Well Made

Ep. 67 Designing Your Product Playbook with Joseph Guerra and Sina Sohrab

January 30, 2019 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

Industrial design studio, Visibility, creates products, furniture, lighting, and spaces. In 2014, two years after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and moonlighting via Skype, Joseph Guerra and Sina Sohrab took the studio full time. The agency established an impressive roster of direct-to-consumer clients including Away, Outdoor Voices, and Harry's. Their most recent projects — a bar cart for Dims. and a reusable deodorant case for Myro — demonstrate the pair’s endeavor for simple, functional objects.

“You look at the history of the object and determine lessons that have been learned over time, and you’re kind of designing the next evolution of it while giving it a reason to be new.”

 Designing Your Product Playbook

Behind Visibility is an empirical approach to design. Each project starts with extensive design and market research. As they explore new forms, Joseph and Sina reach a point of clarity, and ultimately a design that pushes the category forward.

“So much of it is curiosity. You have to maintain your own interest level, and part of that is our desire to learn.”

On the show, Joseph and Sina walk through the step-by-step process of bringing a physical product to market. They talk about how they design the playbook that they reference throughout a project (12:42). They cover the time, costs, and vetting that happens before a project begins (20:00). Sina talks about the design considerations for new products (23:43). Joseph shares the unconventional questions (28:08) and practices (29:15) that go into user research. They talk about designing for direct-to-consumer brands (33:30). Joseph explains the sketching, rendering, and prototyping phases (38:50). Finally, they share the final milestones before a project launches (52:06). Full transcript below. 

View their body of work and follow Visibility on Instagram. 

Also mentioned on the show:

Header by Mark Wickens via OTHR. Images via Visibility.

 Designing Your Product Playbook
 Designing Your Product Playbook
 Designing Your Product Playbook
 Designing Your Product Playbook



Stephan Ango: You're listening to a podcast from Lumi about the people and ideas behind your favorite online brands. I'm your host, Stephan Ango.

Stephan: Joey Guerra, Sina Sohrab. You're the founders of Visibility. Welcome to the show.

Joey Guerra: Thanks for having us. We're looking forward to talking to you.

Sina Sohrab: Thank you.

Stephan: That was Joey and Sina respectively. So Visibility, you are an industrial design firm based in New York that designs products, furniture spaces. How do you describe it these days?

Sina: Yeah, we're an industrial design office that designs products and furniture amongst almost everything else.

Joseph: Anything smaller than architecture kind of falls into our purview.

Stephan: So I actually went to school and started my career as an industrial designer. I went to Art Center and nowadays I run mostly the software side of Lumi. So the only kind of industrial design I still do is whenever they let me, I try to make the furniture at the office if I can. But it's a really fun discipline and one of the things that I'm excited to do today is really break it down for people because I'm sure everyone who's listening to this podcast knows we're in a period of time where the economy is completely shifting towards direct to consumer businesses, digitally native brands, and we have entrepreneurs who are probably listening to us right now who are thinking about a product that they want to launch. I just think that industrial design is a fairly poorly understood discipline. We end up on the packaging side actually getting a lot of questions about this kind of stuff. It's a really essential step if you're going to start selling a product to start thinking about how you're going to design it. You have somewhat developed a reputation in specialty in this area. You've worked with companies like Harry's Outdoor Voices, Away, Everlane and a bunch of new ones that we're going to talk about today. But before we jump into all of that, I do want to kind of talk a little bit about your background. You two met studying at RISD, right? Rhode Island School of Design.

Sina: Yeah, that's correct. We met freshman year and spent the next four years kind of studying together and hanging out.

Stephan: I'd love to hear a little bit about how you decided to start Visibility together.

Joseph: Yeah, it was fairly easy in that even in school we were interested in the same types of design and we were looking to the same kind of inspirations and we were interning for very similar mentors. And I think when we came back from our summer internships, when we came back into senior year, we realized we were so aligned that we knew we could probably start a studio in the future. Once we graduated we kind of went out on our own direction just to get some more experience. I was working or interning in Switzerland at the time and Siena was here in New York working for Bec Brittain and we were kind of Skyping and realizing that we just want to start doing projects right then and there. And so we actually started collaborating long distance over Skype up until I moved back to New York and we started to do Visibility.

Sina: It was a lot of moonlighting at first we were both working full time jobs, so it was a lot of nights and weekends. But the tide kind of started to shift and we produced and showed our first body of work and started to get a small list of clients together and then eventually we had enough work that in 2014 we went full time with the studio.

Stephan: So that was about two years after you graduated?

Sina: Correct.

Joseph: Almost, exactly.

Stephan: And what did you pick up from the outside world there during that two year break or not break but actually like working in the industry?

Joseph: Sure. I was working for these guys in Switzerland and right before that I was also in London at Industrial Facility. But the guy who I was working for was the old head of iDEA London. Personally, I was getting a good experience for the small consultancy world. Clients like Blackberry and Herman Miller and just sort of getting to feel what that caliber of work was like, and kind of how intense that process is. But how useful designers can be for people like that.

Sina: I was kind of on the other side of it. I was working for a designer who produces lighting. I Was her first employee and we kind of built out the studio, met a lot of our early clients that were New York based. Kind of set up a foundation for us to kick things off with people like Matter, Roll & Hill. Clients that we work with now. A lot of them came from those years.

Stephan: Industrial design touches so many different materials, production techniques. There are things that are way more complicated to do than others. Walk me through a little bit of that progression because I think it seems like you're getting more and more comfortable with more complexity in your projects. What were your first projects like and try to describe a little bit about that transition maybe?

