Interface Trends Going Mainstream

All of the product launch seasons are fun for designers, not so much for the big announcements, but to see which early-stage trends are moving to the mainstream. Recently, we have seen a shift in the cutting edge of interaction design; moving interactions off the touchscreen and into the behavior of the product itself.

In some circles, this is hardly new. MIT, CMU, and other universities have been hotbeds of haptic interface and ambient informatics work for the past ten or fifteen years. But this tangible, behavioral interface has been slow to reach the mainstream.

So while our cold-numbed fingers will definitely appreciate using the Nokia Lumia 920's new sensitive touchscreen from the comfort of thick winter gloves, we are especially jazzed by the JBL PowerUp speakers that launched more quietly alongside. The casual seamlessness of dropping your phone onto a charging pad, of tapping a speaker to shift the sound stream to it, is exactly the sort of natural interface that we see people primed to expect. A latent need waiting to be expressed.

The technology impresses us by working invisibly, seamlessly. This effect is not easy to accomplish. It requires talented designers and engineers collaborating closely and treating the physical and digital sides of the product as an integrated whole. Nicely done.


Anthropology is The Worst College Major: A Rebuttal

[photo credit: toothpaste for dinner comic]

I follow a few online resources geared toward anthropologists. The Yahoo group Anthrodesign is an energetic email list with academics and applieds alike, asking real world questions, making global connections, and sharing stories. I also like to read a Collection by Fran Barone called anthro, which is probably the only reason why I might consider calling myself a "blog reader."

About a year ago, the big story in anthropology was the debate of its standing as a science. More recently, the big issue is whether or not anthropology deserves the number one spot for worst college major for your career. Kiplinger's recent slideshow (glitchy, ugly, difficult to navigate, ergo not worth the time I will actually spend to scrutinize) confidently states in its accompanying blurb that "[i]f foreign cultures are your thing, a major in international relations promises both a higher salary and lower unemployment rate."

One dimensional, uninformed, and clearly only using success metrics from websites like to find all the world's anthropologists and pay scales, I decided to add to the plethora of rebuttals out there (this is my favorite) with my take on why I find anthropology to be one of the best college majors for one's career. Below are my top 3:

  1. Anthropology taught me how to write. While some students in college took test after test, I was writing essay after essay. As a biological anthropology major, many of my exams were lab practicals sifting through bone fragments. Rather than selecting a multiple choice response to what I was seeing, these practicals were accompanied by essay writing: describing what I see and interpreting what might be happening or what might have been. These writing skills have been fundamental in my career because I must clearly communicate my thoughts and tell compelling stories.
  2. Talking to people is second nature. I don't feel anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness when I speak to people. I have found this to be particularly useful when presenting my work to a room full of people who should know more about what I am saying than I do. This skill has also been useful in my work, the cornerstone of which consists of talking to people.
  3. I didn't need to become an anthropologist. In my introduction to cultural anthropology course, one of the teacher's assistants proudly declared that in order to find a job as an anthropologist (e.g.. in academics), someone would have to die. It took me a while to reconcile this fact: I was studying toward a seemingly non-lucrative career, yet it was a field I truly loved. I know physicians, economists, musicians, chefs, film directors, and even real-life anthropologists.

Kiplinger's snapshot analyses is not only inaccurate but borders on irresponsible. Take a peek at some of the other college majors deemed worst for your career. In my opinion, those considered the worst teach critical thinking, require bravery and a bit of risk to pursue (all admirable qualitites in the workforce), as well as spark innovation, and new ways of problem solving. Maybe those are success criteria by which we should be examining college majors.



Hello Boston, Hello IDSA, Hello Essential

We are excited for one of design’s most anticipated events to come to Boston. The IDSA International Conference, running from August 15th through the 18th, will be held at the Westin Waterfront. With speakers ranging from Futurist Syd Mead to the original digital artist Laurence Gartel, this year's theme of "future" in design spans education, sustainability and social impact, medical and technology.

The last time the IDSA Conference came to Boston was 2001 and we're excited to show off what’s been happening here since then. The Big Dig was finally finished, creating an urban landscape fit for a metropolitan area like Boston. The Institute of Contemporary Art has moved to the waterfront, which has helped to revitalize the area, inspire and awe residents and tourists alike. The design community has changed significantly and we’re excited to share it with you by hosting open studio tours across the city.

We look forward to seeing you at the conference and welcoming you to Essential at this year’s IDSA open studio for a fun night of hanging out and catching up. Please join us on Friday, August 17th from 4:30 to 8:30pm.




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.


