What Is the Future of Industrial Design with Tim Rundle
This episode features Tim Rundle, a London-based industrial designer. We cover topics such as the importance of finding the right clients, his failures and lessons learned, advice to young industrial designers, what makes a good contemporary product, and much more.
Tim Rundle is the founder of Tim Rundle Studio, a London based industrial design consultancy specializing in furniture and lighting design as well as interiors, installations and strategic consultancy. With experience across furniture, lighting, homeware, technology, and transport, the studio’s work is driven by context and has grown to focus on the design of products and systems that exist at the intersection between architecture and its inhabitants.
"Work hard to understand your craft with intense depth."
Tim graduated from the School of Architecture and Design at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He then began working for Auckland based consultancy Formworks Design where, among other projects, he worked on the concept for Air New Zealand’s groundbreaking seating systems ‘skycouch’ and ‘spaceseat.’ In 2008 he relocated to London and was employed by the design consultancy Priestmangoode. He then went on to work for renowned British designer Tom Dixon, where he was head designer of the furniture and lighting design team. Before setting up his own studio in 2015, Tim was the Design Director at Conran and Partners, the multidisciplinary design studio founded by Sir Terence Conran.
Alongside his studio, Tim runs Platform 23 – Design for Manufacture, on the prestigious Design Products Masters program at the Royal College of Art.
- Introduction [00:00]
- Episode Introduction [00:52]
- Advice to Young Designers [02:14]
- Routines of a Professional Industrial Designer [07:31]
- Main Challenges of Being an Industrial Designer Today [10:23]
- Making a Living As an Industrial Designer [13:51]
- The Best Investment [17:14]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [20:12]
- Development As a Creative Professional [21:04]
- The Importance of Finding the Right Clients [23:13]
- How to Make a Good Piece of Product Design Today [26:37]
- Mistakes and Lessons Learned [36:01]
- Advice for Being a Better Creative Professional [38:04]
- Episode Outro [40:31]
Tim: “Try as hard as you can and work really hard at understanding your crafts with intense depth.“
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, MENU, and Sonos.
Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: This episode is dedicated to industrial and product design.
Tim: Hi, I’m Tim Rundle. I’m an industrial designer. I’m originally from New Zealand, but I’m not based in London. I have my studio in Hackney Wick and East London. The projects the studio takes on mostly focused around products that exist with an architecture, so there’s a lot of furniture, lightning for brands like MENU, Resident, SP01 and also some more kind of typical product design projects for brands such as Joseph Joseph and a little bit of strategic consulting as well.
Mario: Tim’s practice is primarily focused on developing technically elegant solutions for everyday objects. With a minimalistic aesthetic approach and enabled by a passion and depth of understanding for materials and manufacturing technology. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting Tim in his studio in London while we were working on an editorial about his work for MENU, and that’s how we met.
Mario: I admired his designs even before that, but by spending some time in his studio, I realized how thoughtful and generous he is. So he was among the first people I wanted to talk to for this podcast. In this episode, we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Tim in September of 2018. We covered topics such as the importance of finding the right clients, his failures and lessons learned, advice to young industrial designers, what makes a good contemporary product and much more.
Alongside running his studio, Tim also teaches at the Royal College of Arts School of Design, which places him in a valuable position of being able to get early insight into young industry talent. Beside asking him what advice would he give a young person entering into this field, I was also curious to hear his thoughts on what are young designers today getting better at and getting worse at.
Tim: That’s a really good question. I could go on for quite a long time about this. Let’s start with the good news.
Tim: They’re getting so much better at learning new skills within technology. Industrial designers coming out of the design products master’s course. So many of them know how to program like Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s. They can code. They’re not just focused on hardware. They’ve got a really deep understanding of the digital side of design and they’re great at sort of jumping into these future-focused areas of design, like computational design, where you create basically calculations and algorithms within CAD software to create – Which adjusts your design to make it stronger, lighter, all suitable for manufacture and these sorts of things using programs like Grasshopper and then obviously 3D printing. So that kind of thing that these technologies that have ramped up so quickly even within the past 5 years. Students are great at jumping into those and teaching themselves these new skills.
