How do we in the local product design industry invest, turning a philosophy of supporting creative growth into actively fostering emerging designers?
There is no question, design is serious business. Corporations worldwide are consistently prioritising creativity as being strategically critical, manifested as a clear shift towards executive-level designer appointments. As John Maeda reminded us in his SXSW presentation last week, designers are at the top level of many of the disruptive businesses world-wide. In Italy, the product design industry sits along-side fashion as the second biggest contributor to the economy. To sustain this contribution to the economy, society and culture we need to break down the walls and open up a dialogue with the next generation of designers.
It’s been the case in the digital sphere for some time, that coders exchange ideas through a collective approach to idea development. Organisations like Creative Commons and MIT’s open-source licensing model have paved the way and now we are seeing this willingness to share ideas and resources filter through to other areas of design as the positive growth that ensues is recognised.
It is a shift IDEO have also implemented. Possibly the world’s largest product design organisation outside of Apple, who are one of their clients, they have amassed extensive experience since their inception in 1991. In 2012 they launched IDEO Futures, a start-up in residence program where fledgling businesses are embedded into the IDEO culture through a five-month stint in the Chicago office.
Experience is something that can only be garnered through time, experimentation and figuring out why something went right – or initially more often, wrong. For any business, experience forms an enormous part of their intellectual property though trade secrets are not always off-limits to those at the starting line. Organisations globally are adding value in an exchange for knowledge and the incubation of new thinking; and in-turn we are seeing clear examples in businesses internationally and locally.
As philanthropic as this sounds, for the experienced businesses involved it begs the question “what’s in it for me?” Realistically, why would a company divulge their IP, provide mentoring and give a newcomer the ability to, in some ways, replicate what the company provides as a service? Investing in the next generation of talent, thinking outside the conventional box to generate new ideas, satisfaction in accelerating a new venture – these are some of the reasons. IDEO, aside from having a stake in the businesses they support, have access to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Yes, this is an incubator but it is also an exchange – a fair trade.
Launching your first major design project is, in lots of ways, similar to kicking off a new startup – you have an incredible idea and the passion to get it across the line but there are always things you just can’t figure out on your own. In many cases, those things are the pieces of the puzzle that are crucial to the overall picture – and that is where seeking advice can turn an idea into a reality, or perhaps even a career.
For Melbourne-based designer Grace Kim, having the courage and initiative to seek out local organisations who are prepared to share their IP has resulted in her 2016 final-year project significantly developing beyond the original form-study. While studying industrial design at Monash University, Kim developed a concept for a pendant light made from Birch veneer, with each slither wrapping its way around an LED globe. Lumeneer, as it is now known, was a mockup when she met Daniel Treacy, a fellow Monash alumni and now design manager at Rakumba Lighting.
“I met Dan at the Vivid lighting exhibition in 2016,” Kim recalls, “I had a concept but had never designed a light before so didn’t know how all the pieces come together.” Treacy invited the designer to visit Rakumba’s studio to discuss how her idea could be turned into something ready for production.
Young designers can often be nervous or unsure when it comes to showing their work to those in an industry they hope to one-day be a part of, but with the right approach it can pay-off as both Kim and Treacy have experienced. For Treacy, a casual role at Rakumba turned into a more formal internship and then permanent employment. In those initial years he helped develop products such as the Ricotta and Ballerina floor lamps designed by well-known Australian designer Simone LeAmon. “Simone was a valuable first mentor – she respected my role and inspired with her focus on creative narrative. Through that process I gained first hand experience into how a concept translates into a market-ready product.”
Now, several years and many products later, Treacy is able to share his expertise with designers like Kim: “It is incredibly rewarding to help people develop their ideas and see them take shape,” he ads, though there are considerations that need to be acknowledged. “I have to balance my love of talking to people about their ideas with the commercial reality that time is a valuable commodity. At Rakumba, we see this as an investment – in people, and in the design industry. It’s powerful and highly motivating at the same time. And we’re finding more and more like-minded design and manufacturing companies sharing their knowledge.”
So what are Treacy’s top tips for the students and start-ups of the Australian design world seeking advice?
- Solid preparation will get you a long way in terms of industry experts taking you seriously. Present your concept concisely and visually, ideally with a physical mock-up. Have specific questions to ask, and seek out industry experts.
- Try to do something truly new. If you have an idea – explore it and see if you can make it happen. Don’t limit yourself too early – by your own abilities, by study course constraints, by budget or timeframe.
- Focus on the form and the function of your piece, you’re sourcing advice on the technical aspects but the design is yours. When you’re talking to commercial designers and manufacturers, they will have a commercial focus – bear this in mind when thinking through the viability of your product.
- Treat each consultation like you would a job interview – ask insightful questions and record the answers, emphasise your research and preparation – if it’s an industry you want to get involved in, there’s no better way to showcase your potential value.
- Spread the word – you’ve found designers and manufacturers who are prepared to share with you, so share this with your colleagues – they might be able to benefit just as much as you have.
- Start the process early! Your panic due to a looming deadline isn’t likely to help you get the best advice and it’s unlikely a business will have the same level of flexibility in their schedule as you do.
It is a real-life process that Treacy is describing, one that even the most seasoned designers go through when speaking with manufacturers – and for Kim, each of these pieces of advice rings true. She asked the questions, brought along a prototype and was open to solutions put forward by Dan and his team. As a perfect example of the Creative Commons mantra When we share, everyone wins – “Lumeneer” is now destined for this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan as part of Melbourne Movement.