Interview Series – Meet Jason Cooper, Senior Designer

In this new blog feature, we will be interviewing members of the Essential team so you can get to know us better.

You grew up working in your father’s auto body shop. What about that experience drew you to industrial design, rather than another related field?

Every summer since I was ten, I worked alongside my dad painting and modifying cars, boats, motorcycles and jet skis. I learned a lot about colors, materials and finishes, which plays a huge part in what I do today as designer.  Along with aesthetics, I was continuously solving problems by building and repairing components. I enjoyed this experience and developed certain skills from it, so I thought I would major in mechanical engineering. But, it was not meant to be. The first year of college, I fell behind in my work. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was studying graphic design and she helped me to realize that there were many areas of design to consider.  I enrolled at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but after a year and half, I transferred to the Cleveland Institute of Art where they had a stronger Industrial Design program.  It certainly wasn’t an easy and direct path to my profession but as the saying goes, “It’s about the journey not the destination”. 

If you could choose one project that had the most profound effect on you what would it be?

Within my personal life, it has to be building my classic Chevrolet Pickup from the ground up. It took a grueling nine years to complete and I worked on it up until the day I drove 500 miles to Boston to begin work at Essential. Once I finally got it on the road, it gave me a real sense of accomplishment. 

As for my professional career, the first project I saw to market was huge for me. This was the Lexicon I-ONIX Desktop Recording series, which I am still very proud of. I can still remember that “A-ha!” moment when we finally realized what that one thing was that this product could do differently to stand out among the rest. Paying particular attention to the product context and user interactions led to the award winning design. That was four years ago now and the design still holds strong. 

Since you’ve begun your career as an industrial designer, what have you noticed about industry trends or shifts in the way things are done?

A lot has changed in just six years. Resolution and the pace at which we work come to mind. When I first started, there was more emphasis on high resolution sketching in Photoshop and Illustrator. Now we’re quicker to move into SolidWorks where we can be more accurate. This also allows us to seamlessly work with engineering early on in a project, since we both "speak the same language".

One of your recent projects, the iRobot Roomba 700 Series has been getting a lot of attention.  Not only is it one of the bestselling vacuums in Japan, but it’s also receiving accolades from world-renowned design competitions such as Excellence in Design and Red Dot. How did you and the team approach this project?

Our goal for this project was to give the next generation Roomba a classic look with the use-environment in mind.  Roomba was the pioneer in robotic floor cleaning and this long heritage meant Roomba had to communicate a thoughtful confidence. While the vacuum is a tool, it’s one that you don’t hide in a cabinet or the basement. We found that it's something of pride, to be displayed even though it’s not in use when guests are around, similar to kitchen appliances. Those that are successful stay on the market for a long time.  A good example is the Oster Beehive. It’s the iconic blender they had in diners in the 1950’s. It’s been sold virtually unchanged since then and it’s still as loved now as it was then. 

The success in Japan isn’t really a surprise. We approached the project with that specific market in mind. We developed aspirational personas by looking at other products, living spaces, color pallets and came to conclusions to what were the common threads. We also gleaned inspiration from successful designers in that region, like Chiaki Murata and Naoto Fukasawa.

A big part of the project involved designing for flexibility, so that the most product SKUs could be made with most shared parts. This also meant designing with future refreshes and in mind. As the product features and technology advance, which mostly effects what you don't see, the skins need to portray that change.  We broke the surface up into enough meaningful segments to facilitate greater possibilities for painted color and finish differentiation.  

A design that sells well, looks great, sticks around and makes our clients happy – that’s a win, win, win, win. When you look at successful products, the ones that have longevity are the ones that stick to the point. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Where do you go for inspiration?  

Everywhere.  I have my laundry list of blogs that I track on a daily basis. Finding inspiration now is better than ever. My favorite blog is Notcot. I’ve been tracking that for a few years now and I still think it has the best mix of art, design, architecture, and technology.  Flea markets and dumpster diving are also key. I’m constantly scanning the sidewalks on my commute to work every day. I take quick snapshots of inspiring things I see throughout the day and keep them stored on my phone so I can reference them anytime.

Lately, I’ve been finding inspiration in other designers. Recently, I created a group called “Make Stuff” and we do just that.  Once a month we congregate with a process or material theme. Last month, it was concrete and we created everything from candle holders, planters, stools and even fire pit. Through these projects, we are pushing ourselves to experiment with new materials and techniques beyond what we would normally work with. This group is also unique in that it allows us to be both the designer and manufacturer.