“Making things people need is better than making people want things” the design journey of Rob Curedale, President of the Design Community College Los Angeles.
September 9, 2021
Born in Perth Australia, Rob Curedale worked as a designer, director, and educator in design offices in London, Sydney, Switzerland, Portugal, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Detroit, and Hong Kong and taught at design schools in those and other places. Now the President of the Design Community College Los Angeles, Rob is sharing his passion for design and community.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your professional journey?
I lived in Canberra as a young child as my father had gone there to manage the finances of the city. Canberra is a modernist planned city that was constructed like Brasilia as the National Capital in Australia following an international competition for urban design in the early 20th Century that was won by Walter Burley Griffin who was Frank Lloyd Wrights’s junior partner in Chicago. I didn’t know what an unusual designed environment that city was as a child because I had experienced no other place.
My father had a collection of books that included some books on anthropology and archaeology. I was fascinated by images of exotic clothing and artifacts taken in traditional societies during the early 20th century. After I studied design I saw that ethnology, anthropology, and design are closely connected expressions of human culture.
In Canberra when I was about 17 years old, I was fortunate to meet two people who had extensive international experience practicing design and architecture. They influenced me to study architecture and then design. Both of them were extraordinarily skilled at drawing.
Roger Kirk Hayes Johnson was an architect, planner, potter, painter, sculptor, writer, and educator. After architectural studies in the United Kingdom, He was flying an Avenger fighter in 1944 when he was shot down off Dieppe attacking a convoy of German E-boats. His crew did not survive and was in the water for 24 hours before being picked up by a E-boat and to Stalag Luft III in Poland where he remained a prisoner of war until 20 May 1945 when the Russians released him.
After the war, he practiced architecture and teaching in Kenya working for the great Weimer Modernist architect Ernst May, South Africa, Burma, England, and finally Australia where he was the First Assistant Commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission. Several key Canberra landmark buildings including the National Gallery of Australia and the School of Music begun construction during Johnson’s time at the commission.
The second person was Fitzpatrick an industrial designer whose career began with his work at the Danish design firm Bernadotte Bjorn run by the brother-in-law of the King of Denmark. There he designed glassware, photographic equipment, and furniture.
He worked as a professor at Art Center College of Design Pasadena for many years and he was Professor Emeritus at College for Creative Studies in Detroit after serving for six years as Chairman of Transportation Design. He worked in design consultancies and car design studios in Melbourne, UK, Denmark, Germany, and New York and taught for many years at the Rhode Island School of Design.
After four years of studying architecture and design at what is now the University of Canberra. I won a national competition for the design of a system of airport seating and moved to Sydney to work for the company Sebel that had sponsored the competition. Later I continued graduate and other studies in Australia, the US, and some classes through the Domus Academy in Milan. In London, I completed one year of a degree in illustration at Chelsea College of Art and Design.
My first job in London was working for a company owned by Jeannette Constable Maxwell. Jeannette was an associate of John Getty 1st and his grandson John Getty 3rd. I was the only designer working there and over four years and dozens of projects built a design office. I managed the design, contract manufacturing, and installation of an extensive range of urban furniture in Abu Dhabi including bus shelters, seating, signage, postboxes and other such things in a project worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The bus shelters are still in use. “The project included signage for the AbuDhabi Airport. Building a design office was a large learning curve for me as a young man.”
After four years in London, I moved back to Sydney to manage the Australian Design Awards scheme for the Design Council. Prince Philip at one time traveled to Australia each year to present Awards managed by the Design Council, the Prince Philip Prize in a nationally televised ceremony. I would organize panels each day consisting of designers, engineers, advertising and marketing experts, human factors specialists, and others and chair the panels which lasted half a day assessing each product. We would travel to regional cities once each year to give design feedback to manufacturers. Through the Design Council, I met a wide variety of designers and manufacturers such as Gordon Andrews who had worked for Olivetti in Europe designing their showroom interiors.
For four years in Sydney, I worked as a designer and project manager for a design consultancy called KWA in an old industrial building overlooking a Gothic church. There I designed a great variety of electronic equipment furniture and other products. I worked on a number of musical synthesizers for Kim Ryrie and his company called Fairlight. His synthesizers were the first that used sampling. Musicians including Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran, John Lennon, and Peter Gabriel used Fairlight Synthesizers then because they were the most advanced available. I recall meeting Kim just after he had returned from meeting John Lennon in his apartment in New York or Steve Jobs in his office in Cupertino and he would tell me about his experiences.
