MX | part 1 | First Experiences

The follow is a high level overview my design experiences over the past 2 decades:  I hope you find some amusement here in this 4 part series – My Experiences [MX]


This design career of mine started when a friend of mine at Occidental College took me to Art Center College of Design (ACCD). After that day, nothing would ever be the same. The clouds parted, I saw the “light,” on the spot I committed myself to the religion of design. Art Center was like the “Island of the Misfit Toys” – I finally found a place where I misfit in. I studied Transportation design, ended up graduating with honors, and to this day, those three and a half years I was there were some of the best times of my life.


General Motors, Detroit, was my first job right out of Art Center. As all young designers do upon entering GM, I spent my first year making my rounds through the studios: first Advance Interiors, then Cadillac, next Chevy Interiors, and last Trucks. My final assignment was Advanced 1 Studio, and as you would expect we did advanced concept show car stuff there. But that didn’t last long. Soon after I joined we shifted focus to the production design an experimental car called the Impact (worse name ever for a car). Later it was know as the EV-1 electric car – the first of its kind for mass production. It was on this program that I started to pick up Alias (the high end 3D modeling software used throughout the auto industry for curvaceous form development).

Before long I was also being trained in DFM and DMA (design for manufacturing and assemble) and was one of the first few designers at GM to do Production Design and Surface Engineering. Here I got the chance to pioneer the use of SLA rapid prototyping (Stereolithography or 3D printing). I would grow my 3D models in a vat of toxic liquid with a laser, “printing” one layer at a time. It was a great time – the rules had not be set yet, and I was doing the work of clay modelers, engineers, and CAD draftsmen (which was under strict union controls) as a designer. I got to be a one man show because no one really cared that much about the EV-1, and I loved it. I was getting so much done that within 6 months I had designed, modeled and release much of the EV-1 interior components, and some of the exterior details (like the road wheels – lightest production wheels at GM at that time, weighing in at 3.7 kilograms). Little did I know that this was going to be the kingpin of my career here forward. And it wasn’t long before the epiphany hit me: I could start my own company and do this outside of GM…   So I did.



I decided to set up shop in San Francisco, the Mecca of product development and entrepreneurship, but before I could get there I did a brief stint at Alias in Toronto: helping to refine, test, and launch their AutoStudio software (designed for the automotive market – you guessed it). In hindsight, this was my finishing school in 3D modeling technology, and my step User Experience (UX). There I worked directly with the programing team to craft the Car Designer experience, helping to get the software to think and act more like a designer would. I also learned an enormous amount the mathematics at the core of 3D modeling, which gave me great insights as to how 3D worked (and sometimes didn’t work). This in turn helped me to understand how to manipulate NURBs mathematics (Non-Uniform Rational B-splines) at a more intimate level. You could say that this was my “red pill” moment, and after entering this “real” world of the mathematical Matrix – I could not return.


As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book “Outliers” – I was at the crux of a “combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.” Only with 20/20 hindsight can I see the luck, timing, and extraordinary circumstances which had conspired around me. First was the hardware technology: SGI had just released their Indigo computer, which was deemed the first desktop Unix Workstation (it was 25% of the cost of the small refrigerator sized SGI machines I worked on at GM). This put the hardware within my reach. Second was software: At end of my short time at Alias, I got the chance to travel to Europe with Brian Allum, VP of sales, to visit Renault and BMW to trouble shooting modeling problems they were having with Alias (which was keeping them from buying more seats).  My approach to modeling was very different, but the solution to many of their problems. Both Renault and BMW wanted me to come back to instruct them on my methodology. So Brian, being the consummate salesman, bundled “me” up with their new sales package of Alias seats. On the plane ride back he made me the proposition: trade my time for the new AutoStudio seat. In the next year, I spent 12 weeks abroad – visiting, demonstrating, and training in car design studios all over Europe and Asia. These opportunities, along with my experiences at GM, my design degree from Art Center, all helped me launch Alchemy – my first design firm set up in a SOMA loft, San Francisco. In the next 3 years, I got my “magic 10,000 hours.” I worked on Alias 6+ days a week, worked 10-14 hours a day, often pulling all nighters to meet my deadlines. Most of my friends though I was crazy, but I loved it.

