The Power of Design


We have deep roots in engineering through Boeing and in computer science and software through Microsoft. We have a rich culture of art and craft and an appreciation of things well made. Add to that a more demanding global customer, a more vibrant design community and you have the fuel for a potential explosion of creativity.  

Gavin Kelly, cofounder of Artefact, traveled extensively this past summer. As a principal of his seven-year-old, 50-employee Seattle design firm, Kelly is responsible for generating new business. As a designer, his job is to solve problems. But one potential client he met with in Asia presented him with a problem he could not easily solve: The prospective client said he was only considering design firms based in San Francisco because “that’s where all the designers are.”

That perception is a challenge many designers in Seattle face. And it hurts because it contains more than a grain of truth. For all of Seattle’s natural and intellectual resources, for all of its recognition around the world as the epicenter of software, coffee, e-commerce and aerospace, the region has been something of a backwater when it comes to design.

True, Seattle has design leaders like Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects. It’s the home of highly acclaimed design like the Olympic Sculpture Park. And Teague, a firm that has done much of Boeing’s design work going back to the ’40s, has called Seattle home since 1926.

But when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos decided to create the Kindle in 2004, he established a product development subsidiary in Silicon Valley. When Amazon decided to plunge into fashion, it opened a studio in New York.

Those choices hurt, because design matters. The strength of a city’s design community has huge implications for the vitality of its business environment. Design plays a critical role in just about every industry and in virtually every aspect of a business. It’s not just about what something looks like. It’s about solving problems. It’s about creating consumer experiences that create connections with users and help companies build competitive advantage.

It is no accident that Apple, famous for its single-minded focus on design, is the world’s most valuable company. As consumers around the globe become more conscious of good design, this aspect becomes a determinant in the success or failure of many products and services. At Startup Weekends (see page 20) where product teams are pitted against each other in 54-hour races to come up with new ideas for fledgling businesses, the winning teams tend to include at least one designer.

But creativity isn’t exactly on sale at Office Depot. “Design is not something you can just bolt on, something you can acquire,” says Kelly. “It has to be a part of the culture.”

The good news is that the region has been quietly building up an impressive design community. And in spite of our notorious Seattle reserve, it’s just a matter of time before the word gets out.

“Our region has talented people with passion,” says Ana Maria Pinto da Silva, a lead designer at Microsoft. “And this is an arms race you have to win.” With big projects like the Seattle waterfront helping to transform public spaces in the city, more designers will be attracted to the area. “In five years,” she says, “Seattle [design] is going to go through the roof.”

Nathan AP PRO hydration system (Anvil studios)

A snap-on, aerodynamic bottle for triathletes and serious cyclists.

Microsoft, a company that once showed little respect for design, now has more than 800 designers, up from fewer than a dozen two decades ago. Top Microsoft designers like Steve Kaneko played a key role in creating a single look and feel for a range of Microsoft products, from tablets to Xbox game consoles, by having them all use the same distinctive “metro” interface first featured in the company’s smartphones.

Amazon has put several talented designers in key management positions, including Brian Kralyevich, who once headed creative direction for Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business as well as Nokia’s smartphone operation. Most of Seattle’s largest companies now either have substantial design teams or are in the process of building them. Do a keyword search at, a job-search engine, and you’ll find 10,000 openings in the Seattle area that include the word “design” or “designer.”

The design community here was once dominated by a few large companies such as Hornall Anderson, which gave the Quaker Oaks man a recent makeover; Teague, which is the go-to designer for Boeing; and Stratos Product Development, which does a lot of design work for medical instrument companies. During the past decade, that universe has expanded to include more small and midsize design studios that are garnering big-time clients.

• Synapse Product Development played a key role in developing

Nike’s popular FuelBand fitness monitor.

• Digital Kitchen helped design an immersive video display at The Cosmopolitan, a Las Vegas hotel that “dares to be different.”

• Anvil Studios garnered design awards for everything from a carbon-fiber bicycle for Kestrel to a mouth guard that helps assess the potential for brain injuries from head impact.

• Ex-Microsoft designer Bill Flora launched Tectonic with a focus on user experience. It is now the software design studio of record for Bang & Olufsen, recognized globally for its designs.