Tim: On the flip side, what I see, they’re not so great at – or not so, I guess, keen to get into is making things with their hands. Getting in a workshop and actually testing things out. In reality you come across a lot of students who’ve come out of a undergraduate course are now into their masters. Design process will involve quickly modeling something up on the computer and then creating rendering after rendering after rendering of minor variations. That’s not really the way to get to understand an object. You’ve got to – If your computer screen is still 2D, really. You can’t touch it. You can’t handle it. If you’re creating a three dimensional object, you need to work in three dimensions and ideally at one-to-one scale. Quickly working with paper, cardboard, foam, these sorts of things and slowly into metal and wood as the design becomes more resolved then eventually into the real materials that the product will be made in.
Tim: I think there’s an opportunity for a real more of a melding of these two worlds of this very digitally driven design process, which is at the computer versus the kind of the workshop techniques of quick markup making test rigs prototyping, knowledge of design history.
Tim: Lots of young designers and students I guess are really good at knowing about what’s the latest thing on the scene. What was there this year at Milan? Without kind of understanding that all these design pieces and projects coming up don’t exist in isolation. They’re all part of historical timeline. They’re all a continuation of something before them. I think having a really strong understanding of design history can help designers to place their work and the work of others around them within that context.
Mario: Yeah. Kind of continuing down that path, what advice would you give to a young person who is entering into design?
Tim: I think the main thing right now these days would be to be flexible and open-minded about what design means right now as you’re working on it and what it could mean in the future. You might go into design school thinking you want to be a furniture designer or a car designer or design mobile devices and all of a sudden find you’re much more interested in robotics and AI and things like that.
Tim: If you’re an expert in those fields, it’s probably going to be a lot easier to get a job when you get out. So just being open-minded and flexible. Also, when you do come out or when you’re doing your internships, find jobs that aren’t just at the really cool studios whose portfolio of work you love, but find the ones where you’re going to learn as much as possible, smaller studios where you might get more responsibility and you might be able to get thrown into the deep end. Yeah, you’re going to need to be prepared to work really, really hard, because it is competitive.
Mario: Yeah. In your studio, do you have interns or do you offer internships or entry-level positions?
Tim: I normally work with other designers or assistants on a freelance basis. I kind of have this personal policy that’s not written down or anything that I wouldn’t offer an unpaid internship just because I think it’s unfair on young designers coming out who might not be in the position to be able to work for free.
Tim: So until I can offer paid internships, I tend to hire slightly more experienced, people with one to two years who can come into the studio and just get straight into things and they’ll be working with me on a freelance basis.
Mario: Yeah. What are you looking for in those people when you’re like hiring them or like screening their portfolio and CV and having an interview? What are some of the things that are like important to you?
Tim: An understanding of materials and manufacturing processes is a really big thing. Not just being able to imagine a beautiful new thing, but to understand how it actually goes together and to be able to design things appropriate to their materials, appropriate to how they’re made, appropriate to how they use. So those kind of practical skills are pretty big one. I guess just a really strong, clean aesthetic sensibility, because then that way if they have an aesthetics that sort of align with the studio, then it’s going to be easier for them to translate the work that’s going on.
Mario: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
A work of a creative professional most often entails much more than merely doing the activity which is implied by the title. I was interested in hearing what Tim’s work routines are.
Tim: I try to get in to the studio about 8:30, 9:00 at the latest if I can. Lately, I’ve been trying to give myself like an hour and a half limit on sort of admin tasks, like organizing finances, chasing invoices, filing receipts, quick emails that need to be sent out and things like that. Otherwise you can just end up spending all day doing that kind of thing and then at a certain point it’s like, “Okay. Right. Cutoff time. Now it’s focusing on the design work.”
Tim: Ideally, by 10:30, when I’m getting up to make probably coffee number two of the day, that stuff shuts down and then I’m straight into the design work. Then, yeah, days have to flexible because of the breadth of clients I’m working for on projects. From day-to-day I might spend most of the day on the computer finishing off a CAD model and pumping up technical drawings for someone to make something, or I might be doing a whole day of really hands-on stuff making prototypes and markups.
