- Home Town: Born in New York City, Grew up in the Hudson River Valley
- Specialization: Product Design
- Education: MFA, Royal College of Art, 1978; BFA, Rhode Island School of Design, 1976
- Brief Work History: Founder of Design Logic; 12 years as design lead of IDEO, Chicago
- Favorite Hobby Outside of Design: Frequenting junk and bookstores
First off, as a product designer, what product have you always wanted to own, but have never been able to?
I would really like to own an Alvar Alto lounge chair. It’s a great design, but too expensive to justify buying.
What is your favorite product that you do actually own?
It has to be my Freitag messenger bag, for many reasons. The company has a great story. Two brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag began as a start-up in Zurich, Switzerland. The messenger bag’s strap is an old seatbelt, and the exterior is made from European truck tarps. They are made from 100% recyclable materials and no two bags are the same. It also has a lot of sentimental value because it was a gift from the designers I worked with at IDEO on my 50th birthday.
So, most of the readers have heard bits and pieces about your career in design, but may have never heard the full story. How did you get started in Design?
I always knew that I was interested in this field, even if I didn’t know that it was specifically called “design.” I bought a drafting table at age thirteen and I was always drawing, inventing things, and thinking about what the future would be like. It greatly interested me to figure out how things work. I wanted to understand why things are the way they are. It wasn’t until I was in college that I knew my interests fell into the category of “Industrial Design.” Even then, I feel like I really didn’t learn to design until after graduate school.
What didn’t you learn in your undergraduate program, or in graduate school, that you felt like you learned afterward?
Well, I went through a traditional design program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and my graduate work at the Royal College of Art (RCA) was focused on design research. In both programs, I was searching for why things are the way they are from the mechanical, historical and cultural perspectives. To practice design, I also needed to know much more about how things were developed and to learn all the skills needed to define products in models and drawings. I’ve always wanted to understand how things are made, the internals. I didn’t really learn that in either of my academic programs. The focus in those programs was on the broader aspects of the design process and research.
So at what point did you actually “figure out” design and get that detail experience you were looking for?
I feel as though I really learned to design in my first internship. After graduate school, I interned with Siemens in Munich, Germany. I learned the details of how products were developed for production and I gained the practical skills in drawing and modeling needed to express product concepts and technically define them. My boss there was a great mentor. I immersed and educated myself in European modernism. I combined this with the research focus from the RCA, and felt prepared when I came back to the United States to practice.
After studying and working overseas for a few years, what brought you back to the United States?
I was born in New York City and was raised with the New York mentality if you were ambitious and competitive you need to work in New York and nowhere else would do. It was just ingrained in my mind that I would return to New York and practice design. It just wasn’t even a question. So, after my internship, my first job was to work for GAF in a skyscraper on Sixth Avenue. Europe was the center of classic modernism at that time while the U.S. was producing cars like the AMC Gremlin. There was a lot of bad design out there, and therefore a lot of opportunity.
So, fast forwarding a little bit, you worked for a few firms in New York over the course of three or four years, and eventually you ended up here in Chicago. How did that transpire?
In New York, I freelanced for Dave Gresham. We worked on a project together and Dave asked me to join the design group at International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in Connecticut. I worked there for a year and then the design group closed. Dave and I decided we wanted to start our own design company. This was a traditional business model for a design firm. Dave wanted to go back to school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, which was close to Chicago, and I had a friend who offered us office space here in Chicago. We also thought we could have a bigger impact in Chicago than we could have in the New York design scene. We each had a client already and that was how we began Design Logic. What was the worst thing that could happen? We would both be out of job in a year. I had been going through that over the past few years anyway.
When I did a search for Design Logic on Google I came across the term “Product Semantics.” What is Product Semantics and what is its relationship to Design Logic?
Product Semantics in industrial design appeared around the same period as the Post-Modernist movement in architecture. The idea is to give objects an emotional appeal through the use of metaphor and analogy. For instance we looked at the power and impact of a ’59 Cadillac and said to ourselves, “how could we arrive at a product that had that kind of impact conveying power and speed?” Instead of being rational or minimal in our approach to the design, we tried to evoke a specific emotion from a user. We used to say form follows emotion not form follows function. Underlying this was a rigorous understanding of scale, proportion, and dynamic composition. This was Design Logic’s point of view. It was a radical approach to product design and also espoused at Cranbrook. It was quite successful at the time; our work appeared in the Wall Street Journal. This gave us a basis for pushing the boundaries of product design.
