This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year's Core77 Conference, "Now What? Launching & Growing Your Creative Business" , a one-day event aimed to equip attendees with tangible skills and toolkits to help produce and promote their products or service.
Many designers follow a traditional design process, where selecting a factory to manufacture with comes after the design process is completed. Jamie Wolfond and his brand Good Thing, however, choose to put an emphasis on specific materials and production methods at the beginning of the design process, working with factories, manufacturers and outside designers to bring unexpected twists on classic home items to life.
Jamie will be speaking about this method of "backwards design" to explain how it works and how it fits within Good Thing's unique business model at the 2018 Core77 Conference, happening next Thursday October 25th at A/D/O in Brooklyn. Ahead of his talk, we sat down with Jamie to learn about Good Thing's origins, understanding your customers and why putting materials and process first can help your products in the long run:
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How did Good Thing start?
I started Good Thing because I spent a year after graduating from school attempting to license my designs to manufacturers for production before finding that there wasn't much of a licensing infrastructure in North America to work with. Or really very much of an infrastructure for young designers to see their work produced at all. My intention was to create an opportunity for myself to get work out there, and I pretty quickly figured out that by involving other people whose work I also admired and appreciated, I could go create a much more sort of visible platform to sell these products.
You've created a system where you consider materials and the manufacturing process first. Why is this approach important to you and how has it shaped your business model?
Good Thing, in general, works with designers who think about materials in a particular way, but I also have a process that I use in my own design work, whether or not it's a product for Good Thing or a product for someone else, that is a little bit more specific. Broadly speaking, at Good Thing, we like to make things that are asking to be made.
"If the manufacturing process is not involved in a very literal way at the beginning, then sometimes the result is stifled by someone's preconception about what that process might do."
This usually means that the design process starts not with a particular category and product, but with an ambition to get more from a process that we already know something about. For me, that manifests as this process that I sometimes call "backwards design", which refers to sort of reverse engineering or solving an unexpected problem with a technique or process. I think for some of our external designers, that's present in varying degrees. Of course each designer that we work with has their own perspective but it is, I think, at the end still tied together with this idea of changing what's possible, not by introducing new technology, but by using existing technology in a new way.
What does "backwards design" mean to you?
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On the other side of the supply chain there's usually a person who's making the product. If you involve the person, their tools, their equipment, their machines, their skills and even, in some cases, their personality in a product before you determine what it's meant to become, you end up with a product that is ultimately stronger for the way in which it's been shaped by different influences. Whereas if you come up with something and you know how it has to look and the surface has to feel exactly this one particular way, independent of the forces used to construct it, sometimes there's an unpleasant kind of tension left in the object, where what somebody envisioned it to be and what it was able to be. If the manufacturing process is not involved in a very literal way at the beginning, then sometimes the result is stifled by someone's preconception about what that process might do.
Even if you have a metal laser cutter locally that you usually work with, what you know about the parameters of that laser cutter doesn't normally help what can be done with some other laser cutter somewhere else. It takes practical experience working alongside the actual vendor with the actual machine in the actual place where the thing can be made to really shape an object such as it is.
What are some materials and processes that you've been particularly excited to work with over the years?
We've had the chance to work with a lot. They all have their different strengths, and we like having a big toolbox to work from. We know that there are certain methods that work really well at small volumes and they make for you a prototype and test things. Early in the beginning, we worked with a factory that would dip things in rubber. That one didn't last awhile. That was the best example of when we backwards designed ourselves out of a vendor. I think we've hit the gamut of conventional industrial practices. Of course, we're always interested in unconventional ones, but it's extra hard to find a open-minded factory ready to do something completely different. And that's when outsourcing work overseas can become very challenging.
When working so heavily with manufacturers from the start, how do you also consider your end consumer?
That's where my talk at the conference will fall, so I don't want to give away too much. It's a very challenging thing, and it's not something that was intuitive in the same way that working with the factory to figure out how to make something was intuitive. When I started Good Thing after graduating from art school, I knew that products that adhere to conventional industries and norms were not the kind of things I wanted. For that reason, it seemed like making something that a large audience wants and making something that I think is beautiful were mutually exclusive because there are so many things our audience buys that are not inside my canon of beautiful things. I think the way that we came to understand our consumer at the beginning was really with a lot of trial and error. By analyzing the soft data that came out of releasing products and seeing how they sold over and over, we were able to figure out a collection of items that sort of operate on multiple levels.
You want to start a creative business. Now What? Come to our 2018 Core77 Conference to learn more about launching & growing a product line or design studio of your own on October 25th in Brooklyn!
Emily is a freelance writer based in NYC with an interest in all things design, specifically the design process. When she's not writing about design, Emily can either be found taking care of her 31 houseplants, going on "nature" walks in her neighborhood or studying Japanese. Before going freelance, Emily was an Editor at Core77.