Alchemy’s unique position was founded on the belief that “transforming ideas into reality,” from concept through production, best lies in the hands of its creator. Digital 3D modeling with Alias made this possible for me. I got to practice my craft with a wide range of clients: eyewear and watches for Nike, toys for Oddzon, Pagers for Motorola, Printers for HP, DVR’s for TiVo, virtual web products for Macromedia, characters for Pixar, snowboard boots and bindings for Vans and Switch, chairs for Steelcase. future visions for Sony, computers for SGI, and advanced visualization for BMWG-work_NIKE_TARJ

One of our biggest and longest running clients was Nike, working for them for over 14 years. We helped to launch and develop their complete eyeware line of products. We also did lots of watches, some googles, and a fair amount of future forecast conceptual work as well. Nike’s #1 selling pair of eyeware was Tarj (seen above). This design, along with over 22 others we designed in addition, helped Nike go from zero to be the #2 player in the sunglass market (behind only Oakley), in less than 7 years. Tarj was the result of a mash up of design concepts from Mark Eastwood (founder of Pixe and now Senior CAD Designer at Bell Sports) and myself, and Mark finished the production modeling for this best seller. Mark and I went to Art Center together, and he joined Alchemy as a partner and senior designer in the company (I hate to admit how many “all nighters” we pulled together over the years).


The Interchange lens concept was our most innovative achievement with Nike. Alchemy drove the development of almost the entire Interchange family line (which ended up included 6 different models). The concept itself was a patented 3 point lens entrapment system, allowed the user to easily swap lenses in and out of their frames. This ended up being Nike’s biggest differentiator in the eyeware marketplace, selling millions of pairs. Critical to our design efforts was the best little model shop in SF – Widget Works, run by Deniz Daldal (now at Design Interaction). They finished countless models for us that were indistinguishable from real products, executing them with the eye that only another Art Center grad could (Deniz and I were classmates as well). They were especially adept at finishing the SLA parts we would grow from our 3D Alias databases. They were also masters at casting small rubber parts, like nose bridges and temple tips, adding that last bit of material realism. These prototypes were used to test aesthetic appeal, as well as fit and finish with customers and athletes.


Above is the “magic sketch” created by Bruce Holcomb (now VFX model supervisor at ILM). This design was later called simply Interchange Square and was my personal favorite design pair of eyewear we ever did. It along with the Interchange Round were two of the top 3 selling designs for Nike.


Our design expertise with digital 3D modeling was our leading edge, and it kept us in the drivers seat for many of our clients. Once tasted our process was addicting (taking concept through production with absolute aesthetic acuity – just as I started at GM). Our ability to be the designer and the production engineer, executing the actual manufacturing surfaces, is a powerful thing. Controlling the inevitable compromises that have to be made for tooling or cost reasons, knowing where to make them and where to hold fast is key – true to our founding belief, the designer is best qualified to make those calls. We also quickly became quick experts in human factors, polishing the fit of each pair of glasses on the face and head (“fit for fitness”), and ended up developing many patented ergonomic details that became part of Nike’s signature designs.



We also ended up doing watches for Nike. We provided production engineering as well as new design concepts. The trick with these watches was often putting 10 pounds of technology into a 5 pound design. This was especially true with the Altimeter (pictured on top). Designed by Ed Boyd (currently VP of Design at Dell), this watch was jammed full of tech (compass, altimeter, sophisticated altitude alarms, etc.), and to keep it from looking like a ton of bricks was a huge achievement.  These watches were multi-shot (hard plastics, soft rubber) metal hybrids – heavy with functionality, they still wanting to be the lightest and most comfortable sports watches around. The watch on the bottom was the women’s Metal Running design.