In the Foundation product design class, it seems that you tend to prefer minimal and rational solutions over the complex. Yet, Design Logic didn’t take that point of view on Design. What are your thoughts on minimal design versus something like Product Semantics?
There isn’t one answer to design; it is really situational. The solution depends on if the object you are designing is meant to recede into the background, or to become the object of attention in the foreground. Based on your intent, you design accordingly. Even though I’m drawn to minimalism, I think practicing and understanding all types of design are important. We heard this same point of view from James Ludwig when the Foundation class visited Steelcase’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI.
Is the term “Product Semantics” still around in current practice?
Not really. The term itself isn’t used anymore, but the idea of “emotional resonance” is considered characteristic of what good design is today. A design has to be emotionally appealing to its target audience. Why do some products have an emotional resonance when others do not? Interpreting culture and translating this into a product experience is what gives a product an emotional appeal.
Is it true that you got to redesign the View-Master while at Design Logic?
Yes, Dave Gresham and I did get the chance to redesign the View-Master for the 50th anniversary of the product. The redesign was published as one of the best designs of the year in Time magazine, which was great exposure for View-Master and for Design Logic. It was kind of funny actually; our product was pictured right next to PeeWee Herman’s fun house.
After starting your own business and working for twelve years at IDEO, you decided to come teach at the Institute of Design (ID). What brought you here?
I have always been interested in education and teaching. Even in my undergraduate days I sensed that I wanted to teach someday. After Design Logic and before IDEO, I taught at ID in the early 1990s and then for many years taught as part of the adjunct faculty. Other than the close personal ties, I find ID’s historical link to the Bauhaus significant. It is important to preserve that history, even as design is evolving. Part of what I want to accomplish here at school is to re-instill that sense of making things. Making great objects, environments, and services should be one of our goals. There needs to be a tangible outcome to design research, planning, and strategy. We learn, design, and think through making and modeling ideas. This is what makes design significantly more powerful at envisioning completely new ways to define what the future can be. To accomplish this, designers need fundamental skills and new methods. Teaching is also beneficial to me. I learn from teaching and from students’ surprising and often insightful approaches to design; this deepens my own understanding of the design process. I am also learning from the diverse and exceptional faculty. Our conversations push my understanding of what design “is” and what design can become.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment in the field of Design?
There isn’t one accomplishment that I can point to over any other. I really treasure all of the things I have done throughout my career. One thing has somehow led to the next. I couldn’t have accomplished one thing without everything that happened prior. I find great pleasure in teaching and seeing students of mine become successful. I am also proud of having played a leadership role in starting up IDEO Chicago.
As I did my research for this interview, I came across your name listed in the permanent collection of the Art Institute. What product is in their collection and what was your role in the development?
The Lifeport Kidney Transporter. It was a major improvement over the conventional method of organ transport, which was a cooler filled with ice. One of my goals while at IDEO was to gain recognition for the work we were doing and for the designers in the group; typically there are many people working on all aspects of a large project. Specifically, I wanted to get some of our products into the Art Institute since they were opening a major new modern wing. I was successful in doing that. There needs to be shared recognition to foster collaboration within a design group, as well as recognition of the individual. In fact, the primary designer was Jerry O’Leary along with Dickon Isaacs. Also credited are many engineers who worked on and managed the project.
Moving forward, what would you like to accomplish in the field of design? What is the next step?
That’s a tough one. I greatly enjoy teaching; as I said it’s challenging and rewarding. One of the things I am doing here with Anijo Mathews is to develop and explore new prototyping methods. Perhaps long term, I should write a book. (laughs). Dave used to say it’s important to give something back to the design profession. I think this is what I’m doing now by teaching, giving back. It’s something not everyone has the temperament, ability, or drive to do well. Becoming part of an entrepreneurial venture is also an area I have great interest in. I haven’t done that yet. New product ventures provide the opportunity to create, launch, and market objects that change the way we do things. A really good idea, well executed, can change the world.