An evening discussion with designers from the award winning design firms Whipsaw and New Deal Design.
I met Elliot and Kellee through my first roommate- they both work at the design agency Whipsaw. Their third roommate, Chloe, is an industrial designer at New Deal Design in SF. Together, they are some of the most inspiring people I know in San Francisco. They always have great stories to tell (ask Elliot about his scooter gang), are building crazy things in their garage, host a regular D&D night, and, oh did I mention they’re working on their captain’s license as they’re about to sail the world?
I’ve heard legends of the design debates between Chloe and Elliot, and we sat down one evening for a wide ranging and absolutely fascinating discussion on the current state of industrial design. We covered so many topics – from how to succeed as a consultant, and what’s important to keep in mind as you develop your career, to what they look for in portfolios and why inspiration is controversial- that I had to break our interview into four parts.
This is part 1 – and let’s start with some introductions.
Elliot: I graduated Academy of Art in 2008. Rough times. I then became a moped mechanic and bike messenger and rode my motorcycle across the country, worked at a couple consultancies as a contractor, and eventually landed a job at Whipsaw in 2011, until now. And I’m about to sail across the ocean. I am a design manager and creative lead- I’ve hired a lot of people and done a lot of designs. It’s been a wild journey!
Kellee: I graduated from the university of Houston in 2012. There’s no design in Texas, so I moved to New York City where I worked in accessories, mainly watches, at a company called Nooka, until I moved out to the west coast because I wanted to to do more tech products. I’ve been at Whipsaw for about 5 years but in the past two years, I’ve pivoted my career into more UX design. I’ve gotten a lot of backlash from industry leaders – I think a lot of people are wondering why I’m leaving, especially since I’m a woman in ID. And that’s another story.
Chloe: Do you think that’s a backlash? People trying to understand this common thing of women in industrial design leaving for UX?
Kelle: Yes, but that’s a whole other topic. With UX, I’ve found something I’m really passionate about and feel really good about it. I also just quit my job to also go sail around the world.
Chloe: And I was their intern.
Elliot: Chloe was a fantastic intern.
Kellee: She was one of the best interns we ever had. We still talk about her now, years later.
Chloe: Anyways, I studied ID at the University of Cincinnati. I did an internship at Whipsaw, then did an internship at MNML in the bay, and after that was like I gotta live here. I reached out through a UC connection, and got in the door at New Deal, started 2 weeks after I graduated and now I’m coming up on 2 years.
Jon: Great – thanks for the introductions. I’d like to read the manifesto we’ve written, let me know what you think and if this resonates or not. [reads manifesto]
Chloe: I love that, that’s so great.
Elliot: That’s pretty good- I was thinking of writing an article like this for an article for a think piece on the Whipsaw website.
Chloe: Do you write think pieces?
Elliot: No, but I like collaborate on a lot of them. I don’t pen them at the end of the day, because it all turns back into the brand. But that was one I wanted to write- “dispelling the myth of the rockstar designer”, and it’s kind of a cliche and trope topic in a lot of other fields. But it’s really hard to do in industrial design because it’s such a small community, and you’re basically saying so and so sucks. It’s a bit discrediting to those who’ve built their careers on being number one.
Jon: And that’s part of selling design work as an agency.
“Half the time, the right answer is only known in retrospect. You can only say something’s great because it’s a successful product and millions of people use and want it. But nobody knew that going into it.”Chloe Georgiades
Chloe: Totally. Even the best people that have the greatest reputations, I feel like they’re wrong like 30 percent of the time. I mean everyone is, because we’re human. Nobody’s right all the time. You get to the right answers by discussion and pointing out flaws and different ideas. That resonates so much.
Elliot: I think what’s important to remember is that there’s not really a right answer for projects most of the time. It’s sort of a subjective thing. There certainly might be a “really good for this business model” or “you want to make a lot of money” or “you want to satisfy a lot of customers”, or even a “quote on quote right answer”, but as far as the design, like why that design is so great when you actually see the final product. If you don’t know all those underlying factors, the choices that were made to get there, then just saying “that little design is amazing because of the fillets or radiuses” is kind of bullshit.
Chloe: And also half the time the right answer is only known in retrospect. You can only say something’s great because it’s a successful product and millions of people used and want it. But nobody knew that going into it. You couldn’t have predicted it in a lot of the instances.
Elliot: Most designs are not good.
Jon: What does that mean?