Passive Vaccine Storage System (Stratos Product Development)

It’s designed to keep vaccines at the appropriate temperatures for a month without the need for electricity.

The blossoming design sector and the growing importance companies place on design have led to more demand for designers and, consequently, more generous remuneration. “The power of design has been elevated, more designers are being put in executive positions and salaries for designers are up,” says Paul Freed, managing partner at Herd Freed Hartz. Last March, the Seattle executive search firm placed Tim Leberecht, formerly chief marketing officer with the famous global studio Frog Design, as chief marketing officer at NBBJ, the architecture firm tasked with designing Amazon’s new headquarters buildings in downtown Seattle.

This expanding design community is producing a flourishing culture that has fostered more opportunities for “creatives” to meet and exchange ideas. Within the past five years, the city has spawned an annual Design Festival, a new chapter of the Interaction Design Association (IxDa), a Seattle Design District Association (in Georgetown), a local branch of Creative Mornings, which sponsors breakfast lectures, and PechaKucha Nights, at which creative types make presentations in a strict format that limits them to 20 slides and just 20 seconds to discuss each image. The Seattle chapter of AIGA, the oldest association for designers, has seen its membership climb by a third to more than 800 in the past three years. Seattle Urban Sketchers organizes outings to locations where participants draw scenes from city life, and Sketch Pistols Seattle meets every other week to create art in a social setting.

“You need a large ecosystem to support design,” says Pinto da Silva, who heads the Seattle chapter of PechaKucha (a Japanese term for the sound of conversation). “Design takes a lot out of you. So you need sources of inspiration, places to share war stories and to give you the strength to go to battle.”

Although Seattle is weaker than many cities when it comes to fine arts institutions, the University of Washington and the Cornish College of the Arts have seen their standings rise. Meanwhile, the region is attracting more than its share of students from top schools, such as the Rhode Island School of Design; these recruits are eager to work at the cutting edge in areas like aerospace, retail and software.

Seattle’s vital manufacturing sector, anchored by companies like aerospace giant Boeing and electronic instrument leader Fluke, has helped develop a strong core of industrial designers. That’s a good skill set to have at a time when there is a renewed interest in the importance of hardware.

“There was this big push around software, and I think we are coming to a point where there is a need for hardware to support and run all that software,” says Skooks Pong, senior vice president of technology at Synapse, a 250-employee firm focused on industrial design. Pong foresees a “hardware renaissance” as designers introduce a range of devices to connect consumers to the internet.

Fetch TV (Artefact)

The set-top box of the future is being used for subscription programming in Australia.

Synapse helped Nike bring to market the Nike+ FuelBand, the 2012 Best in Show winner at the Industrial Designers Society of America’s (IDSA) International Design Excellence Awards. The FuelBand measures a person’s activity and helps to manage the information online.

That something as simple as a plastic bracelet could be wholly reimagined as Nike’s cornerstone product in the burgeoning “quantified self” activity-tracking market underscores how important design can be in increasing the value of a product. The device monitors steps taken by the wearer as well as other activity. It wirelessly syncs to a smartphone, allowing the wearer to set activity goals, track when he or she is most active (or not) and chart progress through the awarding of NikeFuel points. The points allow the wearer to graph activity and, perhaps more important for Nike, to build an online community that induces FuelBand wearers to encourage — or compete against — each other in achieving fitness goals. This ability to create a commodity from what is otherwise an arbitrary measure of activity in NikeFuel points, and to cultivate an online community where those points are valued, underscores a second key point about design: We are not simply talking about the end product. In the end, good design is the experience.

CEO Steve Ballmer revealed MICROSOFT’S growing focus on hardware when he announced the company would be “a devices and services company” and then proceeded to buy Nokia, once the world’s leading cellphone manufacturer. Although Microsoft’s Surface tablet release last year was a failure as a product due to a high price and lack of software — resulting in a $900 million write-off — the product received rave reviews for the strong design of its hardware.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has challenged the design community to tackle important issues by coming up with waterless toilets, water purification systems and other devices better adapted to the developing world. With funding from the foundation, Intellectual Ventures Lab worked first with General Assembly, a 17-employee design studio, and later more extensively with Stratos Product Development to create a storage device that can keep vaccines at appropriate temperatures for a month or more without electricity and with just one load of ice.