I set up my own office in Balmain which I managed for ten years while completing a Masters’s degree. We employed Marc Newson’s company to design the interior of our office which we shared with a corporate graphic design company.
My team designed urban furniture for the 2000 Olympics, furniture, a great variety of electronic equipment and medical equipment, and diving equipment for the Japanese company Apollo. We designed a laptop for Canon and medical equipment that has been used in thousands of hospitals around the world. Some of our projects are now in the collection of the Powerhouse Design Museum in Sydney. I employed many great designers there including Chris Stringer. During his 22 years later at Apple Chris contributed to the design of the PowerBook, iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, Apple Watch, Apple Pencil, HomePod, USB-C. at Apple. A couple of our designers had come from Philippe Stark’s office in Paris.
Bus Shelters for Adshel and the City of Sydney developed with the Adshel team. Part of a range of street furniture developed for the city of Sydney preparing for the Sydney Olympics since then installed in other cities.
Over the years I have worked on many hundreds of projects. In these projects I was responsible for a design, initially designing, engineering and supervising manufacture myself and eventually managing design with hundreds of people collaborating on a project. Teams on the largest projects included designers, human factors specialists, color and materials specialists, packaging designers, web designers, exhibit designers, business managers, marketing teams, engineers, manufacturers, and others. On some projects, the teams were dispersed in several countries and files were moved at the end of the day to the next design offices in another time zone where it was morning so the work could continue 24 hours a day and the current iteration of the design was moving around the world with people working on it 24 hours a day.
The first project of about a dozen seating projects that I worked on at my first job, Sebel was the design of the first one-piece polypropylene chair in the world, the Sebel Integra. Polypropelene now is one of the most common materials used for chairs. At that time there had been some fiberglass and ABS chairs manufactured in Europe but those materials were unsuitable for the Australian climate where they would become brittle and shatter within six months in the desert locations.
The Integra chair is still in manufacture after several decades. The chairs have been manufactured in six countries in volumes of tens of millions and reaching greater volumes than the population of Australia at that time. It was the largest injection molding tool that had been constructed in Australia. I worked in Sydney designing high-volume lighting for the Dutch company Philips and later moved to London which was then where designers in Australia went to expand their experience and education.
I have continued to work on furniture products in every conceivable material since then. Later I was the design director of a company called DTank in LA and design manager at Haworth in Michigan then the second-largest furniture company in the world.
Office System for RTKL Los Angeles and London Offices with RTKL, and dTank teams.
After I taught at Art Center Europe in Vevey Switzerland in the final year of that institution’s life I was invited to move to Los Angeles for a position as a senior designer and design project manager at a company called Hauser which employed about 100 designers and model makers in a converted theater owned by the actor Mickey Rooney in Westlake Village.
First, I lived in a hotel. The first house I rented in LA was shared with the actor John Savage and his wife. John is known for his roles in The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, Twin peaks, and the thin Red Line. I taught at Art Center over a period of about 25 years and was the Chair of the Product Design Program at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
I had some extraordinary experiences in Detroit but I think I should not dwell too much there for sake of brevity. The program I chaired at CCS had then about 40 instructors and was the largest ID program in the Americas. I worked for a period as a manager for a Hong Kong-based design firm that designed products for airline catalogs.
I started writing books on design about 15 years ago. I had observed that few product designers write books and there is a need for reference books in design education. My contacts with the more than a million designers in the online Groups I had established allowed me to make designers aware of this resource.
I have since published about thirty books on subjects related to design, innovation, design thinking, design research, service design, product design, and design methods. They have sold and distributed hundreds of thousands of copies. Design Thinking Process and Methods manual is now in its fifth edition and is 660 pages!
You have designed over 1,000 products, experiences, and services; what are your design principles and where do you find your inspiration?
I find inspiration in people and from experiences. I am inspired by unorthodox disruptive creative people. My heroes were always people who transgressed the normal. They were disruptive. The type of people who if they are given a page with ruled lines will write or sketch sideways rather than between the lines. People like Sylvia Plath, George Orwell, Jane Goodall, Ettore Sottsass, Emmeline Pankhurst, T.E. Lawrence, and Johannes Itten. I have worked with many such people. They do not interface easily with corporations.
