This is the latest installment of our Core77 Questionnaire. We'll be posting a new interview every other Tuesday.
Name: James Carnes
Occupation: I am the Global Creative Director for Sport Performance Design at Adidas.
Location: I currently live right outside Herzogenaurach, Germany. But I also still live in Portland, Oregon. I just officially moved over to Germany with my family, but I still go back and forth.
Current projects: We just finished everything to do with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Now we're ramping up for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. So there are a lot of new high-performance projects on our table, in terms of footwear and apparel and working with new country federations, which is always really cool.
There's tons of other stuff. We've got a new line coming for Stella McCartney. We introduced a technology called Boost this year, and that's growing. We're also doing a lot of new collaboration projects, where we're bringing in designers from different industries—whether it's architects, industrial designers, graphic designers—and working with them, just getting a different point of view on what sport means to them and how they see sports products.
Mission: I would say, right now, the thing that I live by is making the future accessible through meaningful design. I think people need to be able to relate to totally new ideas, and design is really the interface that does that. It takes something that's completely unfamiliar and makes it familiar, and it brings something that's totally rare and makes it feel close to you. My mantra right now is: The world needs intuitive design.
For its Energy Boost line, Adidas replaced the EVA foam found in most running shoe midsoles with a Boost foam made from thermoplastic polyurethane granules fused into a cushioning layer.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? It was basically right before college. I had three main tracks that I was considering: Science and medicine—which, in a very stereotypical way, was what my parents would have loved—archaeology or the visual arts. I didn't really know that I wanted to be a designer; I just knew that I wanted to go in that direction. And at the last minute, as I was applying to different universities, I pulled together a portfolio and included it in my applications. So that's when I decided—as I was applying.
Education: I went to the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and got a B.F.A. with a focus on industrial design.
First design job: That's a funny one. I didn't grow up with a ton of money, and I used to make toys from stuff I basically pulled from the trash. So I would put together toy guns for me and my friends, or put together other contraptions. It was pretty well known in my neighborhood. And at some point this one friend's dad came to the house. I thought I was in trouble. But he came to ask if I would make toys for his two sons' birthdays, which were a couple of days apart. So I ended up making these futuristic bazookas for the kids down the street, and that's when I realized, "Oh my god, this could actually be a job."
Who is your design hero? I like the extremes—so I like inventors and I like stylists equally. I'm really a fan of Zaha Hadid and the Bouroullec brothers. But I'm also pretty crazy about Tom Ford, and I think Miuccia Prada is amazing. And as far as up-and-coming guys that are peer heroes—I'm a big fan of Alexander Taylor, and I also really like Jay and Ed from BarberOsgerby.
The Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany
Left: Inside the performance division at Adidas. Right: Carnes's office in Herzogenaurach
Describe your workspace: It's funny because I have a workspace at home and an office in Portland and an office in Germany. And I didn't really realize what my workspace looked like until I ended up having three different ones, and discovered that I had a lot of the same furniture and the same setup.
I like a combination of cold and warm, from warm natural hardwood to stark concrete. I prefer warm light from lamps rather than overhead lighting. My preference is still to have books; if I'm bored and need inspiration, I don't love the Internet as much as I love flipping through books. My workspace is generally clean, orderly. But no matter how clean it is, I almost always have some pile of samples or prototypes to pick through.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? My hand and something to draw with. I've explored every possible fancy pen on the planet, and I've never found something better than a Bic Round Stic. And what I've realized is, the ability to draw an idea transforms a conversation from being about words to instantly being about possibilities. You can talk and talk and talk, but the person with the pen actually starts to shape the idea. To me, it's always been the most powerful thing—whether you're talking about a product or whether you're talking about an org chart in an HR discussion. It's amazing to see how the presence of a pen can accelerate a solution almost instantly.
What is the best part of your job? Always learning. I have never gone into work and felt like, "I'm done. I've figured it out. There's nothing more I can learn here."