Juice Box (Artefact)

This recharge-anywhere power source can tap into the grid, a solar source, a car battery, even kinetic input, and provide safe and reliable access to electricity.

In the world of retail, companies like Nordstrom and REI are using design to improve the customer experience and better compete with such online retailers as Amazon. At REI, for example, where the in-store look and great product designs have built a following of dedicated, longtime customers, the company is always fine-tuning the retail experience. “We’re working with Hornall Anderson to improve the exit experience, how people move around that space at REI,” says Dena Yamaguchi, REI’s senior manager of retail store design and president of the Northwest chapter of the Retail Design Institute, an international nonprofit focused on “creating selling environments.”

Washington’s forests have long been a source for raw logs but there have been relatively few companies designing and crafting products from that vital resource. That’s beginning to change as companies like Method Homes and GreenPod Development build classy, green and cost-efficient manufactured homes. Urban Hardwoods and Meyer Wells repurpose Northwest timber into stunning pieces of furniture and architectural elements. Design studios like Graypants and Grain turn recycled or sustainably grown materials into useful and beautiful household products. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if Seattle’s special design cachet ultimately emerges with a greenish tinge.

Whether you’re talking about an in-store environment, a handheld device or a handcrafted piece of furniture, “It is important to remember that when you are making something, you are creating an interaction,” says Cameron Campbell, strategic account manager at Teague. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Campbell is bullish on the region and its own distinct design sensibility. “Coming to Seattle, I just love that you can see the economy working every day,” says Campbell, pointing to the city’s working port, its shipyards and its fishing fleet. She says there’s a simple-is-good, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude in both the design and the designers here.

Campbell also points to the willingness of bigger business to encourage a dialogue among designers large and small. She says that exchange will be integral if the city wants to enhance its design reputation. “There is a methodology, a sense of purpose, that larger companies have — a certain drive on content and context about what we are doing, and why we do it,” she says. “We need to encourage more dialogue between the smaller designers and the larger companies.”

M2 model

(Method Homes)

Method Homes’ houses are precision-engineered, prefab structures.

Anne Traver, a former principal at Methodologie who teaches design at the University of Washington’s School of Art, believes the continued growth in the design community and its ability to communicate and collaborate will allow Seattle design to reach critical mass. “Artists are looking for a place where they can live and work and survive,” Traver says. “At some point, there becomes a gravitational pull and a city like Seattle becomes a place where designers want to be.”

That may already be happening. Artefact’s Kelly and its cofounder, Rob Girling, came to the area because they were recruited by Microsoft from their homes in Australia and England, respectively. They say Seattle is developing a strong appreciation of the role of design in all aspects of life — not only in the design of buildings or interiors or tangible products, but in the design of communities, how we interact and engage with each other. That’s helping them, in turn, attract other outstanding talent to the region, even in competition with firms in San Francisco and New York.

General Assembly’s Josh Kornfeld, who moved from the East Coast after putting himself through Rhode Island School of Design by fighting wildfires in Idaho, sees a great future for Seattle. “There are so many developers here, so many designers here,”

Kornfeld says, “that this city is ripe for recognition.”

It may be time for someone to design a device to trumpet its strengths.

Principles: How to work with a designer

• Designers are problem solvers who can help frame a problem and set a strategy.

• Bring your designer in at the beginning of a project.

• Make the designer an equal partner who is allowed to challenge your assumptions.

• Good designers will push you beyond your comfort zone and produce energizing new ideas.

• Understand your organization’s ability to execute on a particular solution.

• If the solution is too costly or otherwise unworkable, work with the designer to adjust it.

• Once you decide on a solution, be prepared to make the necessary investment.

Source: Before Hiring a Design Partner, Consider This, by Sean Madden. HBR Blog Network.