Tim: It is flexible. Probably twice, three times a month I’ll be traveling for work. Visiting factories, visiting clients. I’ve got my client base currently is spread across the U.K., Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. So it’s kind of opposite ends of the world. I don’t get down to Australia or New Zealand too often. They’ll often come over here, because especially for the Australian brand I’m working for, their manufacturing is in Italy. So when we’re at a particular phase of a project, I’ll shoot over to Italy quite often to review prototypes and will get samples and things like that, sort of fine tuning the production product.
Tim: Then I try to leave at a fairly reasonable time. I’ve recently become a dad, about four months ago. All of a sudden, I don’t really feel the need to be in the studio till really late at night around the weekends. Somehow it seems to have not really affected my efficiency at all. I can just get a lot more done, because I waste less time in the studio. I’ve got a better reason to get home even with the job I love.
Mario: Yeah. I often hear that. I always assume like, “Oh, having kids might be like distraction in a way, like impairment to like being able to do work that you want to be doing and be as ambitious as you want to be, but actually it sounds that it’s kind of like opposite. It makes you prioritize things and be more effective in what you’re doing.
Tim: Yeah, definitely. It’s also a really nice excuse to say no to things that don’t really make sense.
Tim: Like projects and things like that, you’re like, “Look. No, sorry. I don’t have time to take that on at the moment.” Whereas before, it was kind of like you almost said yes to everything.
Mainly due to the disruptive cultural forces, it seems that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to manage our creative careers. Nowadays, we have to navigate much more than what would traditionally be seen as our job. I’ve asked Tim to share what he thinks are the main challenges of being an industrial designer working today.
Tim: I think the main one is how competitive it is, especially in a city like London. I can imagine in Copenhagen as well. There’re a lot of designers out there these days. I mean, design schools are pumping up a lot of design graduates. So it becomes really, really competitive not only to get jobs at good companies and studios, but also when you’re running your own studio to get projects happening with the brands you want to work with, because they’re seeing hundreds and hundreds of proposals via email every day. The competitiveness is hard.
Tim: I think once you kind of get in with clients you work well with in and you guys have a real synergy, then it’s easier because you can keep those conversations going. It’s great to be able to have fewer, stronger relationships with clients I think.
Tim: I think another thing is I guess it’s maybe in the last 10 years and I’d probably put it mostly down to social media, is the public and the media’s appetite for newness and design. Everything has to be new. Everything has to be the latest. I mean, I’ve heard of interior design studios kind of banning people from using a particular light because they’ve seen too much of it. I think things get so saturated so quickly that people do get sick of things quickly, especially if something has an aspect about it that’s quite trend-driven I guess.
Tim: If you talk to like a PR or marketing, they’ll be like, “Your Instagram needs to have this much new content on it.” It’s like, “Whoa! Hang on. I’m only working on these many projects. I can only take so many angles of each prototype or sample.” That’s quite tough, because it’s a full-time job. There’s a lot of work to do to create really good quality content. It’s not just something you can fire off every now and again.
Mario: Yeah. Do you think it’s – Is that becoming actually a necessary part of your, let’s say, work and a crucial part or not? Because often it’s good to have it but there’s other things which are more important and like not having – Yeah, like a good social media account or content. Like you can probably do without it and you’ll be fine if you’re –
Tim: Yeah. Obviously, if you don’t have great work to post about, then there’s no point in having a great social media profile. I think if you’re more established, you can get away with it. I think sometimes if you got really strong relationships with clients and they have their marketing really well sorted, then you don’t need to, in a way there’s some mystique about a studio or a designer who doesn’t have a presence on social media.
Tim: But this competitiveness that I was talking about, you’ve got to – It’s a way to get seen by brands sand by potential clients. That is a lot easier than it used to be. I can remember before things like Squarespace and as well as Instagram and platforms like that. It was quite a pain to update your website or just get some images of your latest work online. It’s good in that sense, but yeah, I think you do have to be careful about how much energy you put into it. Updating websites and Instagram posts, if they’re like fully work related ones, that definitely falls within that one and a half hours per day of admin work, does get distracting.
