In design school, we're taught that our greatest struggles will be design-based: Find the form. Improve the function. Source the best materials. Figure out the manufacturability.
But spend a few years working in industrial design, and you'll often find those aren't the greatest struggles at all. Your greatest challenge is named Dennis and he's an uncooperative engineer. Or Nancy in Marketing, Greg from Accounting, Susan in Operations, The Client. A lot of times it seems like designers are the only ones who give a damn, and each week we have to fight a Nancy-faced Voltron of other corporate interests into making even the tiniest concession that we might know what we're doing. That design might actually make a difference. That the customer might actually be wiling to pay more for a kick-ass product.
Those endless internal struggles sap energy, harden the heart and can have us psychologically retreating from work, seeking creative fulfillment within private hobbies instead. So anytime we encounter a designer who manages to sidestep those problems entirely, retaining full commitment to the work, we're intensely curious as to what that's like, and how their situation came to be.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we saw that Icon's Jonathan Ward is indeed occupied with pure design struggles, absent Voltron's interference. Here we find out how and why. We also asked Ward about other areas of product design he'd like to see Icon branch into.
Core77: We talked about the constraints designers face when working on a project. What sucks is when there are non-design-based constraints stemming from interdepartmental conflicts within the company itself. How have you managed to avoid being stuck in that situation?
Jonathan Ward: I'm an idiot. And I'm self-financed. I have no investors. I have no board. I have to answer to my key team here. And sometimes that creates some strife, to be honest.
I started the company with a somewhat irrational focus on wanting to do something different and more considered and evolved and better engineered than I saw in the entire segment of my industry. In the beginning that was sort of easy, and that audacious spirit was manageable. As the scale of our brand gets larger and larger, that ups the ante on shit like that. But thus far, that's been a founding mandate that I protect like a lunatic.
Protect how, concretely?
We have tenets, ten questions that anything we're going to get into must hold up against. To the extent that the answer must be "Fuck yeah" or "No." It can't be just "yeah," it's gotta be a match.
We know the upshot to this approach. What are the downsides?
The prototype that's in development here, [the still-secret addition to our vehicle line] that you've seen and we've spoken of--what I'm investing in time, money and key technicians to get there, is almost becoming irrational. But I just have such a grip on it--it would be so revolutionary and exceptional and evolutionary that, to a fault, I'm going to see it through. It is what it is.
Money is often the root of a designer's struggle within an organization.
Yeah, like with this watch, I could have had theoretical goals of price point and I'd love it to be like $3,500 or whatever. But in the end, the price point of all my projects and products is an aftereffect of what it costs to create it. Without the sacrifices. Without the accounting departments saying no, without pushback from Wall Street or any of those constraints that most companies of scale--the big boys, not guys our size--have.
And it's become an amazing freedom. It could be what kills me in the end, if I keep pissing money into all these crazy development projects, but it's what drives me. Most importantly, it's what keeps me hyper crazy passionate about what I'm doing. Just having the freedom to do that. I mean, I'd be fired by any OEM on the planet for sure. I'm probably thoroughly unemployable.
You've applied Icon's design philosophy to cars, you've applied it to watches. What are some of the other categories you'd like to see it applied to in the future?
Oh, shit: Architecture, audio, home goods, and especially furniture--I see massive opportunities with some of the heritage brands in that space. And in many cases I feel like what they're making today is watered down, a function of VC and numbers-only brand management over the decades, and it's a shame compared to what's in their own design archive from the past.
[Ward thumps his hand on the large metal conference table we're sitting at.]
This table's from the '40s. All of my furniture in all the offices are vintage McKinney and Steelcase, and you've just seen that crazy chair [earlier Ward showed me his recently-acquired aluminum-and-molded-foam Knoll lounge chair designed by Bruce Hannah and Andrew Morrison in 1971]. That right there is something I'd love to do.
Or revisit the original Tanker Desk: Build them out of aluminum; offer all sorts of fun surface technologies and coatings and finishes; make them adaptive and acknowledging of modern desk needs for charging and computer drop-down so we can interface with them--all the shit that's relevant today, with the quality and aesthetic of vintage in a lighter weight, modern, shippable form. I mean, try to ship a vintage fucking Steelcase. So to take modern constraints and apply a vintage aesthetic to that, would tickle me pink. I love that shit.
Other areas: I don't have this skillset, but I certainly have opinions when it comes to apparel. We're currently doing some prototype leather jackets with Horween and Black Bear and I love that. Is it going to go anywhere? I don't know; I might end up with one overpriced, cool, kick-ass prototype jacket, and that might be enough. Or is it going to keep me up at night? Is it going it force itself into going to the next level and continuing to be developed, force itself into being expanded upon as much possible? I don't know.