Principals: Seattle’s leading design firms


Founded 1926

Industrial Design

Customers: Intel, Boeing, Panasonic, Xbox

Employees: 280

Synapse Product Development

Founded 2002

Industrial Design

Customers: Nike, Philips, Samsung

Employees: 250

Hornall Anderson

Founded 1982

User experience, branding

Customers: Starbucks, Pepsico

Employees: More than 125

Digital Kitchen

Founded 1995

User Experience (digital), branding

Customers: The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Whole Foods, AT&T

Employees: 115

Stratos Product Development

Founded 1987

Industrial design

Customers: Intellectual Ventures, Xbox, Planar Systems

Employees: 100


Founded 2006

Design concepts, industrial design

Customers: Google, Amazon, Huawei

Employees: 50

Anvil Studios, Seattle: product design (

Belle & Wissell Co., Seattle: user interface/installation (

General Assembly, Seattle: product design (

Karass Creative, Seattle: user interface (

Substantial, Seattle: user interface (

Tectonic, Seattle: user interface (

Tether, Seattle: product design (

Wonderful Union, Seattle: user interface (

Zumobi, Seattle: user interface (

The Amazing Rise of Amazon Studios

The Amazing Rise of Amazon Studios

A few years ago, no one was streaming new content from the retail giant. Roy Price has changed that dynamic.
When the 89th Academy Awards celebration begins on February 26, Roy Price is sure to be in the audience. If early predictions are accurate, he will be anticipating an award or two for Manchester by the Sea, a film that’s been the smash hit at all four major North American film festivals this season.
A huge comeback for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as a lost soul forced to contemplate adopting his reluctant teenage nephew. With Manchester receiving six Academy Award nominations, Roy Price could be a happy man on Oscar night. And shareholders, who have seen Amazon’s stock price rise 340 percent in the past six years, would likely be giving a standing ovation. 
Price, 49, who until recently lived in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, is chief of Amazon Studios — the arm of the Jeff Bezos empire committed to revolutionizing entertainment. Based partly in Seattle but mostly in a new 85,000-square-foot Santa Monica production facility, Price’s team of renowned Hollywood execs and industry veterans has been responsible for more than 100 prestige movies and blockbuster shows. They now make and acquire original films and TV series, which are streamed via the company’s on-demand video service. 
Amazon is likely second only to Netflix in total streaming customers. And Manchester by the Sea is its first big Oscar contender. Even if Oscar snubs Amazon, its Hollywood profile is at an all-time high. Back in 1998, when Amazon began selling DVDs, Hollywood studios actually refused to make DVDs of their films available for sale online. Now, Hollywood returns Amazon’s calls, and Price can hire talent like directors Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, and Manchester producer Matt Damon.
It’s a coup for Price, who started planning this Hollywood invasion in 2000, when he quit Disney after six years as animated-series VP to become a digital media consultant. He then joined Amazon in 2004, launching its video-on-demand service in 2008. When archrival Netflix started making its own shows, like the popular and critically acclaimed House of Cards, Price got the green light to launch Amazon Studios in 2010.
Netflix spends about $6 billion a year on 1,000-plus hours of original programming. Amazon’s production is ramping up sharply — in the second half of this year it said it was spending twice as much as  in the same period last year — but its attitude toward releasing actual numbers on its business is a lot like the secretary who defies Javier Bardem’s nosy killer character in No Country for Old Men: “Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information!”
Regardless, Price is happily gobsmacked at how fast Amazon Studios has taken off. “Our first show, Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House, came out three years ago,” says Price, who has a mind sharp as a bear trap and a jaunty, quirky personal manner. 
Alpha House earned some applause, though no Emmys — something that changed in Amazon Studios’ second year, when it nabbed five Emmy Awards to Netflix’s four. Amazon’s first hits — Transparent, a noble, exquisitely trendy comedy-drama about a transsexual dad, and Mozart in the Jungle, about a madcap orchestra conductor (Gael García Bernal) and a young oboist (Lola Kirke) — won four Golden Globes in the past two years, plus an abundance of the industry’s most prestigious other prizes. 
Price plays everything close to the vest, but these days he doesn’t conceal his glee. In his first time at bat in the Oscar race, he has hit what could be a home run with Manchester by the Sea.
