Published at the beginning of the summer—just in time for freshly minted design grads to take note but relevant for just about any designer these days—Breaking In: Product Design (Tuk Tuk Press, 2014) by Amina Horozic offers dozens of insights into today's highly competitive job market. Featuring interviews with over 100 designers from across the industry and around the globe, the book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to get their foot in the door at design-led companies big and small (see the full list of interviewees and companies here). We turned the tables on Horozic, who revealed a bit of her own background and process in a Q&A
Core77: This the second book in the 'Breaking In' series; how did it come about? Were you familiar with the first book in the series Breaking In: Advertising by William Burks Spencer, or had you been working on this project independently?
No, I was not familiar with the first book at all. I had just wrapped up my MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts, and was working as an industrial designer at frog when my colleague Catherine Sun sent me an e-mail, saying, "You'd be perfect for this." Essentially, she forwarded me the publisher's e-mail asking if anyone knew of any industrial designers interested in writing a similar book about how to break into the field. Recalling firsthand the amount of time it took me to craft a portfolio and cater it to appropriate employer and industry—I'm a classically trained car designer who "jumped ship" into consulting world—I jumped at the chance to discover what everyone is looking for.
The rest is history. I simply couldn't pass on the opportunity to try and talk to all of these industrial design gurus; a lot of them were my personal heroes.
How did you find the interviewees? What was the criteria for them? Did you know some of them before you took on the book? I imagine the project picked up its own momentum through word of mouth as well...
The only criteria from the publisher was that they had to be management level or up, essentially designers who are making hiring decisions—which eliminated about 90% of my personal network at the time as we were all in our mid-to-late 20s, and still in the trenches. For context, I started this book back in 2011, so my background as it stands today was not that wide or rich. And I had to interview a minimum of 100 designers.
Of course, I leveraged people I had known at Chrysler and at frog, alongside Career Services at my alma mater College for Creative Studies—but honestly, a lot of it was my own legwork. I wrote down all of the car companies, all of the consulting agencies, all of the revered products that came out—essentially, people and places one would want to work for or with—and then I searched for the contacts online and through my network. I was actually quite surprised by how many replied back with interest, they loved the idea of the book!
Basically, I was determined to cover all of the branches of our field: automotive design, product design, furniture design, soft goods, consultancies and solo practices. As Kickstarter was getting traction, I made sure to include at least one success story from there. I also wanted to include some young guns, who started their own firms straight out of college. I wanted to show aspiring designers that there are many ways to "break in." I was also adamant to have a global representation, to show that opportunities abound everywhere. The book literally has a designer from each continent, aside from Antarctica. I also included educators to get an academic perspective for comparison. Finally, as a woman, I was adamant to include women in industrial design leadership positions, as well—something that was sadly notoriously difficult to find.
Somehow the big question is always: so what "big names" are in the book? The thing is, for every Yves and Ralph and Jony, there are tons of design leaders (and designers) out there whose work has revolutionized our everyday lives, but who remain relatively anonymous. I truly hope that with this book—and the accompanying Breaking In blog where we feature their work and bios—the design community learns more about who is behind the products we use, and admire, every day.
How did you conduct the interviews? Along with the boilerplate questions, I notice that you include tailored questions for many of the interviewees—did it feel like design research at all?
I started the process a bit like design research, tailoring the questions to each individual designer, but I also wanted to ask the same main questions to everyone. This way, it would allow the readers to compare and contrast their answers and get a better sense of what each was looking for. Additionally, when you're building a portfolio and trying to get a job, your goal is clear. So the questions focus on what will be helpful to the reader. These are not profile pieces or magazine articles about each designer. Essentially, I came up with questions that I would've asked as a student, when I was trying to land my first internship or job.
About 80–90% of the interviews were done either in-person or via Skype, oftentimes at 3 or 5AM to accommodate for the schedules of designers based abroad or those on the East Coast. As I was working full time—and traveling frequently—I had to work around my own inconsistent schedule as well. I think I even took some calls while I was on a research assignment in Bangladesh. Each call was recorded, and yes, I transcribed each one. I sacrificed all of my weekends of summer of 2012 to complete that, but enjoyed every minute of it.
I notice that the transcripts vary in length, and in my experience it depends on both the interviewee and also the format (i.e. in-person, over the phone or via e-mail). What was the editing process like? Did you ask everyone the same questions? Did you make conscious decisions to omit certain questions or answers?
Absolutely, the length varied due to all of those reasons. Some interviewees only had 10 minutes free on their schedule, some talked to me for an hour and a half or more, and then there were some whose schedules would only allow for an e-mail exchange.
I asked the same basic questions of everyone, and if the answers were vague, I tried probing a bit more by asking a more specific question. I'm not going to lie, it was an intimidating process. These are the product designers who call the shots on some globally influential products; definitely not my peers. At the same time, I didn't shy away from putting some of them on the spot because I wanted to get specific advice out of them that would really help someone building a portfolio. It's so hard to break into the field these days.
As for the editing process, there wasn't much. Mostly, what each designer said is what ended up in the print. Each designer had an opportunity to review the transcript and they only made minor tweaks. We omitted some tangential bits for clarity, but 90% of the content is pure, unfiltered capture from the interviews. I think what this underscores the most is how polished each one of these design leaders are, and how important of a skill verbal communication is in our field.
Can you share some of your favorite stories from the book?
This will sound like a cop-out answer, but honestly there are so many, it's difficult for me to choose. I think at the end of each interview I was humbled just by how human everyone was. I know that statement may sound weird, but, from the outside each design guru is portrayed as this mythical unicorn figure that must somehow live a different life from us mere mortals. The truth is, they have struggled just as hard, worked just as much and dealt with just as many obstacles as any of us. Nothing was handed to anyone on a platter. They were patient, persistent and passionate to make it and to make it work. Their ambition and determination is humbling, even though most of them will brush it off as simply a combination of good luck and fortuitous timing.
I remember feeling so deeply inspired after each interview, and falling in love all over again with our field. It is truly filled with passionate people who are aiming to genuinely make this world a better place through their craft. I can't even recount how many times I thanked my lucky stars to have been able to talk to all of these talented individuals, and grow better as a designer myself in the process. I think the wisdom and advice will have a similar effect on anyone who reads the book.
As you asked your subjects: Anything you'd like to add that we haven't talked about? Any final words of wisdom?
I may have some wisdom to share in about 40 years. What I've learned in the past decade of my own career is that being and staying a designer is hard, non-stop work. So if you want to stay in the game don't be afraid to ask questions, ask for help, and listen. Study those better than you. Work hard and smart, and be patient with yourself and the process. Don't be too hard on yourself. Stay humble, get enough sleep and eat your breakfast.