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We sat down with BlackBerry’s former senior VP of design this month to talk to him about his time at the front of mobile experience, where he thinks design is heading, and to learn more about his future plans to shape our world.
Tell me about your path into design. Were you one of those people who knew they were going to be a designer, always creative? In a word, my path into design was ‘circuitous’. I was naturally good at art but in high school I was guided in the direction of science, so I pursued pre-Med studies. By the second year it was clear to me that I didn’t love what I was doing, and that was a problem. By chance I came across a magazine article about the Industrial Designer Albrecht von Goertz, the man who designed the first Mont Blanc fountain pen, and the BMW 507 convertible, etc. Discovering Industrial Design as a career option was an epiphany. The balance of Art and Science was very attractive. I decided to change course immediately, and transferred into the ID program at Carleton University. I graduated in 1990, and never regretted the change in course.
Tell me about the process of joining Research In Motion, why were you brought in to head their design team? My design skills really advanced when I worked at Nokia Design in Los Angeles, starting in 2000. It was a global organization, with impressive talent and resources, operating at an enormous scale. In 2006 BlackBerry was gearing up for growth, and they were looking for someone with experience in the mobile space, design management, and large scale company processes. I was head-hunted for the role, and through a series of interviews I eventually got the job and moved back to Canada.
What was your mission at Blackberry? Our first goal was to build a world class ID team and partner network. When I joined in 2006 the design team was small, ten people, and we reported into Product Management. Within five years we designed numerous devices, sold over 200 million devices between 2008 – 2013, received awards like Red Dot, and BlackBerry ranked 25 among the top 100 brands in the world. At its peak, the Design team grew 10X to 100+ people, and we reported into the CEO. We were a multi-disciplined team, with ID, UX, Planning and Operations — one virtual studio, spread across five R&D sites, and Waterloo was HQ. Growth was primarily through recruiting, but a significant part of it also came through a merger with the Software UX team and the acquisition of a design team in Sweden. Recently the team was downsized, after the BlackBerry 10 launch. Letting go of many talented people was by far the most difficult part of the job.
Did the founders understand and appreciate design? Did design drive innovation? During the hiring process, I did a final interview with Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO and co-Founder of RIM. I really admired how proud he was of the company. We talked about the design of watches and cars. I told him that BlackBerry devices could be both functional and beautiful as well. He really liked this idea, and wanted this for BlackBerry. To close the deal I told him that I knew exactly how to do it.
Both CEOs, Mike and Jim Balsilie, appreciated and recognized the impact of design. It made our products better, more attractive and easier to sell. ID had a strong alliance with Mechanical Engineering, and together we managed to continuously improve build quality, cost/size reduction, and drive material and form factor innovation. Our scope didn’t really include UX until the company decided to switch to the newly acquired QNX platform, that was the basis for BB10.
Was BlackBerry a design company? There were moments, but it was never consistently design driven, like Apple, BMW or Nike.
We all know the troubles that Blackberry has been managing, do you think they can reverse the trend? BlackBerry’s struggle to become a viable software and services business is well documented. Like most Canadians and shareholders I sincerely hope they find their niche, and survive.
From my perspective, I believe that the design team did everything it could to help reinvent the company. The BlackBerry 10 operating system was recognized for its design innovation, and all four BB10 devices received Red Dot awards for Product Design. Beyond the launch we invested heavily in Design Planning, and filled the pipeline with a portfolio of innovation.
Apple and Samsung are leading the mobile marketplace, what do you think of their product design? Both companies deserve a lot of respect when it comes to design and business. In simple terms, the smartphone market is now split between these two giants. Apple is about quality and a closed system, Samsung/Android is about quantity and a more open system. Critically speaking, Apple design is exceptional, but it’s also antiseptic and irreverent. The fact that you need to add an accessory cover or battery pack to the iPhone to make it durable, comfortable or practical is disappointing. On the other hand Samsung products tend to be soft, ‘plasticy’, and banal, lacking in character.
Personally, I prefer the contrast of hard and soft, warm and cold, rough and smooth, materials like leather or rubber paired with stainless steel. These are fundamental principles of well designed tools.
Innovation is slow in Canada, and venture capital is conservative. Do you see design having a role here and if so, how can design thinking reach more Canadian CEO’s? Eventually all CEOs and entrepreneurs will realize that good design is not an option, it’s a necessity. Examples like Apple, Nike and BlackBerry have demonstrated the potential of design as a strategic tool, capable of defining problems, developing and delivering solutions; creating intellectual property and real value. To improve the current state, designers need to become more business savvy and technologically agile, while remaining true to customer insights. CEOs need to learn how to better understand and appreciate design, in addition to reading books about ‘Design Thinking’. They should also position design right next to them, as strategic partners, at the top level of their organization chart. Alternatively, designers need to endeavour to become entrepreneurs and CEOs themselves.