A crucial factor, which is a frequent source of struggle for creative professionals is making enough money to earn yourself a decent living. At this point in our conversation, I’ve asked Tim to talk about that aspect of his work, and I’m grateful that he was open about how he manages that.
Tim: I work on quite a typical industrial design studio model where projects are either charged as design fees or royalties or a mixture of both. Obviously, if it’s a mixture, the fees would be less than a purely fee project and the royalties would be less than a purely royalty project. When you’re starting out, the royalties are zero. Obviously, it takes – It can take two years for your first well-selling project to even hit the shelves and then another year for that to actually the sales to ramp up to a point where you’re making the royalties you should often.
Tim: The first two, three years is actually really tough, because if you roughly split your time 50-50 between royalty-based projects and fee paying projects, you’re basically earning half the amount for the work you’re doing for those first three years, because the royalties aren’t coming in yet, but you’ve got to work really hard on those projects. Because if you’re making a royalty of them, they’ve got to be good. They’ve got to sell well. They’ve got to be relevant and they’ve got to be commercial.
Tim: I guess I’m at the point now where that’s starting to balance out where I’ve got a few collections, a couple of projects out there with some really great brands that are actually starting to pay a decent amount of royalties. But obviously the consulting side is still really important. I’m not at the point where I could just work on – Have the income completely covered by existing projects that are out there paying royalties. Then you’re just working on the next launch to sort of top that up as things tail off.
Tim: I think that’s another reason, the desire for newness is kind of a scary thing for product designers, because we’ll spend two years sweating the details on a product getting something exactly perfect. Then if it’s only like desirable for one season, it just doesn’t make sense.
Tim: Yeah, I guess – I don’t know. I guess it would be like a 60-40 split between consulting and royalties at the moment. Some clients are happy to pay a complete design fee for design work. Some prefer a mix. In fact, these days, it’s most common as probably a mix of design fee plus royalty. It reduces their risk for both sides, but also there’s the impetus for the designer to create something that’s going to sell really, really well.
Mario: Yeah, there’s an incentive.
Mario: Were there any, perhaps, like mistakes or things that you weren’t aware of when you were like starting when it comes to financial side?
Tim: The way I went about my career, I think, mitigated a little of that by the time I was ready to start my own studio. Because I had worked at lots of different studios, from Formworks back in New Zealand to an office called PriestmanGoode in London. Then on to Tom Dixon. Then I was designer director for products at Conran & Partners also in London. I kind of got to learn a lot of that stuff working for other people with other people who knew how to do this. By the time I came around to signing my own sort of design proposals or royalty agreements, I’d already had a hand in writing, dozens of them.
Mario: Yeah. Okay.
Tim: I think that was really useful learning that kind of thing then where you’ve got other people to pick up on your mistakes for you before you make them.
Mario: Yeah, exactly.
To develop professionally, we have to invest in ourselves and our practice. We can do that with things like courses, travel or investigating new tools and processes. I’ve asked Tim what he thought was the best investment that he made in himself recently.
Tim: I think it was finding a good studio space that had enough room for me to work the way I really wanted to. London is a really expensive place to have a studio. Their rent on studios are crazy and lots of professions. You can work in these new sort of hot desking type offices where you pay for one desk. But a product designer, especially one working at a furniture scale, if you needed a workshop to make things, that’s simply not a possibility.
Tim: I moved my studio a little bit outside of the center of where I’d ideally like to be, although Hackney Wick is kind of known as a place where there’s lots of creative studios and artist studios and things like that. It’s actually spending the time to find that space that; A, I could afford; and B, have enough for room for me to spread out with models and prototypes and also to grow, because moving office can be a nightmare.
Tim: In terms of an investment in myself, I think it was that 10 years of working for other people. It can tougher if you’ve got ambitions to work for yourself and be running your own projects to spend that amount of time doing that. But I think it was invaluable what I learned doing that.
Mario: Was that something that you were very like intentional about? Were you, from the start, kind of where, “Okay. I want to be independent, but I have to – This is a wise strategic way of learning and growing and then I’ll be able to do what I want to do.”