I am a product of the century of Modernism. I follow loosely Dieter Rams ten principles of design. There is no better summary. His view is Eurocentric.
Good design is innovative, Good design makes a product useful. Good design is aesthetic. Good design makes a product understandable. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is honest. Good design is long-lasting. Good design is thorough down to the last detail, Good design is environmentally-friendly, Good design is as little design as possible. Making things people need is better than making people want things.
The teachers at the Bauhaus were influenced by revolutionary communist theory that wanted to overthrow design traditions to build a brave new world order that served the industrial age. I see value in traditional approaches to design as well as in modernist theory.
I think that the Japanese understood a better relationship between people and materials always reminding us that we exist with nature not dominating it. Good design can also be found in the traditional craft cultures of old civilizations such as in India, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. In these places, good design is not just as little as possible
When I was managing my own design office in Sydney I took some long breaks from design practice. One of those breaks was to work on an archaeological dig in the Jordan Eastern Black Desert at Um El Qatain with a group of archaeologists from Oxford University and I taught for a period at Art Center in Switzerland and spent some time in the Annapurna Region of the Himalayas in Nepal… I traveled down the Nile on a Felucca and through the Sinai with a Bedouin in a Jeep. I worked on archaeological digs in the Middle East and in The United States.
Stefano Marzano who once headed Philips Design in the Netherlands told this story when I studied a short course with the Domus Academy. His grandfather was a clothing designer and maker in Italy. He would first sit down with the customer and discuss their life like a psychologist or a friend before designing and making the clothes for them. Two weeks after the brief the customer would return and try on the clothes. When the customer returned his grandfather would wheel out a “magic old mirror” from a closet. Stefano noticed that the customer would always smile when they first looked into the magic mirror and saw how the clothes perfectly suited them because the grandfather understood them. Stefano saw their smile in the magic mirror while he played in feet deep cloth cuttings on the floor and for him, the smile was the essence of good design. The smile was the essence and evidence of user-centered design. Decades later that smile is still for him the best test of good design.
One of the most influential European Industrial designers of the 20th Century, Ettore Sottsass considered that the greatest design is often found not in great architectural monuments or museums but in the humblest of objects we use or encounter every day.
“I don’t understand why the President’s speech is better than love whispered in a room at night.” “When I was young, I gathered information only from fashion magazines or from very ancient, forgotten destroyed dusty civilizations never from solidity. ” At the beginning, when I was young, full of presumption, theoretical, very aggressive, I was very tied to turn of the century functionalism, to the idea of functional style. but gradually I left that behind because I found a new source of inspiration. from then on, I began to try to figure out what I could be in terms of this society, the people, the necessity which surrounded me.”-Ettore Sottsass.
Sottsass started his career in Mussolini’s Italy. Ettore Sottsass was also a friend of Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Picasso, Max Ernst, Alice Toklas, Chet Baker, Jack Kerouac, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alberto Moravia and Ernest Hemingway. Sottsass met Kerouac following his recuperation from Nephritis that he had contracted in India in 1961 Roberto Olivetti funded a treatment program for Sottsass at the Stanford Medical Center, Palo Alto, California, After months of recuperation at the Center, Sottsass met Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady in San Francisco.
Concept Development for Turnstone a Steelcase company.
When did you join the Design Community College in Los Angeles as President? Can you tell us more about the programs and specialties taught?
I established DCC in 2012. DCC teaches certificate programs and individual online classes in Design Thinking, Industrial Design, Service Design, Experience Design UX, Interaction Design, Color, Business Practices, Portfolio, Human Factors, Mapping Methods, Design Methods, and Design Research to designers, engineers, and executives, and other areas.
Our students are mostly working designers, engineers, and executives who are seeking to expand their knowledge to practice design in these areas. We have presented hundreds of online and face-to-face corporate educational workshops in these areas. Most of the classes are online now because of the pandemic.