Looking out into the creative marketplace…designers working in new roles, where do you think the opportunities are in contemporary design practice? Beyond the ‘Chief of Design’ position, design leadership on company boards and at VC firms is the next big opportunity and step forward. John Maeda is leading the way in this regard.
Tell us about what you are doing now, what are you working on and what do you see out there that is inspired? After more than seven years with BlackBerry I decided to leave in June, 2014. Looking back, it was a very rewarding experience with incredible highs and lows, and many lessons learned. The design team is talented, seasoned and adaptive, so I left feeling confident that they’ll do well.
This change has inspired me to get back to basics. Over the summer I established a rural studio on the Bruce Peninsula. I’m designing a small collection of products with local materials and producers, starting with a Bruce Chair, a local take on the Muskoka chair. The studio is called N0H 1W0, no-one-home-I-went-out, the local postal code. Larger opportunities open up in the fall with Porsche Design Studio. I will work with them to establish and grow their business in North America. This will allow me to diversify and leverage my network, as well as everything that I’ve learned so far.
There’s so much to be inspired by these days. The confluence of the internet, mobile computing and sensor technology is generating the next big wave. As a designer I’m optimistic that it will enable the break down of massive problems like healthcare.
Give us a little advice…would you ever do a Kickstarter? People think that it is saving indie/small batch design. Barriers to entry are being lowered by platforms like Kickstarter. They enable almost anyone to pitch ideas, attract like minded people, get feedback and funding at internet speed. At its best, it’s enabling the ultimate design contest. At its worst, it’s an online forum for panhandlers with lame ideas. Before diving into this ocean you first need to ask Why? ‘Will this project make a difference’?, ‘Does the world need another thing’? Like all ecosystems evolution will prevail, only the fittest will survive. A little advice? 1. Listen twice as much as you talk (two ears, one mouth); 2. Always take the high road.
What were the products that you enjoyed designing most? I thoroughly enjoyed the teamwork involved in designing mobile devices for Nokia and BlackBerry. Arguably they helped to improve quality of life for millions of people around the world, and made it a better place. I also loved collaborating with the teams and individuals at Monocle/Winkreative, Bruce Mau Design, and Porsche Design.
Tell me about a design object that you hate…why? I prefer to balance love with hate. Philippe Starck is an interesting example because he is so prolific. I love his iconic Juicy Salif for Alessi, the three legged kitchen monster, but I dislike the fact that it is useless. Similarly, there are other design objects that I love and hate: both of my deceased Rowenta toasters by Jasper Morrison, my decapitated MacBook Air, my DOA PlayBook. It’s always disappointing when brands over promise and under deliver. At the end of the day, design alone is not enough. It’s the entire experience chain and the context of the marketplace that determines success or failure, love or hate.
Design seems to be constantly making things faster or less expensive. Do you believe that design is being used for good or bad? As I mentioned earlier, I believe design has the potential to improve quality of life for everyone. But the Industrial Design paradox is the environmental impact of mass production. The fact is, everything that we design generates waste and ends up as waste. Therefore it’s our duty to do more with less, and design things that wear in, not out. I often use the Rolex watch as an example of good design — it’s coveted because it’s an iconic object, that performs a simple function well. Its design and quality will last for generations. Expensive, maybe, but not in the long run.
Describe your studio, your desk…order…messy…what things are in there and in what spaces do you feel most connected to? My studio office at BlackBerry worked well. It was basically a glass meeting room, a square table placed in the middle, and a nice lamp hanging above it. This configuration allowed for various interactions, like one on ones, or meetings with my entire leadership team. Next to my desk, along the North window, was a very long, low cabinet where I collected models, material samples, books, awards, artifacts from my travels etc. It served as a timeline, a reference library, it was my 3D server.
In terms of organization I tend to stack things chronologically versus filing them. Sometimes I put things beside each other, grouping them — that’s how my brain works. It eventually gets messy, but with a little luck this coincides with packing up for a move. It sounds cliche, but I also love working on the airplane, with a Pilot pen and a Moleskine notebook, preferably sitting in business class. It’s so rare these days to be off the grid for a good chunk of time, to think, dream and collect your thoughts.
What is your favourite…
car/ Porsche 911. After more than 50 years it has kept true to the original rear engine concept. I love the fact that you can recognize one from a distance, even under a car cover.
mobile phone/ My Nokia 8800 design (circa 2005) was visceral. More recently, I adore the BlackBerry Q5in red. It’s an homage to the Valentine typewriter by Sottsass for Olivetti.
Logo/ CN Rail. The ultimate Canadian one liner
flower/ Sunflower. I love how they track the sun, and the beautiful seed pattern. They make you smile.
Chair/ Mario Bellini’s Cab chair by Cassina. It’s zoomorphic – thick leather skin zipped over a steel skeletal frame. Very few chairs improve with age, this one is outstanding.