Tim: Yeah, definitely. It was always my intention to have my own studio, but I did know that there’s so much to learn. I also kind of wanted to figure out not the type of work I wanted to be doing, because I kind of knew that, but more how I wanted to run a business basically. How I wanted the setup to be. How I wanted the relationships with clients to be and that sort of thing.
Tim: I worked in lots of different places, architecture offices work in a very different way with their clients than, say, a banding agency does. I’ve worked in elements of all of them. It was fine tuning that kind of how do I want the set up to be eventually.
Mario: Could you describe that setup?
Tim: Well, at the moment, it’s me, I want to normally freelance designers, sort of working assisting with projects. So three maximum at the moment. I think I’d like to maybe grow that maximum of 6 to 8. I’d like to keep a studio that’s kind of small and agile, because something I learned about working especially at a director level and bigger organizations is you have to be a bit hands-off from the design side of things. You’ve got different responsibilities. There were things I just wasn’t as passionate about as actually designing. I think if you can manage your ambitions, I think you can financially and scale-wise you can probably a lot happier and just as successful.
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If you want to remain relevant and excited about what we’re doing, we need to grow and challenge ourselves. I’ve asked Tim how is he making sure that besides working on the client assignments, he also develops as a designer and creative professional.
Tim: Teaching is part of that. Obviously, there’s an amazing team of other tutors there who are all design professionals in their own right from different fields and talking to them and understanding how they work. That sort of thing is great. London is an amazing city for working with and then becoming friends with other designers from different fields as well.
Tim: Trying to absorb different aspects of different creative professions and using them in your own work I think is a really great way to grow as a professional. I also think there’s this learning curve that every designer goes through once they get to a certain level of experience, and that’s relinquishing a bit of control, hiring younger designers to work is great and you really trust and allowing them to have a little bit of freedom. I think that’s probably the toughest and probably the most important growth spurt, I’ll call it, that a designer has to go through.
Mario: Yeah. That’s for sure something that I’m struggling with at the moment. I’m getting there, but I’m like at the very early stage of that.
Tim: Yup. It’s a tricky one. It’s almost like I’ve had to do it twice, because I had to do it as I had different – When I was at Tom Dixon, I was design manager there. I was working on some other more technically complex products that may be required someone with a bit more experience. But for the other ones, I was writing briefs for a young but exceedingly talented team, small team of designers and I had to be able to write that brief, hand it to them, let them run with it, mentor them, advise them on things. Make sure the product was being steered in the right direction in terms of relevance to the brand and commercial realities. But not starting to meddle with their work, because they were producing great work. I might have done a couple of things slightly differently, but if they were more personal approaches and not because it was to make the product better, then you have to step back from that.
At this point in our conversation, I was curious to hear what are Tim’s current professional challenges. Among other things that led us to talk about the importance of finding the right clients. Also, Tim shared a simple and effective process he uses to evaluate potential projects.
Tim: I guess the studio’s kind of at the point where to grow further, this kind of a jump into hiring permanent employees, because obviously to really work with freelancers is quite expensive. It can be – If they’re not available all of a sudden and you’ve got a deadline, it becomes quite stressful. Usually, they’re in for a longer period of time. But, yeah, it’s making the jump to taking on full-time staff. When you’ve only had yourself to keep alive from the studio for a little while, that’s quite a difficult jump to make.
Mario: Yeah, exactly. You’re currently, let’s say, in that phase.
Tim: Yeah. I think because I’ve got designers working with me on projects when I was busy enough, it is very much a studio now. I’m not an independent designer. I’ve got a big space to pay for. I’ve got professional indemnity and liability insurance and all these sorts of things. I’ve got I guess a level of expertise and experience now where I can genuinely bring something to my clients that I’m working with that they might not otherwise be able to access. It is very much a studio.
Tim: For the first year or so, it was very much – I was a freelancer. I was working on some of my own projects on the side. So that transition’s kind of happened, but it is still kind of – I think it takes a long time to bridge that gap and there’s a weird area in between.
Mario: What was so far the biggest challenge you had? When you look through finishing your studies to where you’re now.