Alchemy also worked on several future concept projects for Nike – projects that forecasted new technologies and how they would be built into tomorrow’s shoes, watches, even fabrics themselves. Its interesting to look back and see which of our predictions have come to pass, and which are still far off. Most of these projects took the form of video mash-ups: consisting of doctored digital photography, 3D animations, and motion graphic compositions. The video project above for Ray Riley, who lead Timing & Vision at Nike (currently Design Studio GM at Microsoft), was a collaboration between several San Francisco ID firms (all located a few miles from each other in SOMA): Pentagram, Astro, and Alchemy all participated, with each firm contributed their own future perspectives. We then collected all the digital artwork and 3D models, composed a coherent story, produced motion graphics to music and voice over, then rendered the final movie. Although we didn’t know it at the time (this was years before the iPod, smart phones, apps, and before GPS and accelerometers were common place), we were foretelling (and inspiring) the coming of the Nike+ product line specifically, and generally the coming age of mobile computing we are steeped in now.


In his days as an alchemist, Matt Rhoades (now a Design Lead at Nike) designed several high-end carbon Ouzo road racing forks for Reynolds Aluminum (ironic given the company’s name).  Matt drew from his experience and connections at Trek (where he also design the carbon Y-bike). These forks were some of the lightest and strongest carbon forks on the market at that time due to their advanced vacuum packing manufacturing, which resulting excellent micro bubble elimination, while utilizing the minimum amount of resin necessary.G-work_SWITCH

Outdoor sports equipment seemed to be in our blood. Switch was the brain child of Jeff Sand (arguably the best snowboard step-in binding system invented). We were fortunate to collaborate with him on his second generation binding. The Switch system was such a success later Vans bought the company. But as often happens when small companies get swallow up by big ones, the step in line didn’t survive long-term in the corporate environment at Vans. Still a consummate entrepreneurial at heart, we have collaborated with Jeff on many projects since then. He continues to develop innovative products and companies. Check out his latest: the amazing electric motorcycle company BRD.


Our agile size and flexibility allowed us to be cost effectively for small companies as well. We have enjoyed helping start-ups get off the ground, sharing our vast development experience, while taking their ideas to market in the fastest pace possible. Aquafly was just such a company. They wanted to create high-end fly fishing equipment that matched nicely with the carbon rods and precision reels. Given our propensity to design outdoor sports equipment and our experience with manufacturing carbon parts – we were a perfect match. First was an innovative fly box – we developed an hermaphoditic hinge that made it possible for this Aquafly Box to utilize the same part, top and bottom (making it both clever and cost effective). It is held together with a center pinned interleaf – foam inserts on both sides which were sculpted like “rippling water,” acted both as substrate to hook flies into as well as forming a water tight seal for the entire enclosure (allowing it to float if dropped accidentally). We followed up with a carbon fiber fishing net – naturally ultra-light weight, its looping C-shaped tubular frame made it easy to assemble and replace nets (which was a huge improvement over the standard “hand stitched” wooden frame nets). G-work_ODDSON

Oddson, the company that brought you the Koosh Ball, had licensed a technology that was originally invented for military “flying” grenades. Its aero-dynamic cylindrical rings, when spun and launched at the proper velocity, would glide effortlessly (until stall). The idea was to use rubber for the rings and design a launching device for this unique flying tech; which would fly flat, seemingly in slow motion, sailing for more that 50 feet. The entire office sketched in the first concept phases, but the alchemist on the project production end was Christopher Robin (now digital sculptor at Apple). His initial exploration inspired by aqua-dynamic forms, steered us in a submarine visual direction. This theme emphasized the “gliding” nature of the tech, and in the end we even incorporated “Jules Verne” like assembly bosses to finish out the FireStorm’s retro-aquatic details.