Students have come from companies such as Tesla, NASA, Pininfarina, MIT Stanford, Samsung, Logitech, Steelcase, Nike, Starbucks, and universities and government organizations. Students are able to access needed skills for design practice without enrolling in traditional degree programs. For example, one student was a biomedical engineer from Siemens in Cambridge UK who is managing industrial designers and needed to know more about industrial design. The education system in the United States is broken so we wanted to fulfill a need by providing good quality education that is relevant, affordable, and flexible for students.
We have educated about 7,500 students. Many students do several courses. We have had students from Africa access classes from cell phones. In the United States, good quality education for many people has become inaccessible due to cost. The best design schools charge Ivy League tuition.
Design Managers and Directors may need to learn new skills but they do not want to commit to a graduate degree program that will take them away from their work. A lot of the content of degree programs is not immediately useful to them. They want relevant skills that can be learned when they have time available. They want live teachers, not prerecorded classes. They want teachers with high-level teaching and design practice experience. Those are the things we deliver!
What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities in your career now?
I am always interested in trying something new. Something that brings me to new people and new places and new ways of thinking. Because my work always involves software, I find one of the challenges is keeping up to date with software. I have done update courses for about a dozen types of software used for UX and interactive instructional design recently.
I think design education in the United States has problems as an industry and is ready for some disruption to become more flexible, relevant, and affordable. Designers need skills now that are hybrid skills to enable the design of systems of products, services, and experiences. These skills cross traditional boundaries of disciplines like graphic design, interior design, architecture, experience design and web design.
You founded and manage design Groups on LinkedIn dedicated to Design with over 1.3 million followers, what type of content are you sharing? What are your main goals?
There are 1.3 million group members in the design groups that I have established on LinkedIn. I think I have about 40,000 followers but this is increasing currently by perhaps one thousand each week. All these people share their thoughts and experiences in my groups. I established the groups when Linkedin added the group feature. That was probably now fifteen years ago. At that time design discussions were mostly national. Some designers belonged to national design institutions in their particular country.
This level of reach in social media can only be compared to the nightly viewers of media organizations like CNN and Fox news. Fox news for designers. I try to promote using this reach the greater good through design.
I understood from working as a designer in Australia, Europe, and the United States that there were then considerable differences in the practice of design in different areas of the world.
For example, I saw working then in Los Angeles that design consultancies there used design research somewhat less than design consultancies in London. One of the successes of IDEO at that time was infusing the culture of Silicon Valley with ideas of the European partners including Bill Moggridge and Tim Brown. I wanted to establish an international venue for design discussion where ideas could be shared internationally in real-time. Innovation coming through sharing different approaches and ideas. Like the coffee houses of Vienna in the 19th Century where different cultures and ideas came into collision over coffee creating innovative music and art. So, I established the first LinkedIn Groups for Design Research, Product Design, Graphic Design, Web Design, Interior Design, Service Design, design education and Architecture. Some of those groups have close to 200,000 members today. It is necessary to moderate some of the groups to allow open discussion. Ray Kinsella an Iowa farmer who hears a mysterious voice telling him to turn his cornfield into a baseball diamond in the field of dreams said “If you build it, they will come” and so I created the groups more than a million working designers did
I am exposed through this extraordinary number of practicing designers to a river of design every day. I am swimming in a river of ideas. I share those things that I find personally inspiring and interesting. I sometimes feel like I am exposed to more design from more places than almost anyone in the world. I share those things that I think need to be shared about new developments in all areas of design. New ideas, new fields of design, progress. I am also interested in great design from history, not just from the 20th Century. There are so many ideas that have been forgotten!
Look Seating For Haworth with Robert Leonetti and Haworth Team.
What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any upcoming projects that you’re able to tell us about?
At the moment I am working on some new books related to design. I have written and published about thirty design books in areas such as design thinking, product design, web design, service design, design research, color, and design practice. Twenty years ago, before design thinking was widely known I felt that design thinking could be valuable to people who were not trained designers to solve their problems and create solutions for example a village in Africa that lacked health facilities or clean drinking water. Traditional aid has limitations. I could see that design thinking was being taught to wealthy western students at prestigious institutions. I created a free downloadable summary of the main ideas and the process of design thinking that anyone anywhere could download for free. It has been downloaded more than 75,000 times to people in every country in the world.
