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 (

Paine Field Ready for Takeoff

Paine Field Ready for Takeoff

Opposition continues, but Paine Field inches closer to commercial operations.

When Paine Field was built in 1936, nearly a decade before Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was completed, the 604-acre, fog-free unpopulated site 23 miles north of Seattle was envisioned as being one of 10 commercial “super airports” around the country. Originally called Snohomish County Airport — its name was changed to Paine Field in 1941 — the airport was a Works Progress Administration project designed as part of the New Deal to create jobs, drive economic growth in the Pacific Northwest and support a nascent aviation sector.

Shortly after opening, the airport was diverted for military operations during World War II, and again later for the Korean War. Snohomish County took over full management of the site and opened it for new commercial development in the mid-1960s, leading Boeing to establish a production facility for the 747 jetliner in 1966. By then, Sea-Tac had emerged as the region’s primary airport.

Now, 80 years after construction began, Paine Field is about to fulfill its original purpose as a commercial airport. Last year, Snohomish County approved plans for a commercial air terminal to be operated by Propeller Airports, a 5-year-old subsidiary of Propeller Investments, a private equity firm that invests exclusively in the aerospace and transportation sectors. When completed, the two-gate passenger terminal will be the first privately operated commercial air terminal in the country.

“This is a win for residents and businesses in Everett and Snohomish County,” says Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “Bringing a terminal of this quality to our community as a public-private partnership saves precious taxpayer dollars and offers considerable economic benefits.” He says the county looks forward to “helping travelers avoid hours of traffic and headaches.”

Initial operations will be limited to two dozen flights a day. Any expansion beyond that, which will require Federal Aviation Administration approval, will likely be vigorously fought in court by community groups in nearby areas like Mukilteo and Edmonds concerned about traffic, noise and property values.

Mukilteo’s mayor, Jennifer Gregerson, is pushing for a county charter amendment to create an airport commission to oversee Paine Field. While Mukilteo, whose eastern border abuts the airport, has no legal authority to stop passenger service, Gregerson wrote recently in a blog post, “We will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that the full impacts to our community are heard and addressed. We will not stop in that mission, and the fight is not over.”

In that regard, the Port of Seattle’s effort to build a third runway at Sea-Tac is a cautionary tale. First proposed in 1992, it faced opposition from cities and communities neighboring the airport and encountered long delays and rising costs. The third runway finally opened in November 2008 and cost $1 billion, more than four times the original estimate.

But the forces arrayed in support of Paine Field are building. The FAA concluded in 2012 that commercial airplanes could use Paine Field without significantly affecting the neighborhood. Jet engines are much quieter today than they were two generations ago, and Paine Field officials say the noise level meets federal guidelines within the footprint of the airport itself. In fact, the noisier aircraft tend to be private planes that use the only runway that takes them over Mukilteo. An opposition group, Save Our Communities, and two individuals filed suit to block commercial service on environmental grounds, but a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in March rejected the argument.

As Sea-Tac struggles to handle rapid growth (see story, page 41) and as vehicle traffic through Seattle faces gridlock much of the day, pressure to develop a second major airport in Washington state will continue to grow. Boeing Field — officially King County International Airport — is not a candidate as a relief airport because of conflict with the flight pattern into Sea-Tac. McChord Field, a military airport near Tacoma, is also mentioned as a possible option — Colorado Springs Airport south of Denver, for example, has combined military and commercial operations. But McChord is a key component of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and there are no plans or initiatives afoot to use McChord for commercial flights.

Besides, since Sea-Tac is already situated between Seattle and Tacoma, Paine Field is far better positioned to serve the growing number of residents who live in Seattle and to the north. The state Office of Financial Management estimates that, by 2025, the population of Snohomish County alone will grow to 1 million, up from 870,000 today.  About 4,700 travelers a day from Snohomish County depart from Sea-Tac, according to Port of Seattle passenger data from 2014 and 2015. Most presumably have to travel by highway through the center of Seattle to get there. 


A Long Runway
1. A WPA project, Paine Field was one of 10 “super airports” intended to spur economic growth during the Great Depression.

2. The site required tree clearing and leveling to ready it for runways in 1936.

3. Shortly after it opened, the airport was used by the military during World War II.

4. Alaska Airlines had a maintenance hangar at Paine Field in the late 1940s

It’s also difficult for communities in north Puget Sound to argue persuasively that Paine Field’s growth should be limited when the airport was there before most of the communities were established, and when the region’s economy has benefitted greatly from aerospace development around Paine Field.

It is now one of the largest manufacturing and service centers in the state, encompassing about 50,000 jobs. Boeing builds its largest planes at a Paine Field facility that is the largest building in the world. Other companies like Aviation Technical Services, which employs 1,500 workers doing commercial aircraft maintenance, also call Paine Field home and use its runways for their operations.

Although commercial flights will initially be limited to about 24 a day, Paine Field is already a busy airport. It handles roughly 300 flights daily, including large jetliners from the Boeing factory and small planes flown by private aircraft owners. The modern, FAA-operated control tower was built in 2003, more than doubling the size of the old tower, and it has the most advanced aviation technology in the industry. 

Propeller Airports is moving ahead — it has submitted its application to comply with Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act — and hopes to break ground on the new terminal by the end of this year. Flights could begin in late 2017.  

With commercial operations an apparent certainty, the issue now is growth. Asked to discuss the future, Propeller CEO Brett Smith is careful in his response. He says the company is “building its business model around a two-gate terminal, and beyond that, who knows?”

