The Power of Design

December 23, 2013

Steve Hansen and Leslie Helm


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 thats 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 Seattles 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. Its the home of highly acclaimed design like the Olympic Sculpture Park. And Teague, a firm that has done much of Boeings 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 citys 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. Its not just about what something looks like. Its about solving problems. Its 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 worlds 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 isnt 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, its 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 companys smartphones.

Amazon has put several talented designers in key management positions, including Brian Kralyevich, who once headed creative direction for Microsofts Interactive Entertainment Business as well as Nokias smartphone operation. Most of Seattles 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 youll 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

Nikes 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)

Its 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 Amazons 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.

Seattles vital manufacturing sector, anchored by companies like aerospace giant Boeing and electronic instrument leader Fluke, has helped develop a strong core of industrial designers. Thats 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 Americas (IDSA) International Design Excellence Awards. The FuelBand measures a persons activity and helps to manage the information online.

That something as simple as a plastic bracelet could be wholly reimagined as Nikes 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 MICROSOFTS growing focus on hardware when he announced the company would be a devices and services company and then proceeded to buy Nokia, once the worlds leading cellphone manufacturer. Although Microsofts 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. Were working with Hornall Anderson to improve the exit experience, how people move around that space at REI, says Dena Yamaguchi, REIs 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.

Washingtons forests have long been a source for raw logs but there have been relatively few companies designing and crafting products from that vital resource. Thats 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 wouldnt be surprising if Seattles special design cachet ultimately emerges with a greenish tinge.

Whether youre 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 cant 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 citys working port, its shipyards and its fishing fleet. She says theres 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 Washingtons 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. Artefacts 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. Thats helping them, in turn, attract other outstanding talent to the region, even in competition with firms in San Francisco and New York.

General Assemblys 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 organizations 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: Seattles 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 (