I also wrote a substantial textbook of more than 600 pages on design thinking processes and methods which is used as a textbook in many colleges and universities today. I developed a more complete system of methods than had previously been used in design thinking. For example, I connected Journey and experience mapping approaches with design thinking and sprints which hadn’t previously been part of what was associated with design thinking.
I was told that Google used some of my books when they were developing sprint methodology. A few weeks ago, a manager at UNICEF thanked me for my books and work on Design Thinking.
Which advice do you give to your students, starting their career in Design?
Here are some things that have guided me:
‘Design is creativity with strategy ‘ Think about creating things that are unique and express your unique voice. What is unique about you? What do you want to be doing in five years, in ten years? How are you going to get there? Travel. One of the best design schools is an air ticket. The greatest designers in history in the US such as Eames and Lowey Mies, and I’ve all had lived in more than one culture and country. In the US if you take the names of the top 100 historical designers and architects all but a few of them lived in two or more countries. Travel puts more spanners in your design toolbox. Great writers like Falkner and Orwell drew on their life experiences in their writing. It is the same for design. Dull Hollywood soap operas may be dull because the writers lack life.
Design Is best when It Is not noticed – Paul Gardien, Philips experiences. Not every object needs to scream for attention. A room full of such objects can be overpowering. When Sottsass designed furniture, he was thinking about the room in which the chair would live and of the life of the people in the room. “To be an architect, you have to become very gentle, very calm, and extremely sensitive about life,” he said.
Designers are not artists. Successful designs live in people’s homes. You are not a solo performer. A designer needs to respect the value that others can bring. You are more like a band member than an artist. A good band needs a group of good musicians to be playing together in tune The responsibilities of designers are not the same as the responsibilities of artists. Designers have responsibilities to clients, to users, to the environment, as well as to themselves.
We work with increasingly diminishing resources in a world where the climate is changing and where the living species, we depend on our fast disappearing. One-third of tree species are threatened with extinction. It has been estimated that there are four chairs already in existence for every living person in the world. It is not enough to design another good-looking chair. There are already many good-looking chairs in the world. An average consumer throws away 70 pounds (31.75 kilograms) of clothing per year.
Globally we produce 13 million tons of textile waste each year 95% of which could be reused or recycled. The average use of a consumer electronics product is only six to eight months. Design for need, not fashion. Design things people need rather than things people want. Design them to be valued and to last. The sketch isn’t the end product. Do not make the sketch or the prototype jewelry that stands in the way of the best design. Iterate until you can’t improve it anymore and let the customer be part of the process all the way through the design development. Designers must have empathy. Artists do not need empathy to the same extent. An artist’s focus is self-expression. The needs of your users are most important to a designer. Beware of drugs and alcohol. Some people are genetically predisposed to dependency. I have seen these things destroy the lives, careers, and opportunities of some great designers and good people.
Much of what we call good design is about creating objects and experiences that define status and gender. Fast cars and designer furniture have status. Design helps define the structure of our society. What we find beautiful is often related to some evolutionary advantage. In all societies, for example, people find large trees with thick branches reachable from the ground beautiful. Some researchers argue that those trees allowed us to escape wild animals. Our eyes are more sensitive to color in the yellow-orange area of the spectrum. Researchers have various explanations including that this allowed us to see fruit at a greater distance or allowed us to see better under the firelight.
Clients often say they want a design like Apple but when the time comes, they are not prepared to invest in the risks that Apple has taken. Innovation involves risk and courage. Take calculated risks. Love those things the most that can love you back. Your relationships with people are ultimately more important than your relationship to design. Design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society. Design that is the result of inner compulsion has meaning. All successful design has a unique and compelling back story. Seek out the best mentors. Go to the best design school that you can afford.
In the US there are perhaps 120 schools teaching industrial design. In the first-tier design offices, the employees come from only half a dozen of those schools. If you are designing physical products like furniture, learn also about service design and experience design. Ninety-five percent of Americans work in service industries. If you design the system of products, services, and experiences together, the value is ten to twenty percent greater designing them together rather than independently. It is not all bad to get fired. It can put you on a better course. Make the right type of mistakes. Some of the best designers were fired. If you are a great designer you can expect to be fired at least once. Expect change. Keep reinventing yourself. Nobody sets the rules but you and you can change your future at any moment. Never give up.
X System Storage for Haworth with Ken Krayer and Haworth team.
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