The Power of Design

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

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 Indeed.com, 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. http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/05/before-hiring-a-design-partner/

Principals: Seattle’s leading design firms

Teague

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

Artefact

Founded 2006

Design concepts, industrial design

Customers: Google, Amazon, Huawei

Employees: 50

Anvil Studios, Seattle: product design (anvil-studios.com)

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

General Assembly, Seattle: product design (productg.com)

Karass Creative, Seattle: user interface (karasscreative.com)

Substantial, Seattle: user interface (substantial.com)

Tectonic, Seattle: user interface (gotectonic.com)

Tether, Seattle: product design (tetherinc.com)

Wonderful Union, Seattle: user interface (wonderfulunion.com)

Zumobi, Seattle: user interface (zumobi.com)

OfferUp's Mobile Marketplace

OfferUp's Mobile Marketplace

Building a better Craigslist: OfferUp quietly makes its move.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
OfferUp cofounders Nick Huzar, left, and Arean Van Veelen.
 
We all know the mother of invention. Nick Huzar’s necessity was finding a way to clear out a room for his soon-to-arrive baby girl.
 
“My wife and I were at a spot where we wanted to have kids and when she said she was expecting, I kind of went into dad mode,” Huzar explains. “I remember standing in the doorway of this room, which was about to be my daughter’s room. It was just full of stuff and I’m thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way to sell this stuff.’ It would take forever to sell it through existing channels.”
 
Having moved on from his previous startup — Konnects, a social media platform for magazines and newspapers — Huzar was ready for his next challenge. Still, he confesses, “I had no plans on doing another startup right away. It’s a lot of work.”
 
But the idea of streamlining the buying and selling process wouldn’t go away. “I was looking at my phone and just kept thinking, ‘Why can’t buying and selling be as simple as taking and sharing a photo?’” he says. “That was the spark for OfferUp.”
 
OfferUp is a Bellevue company that runs a mobile platform for buyers and sellers. Looking for a pair of size 12 Nike Richard Sherman trainers worn “only a few times”? In mid-March, Joey in Kent was offering them up for $150. Stephen in Renton offered up a 2014 Tesla Models S with 12,141 miles on the odometer for $76,000. Martin in Federal Way offered up a pogo stick “in good working condition” for $30.
 
Huzar says he and cofounder Arean Van Veelen did a lot of homework before launching. They talked with friends, family and around 100 local merchants. 
"There's a long history of companies that tried to compete in this space and failed,” says Huzar. “Keep in mind this was 2011 and the economy wasn’t that strong, so they gave me a lot of time. I learned a lot about what they do and how they promote their stores.”
 
Huzar’s research led him to distinguish his business from Craigslist by focusing on smartphones. Virtually everyone has a smartphone on his or her person most of the time. This lessens the “friction” involved in buying and selling things.
 
“Why do we have underutilized assets at all around us?” Huzar asks rhetorically. “Because there’s a ton of friction in the process. We look at those golf clubs sitting there, and we maybe move them out to the garage and then eventually they end up in the junkyard or somewhere else.”
 
Huzar realized smartphones offer an easy point-and-click way to photograph unwanted goods and offer them for sale on the spot. A computer-based option like Craigslist, which does not have its own app, requires you to photograph the product, transfer the picture to your computer, sign in to your account and finally post the item for sale.
 
OfferUp was designed from the beginning to be a mobile app. Available for iOS and Android, the app reads a user’s location and offers tiled photos of items for sale in the local area. Users can set the app to show items within a specified range of miles and to put either the newest items or the closest items at the top of the display. Buyers click a button to make an offer or to send questions to the seller. For those wishing to sell items, it’s as simple as snapping a photo and keying in a price. “You can easily post an item and offer up in less than 30 seconds,” says Huzar.
 
Huzar also realized that, especially for internet and mobile apps, trust and safety were critical issues. So Huzar’s team decided it was important to have a real-time presence in the OfferUp app. “In the chat system we are adding more tips,” says Huzar. “If we see things that we think are questionable, we are happy to engage. We are very proactive in that.” 
 
Even with the best of application design and management processes, of course, getting a marketplace up and running is a lot different from simply offering a product. There needs to be a critical mass of buyers and sellers. Building that critical mass was the next major challenge for Huzar and his team, which officially launched with a total of four employees, including the two founders.
 
“There are a lot of challenges in getting the gears moving,” says Huzar. He started by having his friends and family try the new platform.  But that wasn’t enough, so Huzar explored an array of marketing strategies.
 
“There were a lot of failed things for sure, a lot of experiments that didn’t bear a lot of fruit,” he says. “But we persisted to figure out the right mix.”
 
While not willing to give details about what the “right mix” turned out to be, Huzar says that his team tried pretty much everything. “Any way you could try to target an audience, we tried,” he says. “We even had a booth at the Bite of Seattle. We did experiments handing out fliers. We did print. We did digital. We did everything except skywriting.”
 
While offerup is still privately held and has flown pretty much under the radar of media coverage, its growth — at least as measured in terms of transactions and employees — has been somewhere between “strong” and “spectacular.”
 
Huzar says OfferUp has been downloaded 18 million times. It recorded $3.9 billion worth of transactions in 2015. And from a staff of four in 2011, it has grown to nearly 80 today. The staff has more than doubled in just the past year. “It’s hard to speculate where we will end the year,” says Huzar, “but we are hiring aggressively.”
 
Those numbers are impressive, but the company has yet to generate revenue. The service is currently offered free to buyers and sellers and there is no advertising on the site. The business also has plenty of competitors offering many of the same mobile-based conveniences. They include 5miles, an app developed in China that has its U.S. headquarters in Dallas and has already raised $50 million after just one year in operation. While far younger than OfferUp, 5miles, which places a strong emphasis on local service, already has six million downloads and $2 billion in transactions. It also operates in many international markets, including London, Manila, Mexico City and Sydney. Spain-based Wallapop is another company with a global footprint, and then there are niche players such as Canada’s VarageSale, which focuses on providing a safe market for moms, and Poshmark, which focuses on fashion.
 
Craigslist remains king of the hill, with 45 million unique visitors in January alone. But the company has done little in recent years to improve the site and its unique visitor number is actually down 12 percent from a year ago, according to Millward Brown Digital’s compete.com website. 
OfferUp, meanwhile, has raised $93 million in venture capital and keeps finding new ways to grow. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about our competition,” adds Huzar. “We are singularly focused on creating the best possible experience for our users, and our traction in the market reflects that.”  
 
The venture capital community, which reportedly values OfferUp at up to $1 billion, certainly seems to believe. “It’s obviously a little scary — big valuation, no monetization,” Josh Breinlinger, managing director of Jackson Square Ventures, told GeekWire. “It’s easy to throw up the bubble flag.” But Breinlinger insists OfferUp is no bubble: “We own all of the usage, we own billions and billions of dollars of transactions. We can monetize that.”
Huzar feels the same way. “There are many different monetization initiatives we’re exploring,” he says, though he declined to be specific about those initiatives or when the company plans to implement any of them. “We feel like we’re still in the first inning as a company. We just want to make sure when we roll out things that they really add a lot of value.”