“We only came out with one movie last year,” Price remarks. “We’ll have 15 this year.”
And while he is all smiles about Amazon’s entry into the movie world, his ambitions for TV are just as energetic. He spent a reported $70 million for an eight-episode series from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner and $160 million for 16 episodes of a David O. Russell drama starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore.
Amazon hasn’t said yet when the programs will air. 
Amazon’s successes are catching the attention of media watchers.
“As soon as Amazon entered the awards race, that scrappy media player zoomed to the front of the pack,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards-prediction website. “Transparent won Best Comedy Actor for Jeffrey Tambor at the Emmy Awards in 2015, the first time a streaming service won a top Emmy category. Amazon not only proved it was a serious player, but it’s playing for the long haul ahead.”
Amazon is betting big money — O’Neil estimates about $2 million — on the Emmy and Oscar races. In December, as part of the studio’s marketing campaign, Damon and Bezos hosted a party under a big tent at Bezos’s Beverly Hills mansion, stocked for the occasion with the best scotch, plenty of shrimp and lots of stars.
Bezos spoke to Anne Thompson of the independent-film website IndieWire, who reports, “[Bezos] wants to build a brand that means taste and class, and the person he leans on for advice is pal Harvey Weinstein.” Weinstein is the legendary Hollywood mogul whose films have earned more than 300 Oscar nominations. The Hollywood Reporter notes that not since Weinstein’s 1999 battle for Shakespeare in Love against Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has there been a dramatic, bragging-rights Oscar contest like Amazon’s Manchester vs. Netflix’s 13th, a hot Oscar contender in the documentary category, which would be Netflix’s fourth Oscar nomination.
“Amazon is following the same strategy HBO pursued at the Emmys back when it was the New Media Kid in Town,” O’Neil explains. “In the 1980s, HBO craved the approval of its peers and so campaigned aggressively to win Emmys. … Now, HBO is The Establishment and it’s facing hungry new foes like Amazon.”
To O’Neil’s point, HBO, which dominated the Oscars and Emmys for two decades, didn’t make the Oscar documentary semifinalist list of 15 contenders this year. Netflix, with 13th, and Amazon, which acquired the U.S. rights to Gleason, did. Clearly, back in 2000, Price guessed right about the future of internet entertainment.
In 2008, Amazon’s digital video sales generated revenues comparable to that of a neighborhood Blockbuster store. How on Earth did Roy Price turn this modest digital store into a rocket ship to Emmy and Oscar acclaim?
It helps that he is Hollywood royalty. Price’s mom, Katherine Crawford, was an actress who appeared on the 1970s Seattle-set show Here Come the Brides. His dad, Frank Price, ran Columbia and Universal studios, and his namesake maternal grandpa, Roy Huggins, created and produced breakthrough TV shows like The Fugitive, The Rockford Files and Maverick
Perpetually clad in jeans and a black leather jacket, Price can swim with Hollywood sharks, speak their upbeat lingo and still talk digital business jargon with the nerdiest of nerds. His parents tried to steer him away from too much show biz, but after graduating from exclusive East Coast schools (Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University), he went to USC’s Gould School of Law, worked as an assistant for an agent who grew up to run Hollywood’s top talent agency, CAA, and went into the family business.
He is irreverent, puckish and infinitely bolder than most Hollywood execs, who live in fear of making a mistake and getting fired. Price takes entertainment seriously — he actually rewrote the story of Bosch, Amazon’s adaptation of the Michael Connelly crime novels, but he isn’t self-important. The Disney film The Barefoot Executive, about a chimpanzee that’s adept at picking TV hits, is one of his favorites.
“That is an awesome, awesome movie,” says Price, who loves monkeying with Hollywood tradition. “You’re not going to find the most interesting new show on TV by being easily put off by risk. You have to be sort of bold. In today’s competitive environment, the conservative path is the riskiest path.” 
Price doesn’t seem to need a chimp to pick hits. Like his forebears, he is a maverick with an analytical streak. His grandpa’s show, The Fugitive, which became a $387 million movie, broke all the rules of its day. “Every network passed on The Fugitive at least once,” he says. “You couldn’t have a guy wanted for murder as your protagonist! The whole concept was offensive! But it was a huge hit, and the offbeat protagonist has become very popular.” 