The product did very well selling out at Toys-R-Us, and soon became a cult-classic in some of the special effects studios around the bay area. Here seen is a tribute from the animators at Tippett Studio – awarding to Colin Epstein for the being the most ruthless FireStormer in the frequent studio wide battles at Tippett.G-work_PIXAR

It is not common place to be a part of film making history, but we were fortunately enough to do so. One day, I got a call from a small studio I never heard of called Pixar. They said they were working on a digital movie and needed some help to finish all their 3D models before their upcoming deadline. It sounded quite interesting, and so Mark Eastwood and I headed over to their facility in Point Richmond. There I found myself walking down the dark industrial park hallways to meet with Rick Sayre and some of the top modeling crew at Pixar to discuss the project at hand. He again confessed that they were up against a tight deadline and that they needed stuff done as fast as possible. He presented some hand sketches of a toy pterodactyl and a Janie doll (who were to be pulled apart and combined into a Mutant Toy). After asking me if we could get them back to them the following week, I replied that I could have them done by the end of that week. Although in disbelief, he gave us the go ahead. Upon my return that Friday we met with the same team to review the work, but this time including John Lasseter. The review went very well, and with one small tweak to the pterodactyl’s feet, we were soon moving on to helping build some of the human characters (like Hannah and the baby sister of Andy, Molly, and a host of supportive kids on the block). This was a bit of a surprise, given they said only one guy at the time did all of Pixar’s humans (and they would not farm out such work). It was great fun, and I even got to spend a week working at their studios to make sure the deadline was hit. We really didn’t realize it at the time, and only at the Pixar premier for Toy Story did it really sink in – We got to work on the very first full length animated feature film (we were even more surprised to be listed in the movie credits).



The Organics hand mixer was an in-house design study for kitchen housewares by, an Alchemy intern at the time, Caroline Flagiello (currently Creative Director at IDEO). It was a very friendly botanical inspired form, made to fit your hand naturally and comfortably. Its central chassis was rubber, and it would turn on with a simple squeeze  –the more you squeezed the faster it would go. It was also cordless, charging inductively on its equally botanical inspired base. The purpose of the project was to develop a show piece, a project unfettered by client realities, to demonstrate our complete design process. We took it all the way to a full working prototype of the design, and it won a bronze design award from the IDSA that year.



Our Zell Chair was a collaborative venture with David Hodge (founder Hodge Arts). It explored the market space between the expensive task chairs (like the Aeron Chair starting at $625) and the standard side chair (starting around $100). We wanted a stylish and adjustable ergonomic chair that would hit the market around $350. We got our compliance from the clever use of our cylindrical leaf spring, our natural beauty from molded plywood back and seat pan, and our economy from hydro-formed steel legs and framing. Finally comfort came for the modular seat and lumbar padding that “press-fit” into slots cut into the plywood shells. These pads (along with rear wheels) were the chair’s only options besides color. Steelcase was very interested in licensing the Zell, and project was evaluated in-house engineer and cost analysis, but in the end the deal did not see the light of day…


Everything happens for a reason. This exposure allowed us to get to know David quite well, and to pursue more collaborative design projects with him (including his stint at Lunar design), such as projects for Steelcase.


Another collaboration we did with David later on was for an innovative digital projection chip company called Digital Reflection. Revolutionary at the time, DRI’s technology could deliver HD resolution at one quarter the price of Plasma screens of the day. We set out to do 2 things for DRI: 1] help them tell the story of their technology (which they hoped to license); and 2] show off the design opportunities afforded with this new projection chip set. We ended up producing a video illustrating their core technologies – demonstrating the design benefits of light weight, Ikea-like, flat shipped HDTVs (such systems could even fold up when not in use).  Play > DRI_Video  DRI was definitely on the right path, but HP got their DLP technology out faster than DRI did. So it goes in Silicon Valley. G-work_TIVO_CONCEPTS


TiVo was another unique client with a particular need. They invented the DVR (digital video recorder) and wanted a set top device that was as friendly and as easy to use as their service. At the time, all video recorders (VHS) decks were black Darth Vader monstrosities, with hundreds of buttons, features, and red “ever flashing” digital clocks. We proposed a design matching the same cute attitude as their iconic Logo character, with only a few essential buttons. The big change, we wanted it to be light silver – standing out form the showroom wall of black VCRs. Now this was a radical notion, years before the silver titanium Apple Powerbooks and iMacs – not making a black box was heresy at the time. So to prove our point, we took real pictures of the “wall of VCR’s” at Good Guys and digitally rendered our new silver designs in-context. Well it did the trick, and a friendly recording device was born.




