Thirty-five years ago, Davin Stowell founded Smart Design, a creative innovation consultancy with offices in London and New York City. Since 1980, the company has grown from three to 90 employees (down from a high of 120), and has worked for the likes of BMW, Cigna, Ford, HP, and Nestlé. It's helped Under Armour design sports bras, partnered with Gatorade on a quantified hydration system, and given the New York City taxi a makeover.
Smart Design’s Silicon Valley office shuttered in October after two years of decline in opportunities and budgets, which can be attributed to the fact that as Silicon Valley grew more fluent in design and companies sank more money into in-house talent, demand for outsourced design dwindled. The business of design consultancies has changed. We caught up with the Smart Design CEO about what it takes to manage a consultancy today, his collection of folk art ("I love work by people who aren’t trained designers"), and why he’s never had a "real job."
What was the first thing you ever designed?
I grew up in Corning, New York, near Corning Glassworks. During my summer breaks from studying design at Syracuse, I worked in the design department at Corning Glassworks, making models. In my last year at Syracuse, my boss, the design manager, said, "Why don’t you design something for yourself, something you might use?" As a student, I lived off campus, and cooked all my own meals. I didn’t like cleaning up after cooking. This was before microwave ovens, and I wanted to use fewer dishes. And I thought, Well, Corning has a cool material that looks like ceramic that you can put right on a stove. I made a little bowl that you could put on the stove and heat up and then eat directly out of it, with little handles. Corning really liked it, but when we took it to focus groups, basically everybody hated it. They said, "You can’t take something off the stove and put it on the table—it’s not civilized." But the product manager for CorningWare, who wasn’t much older than me, said, "I do the same thing—I eat right out of the metal pan."
Eventually, CorningWare made this thing, and within two years, it became the largest-selling item they’ve ever made. People were heating up soup and eating right out of the bowl. The story gets back to the roots of what we believe in in design—having a deep understanding and empathy for what people really need. They often can’t articulate it. But you have to understand why they do things like they do. If you’re really able to understand that, you can make solutions that are so much more meaningful.
What's your favorite thing you own?
My favorite designed object is the Eames plywood dining chair. I grew up with them as a kid. Eames wasn’t famous at the time, my parents just liked them. I think it’s one of the most beautiful objects that’s ever been created.
My other favorite objects are pieces of folk art. I love work by people who aren’t trained designers. My house is filled with these very strange things I find in antique shops made by people without real design training. There’s a chest of drawers made by a mechanic in a garage, made of scrap wood, covered in painted zigzag patterns, and all the drawers are made of oil cans from the 1940s. There’s also an armoire made by a janitor at a school in the Adirondacks, made for kids to put their coats on, made out of cigar boxes fastened together with cardboard. Outsider artists are solving problems the same way designers are, they just don’t have the formal training.
If you weren't a designer, what would you be, and why?
I’d be an inventor. I’m not sure what the difference is between a designer and an inventor, but that’s what I thought I’d be when I was 7 years old. I was constantly making things, trying to fix problems around the house.
What is your biggest challenge as a designer?
The biggest challenge is really just making sure you’re always putting design first. The business has evolved so much today. Thirty years ago, if you were asked to design something, you’d just get out the markers and design it. Now we understand so much more about the problems at hand. There are so many different skills today—not just product and digital design, but research skills. You have to understand the business of design problems. But the challenge is not to have creativity get weighed down by all the other elements that have to be considered.
What is the worst job you've ever taken, and what did it teach you?
I’ve never had a real job.
You don’t consider running Smart Design a "real job"?
A real job couldn’t possibly be this much fun. If you have a job that really matches your passion, it never seems like a job at all.
What are the biggest challenges facing design consultancies today, and how does Smart Design meet these?
If you look throughout history, there are waves where consultancies have thrived. We’ve done very well for the last 35 years. It’s not rocket science. It comes down to a very simple principle: If you’re able to create design with real meaning for clients and companies, instead of just designing product that you throw out there and will sell well until the next hot thing, then you’ll continue to thrive and grow.