Tim: I think when I started my own studio, going out and getting clients, I think everyone finds it the most terrifying idea and getting the right clients as well. Because when you start out, you got to say yes to everything that comes along. But if you end up working on things that aren’t part of your long term goal, it distracts you from maybe working on finding or starting up opportunities with the brands you really want to work with. I think maintaining that focus while still actually having an income is probably the biggest challenge.
Mario: Having that balance of saying yes to most opportunities, but at the same time being aware of, “Okay, where do I want to go?”
Tim: Yup. I mean it sometimes you have to run a tight ship. You can’t have the studio that you want and the area you want. You’ve got to keep that five-year-old MacBook Pro running. You can’t go straight out and get a 3D printer. Your trips to trade shows and to factories are all on Ryanair and easyJet, so you’ve got to be careful so that you don’t force yourself into having to take on the wrong kind of work. Not the wrong kind of work but the work that doesn’t make sense and really contribute to your end goal. I think there’re kind of three criteria that you need to apply to a project. A, it has to be properly financially viable for you as a studio. You want it to build your profile and be with brands that you’re proud to be working with and it’s got to be able to result on a product that you’re going to be really, really proud of. You’ve got to have at least two of those.
Mario: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. At the beginning you’re like, “Even if I get one, it’s fine.”
Tim: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Based on a lot of markers, we live in a world of material abundance. Our markets are saturated and some would argue, oversaturate with all sorts of products. It can be overwhelming for our soles and it puts a strain on the environment. Industrial designers are indeed a part of that ecosystem where at one hand it can be so easy to get lost to just copy and be irrelevant, and on the other perhaps only to contribute to the general confusion and pollution. I think it has never been more important to be intentional and mindful about how to approach that work. I believe that Tim is successful in navigating it through creating iconic and relevant products with true perennial potential. So I’ve asked Tim what makes a good contemporary product for him and how he goes about trying to create one.
Tim: I think that the TR Bulb was a great example of that, because not only does it have an aesthetic that resonates with people and especially coming from a brand like MENU. It felt very much like a MENU product. But it was solving a genuine need and creating solutions for sort of resolving this problem in a technically elegant way. I guess that takes a little bit of the pressure of trying to make it fit with too many sort of transient trends and things like that, because you’re able to design something that actually solves a problem. I mean, it kind of sounds like a cliché when industrial designers talk about being problem solvers, but it is still an important part of what we do and ensures that a product doesn’t become just kind of like a one-liner. I also find myself getting more excited about products or projects where there is some kind of technical challenge that I need to solve. I think that’s just inherent in the way I like to work.
Mario: What are some of those like maybe other criteria that you have when you’re either evaluating like a product that you’re making or maybe when you see like a product, I’m sure your brain, whenever you see a product, you’re probably thinking like of all the different aspects of it, it’s the same like when I see like a piece of design I just like look at all the type all the spacing and everything and just like analyze it. I’m curious, what are those things that you’re looking at?
Tim: I think I really admire products that are quite, I guess, efficient in the way that they’re made. The elements or parts to do multiple jobs in terms of holding things together, really elegantly reduced technical solutions in a product in terms of the way it’s assembled or the way it works or the way it moves. That’s something that I get quite excited about. I think to use an example, there’s a stool by the Danish designer, Poul Kjærholm. I can’t remember the number of it, but it has a bent steel frame and then a plywood shell on top of which there’s a leather cushion.
Tim: But the plywood shells held on to the legs by a basic really simple rubber o-ring that loops through a couple of slots in the shell. It’s just it’s beauty is in the almost crudeness of how it’s done and the efficiency. They could have made a new bracket to attach that and use some screws, but this is beautifully efficient in almost obvious way of holding these two pieces together. Those are the sorts of things that get me quite excited.
Tim: Also a product where every little detail is being considered, even on the inside where you don’t normally see the industrial designer’s hand every little detail, whether the customer sees it or not. That being well considered and well-ordered and proportioned and laid out is really important to me.
Mario: Could you talk a bit about your design process? I don’t mean just like the development for certain, like just the product itself, but the whole process, which is entail with developing, for example, a product for a brand that can be like an example. Even from the initial meanings to briefs, to the creative work, to the prototyping, marketing, just also kind of try to put it in a context of like time. How long do those things take? Because I think it’d be interesting to get that insight.
