Ryan Vernon wants to make everyone's lives better through design. He was a Product Engineer and Team Lead at OXO until very recently when he took an Interactive Designer position at Fjord. His varied career has taken him from engineering to product design, then back to engineering, and product design again. He was also happy to answer questions about what brought him back and forth between his two career focuses over the years.
What have you done to set yourself apart from other product designers?
Ryan Vernon: I have a degree in engineering, analytical problem solving. I have the know how to make an idea into a reality. I am interested in knowing how things work. At the same time, I have the patience to put the extra time and money into the design because I understand the importance in making something more human, intuitive, and delightful. It’s this blend that makes me different.
Since I sit at the intersection of design and engineering, I can communicate and empathize with the different people in these jobs. Engineers have more strict processes, while designers require more freedom. We are all working towards the same goal, but we have different concerns.
How did 3D computer drawings and animation lead you to engineering, and then product design?
RV: My father taught metal shop, wood shop, drafting, computer animation and rendering, so I had access to shop tools before I was old enough to take his class in 9th grade. I also had access to software to draw the things you would make in shop like AutoCAD and 3D Studio MAX. His class would go on field trips to places like the MIT media lab, and to the first release of the Toy Story movie because one of his former students got a job at this new company Pixar. There was a time when I thought I would go to school for computer animation, but I saw this as a risk. I didn’t want to be a starving artist. This was the mid 90's, I didn't even have an email address, I didn’t see the dot com bubble inflating in the mid 90’s. I didn’t know what to major in because it didn’t really exist yet. I grew up around Penn State University, and saw mechanical engineering as a safer bet on finding a job I liked, learning solid skills that would transfer to anything, and ultimately helping people.
There is a lot of overlap in the tools they use between these disciplines. So I tried to find a school that had both engineering and industrial design, and that was Virginia Tech.
How did you prepare yourself for your interview with Hoberman Designs?
RV: I made a video of some furniture that I designed and I rendered some fly throughs and animations of how it worked and sent them a VHS tape. I believe this is what secured my interview. I flew up there the day before my graduation. I missed my connecting flight, and ended up sleeping on the airport floor with a Calvin Klein model that was in the same situation as me. We got an early flight to NYC in the morning, I got a cab to their office in TriBeCa, and I changed into my suit in the hallway bathroom. I walked in with a lot of confidence because of the new friend I met the night before. They gave me geometry test about folding origami, and I was the only interviewer to pass it.
What's it been like transitioning from Engineering into Product Design, and then back to Engineering, during your career?
RV: It’s all the same; both are creative pursuits. I always wanted to work at a design consultancy. I just figured that engineering was an easier way to get in because it's less competitive. I left Hoberman for Thomas O'Brien because of the money, I could learn something new, and I always wanted to do furniture. I inherited the bug of collecting vintage Danish teak furniture from my Folks. And one summer I had a business with my brother building outdoor furniture in my Dad’s personal woodshop.
What was it like making the leap from toy design to furniture design for Target?
RV: Both used AutoCAD at the time, so I knew that. The main thing I brought to the table was 3D modeling and rendering. Please understand they were working in pencil and paper a couple years before because it was true to the vintage aesthetic. It reminds me of when my band recorded and mixed on tape... we wanted more control, so we went to digital for the next album.
The transition was tough, but any new job has a period of acclimation. I thought the job was going to have more problem solving than was actually required. I wanted to figure out how to design things like IKEA, but we did not have contact with the manufacturer. We couldn’t control the quality if we couldn’t talk to the people that were building our designs. I left because of this, and I wanted something more innovative, more helpful.
Do you have any advice for other designers who face instability in their employment?
RV: Attitude is everything. Stay positive with the work you are doing, and the work of the people around you. Compliment and encourage instead of criticize. Hype up your enthusiasm, and the rest will follow. So many designers think it is cool to hate. This is a downward spiral. If I were the boss, I would let the complainers go because they are holding back morale. Be patient; a lot can change in a year within an organization.
Go with your gut, and never settle. If you leave, then certainly don’t burn any bridges. Who you know is just as important as what you know. Leaving takes courage, and this confidence is an important ingredient to success.
What did you do to win over the folks at Smart Design when you interviewed there?
RV: I made a web portfolio with an interactive animation of the wacky toys I worked on at Hoberman. There wasn’t an immediate need for me there. When their biggest client, OXO, had trouble finding an engineer, they asked Smart for a recommendation, and they thought I would be a good fit. It’s just so hard to find an engineer in NYC that cares about design, and has experience manufacturing with plastic and steel. It's like being a cobbler. There is a low supply of people with these skills and a low demand. Most people get shoes so cheaply that are made overseas that they just buy new ones when theirs wear out.