What is the worst part of your job? Probably the thing I dread the most is the administrative side of running the design department. I've got 250 designers in five different locations around the world. So as much as I'd love to be on the edge of new products all the time, probably 50 percent of my time is treating my team as part of a huge company. I'm doing budgets, organizational setups, process calendars—things that when you go to design school, you never think you'll be doing. But then you realize that without those things, a drawing is just a drawing—it's nothing unless you have this whole infrastructure set up to actually deliver that thing.
The AdiZero Primeknit sneaker features a seamless one-piece upper.
What time do you get up and go to bed? In general, I go to bed around midnight and get up around 6:00. But I'm jet-lagged pretty regularly, so sometimes I'm adjusting to a time zone and I might be in bed by 8:30 or 9:00 and then I'm up at 3:00. Or it's the opposite—I'm working on a project and I'm totally in the flow of it, and I'm more of a nighttime person, so if I keep going after dinner I'll be up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.
How do you procrastinate? I just ignore things. If I don't want to do it, I just ignore it. If people send me e-mails about something that I just can't come up with an answer about, I ignore the e-mails. It's terrible.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? That's an easy one. I always have a sketchbook with me and I always make lists, constantly. And it's not, like, notes. I only write action steps—exactly what I need to do. Every single point has an action verb at the beginning, and I make sure every single thing on that list gets crossed off. Just doing that—making lists, making sure everything is actionable, and then doing it, and crossing it off, and not being able to turn the page until you're done—is incredibly powerful.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Probably intuition. Which is tough, because it's not a skill you can simply learn, and it's not something you're born with; it's something you have to really cultivate. For me it's about problem-solving with a sense of style. You need to be part engineer and you need an emotional connection to aesthetics, and you need to be able to put those two things together in a way that just feels right.
The problem-solving part is important because, you know, the world doesn't need more stuff; it needs better stuff. It needs more longer-lasting stuff. And I think for designers, that intuitive ability to connect the dots between unrelated ideas and come up with something new and keep the importance of the human connection to whatever it is you're trying to solve, creates that aesthetic sense of style. And that's critical. That is what, I think, separates an ideas person or an engineer from a real designer.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? About design, I would say one of the misunderstandings is that there's a lot of emphasis placed on the totally original idea. Repurposing an old idea can be as powerful and as meaningful as a totally new idea.
About designers, I think there's still this total misunderstanding that designers are just people who sit around and draw and like colors and, you know, these very superficial things about what designers do. And I think people would be absolutely amazed by the depth and breadth of a designer's daily work and how they have to go from understanding a project from a 30,000-foot view and then be able to go down to the very, very smallest detail of every penny that goes into that product. I think the depth of what designers actually do is still not understood.
Carnes's office in Herzogenaurach
What is your most prized design possession? I have two. I have a 200-year-old Koran I bought while I was in Indonesia. It's handwritten, so every single page was thought out. We don't normally think of everything as being designed; sometimes we take certain things for granted, especially older objects. And I cherish that. I look at that sometimes just to remember how important it is to use your hands.
And the other one is a collection of tools from my grandfather. He was a plumber. What I love about that collection is, every single tool he had, he had to make or remake or custom-fit in some way. And I love looking at those. Aside from sentimental reasons, there's a history in them, and the history is about making tools better, and that's part of design.
What is exciting you in design right now? I really love following what's happening with the gradual conversion to a more sustainable future. And what I like is that we're so far past the whole idea of a green movement; it's now about actually the harsh reality that world economics are plummeting in some places because we've been thinking small and designing for today. Not just with products, but with buildings and infrastructure for cities. And that's starting to change. Designers, I think, are changing that by making responsibility look and feel premium. They're bringing the future to us in a way that's incredibly attractive, but it's simple and suggests that we don't have to be a throwaway economy anymore.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? The experience of eating food on an airplane. The food itself, the way it's served—the whole process of food on an airplane is something that's disastrous to me. You could overhaul it in such an easy way.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? I've been moving around a lot in the last ten years, so I'm looking forward to finally settling down and building a house for myself and my family—a house that really feels like our home. I also have a dream of owning a restaurant. Wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, I'll still be designing. It's in my DNA.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers? It's like having to choose between really good wine, a microbrew, or a mixed drink. I'm pretty happy to have one of each.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.