Elliot: Well not designs. But design reviews. I lead a lot of teams of junior designers and most of the stuff people are coming up with is bad. Just kind of objectively. The ones that make it through are good because they satisfy key metrics. Like “the company can build it”, “the CEO likes it”, and “the marketing team can push it through”. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best design in the world, the most ergonomic, or not most necessarily attractive, but if we can convince people it is, maybe it actually is.
Jon: What’s the difference between convincing someone something’s attractive and good design?
Elliot: I think it’s debatable.
Chloe: I disagree with something you said earlier- “most things people come up with are bad”.
Elliot: If you were to generalize.
Chloe: That’s not the point. It’s not anybody’s business while brainstorming to say anything is bad or good. The point is to generate a discussion, and through suggestions that ultimately aren’t the right way to go, that’s what directs you into the right path.
Elliot: I think there’s a consensus at some point that everyone agrees this is a way to go.
Chloe: Sure, semantics. “The way you should go.” Whatever.” I think those “bad” ideas are always thought provoking and generate discussion- that’s important.
Elliot: Do you ever put a bad idea in the deck on purpose?
Elliot: I do all the time.
Chloe: I would say no. It’s more showing a variety of different things that accomplish different objectives. There’s never anything that a hundred percent doesn’t make sense at all.
Elliot: In the context of things that can be made, or something we think is a weak concept. We show clients them as an example of “this is not where you want to go”.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best design in the world, the most ergonomic, or not most necessarily attractive, but if we can convince people it is, maybe it is.”Elliot Ortiz
Jon: You show weak concepts?
Kellee: I’ve been in meetings where a lead designer will go, “hey, we want to show you some exploration. This is not the best design, but we wanted to show you where we went.”
Chloe: We show exploration, but usually there’s a reason. There’s a redeeming factor.
Elliot: There’s always some reason. Sometimes the reason is to juxtapose the good concepts.
Chloe: I don’t think we normally frame it like that. Definitely some things would be stronger in certain areas.
Jon: That’s interesting. In my previous position, we’d never show anything we didn’t want them to pick.
Elliot: Don’t you think it becomes kind of whitewashed and everything becomes the same?
Chloe: The thought process is, if you show something you aren’t a hundred percent behind, that’s the one they will pick.
Jon: When I was younger, we’d show concepts, and because of the nature of the team it was all junior designers and we were all putting out ideas. I could tell my creative director was not into most of the concepts, but we needed them because that’s what’s in the contract. It’s like “Ok we gotta put these 5 concepts in there” and we’re doing our best to have them not chose the one, but they’re always so drawn to those. After that, I got in the habit of just never sharing anything we weren’t excited about.
Chloe: If it’s very carefully directed.
Elliot: We’d never show something so bad it’s not possible. But even if they were to pick one that’s sub par, it’s always so early on, you can always turn it into something.
Kellee: I think that happens more often than someone picking a bad design. They’ll pick something and we’ll go through another round, and it’ll be kind of different,
Elliot: To circle back, it doesn’t matter what’s in the deck, because I’m going to convince you which ones you want. And there are really stubborn clients that are like “I want that third one.” If you’re good enough at convincing someone what the best design is, it doesn’t matter what’s in the deck. They’ll pick the one that you sell hard.
Elliot: And to go back to my original comment “half design is bad anyways” – Half the design that is done, once it’s implemented is actually not the vision of the designer. To be honest, It’s probably more than half.
Chloe: Things change so much. Like you said about steering them down a different path. That happens all the time – something will get chosen, and we’ll take a step back, re-evaluate and maybe take it in a different direction. And that’s fine, it’s part of the process. To your manifesto, it is a messy process. Nothing is perfect to start with. It does go down paths you wouldn’t expect. That’s why I really identify with that manifesto and really agree with it.
Jon: What’s the difference between the “designing “process and the “convincing people design is good” process?
Elliot: The design process is really hard, but the “convincing people design is good” process is more of a talent.
Jon: Than a skill?
Elliot: I mean it’s both. Some people are just innately more charismatic.
Kellee: It’s vocabulary. You don’t tell a client “this looks good” cause it has a corner radius. I see a lot of younger designers explaining design like that. But that’s not why it looks good.
Elliot: They talk like “I made this curve, and it feels really nice” and someone who’s really selling design will be like “you ever picked up a beer before? [picks up beer] roll it around in your hand, feels smooth. Glass has a quality of stone.” And you start to talk about it. Anybody’s that’s been in it for a while can bring an analogy to life. Things you interact with every day, and it’s not about what we’re looking at, it’s about what similar experiences you’ve had with other objects. It doesn’t even have to be an object: “I mean you have kids right? You understand, they spill stuff all the time. The idea with this is you’ll be able to clean better because of how easy it is to pull it out.”
