Talent Showcase: Jennifer Garrett of SDI Technologies

iHome iP3 - premium speaker system

Jennifer Garret is an industrial designer currently working in the field of audio consumer electronics for New Jersey-based SDI Technologies. There she leads the design of products and packaging for the headphone division of iHome, the #1 market leader in iPod/iPhone electronics in North America, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Outside of her multi faceted, hands on role at work, Jennifer is also a performer, sword fighter, choreographer, belly dancer, costume creator, set and prop designer. With so many interests and hobbies, and a strong desire to connect with the end user, I had to find out how she transformed her fervent desire to create into a career.

As someone who does so much and works for such a visible brand/product, do you think you were always headed towards your current career?

Jennifer Garrett:I wish I had some grand story about being inspired from a young age and setting out into the world knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but really I was just a smart, artsy kid with way too much time on my hands.

Through out my younger years I was always trying to create something, be it arts and crafts, sprawling Lego structures, failed attempts at making my own clothes, or the ever changing barbie house I created in an entire book case (and spent so much time arranging and decorating it that I never played with the dolls). Then came high school, a tiny private school with a thriving art program, where I experimented with many different drawing, painting, sculpting, graphic arts, and jewelry projects (pretty much every medium I could find). Then came graduation and I was at a loss. I did a bit of everything by that point but had no idea what to do with it or where to go until one teacher said "you're good at math, you're good at drawing, go be an architect." Um... Sold.

So I found Philadelphia University and I set out to be an architect! Well, that didn't click with me, but it did lead me to discover the existence of industrial design. I found that ID, and specifically ID at PhiaU, worked how I worked. You could dig deep into any subject, any project, and approach it from any and every angle. Then you could completely change gears on the next one. I liked that.

iHome iH11 spacesaver alarm clock speaker system

What appealed to you about industrial design over all other artistic/design pursuits you’ve entertained?

JG: I think it was the scale. I like things that I can pick up in my hands, turn over and over, really see from every angle. I like things that I can take apart and get inside of. I like things that I can experience with my eyes closed (as in: I’m much more interested in the remote control than the TV). And I like making things that people choose to interact with.

I originally thought I was going to be an architect, but the scale was too large. I felt disconnected from the final result. I also felt that I was disconnected from the end user because they wouldn’t really choose that building; they might just be there because that’s where they needed to go. It’s not like they wouldn’t go to their doctor’s appointment because the windows on the building didn’t appeal to them… So for me, it’s products and accessories. The user has a need or a desire for a thing, they pick up some things and really look at them, and then (ideally) they choose yours and it becomes a part of their life. How great is that?

Your list of current hobbies and interests is impressive. What do you do to stay creatively energized and inspired?

JG: I perform, or I work on projects with performers. I kinda collect physical performance arts as a hobby (and not the “normal” ones either, the more uncommon ones like belly-dancing and renaissance faire sword fighting), so if I’m not on stage myself, I’m helping to choreograph or make costumes or sets for some show or theatre somewhere. There’s something about the response of a crowd, a good review or some solid applause; it’s instant feedback that you are doing something right. There’s electricity there that charges me right up. If I’m working for too long behind a desk or on only one type of project, I start to lose that spark that keeps me inspired. So I always try to have something different going on in the background or lined up for the weekends. Distractions can be a good thing.

iHome Designer Series Headphones

Who are/were your design heroes?

JG: Well, my first design love was Arne Jacobsen. My first experience of appreciating an object purely because of its industrial design was when I truly noticed my grandparents’ Jacobsen silverware set. It was strange and minimal and yet perfectly functional and beautiful. I had never seen anything like it. In fact, they had a lot of Danish design around the house, which I subconsciously loved but never really acknowledged until I learned about it in design school.

Also, in that vein, is OXO. As a company, OXO makes the things in life that you need (and things that you love because they work so simply and fit in your hand so perfectly), but you never fully appreciate until you learn to look more closely at things. Or until you hurt yourself using something else. That certainly proves the point of good design.

How important has failure been in your career?

JG: I think you can’t ever truly succeed if you don’t fail first. That’s how you learn. That’s how you know what needs to be fixed. With each failure you increase your odds that the next option you try will succeed. You collect more information about the situation, and you know what not to do (and hopefully why not to do it).

Also, failure is humbling. There’s a middle ground between winning and losing. It’s compliance and it’s dangerous. If you make something that merely “works,” a solution but maybe not the best solution, you risk getting complacent and accepting it. There’s no growth there. But if you fail, well, that puts the fire under you to get better. I try not to show a design unless I’ve got at least one in the bin that didn’t work out first.

iHome Expandable Mini Speaker

What has been your most personally rewarding/successful project to date? Also, which has been most commercially successful?

JG: My most commercially successful design is a rechargeable pop-up speaker for iHome. It’s nothing too groundbreaking, just a decent sounding, reasonably priced, stylish little speaker. However, that one design has changed finishes and features so many times that it has been used for over 50 different SKUs now. It’s the little product that could. It started it’s life as the iHM60 mp3 line-in speaker. Then, I changed the finishes from painted to translucent to neon to rubberized; it got color-changing LED effects as the iHM61; it came in pairs as the iHM66; it got repackaged as the iHM59; it even grew up into the Bluetooth iBT60 and iBT66. Over a thousand Amazon user reviews rate them highly and the look continues to sell. There’s finally a replacement in the works, but that design certainly had legs.