Offbeat protagonists are the foundation of Price’s empire: trans dads, madcap maestros, Nazis running half of America in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and a Vietnam-era writer who sells out his talent in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes. As with The Fugitive, he notes, “Every studio passed on Transparent.”  
Price also doesn’t fret about industry headlines, which note that shows by Netflix, FX, HBO and Hulu often get more viewers than Amazon. Though he’s in competition with traditional studios for viewers in theaters, on TV and on devices, he’s in a different position because Amazon’s business model is unique. He needs to grow viewership, but he doesn’t make money from ads whose prices are based on viewership ratings, which (natch!) Amazon won’t disclose.
Instead, he must grow membership in Amazon Prime, a service that costs Amazon customers $99 a year (or $10.99 a month), for which they get free two-day shipping on products purchased through Amazon and streaming of all the Amazon shows they can watch. Analysts say Price drove much of Amazon’s 53 percent growth in Prime membership in 2015 to an estimated 54 million (it’s now over 60 million). Prime members effectively subsidize all the shows Price is busy creating, whether or not they watch anything.
“Their strong belief is the more time you spend in the Amazon ecosystem, the more money you spend with Amazon,” media analyst Richard Greenfield told The Los Angeles Times last year. “The key for Amazon is how do they get you to spend more time in that ecosystem — and it’s with having a deep catalog of movies, TV and music.”
Much more important than ratings, then, is converting casual customers into Amazon Prime members — who buy three times as much from Amazon as non-Prime customers — and breaking through the noise of the vast landscape of entertainment options.
“You’ve got to make it interesting and worthwhile and buzzworthy to stand out in a crowded market,” says Price. “What you’re really looking for is that really ambitious, completely addictive, binge-worthy show that’s in the top 20 or 10 — or one — that people are talking about. In 1977, you could get a lot out of a show that simply retained the audience of a previous show. But today, it’s on demand — they have to demand it. So you’ve got to earn that.”
Audience habits are changing at warp speed, something Price and his boss, Bezos, who devotes serious time to Amazon Studios, are obviously factoring into their plans. Most Hollywood programmers live or die by ratings and first-weekend grosses. Bezos and Price play a longer game. Their goal is to retain audiences for years, not weekends, and they have the benefit of the world’s largest database of consumer behavior. 
Instead of relying on Nielsen polls of viewers, who can lie about what they watch and are increasingly hard to reach as people ditch their land lines, Amazon and its tech rivals can tell exactly what its customers are watching, and algorithms tell an informative story about particular products they might like. Netflix mined data showing its customers loved the original British House of Cards and Kevin Spacey before shelling out $100 million for the United States version, but Amazon has even more customers and data (just not more streaming customers—yet). These tech game changers are making Hollywood nimbler, less irrationally traditional, more customer-driven. Cable companies give you mostly channels you don’t want; Amazon, ever more cleverly, gives you what you do want. 
The key question is whether the ability of Amazon and Netflix to observe individual customer behavior gives them an advantage over broadcasters’ Nielsen survey data, says Michael D. Smith, a Carnegie-Mellon University information tech and marketing expert, “and so far, the answer seems to be ‘yes.’ As Amazon and Netflix emerge as competitors, it will be interesting to see whether Amazon’s ability to observe both retail purchase data and video views gives it an advantage over Netflix’s video-only data — and the jury is still out on that one.”
There’s also no telling what else Bezos will take over. But it’s worth remembering that the bestselling bio about him is called The Everything Store and his original name for Amazon was “”
An Oscar could provide an altogether different type of boost in visibility. Guests at December’s Manchester by the Sea Oscar campaign bash say Price and Bezos’s hunger for the gold doll was absolutely palpable. Yet many — maybe most — people have no idea Amazon is in the movie and TV business. So if a $2 million Oscar campaign can catch the eye of 300 Academy voters, it could produce recognition for a movie that might then be watched by one billion people.
Even for the famously frugal Bezos, whose Amazon executives fly coach, that kind of return is definitely worth a $2 million investment.