Kellee: It’s emotional. We had a meeting last week where we went in, and the first thing we went in with was “what is comfort”, and the very essence of comfort is the five senses. And it was all visual. It was like that episode of Silicon Valley where they show an industrial designer talking about the cheetah.
Elliot: When he turns on the music to check it out!
Kellee: We were standing up there, and were like “it’s about the five senses!” In my head I was oh god… this is Silicon Valley.
Jon: You gave this presentation?
Kellee: Yes- it was me and two other designers! And we were standing up there-
Elliot: I was in the back row!
Kellee: And Elliot was in the back.
Kellee: We rarely talk about how we can taste comfort- and they were like “Whoa. Can you do that?”
Jon: Was it well received?
Kellee: Yea. They thought it was great.
“It’s vocabulary. You don’t tell a client “this looks good” because it has a corner radius. I see a lot of younger designers explaining design like that. But that’s not why it looks good.”Kellee Kimbro
Elliot: I thought it was very well received. I remember you were texting me “Oh our stuff’s really fluffy, I don’t know” and I was like it’s going to be great. You guys had all those great visuals. I did an analogy of agent Smith in the Matrix. People don’t want the perfect of perfect, they need a little bit of imperfection, otherwise their mind is eh.Agent smith said it the best, you can’t have it.
Kellee: It was a breath of fresh air, explaining our process without having to explain anything technical. We didn’t show ANY design. We were like “yes, this is what it is, how about we look into these different things.” And they were like “Wow ok. This is cool.”
Chloe: I think the key is though is you really have to know who you’re talking to. That presentation would not work with everyone. You need to know what they value. Any client with an engineering background, you’ve really got to take that into consideration.
Elliot: It was the third day of meetings, that’s when we broke it out. The first day was a lot of meet and greets, the second day was a download of all the technical aspects
Kellee: And that’s why I was nervous. They were all engineers.
Elliot: Third day we presented our fluff piece.
Jon: How many of your meetings do you plan out like this? Do you plan workshops for clients?
Kelle: Oh my gosh. We were up at six in the morning typing this. We were like “we gotta do this and this and this, what does this mean.” We did a persona workshop.
Elliot: This is a bigger client, an American client, and American clients want this kind of thing.
Jon: You’ve seen regional differences?
Elliot: I’d say corporations do. Chinese clients don’t care – they’re kind of the wild west of design.
Kellee: The difference with Chinese clients is there’s a lot of symbolism in design, so you actually need to explain things in a different way. Like one time we had this router that looked like a surrender thing. And they were like “it looks like people surrendering” and we were like “what”? So after that we started adding inspiration images so they’d stop thinking of design that way. And we changed our strategy. Because if we just send them a whole deck of concepts, they would tell us it looks like this and this and this.
Elliot: The classic layman “that looks like this”. If someone says “that looks like a penguin” the design is done. Looks like a penguin.
Chloe: Unless it’s a cooler. Then it makes sense and you want it to feel like Antarctica. I was just reading something, and there’s a cultural reason concepts are seen likes this- Asian cultures are “high context” cultures where we’re an extremely low context culture. Actually the US is the lowest.
Jon: What’s the difference between a high and low context culture?
Chloe: We speak the most explicitly. Everything we say is super direct. We have to spell everything out. Where, Japan is the most high context culture, they’re really expected to read between the lines. There’s an expression called “reading the air”, where you never say anything directly. If you’re not catching those kind of subtleties, you’re a bad communicator. The US is the exact opposite of that.
Elliot: So the US is on the spectrum, and all the other countries are high on wisdom.
Chloe: No, it makes sense! We’re such a young country with a lot of diverse backgrounds. We kind of have to be that way. Where Japan is the exact opposite, it’s been around for so long and they have shared experiences.
Kellee: It’s interesting- I was doing this presentation and was like “what is American Hygge”?
Kellee: It’s Thanksgiving. I can’t think of one thing that makes every person in America think of comfort. I think it’s Thanksgiving, but every other culture has something else.
Elliot: We have something, it’s called vibes.
Kellee: We have vibes–
Chloe: Chill vibes!
Kellee: But that’s a California thing. In Texas they don’t know what that is. They have Southern hospitality there. But that’s regional.
Elliot: That’s something I don’t fully understand.
That’s it for Part 1. In Part 2, we go deep into how Chloe, Elliot, and Kellee think about communication as designers, and what they’ve learned along the way.