How did Interaction/service design become the next logical step for you after OXO?
RV: I got interested in interaction because I realized how many physical products smart phones and tablets have replaced. One device is a phone, clock, computer, calculator, GPS, Walkman, TV, video game console, and a library of books. Soon it will be your wallet, and who knows what’s next. And if you get a job designing phones or TVs it is hard to do anything better than a rectangle that is as thin as what we have reached with today’s technology. How long before they are just a sheet of glass like they are in Minority Report? Where will the industrial designer be then, let alone the mechanical engineer that is supporting them?
So when an Apple recruiter called me for a mechanical engineering position in the iPhone group, I said, “Oh my god, this is the last company that is still making innovative physical things.” If the phone interview went well, they would give you a test to redesign a mechanism for a battery door. They liked mine and I flew out there. (Fun fact, all their conference rooms are named after top gun characters, and they run CAD on Windows.)
Look at the machine age, harnessing power with steam coal and steel... this gave birth to the industrial revolution. At this time there was a huge need for designers to rethink the way things were made. There is a different revolution going on now, a digital revolution. It is changing the way people work and interact everyday.
Today the potential for impact and innovation in the virtual realm is so much greater than the physical one, and so is the need for designers.
I knew I had an offer from Fjord coming, and I wanted to switch to interaction design because it is what makes Apple really stand out in my mind. Interaction is dealing with problems that are so new. It’s not, “reinvent the wheel” as much as product design.
The value of design thinking in our society has shifted over the last hundred years from product design to interaction design, from analog to digital, from atoms to bits, from goods to services... There is just as much crap IXD stuff out there as there are made-for-TV type products, so I wanted to stay true to doing something that helped people, and Service Design with Fjord seemed like a good fit for that.
What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
RV: It’s funny because I found an email from about 10 years ago when I was in between jobs with Hoberman. Someone had reached out to me for an IXD job then, and I said “no, I need to stick with what I studied in school.” So don’t limit yourself. 15 years ago, I would have told myself to follow what industries are driving growth.
Do you have any design heroes?
RV: I have a different definition of what a “designer” does compared to what most “designers” do. If you talk about an OXO product that I have worked on, I have never been the “designer”, but everything I am doing is giving input on the engineering design, the design for manufacturing, the design for assembly, the structural design, etc. I consider great designers to be people like Henry Ford, who created an assembly line to make cars affordable for everyone.
To date, what's been the most commercially successful project you've worked on?
RV: I believe it’s the OXO Sprout High Chair, although the Tea Ball is a close 2nd.
To date, what's been the most personally gratifying project you've worked on?
RV: Commercial success does help to make a project more rewarding. In the middle of it you don’t know if it is going to be a hit or not. The tea ball almost got killed several times before production. There are some projects, like the phone plug-in charging shelf, that were a lot of fun at the time, and patentable, but when they get discontinued it hurts.
I used to spend about a month a year in China. When I was in Shanghai on the Bund, I saw a knockoff toy of the Hoberman Switch Pitch that I worked on. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Where do you find your design inspiration?
RV: I look at the competitors.I look at older/vintage things. I test them out, and when I find something that is really terrible, then it is a blessing because I know I can make something better. If I find something I like I try to incorporate that in to what I am working on.
Now with digital things, I find a lot of inspiration from the physical world. For example, Donald Norman wrote about these glass hotel doors with a straight handle across their entire width. You don’t know if you should push, or pull, or which side the hinge is on. Changing the doorknob shape and location can help prevent a huge pile up of people in a public space. So when you are designing an app or a website that has tens of thousands of visitors a day, then you need to make it clear where they should click. If they mess up it slows all Internet traffic down and it wastes their time and their mood.
Problems in the digital world are more frustrating because they are more opaque, they don’t respond immediately, you have to wait for things to load if you want to redo it again and again. Things freeze up, and you feel alone more often, it’s harder to ask for help. How often do you feel like hitting your computer? Is it more often than you feel like hitting your chair?
Do you have any habits or routines that keep you energized and productive?
RV: I like to listen to music, and instrumental music at that. If it has lyrics, then I get too distracted. Lately I have been trying to listen to stuff that I did when I was in school, because I forced myself into a situation where I am learning a lot again. Steve Jobs said something like if you aren’t busy being reborn, then you are busy dying.
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