Tim: Yeah. The time thins is tricky, because some products can take two, three years and the design done in a couple of weeks depending on what the product is. There’s two ways I tend to work. Often, when I’m working with a brand, they’ll send me a brief and say, “Hey, there’s this opportunity within our range. We think we need to design something for or we need to update this area of our collection.” We’ll work together on a brief.
Tim: The other way is where I will have just noticed something, a problem that there’s currently no solution to or a different way of doing something. Often when it’s that way, the idea will sit in my head for quite a long time before I even sort of start drawing it or get on the computer or start making it in the workshop. I kind of play around with it and let it, I guess, not take on any form until I’m a bit more sure about it.
Tim: On the flip side, when I’m working with clients obviously, it’s much more of a conversation where they’ve asked for something and I tend to show them a few different ways of going about it. Sometimes if I think I understand the brand well enough and what they’re doing, I’ll develop an idea a little bit more and give them one design with some variations on it. It all depends on the brand and the product and the way we work together.
Tim: Often, drawing will be how I kind of start to give shape to an idea and/or start to communicate it to other people. Quite quickly after that, once the ideas had time to bounce around on my head for a while, I’ll go quite quickly into working in three dimensions. Actually trying to get real materials in my hands or play with real forms through quick paper modeling, cardboard, those sorts of things. Bouncing between that in the computer.
Tim: In way, for example, if I’m doing a chair, I’ll create a really sort of rough wireframe in 3D of how what I think it should be. Then I’ll print out elements of that, stick them together, look at it. It will be like really rough. It won’t even look like the product. It will just be a lose form or silhouette at that point and then that will go back into the computer and then back out into making things. I’m just constantly adjusting between these virtual and physical way of working, sort of refining, using each tool to do what it does bets. In a way, the computer, I’m using that to record what I do to the model and then at the end the computer starts to take over more, because I need to communicate more detailed information to manufacturers and things like that.
Tim: It seems it goes from this very hands-on analogue way of working and sort of melds into a slightly more technical approach using the power of 3D CAD software and 3D printing to make more resolves, markups and prototypes. Obviously, there’s also an understanding of the market that you need to have. I don’t tend to do, I guess, mood boards and things like that, because I think there’s always a risk there of the closest information to hand. There’s lots of stuff that’s going on right now. You do run the risk of kind of homogenizing your own aesthetic with everything that’s on sort of these image board tumblers and blogs. I mean, and I’ll still obviously look at them from time to time.
Tim: But I try to look outside of design as well. There was a detail on the backrest of a chair designed for SP01, the Australian brand, where it was the bracket that held the backrest was actually inspired by this really rough engineering technique where you take a tube of steel and you just crash it flat to make a place to put the screw through. It’s little things like that and it’s quite hard, but actually trying to somehow keep a record of all those little things that you noticed that could turn into something else. Whether it’s just using the camera on your phone or 100% of the time have an A5 sketchbook on me. I’ll often use that or, yeah, just whatever camera have and try to record these, not things from the design world, but from parallel sectors, I guess.
Mario: Then how does the process continues on, let’s say, the product is defined while you’re about to go into manufacturing. How does that work?
Tim: I really enjoy that part, and because I’ve lot of experience in product development. Usually the brands I work with like to get me quite involved in that part. It’s not just I’ll send off the 3D files and then I’ll go see the prototype. I’ll often work really closely with their engineering department and their production team to get things working right, to try and realize the design and tend as close as possible to or better than how I imagined it in the start. Because a design very rarely comes out exactly as that first CAD file that you send away.
Tim: If you’re doing it right, usually it comes out better, because when you start working really closely with manufacturers and production people, people who understand that material and that process better than you could ever hope to is when you actually see the opportunities to do things in a slightly different and maybe better way. I try to get as involved as possible in that part of the process. There will be lots of emails going back and forth, factory visits, making little prototype parts here to send over to them to look at and back and forth. So I get quite excited about that part of it.