The SGI O2 was a collaboration with Lunar design (at the time Yves behar, founder of Fuseproject, was part of the Lunar side of the equation). The original pitch was they should work with a team that used their products to “design” (up until then IDEO did most of the ID work, and ironically used Vellum CAD on Macs) – we were the designers that used SGI, lunar were the engineers on the SGI platform.  Our combined efforts led to the round, friendly, yet sophisticated form language of this computer (you must also remember this predates the first iMacs by over 2 years), sending the message that the O2 was arguably the friendliest Unix workstation every made. This entry level machine nicknamed “the toaster” was powerful beast for its size – offering the cutting edge 3D graphics SGI was known for at “nearly” desktop prices (this meant $10k in 1996). At the time, SGI machines were the only computers that we could run Alias software (and many of these workstations we ran at Alchemy cost over $50k each, and we had 6 of them). This was an exciting program for us, at all levels. The O2 ended up being SGI’s the one and only “low cost” workstation they produced – the company soon lost its edge to the on-slot of cheep & powerful PC’s from Dell and HP. Their slow and reluctant movement to the PC platform ended up being their demise (ironically many of the smartest engineers left SGI to form Nvidia, the leader the 3D graphics industry today).


Quicksilver had an novel angle for chip technology designed for the mobile market. They were developing a read/writable silicon wafer that behaved more like RAM than CPU. The idea was this CPU chip would configure its layout “on the fly” to optimize its performance and energy usage for the given task at hand. Like DRI, they needed designs that would illustrate the potential with there technology and tell their story at the same time. We choose a very iconic usage metaphor for this purpose. The mobile phone race at that time was all about size and not about anything other that making a call – “flip” phones like the communicator on Star Trek were all the rage. Alchemist Kris Tomasson, another fellow Art Center grad who I originally met at BMW (currently Global Design Director at The Coca-Cola Company), leveraged the Swiss Army knife imagery to tell this story. As a precursor to the App concept, each blade of this mobile computing device had its own function – “flipping” each out loaded the specific CPU configuration for that specific function, mercurially adapting and optimizing on the fly. Looking back, this idea was a hardware version of Apps – 8 years before its time.


Also a bit ahead of its time, was our first attempt at an interactive virtual product. I knew Rob Burgess, CEO of Macromedia, from his days running Alias|Wavefront (before it was sold to SGI). He came to us looking for a game player, downloader, and content management system for the new Flash based games that were coming out at the time. He wanted a central server for deliver and play in one. He had already been to several of the interaction design studios (frogdesign included) but wasn’t getting what he was looking for – he wanted something that felt “real.” We gave it to him – a product experience. The user would select form online games served up from a virtual carousel, and the player would load the chosen game into a cartridge slot just behind the embossed aluminum control buttons. It also had search capabilities, and a way to mark “favorites.” The product was finished right before he sold Macromedia to Adobe.

* Rob shared an interesting story some time after that. Steve Jobs was visiting Macromedia, and Rob showed him the new Flash Game Player we had designed. As Rob told it, Steve was very excited by the ideas, and especially liked the “real” feeling of the virtual aluminum product. A year or so later Apple’s first QuickTime player debuted with its brushed aluminum appearance. Now I’m not saying our Flash Player device was some kind of inspiration here, nor am I saying that the “cover flow” interaction concept came from us either… but for anyone who has known or read anything about Steve, he never had a problem “borrowing” ideas he liked. That being playfully said, this is also what makes Silicon Valley so vibrant: Ideas do get passed around, redesigned and reinvented, often ending up better in the second iteration than in the first. Its almost impossible to get anything right the first time. 

 >> go to part 2: Becoming Amphibious

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