The most personally rewarding? Now that is an insanely tough question. I think I have to go with a new project I just completed, the iB18. It’s a line of earbuds that just came out beautifully. I’m proud of the design of the buds; they are all metal with an in-line microphone and 2-color flat cable with a pile of matching accessories, and the sound performance is amazing. And I’m especially proud of the packaging. It was a completely new direction for iHome earbuds and I wanted to make the box feel like luxury, to match the buds. It was especially rewarding because it was such an uphill battle to convince the sales people that it would turn out nicely. The simulated prints scared them (they just couldn’t visualize the mass produced effects the way I could), so it was months of reassurance and a few risky gambles that got me to this point. The feedback from buyers at the Consumer Electronics Show last week was overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be happier. You know, until I get into the next project.

iHome iB18 Noise Isolating Metal Earbuds

What advice do you have for aspiring industrial designers who are just starting their undergraduate degrees?

JG: Design everything. Keep trying out new materials and new projects. Don’t get set in your ways while in school because you will miss the exploration and freedom you had once you are out. If you aren’t designing at the moment (because, yes, finding a design job may be tough), always remember to think like a designer. If you work in retail, sketch what you sell; ask the consumers why they purchased what they did. Learn. If you work in food service, ask the chefs how they like their tools, or why they hate their tools, and sketch those. Design is an opportunity you can find anywhere. If designing is in your heart, it won’t just be what you do; it will be the way you approach the world. Ideally, you will never be able to stop. When your friends politely ask you to stop ranting about the design of the chairs in the restaurant… that’s a good thing.

Tell me about what you did when you set out to win, and then won, the IDSA merit Award.

JG: When I signed up for the ID program at Philadelphia University I saw the seniors presenting their work for the IDSA Merit Awards. The entire studio was over taken with all of their work, they prepared everything they had ever done and papered the walls with it. It was about designing yourself. It was impressive, to say the least. Honestly, I don’t know what clicked in my head, but I set my sights on that. Maybe it was because I was so unsure that I was in the right field; I decided the judges would tell me if I was right or not. It was also because the prize was a membership in the IDSA that I knew I wanted but couldn’t afford. School became less about individual projects and more about the end result of being awarded for my total merit as a designer.

That meant that I still worked my hardest on the individual projects, but then I also spent time rearranging them for presentation long after the grades had come in. I became very active in the IDSA student chapter and focused a lot on my portfolio. I attended portfolio review expos to interview and get feedback from active professionals. When the presentation date finally came around I was happy that my work had paid off. It’s a gamble to put yourself out there as a designer rather than to hold one design in front of you as a shield, but I can say that I walked out of that experience proving to myself that I had merit. I think approaching my education that way gave me some extra professional training early on and a lot of perspective about the industry.

New Balance Audio, by iHome. - "iHome and New Balance combine forces to offer athletes the best in performance sport headphones."

How did you go from just designing speaker products to being involved in all elements of the product development process?

JG:In 2009, iHome launched a new division of the company focused on headphones and earbuds. The original business plan was to source a few marketgoods and apply our own graphics (like how the vast majority of headphone companies operate) just to pick up some incremental business in a tough economy. As the newest designer at the time, I was assigned to the project because, frankly, no one else wanted to do it. I quickly learned to make the best of the situation.

The headphone team was small and I was the only designer; that meant that I had a lot of opportunity to try new things. I studied the market and learned that for a majority of brands it was the packaging that was doing more to sell the SKU than the product itself. I started working with the packaging designers to create the product and packaging in tandem. I also worked to design my own products rather than source marketgoods so that we could present good design as a complete story.

From there it became a matter of personal pride. I was vested in the design of the product and the design of the packaging so I focused in on the performance of the product (and the pricing as well). I wanted to make sure that I could keep track of all aspects of the development process so that the consumer would get the best experience from the complete line of iHome headphones. It just sort of evolved from there. Now I’m designing the products and packaging myself, flying to China to coordinate with the factories and even pitching the products to buyers and press at CES. It’s also a case of “if you do something once, and do it well, you’ll be doing it forever.”

What is your next big project?

JG: The expansion of the iHome FIT line. We’ve covered a lot so far; won a few awards and gotten some great feedback from athletes and casual listeners alike, but I’ve got more ideas in the pipeline. Keep an eye out for me at the gym and you may even spot a few prototypes. I’ll be the crazy lady jumping up and down on the treadmill while singing and flailing and checking the fit of my earbuds in the mirror. You know, normal stuff.

I'd like to thank Jennifer for sharing the origins of her creative career with me. See more of Jennifer's work in her portfolio here on Coroflot. 

If you’d like to be featured in the Talent Showcase, please send me a note at hillary.okeefe@coroflot.com. I'm always looking for interesting designers with cool stories to tell about how they landed the jobs and careers of their dreams!

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