Even if our career trajectory seems overall successful, that doesn’t free us from running into obstacles. I’ve asked Tim to share some of the mistakes he made and failures he experienced on his professional journey.
Tim: There’s one that kind of sticks out for me earlier on in my career. I designed a piece for a new brand. They had some great credentials behind them. It all seemed right and the contract I set up handed over all the intellectual property rights to them, because that’s kind of how they wanted to run it.
Tim: Unfortunately, the brand sort of never happened. There’re prototypes of the piece floating around. It was sold for a little bit, but it never rarely happened in the way that I imagined or I think they imagine really. There’s this design out there that I absolutely love and I think is great. But I can’t take it to anyone else to get it back in production.
Mario: Oh, that’s a shame.
Tim: I think that was a mistake, is to retain your IP.
Mario: Now that you’re structuring your contracts, you try to keep that.
Tim: Yeah, except in very particular circumstances or ways.
Mario: Yeah. Is there anything else?
Tim: Oh, there’s probably loads. Actually, on sort of a pragmatic side of things is my old studio, which is in Hackney near London Field, it was a bit small, but it was in a great location, got flooded last year. A sprinkler went off and just destroyed everything, because you can imagine a sprinkler going off when you’ve got printers, 3D printers, computers, cameras, all that sort of thing, paper models of all your products. It was a disaster. I had insurance, obviously, because as a designer, you need it for professional indemnity and public liability. But I’d insured myself based on the stuff I had when I started out.
Mario: Oh okay.
Tim: There wasn’t enough to cover every little kit that I had. I mean, it’s pretty impossible to do that, but I would say if you can over insure. Because you’re always going to buy a new lens for your camera or that new piece of kit and you never know when disaster is going to strike.
We’ve come to the last topic I’ve discussed with Tim. As with other guests, I’ve asked him to highlight three pieces of advice based on what he learned so far. Here’s what Tim shared with me.
Tim: I think the first one is try as hard as you can and work really hard at understanding your crafts with intense depth. It is competitive out there. There are lots of creative professionals. There are lots of designers. You do kind of need to be an expert in your field or an expert at something. You need some kind of angle that makes your approach to your work unique that isn’t what everyone else is doing. I think, for me, what I did is I tried to – I guess I’m a little bit nerdy and technically minded. So it’s quite easy for me to have a really strong push on manufacturing processes and materials. That’s often seen more in designers who are working on much more technical products than maybe in furniture and lighting, but I try to – That’s the strong point that I always try and work on and utilize in projects.
Tim: I think not contrary to that, but on the other side is to speak the language of your collaborators, so the marketers, the engineers, sales people, even the people on logistics in the brands you’re working for. They will play a really important part in getting your ideas into the hands of people. So you got to treat them like a critical part of your time. You can push each other, the kind of design, industrial designer engineer. Relationships always – There’s always a bit of tension there. But you need to do it with empathy for their role. You can’t just come in and say, “No, I’m the designer. This is how I’ve decided things should be. You have to make it work like that. You need to understand that they’re a part of your team and do really, really important work. Learning to speak their language, understanding their terminology, know what their role is about so you can get the most out of each other is really important.
Tim: I also think now that I’ve been running my own studio, the third thing and final thing, is don’t forget your job. The main thing you’re there to do, for me, is to design great products for brands that people want to buy. You can get caught up in all the admin, and it can almost be like a distraction in a way of procrastinating. You can sit there, and it gets to lunch time and you’re like, “Wow! All my invoices and all my receipts are so beautifully filed and I made this amazing spreadsheet to track everything.” That’s not what people are paying for. It can feel like you’re being really diligent and doing what you should be doing, but in reality it’s actually a distraction from the most important thing you do.
Hey, friends, thank you for tuning in once again. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I believe we touched on a lot of useful information for anybody out there interested in industrial and product design and growth as creative professionals.
I want to thank Tim for coming on to the show. I admire his products, his approach and I’m grateful for the insights he shared with me. Links to Tim’s work as well as some other things mentioned during our conversation could be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast.
You can follow @creative.voyage on Instagram, and you email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me what you think of the show. If you haven’t, already be sure to subscribe and until next time my friends. Take care.
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