Opponents doubt Propeller’s ability to operate a terminal, given its lack of a track record, but Smith insists Propeller will create a “world-class facility worthy of this airport.” 

Propeller expects to make a profit from parking, concession, service and airline facility fees. 

Tom Hoban, CEO of the Coast Group of Companies, an Everett-based commercial real-estate and investment firm, is often described as the “father” of the effort to bring commercial service to Paine. He sees the two-gate operation as adequate for now. But, he adds, “If you think of the things the community could do to drive economic diversity and provide jobs for our kids, there is no better option than leveraging a public asset like Paine Field.”

If Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is one of the airlines that operates from Paine, Hoban says the community could not have a better partner.

He also disagrees with residents of communities opposing commercialization, predicting commercial operations at Paine Field will likely increase property values. He says commercial flights will provide businesses the ability to function in Snohomish County, attracting more demand. “The model is there,” he notes. “San Jose to SFO [San Francisco], John Wayne to LAX [Los Angeles]. It’s the low-hanging fruit.”

Propeller’s Smith agrees. “Is it going to be Sea-Tac north?” he asks. “No.”

But he believes the operation will provide a new and welcome experience for passengers tired of the Sea-Tac hassle. Propeller’s terminal will have a fireplace and comfortable seating areas. The nearby parking lot will offer valet service; arriving passengers will be able to send text messages to the lot and have their cars waiting in front of the terminal building.

Smith says Propeller will leverage what he calls “the incredible aviation infrastructure at Paine Field” to encourage further economic development and provide local travelers an airport option.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers says having a private company operate the airport not only provides substantial income for the county — the lease agreement calls for annual payments of about $450,000 — but also eliminates the risk of a publicly operated terminal. Under the 30-year lease, Propeller is responsible for building and maintaining a state-of-the-art, two-gate terminal, which would revert to county ownership at the end of the lease. 

Although neighbors have expressed concern about airplane noise, Paine Field Airport Director Arif Ghouse says it should not be a concern. “We have shown that the noise level is contained within the airport itself,” he says, meaning that noise levels above 65 decibels are not heard in neighboring communities. He notes that Paine Field already has many large commercial airplanes taking off each day as new planes come from the Boeing plant. The only difference between them and commercial flights, Ghouse says, is that “they’re just empty.” 

Future Destination
Propeller Airports, a private developer, is buldigna two-gate commercial terminal to serve Paien Field. It could open late next year. 

There is room for expansion at Paine. The airport already has about 80 acres north of the main runway targeted for development. The aim is to market the land to “aerospace” uses, Ghouse says. Expanded airline operations would certainly qualify as an aerospace use. 

Road access to the airport may be a more serious concern. There are two general access routes to Paine Field on crowded surface streets. Motorists trying to exit to Interstate 5 run into long lines when Boeing shifts end. Paine Field is scheduled to be on the Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion. An updated version announced in May indicates light rail would serve the airport (and Everett) by 2036.  

No airline has publicly announced flights from Paine Field, but two have shown strong interest. Bobbie Egan, an Alaska Airlines spokeswoman, says there is a need for another commercial airport in the region. Asked about Propeller’s lease and plans, Egan says, “If there is an airport built there, we would take a strong look at service there.” In a 2013 proposal to the FAA, Alaska suggested operating 98 flights a week from Paine Field to Portland, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other West Coast destinations. 

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which operates flights from Bellingham to Oakland, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Phoenix, has also expressed interest with the FAA but says it has no immediate plan to fly from Paine Field. 

Paine field has three runways, the longest more than 9,000 feet and used mostly by Boeing for its large, wide-body jets. The runway length means it can handle almost any size aircraft; the longest runway at Sea-Tac is about 12,000 feet. A second runway at Paine is much shorter, about 3,000 feet, and is used mostly by small private aircraft — about 650 private planes are based there. The third runway, 4,500 feet long, is used as a taxiway and for Boeing to park unsold aircraft.

Paine Field also is a major tourist destination. The Future of Flight Aviation Center and the associated Boeing factory tour attract 350,000 people a year. The Museum of Flight Restoration Center and Reserve Collection also call the airport home, along with Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection. Two community colleges operate facilities there, training students for jobs in aviation.

The question that’s still hard to answer is how Paine Field can grow fast enough to help shoulder part of Sea-Tac’s increasing load. “As part of our master planning, we have always recognized the region is going to eventually need a reliever airport,” says Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper. But 24 flights a day at Paine won’t do much to relieve congestion at Sea-Tac, which currently averages more than 1,000 flights a day.

One pressing issue is the real challenge faced by the Port of Seattle at Sea-Tac. If it stumbles even slightly in its plan to enlarge the airport, the resulting bottleneck would affect the region’s economic growth and send business elsewhere. 

Another major regional airport would provide the answer. In 1936, Paine Field was envisioned as a “super airport” serving the region. It now seems as if fulfilling that vision is the only practical alternative to serving the area’s growing transportation needs.

Who Was 'Top' Paine?
Paine Field is named for Topliff O. “Top” Paine, who was born in Ohio in 1893 and moved with his family to Everett in 1903. A graduate of Everett High School and the University of Washington, Paine was a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service when he joined the Army in 1917 upon the United States’ entry into World War I. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1918 after completing flight school. He was discharged in 1919 and became a commercial pilot in California and Mexico. In 1920, he joined the Post Office Department’s new Air Mail Service, becoming one of the top pilots in its Western Division. He died in 1922 when his revolver accidentally discharged. The Earl Faulkner Post of the American Legion suggested Snohomish County Airport be named in Paine’s honor in April 1941.