught it, not sure what he wanted me to do with a dead fish.
"Caught it, smoked it myself," Chum Guy said proudly, pulling another one out of the cooler and chowing down on it. I didn't know what else to do, and I wasn't particularly hungry, but I started eating mine. (It was actually really good.)
I was confused though, because Chum Guy had introduced himself as the photographer—but his name didn't match the name my boss had given me. I tried calling my boss on the cell phone he'd given me to use on this trip—this was in 2001, remember when roaming charges used to be crazy?—so they'd given me a dedicated phone. But I couldn't get the damn thing to work, so I just waited.
Soon a yellow Ryder truck, one of those 28-foot box trucks, pulled up. A skinny, frail guy jumped out of one side, and a large, rounder guy jumped out of the other side. The first guy introduced himself as the photographer, and his name matched the one my boss had given me; I'll call him Prima Donna. The second guy, his assistant, absolutely had to be the human model for the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, right down to the voice and inflection. I wanted to ask him if he liked amberjack but figured he'd think I meant some superhero named Amber Jack.
Lock and Load
The team assembled, it was time to hit the beach for the shoot. Chum Guy had in fact been hired by my boss, but I'm not sure why, as he never produced a camera or took any photos during the entire shoot. But he came in handy as we began transporting the smaller boats from the 53-foot trailer to the yellow Ryder, which is how we would get them down to the beach. This is when I first discovered Prima Donna had a particular talent for disappearing whenever there was heavy lifting to be done.
Speaking of heavy lifting, we had a 15-foot pontoon boat to shoot. That's not the kind of thing you just toss in the water; for you city boys and gals, you load such boats onto a dedicated boat trailer that you tow from the back of your truck. What you do is back that boat trailer up to the water, where there's a concrete ramp extending from the shore down a good twenty or thirty feet into the water. The boat trailer is designed to be submersed; it's made from galvanized steel and has waterproof lights. So a boat trailer is how normal human beings get the boat into the water.
Anyways: Pontoon boat, check. Pontoon boat trailer, no check. It wasn't anywhere inside the 53-footer. The shipping guys didn't put it on the truck. Great. What now?
As luck would have it, the back of the Ryder truck and the semi trailer were the same height. We backed the Ryder truck up to the semi trailer—and by "we," I don't mean Prima Donna, as he was suddenly busy doing something—and the rest of us grunted and slid the pontoon boat from the semi trailer into the Ryder truck. I'd worry about how to get it into the water when we got to the beach.
Now we were at the beach, and the pontoon boat, loaded last, had to be put in the water first. With no boat trailer, we had the genius idea of backing the Ryder truck down that concrete ramp—right into the water. I mean we backed this poor truck all the way up until the rear wheels and the exhaust pipe were submerged. All of us (except Prima Donna, who suddenly had to check his lenses) climbed over the boat into the back of the truck and pushed for all we were worth. Once the pontoon was a little more than halfway out, it could be coaxed the rest of the way by lowering the lift gate. This whole time we had to leave the truck running, because if you turn it off and try to start it later with the exhaust pipe underwater, good luck.
The shooting went okay, but it wasn't until well after dark that we got to reloading the truck. Getting that pontoon boat back in the Ryder was a nightmare; the thing is electric, meaning you've got 400 to 500 pounds of batteries and another 400 to 500 pounds of boat. To get it in, we had to back the Ryder truck even deeper into the water—I'm convinced that even today, that truck must have an angled rust line on it—and it took six of us to lift the thing up far enough to get it on the lift gate of the truck. We were doing all of this virtually in the dark, and it's a miracle no one was crushed.
The next day was the tender shoot. (Tenders are boats used by people with sailboats or other large vessels that can't get close to shore/docks because of the draft, the part of the boat that's under the water.) We headed back to Wild Bill-Dave's to get the tender out of the semi trailer. Opened up the trailer, it wasn't there either. The shipping guys had forgotten that as well. Tried calling my boss multiple times, could not get through on that company cell phone, finally had to use my own.
The solution: I had to find a local Marine place that carried our company's boats, head over there, shell out $800 to buy one at full price, then haul that down to the beach. Great, I'm buying our own products for a photo shoot.
Then it was time to shoot the pedal boats. The "talent" arrives, some snot-nose kids and their mom. We have a cooler full of drinks, water, soda, etc. The kids rush it, asking if they can have some. Without asking the parents, I encourage them to knock themselves out, and they started swilling Coke like college kids drinking beer at a tailgate. Super whacked out of their minds shortly thereafter. We had some squirt guns around that I filled with ocean water, and they screamed when they shot each other in the eyes... pretty funny.
Needless to say, my boss never showed up, despite my constant phone calls. He kept making excuses, said it sounded like I had it under control.
If I had anything under control, it was because I was busting my ass. This whole time it was 95 degrees, 99% humidity all day. I would start at 5am, as we had to get the first light photos, and work until 11pm getting everything ready for the next day. Without my boss there, my workload was doubled as I was the sole source of responsibility.
The weather and labor being what it was, I was perpetually dehydrated and not really with it by the end of the week. I had been assembling boats, sweating buckets and doing unmentionable things to that poor Ryder truck. I worked right up until I had to leave, and at the airport, I tried going through security with a hammer (for installing oar locks) in my carry on. The TSA folks didn't really appreciate that, since it was November of 2001, a couple months after 9/11. I gave up the hammer.
Back at home, I got hit with an insane cell phone bill, since the company's cell phone never worked and I'd had to use mine, back in those days of roaming fees. Even worse, everyone else seemed to think I'd been on vacation because I was tan; they all joked about what a tough job I must have, hanging out in [picturesque beach town] taking pictures all week. I wanted to punch them in the face. I'll take my desk, earphones and Rhino any day of the week!
All specific names, companies, clients, designers, and details will be kept anonymous to protect the innocent. You needn't write the story out; a Core77 Editor will interview you to produce a write-up (and to be sure you ain't pulling the wool over our eyes to win that sweet gift certificate!).