Design for Rock Stars


For the last decade, we have been collaborating with one of America’s biggest brands in the music Industry – Shure. If you’ve never played in a band, you might not be familiar with the name, but you have definitely seen their products on TV and in some of the biggest live events, such as the Super Bowl halftime show and the GRAMMY awards.

I was introduced to Shure about 17 years ago, when the harmonica/lead guitarist of our college band brought a Shure “Green Bullet” to practice.  Having just started design school, I was impressed by the solid construction and the timeless design. Little did I know just how involved I’d get a few years later.

At Essential, we have worked on numerous Shure products and continue to build a great relationship designing for the demands of on-stage use. Unlike consumer electronics, these products are designed to withstand the extreme rigors of world tours, ensuring top performance quality and long-term reliability. While such exacting standards impose a lot of technical and design challenges during development, they also yield great results. One example in particular is the AXIENT Wireless Microphone System, which was just awarded a Silver for Commercial and Industrial Products from the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA).

Since the 1980’s, the Industrial Designer’s Society of America has been recognizing some of the greatest design achievements with the IDEA awards.  This year’s impressive jury, including design honchos  from companies such as Nokia, GE Healthcare and Procter and Gamble, deliberated over top designs in categories ranging from service design to medical products.

As the most sophisticated microphone system to-date and the only system on the market that guarantees an absolute interference-free performance, Axient was a great contender in the Commercial and Industrial Products category.  The world of wireless communication is changing quickly. Frequency bands formerly used for analog TV broadcasts are now open to any number of devices that may interfere with wireless microphone systems operating in those bands. New solutions are needed to remain reliable no matter how crowded the airwaves, especially high profile live events. Without getting too much into the technical details, the Axient system works by constantly scanning the RF (radio frequency) environment and automatically switching frequencies should any other device start transmitting on or close to an operating frequency. This gives the artist and the sound engineer the assurance of an uninterrupted live event. 

While years of new technology development were necessary in order for Shure to produce such a groundbreaking new offer, integrating the new capabilities with equally innovative design solutions was just as critical to Axient’s success.  Working closely with Shure’s cross-functional teams, our collaboration resulted in great new designs that are significantly more capable, longer running, and more sustainable (due to the integration of high-capacity re-chargeable Li-Ion batteries), all in products that are similar in size, or in some cases even smaller than their less capable predecessors. The external forms of the microphone and the body pack transmitter convey a sense of rugged precision in a simple and timeless way. This was an important element of the project since it is common for an artist to use their gear for more than ten years.

But perhaps the most fun part about designing this type of professional gear is in knowing that some of your favorite artists will appreciate it and perform with it for the enjoyment of all fans. So the next time you’re at a concert or watching a live performance on TV, keep your eyes peeled for Shure audio products. You can also see Shure Axient and all the other IDEA winners on display at the 2012 IDSA International Conference in Boston or at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan starting in September.

Images courtesy of Shure



Sustainability at Retail

Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact our purchases have on the global landscape. This not only applies to the economic effects, but also to the environmental. I want the brands I endorse and love to source materials ethically and consider their impact on our planet.  It made me really happy to hear about how one fashion house is doing just that.

From shoes to sunglasses to packaging, Gucci is rethinking its design process to incorporate recycled materials. Just a couple weeks ago, the company announced a new line of biodegradable men's and women's shoes designed by Gucci Creative Director, Frida Giannini. While Gucci began to integrate sustainability into their design with a line of biodegradable sunglasses, other designers, like Stella McCartney, have made eco-friendly design a core part of their brand mantra.

It’s nice to see luxury brands embrace a greener design while maintaining the quality standards they are known for.  The best part of all is that as sustainable design becomes more common at the higher-end of fashion design, it will indubitably trickle down into more mainstream retail channels.


Embracing Complexity

I recently had the opportunity to author, along with Scott Stropkay, an article for the DMI Review about a topic we encounter so frequently that it seems like second nature: complexity. It's a very broad subject, but the challenge of writing about it forced us to think about how we handle the sources and effects of complexity in our work. Being immersed in so many dimensions of healthcare, we found it natural to combine the two.

By writing the article we became more acutely aware of the "role" that complexity plays in our thinking and work. Where one would expect us to minimize or simplify complexity, everyone in our studio takes an opposite position and embraces complexity as an opportunity.

This represents a philosophical position with which I'm sure many would disagree. But by embracing complexity, and sometimes even expanding on it, we create a "secret sauce" that yields the richest solutions. And in a field as fraught with complexity as healthcare, where managing one's health is increasingly becoming one's personal responsibility, we as designers can consequently create rich experiences for everyone.

You can read the full article here.

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