The job of industrial designers may seem like magic. They sketch something, send it to a factory, and presto, new iPods! The reality has more to do with navigating contract negotiations, checking egos, following your gut, and admitting that some beautiful render on your screen can never actually be produced by real factory machines.
Veteran industrial designer Bill Webb worked at Palm, Astro, and Samsung before founding his San Francisco firm Huge Design which has worked on projects for Nike, Sonos, and HP. He agreed to share some of the biggest misconceptions he’s faced about running an industrial design studio in Silicon Valley today.
Startups Have Lots Of Cash To Throw Everywhere
We’ve all heard that the Valley may be in a new bubble, with venture capitalists throwing gobs of money at every zany business ideas. But for Webb, the latest wave of startups hasn’t led to more profitable work.
“$10,000 seems to be the magic number that startups are willing to give you to design a product,” Webb says, explaining that well-funded hardware startups are more scarce than you’d expect. His average product development takes a minimum of two to three months, so those economics could never work for his company.
Yet the Valley is filled with entitled, twenty-something Steve Jobs wannabes who want work for free or near-free. “They think the world should be helping them succeed,” Webb says. “They’re like, ‘Help a brother out! We don’t have money but don’t you want to be a part of this!’ I look at them like, ‘Hey man, I have like 15 salaries to pay.’”
Like many industrial design firms, Huge Design will occasionally enter equity partnerships with promising startups that are strapped for cash, but these are long-term bets. The bigger, established companies in the Valley that pay a premium for design services keep independent industrial design firms operational.
Quality Design Is An Academic Exercise
Any designer can wax poetic about the meaning of his creation, how it impacts humanity, or what its smallest design cues mean psychologically. But Webb views a lot of this as lip service–the verbal stylings of of a loquacious master’s student, rather than the honed viewpoint of a good designer.
“At the end of the day, sometimes things aren’t more complicated than they’re cool or they’re not,” Webb says. “And obviously I can get very specific as to why something is cool or it’s not, but it’s almost a waste of time. If I turned my bullshit up, I can explain why something’s cool…[but] if I had quotes about design, it’d be like, ‘people like products with holes in them.’”
A lot of the job is intuition, a subconscious understanding of why a design works or it doesn’t, Webb says. Again, he turns to Apple as an example. What makes each version of iPhone hardware so great? Is it the team’s fundamental understanding of materials at the molecular level, how aluminum and glass edges will come off of an assembly line? Absolutely. But he points to a simpler formula at work, too:
“My joke is it’s like The Titanic. They have the love story for the women, the soft supple surfaces, and the crisp machined qualities that men associate with machinery. It’s simplistic to say women like soft things and men like hard things, but Apple does such a good job creating one good design for everybody, and I think it’s because they’re mixing and matching these very basic elements of desire.”
In A Post-Apple World, Companies Realize The Product Is Everything
It’s no secret: Apple has taken over the world by making a few really great products. You’d think that most other companies would take note and sink money into their own products. The reality is different, Webb says.
“We have a joke around the office, the further you are away from the actual product in development, the more money you can make in this business,” Webb says of the way companies disproportionally spend on consultation and services ancillary to product design. “If you design logos, oh my God, you can charge millions. If you do packaging, you can probably charge double what we charge. And then I turn around and find they’re paying half a million for a logo. And it’s like, that’s important, but it’s amazing to me that for some reason the actual product they’re selling is devalued in the process.”
It’s an age-old dilemma in business: Should money go into the product or the marketing of the product? Both need to happen, but Webb sees the proportionate spending on promotion vs. production to be dramatically out of whack. In the meantime, Webb’s firm has actually gotten into packaging design to complement its product design services because it didn’t make sense to give up the work.
It Works To Move Fast And Break Things
“Move fast and break things.” It’s the mantra of the modern startup, but Webb says, it’s also the reason that software companies have historically had bad track records making actual products.
“Those are our most frustrating projects, working with big software companies, where the team you’re working with has a software background,” Webb says. The problem comes down to a mentality of constant tinkering–of developing and fixing and updating–that cannot scale to hardware product development. “You can’t just add features [midway through],” Webb says. “The device just got twice as big and it’s not as desirable.”
The modern view of design is that it’s really just a mentality–that “design thinking” can overcome all obstacles to developing an idea into something shippable. But the reality may be that a coder who doesn’t have to put a physical object on an assembly line can and should be developing a product differently than someone designing a phone to slide into skinny jeans.
Huge Design just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Learn more here.