Sina: Well, so we actually studied furniture design in school and we migrated over to industrial design after graduation through work experience and interest and we learned a lot of the stuff that we ended up using on our own through that. But starting out we were designing a lot of furniture products. Had like a good understanding of form and proportions and ergonomics, but a lot of the engineering challenges that came with our later projects, we kind of slowly built up momentum and learned a lot from those early projects to be able to do.

Stephan: So when you were doing furniture, were you primarily doing that in the shop actually drawing and going straight from drawing to production and prototyping maybe, but did you pick up all the kind of cad-work during your time at RISD or was that something that you had to learn on the job?

Joseph: A bit of both. RISD is a very hands on curriculum and we learned traditional furniture making skills. We took one cad class that was pretty limited and I think Sin and I both took an interest in that way of working and spent a lot of time kind of mastering our cad skills even while at RISD. I would say both of our degree projects where we were so kind of burnt out on furniture that we started to make a lot of other types of work and that brought in product. So we kind of use all those skills we learned from the prototyping skills in the shop to the limited cad skills and started working on product in our last year at RISD.

Stephan: Maybe it would be interesting to walk through some of the recent clients that you've worked with or we were talking before we started recording about some of the ones that might be interesting to talk about. A particularly recent one that I found fascinating is the Myro deodorant. I don't know if that's the most complex, but it really introduces some new production techniques.

Joseph: Yeah. It's essentially our second injection molded product ever. The first one being an appliance. But this was just a lot more hands on and we had to think a lot about a huge set of challenges which was to make a product that would ultimately reduce waste in the deodorant world. Even though we're using virgin plastic, the idea is that it's the only deodorant you'll ever need. And then you buy these pods that are made to be recycled. Which most deodorants aren't. And if they are, you have to like take them apart. And it's just super, super wasteful and kind of a no brainer. But yeah, I mean we want it to make something that was better for the environment. It was Ergonomic, it was iconic, kind of satisfied the client's wants and needs, but also our needs as a design office to kind of keep our own quality and our own kind of vision. Because this could have gone a lot of different ways. So we wanted our first kind of super commercial project to look like it was crafted by our own hand and I think to some degree we managed to keep that.

Stephan: Yeah, well I think we'll get a little bit deeper into some of those different projects and kind of how they came about, but to give some people more illustration of different types of things that you've done and we'll put a lot of photos in the posts that people could check that out too. Misen cookware is an interesting direct to consumer brand as well. Wim, they made a frozen yogurt machine. Maybe walk people through a little bit of your portfolio and some of your more successful projects are the ones that you're particularly proud of.

Joseph: Sure. I think that the Wim appliance, which is a frozen yogurt machine which uses sort of like a cake cup technology with flash freezing was a really interesting project. It was our first electronics piece and we had to think a lot about the engineering and kind of packaging really new technology and making sure that looked good and we would put it in our own kitchen. Because I think at its most basic level it seems a bit frivolous, right? Like we can just go buy frozen yogurt at a store. But we really liked that they were using a new type of technology which was flash freezing and we want to package it in a way that we felt wasn't frivolous and was beautiful and was something that you could just put right into your home and you would be proud of it. I think similarly with the Misen cookware, we started to develop sort of a real comfortability in the kitchen space. And this is all about ergonomics and designing a set of cookware, pots and pans and stock pots and saute's. We really want to focus on the ergonomics of the product and make something that was super comfortable in your hand. And that you could hang it with ease and that there is a real sort of form factor to it that would be really appealing and iconic and kind of lasting, because it's a very crowded space and we want to do something super distinguished.

Stephan: Any clients that come to mind for Sina?

Sina: You know, I think like the project that I live the most with is the Esper lights for Roll & Hill. The Esper lamp, it's actually three lamps that are based on a traditional Japanese chochin's, which are paper lamps that are typically hung outside of isekai's or late night bar spots. And the paper in those traditional lamps really gives a kind of a ethereal quality to them and they're quite graphic in their forms. And so those were qualities that we kind of translated across to the Esper for Roll & Hill, which is a glass and metal lantern. Roll & Hill is known for making a really high end lighting and we wanted to create something that was a little bit more accessible but took all of the great things that they're able to do. And this was a project that kind of captured that.

Stephan: That's awesome. What kind of bulbs is that using? I'm looking at photos of it right now. Is it a standard bulb? How does that work now?

Sina: No, so it's an LED. Roll & Hill actually manufacturers their own LED circuit board, so you get to really, really fine tune it.

Stephan: Wow. Oh. So you can choose the color?

Joseph: Yeah, and on each side of that lantern there's two black caps and there's an LED ring on each side. So there's sort of a reasoning for the top and bottom geometry creating an equal light distribution.

Stephan: Yeah, it does give a very even glow. It's pretty cool. I'd love to see that in person. I'm going to kind of play dumb a little bit and ask questions. I think people might be wondering about when they're approaching industrial design. So I want to just start before we go in depth on kind of all the phases of it. What is the roadmap? When you're talking to a brand new client and they have never worked with an industrial designer before. How do you explain your process?

Joseph: We try to explain it in a very linear way because I think industrial design is a very linear process and that way they can sort of begin to understand how it's going to work. Because they just want to know when they're getting a prototype and then a finished product. The line and share of the work all happens before that point. Right. The factory makes we're going to be the ones kind of designing it and architizing the the internal space of the product. We say we start with research. Research is super important to us and it should be important to every project, but we'll spend a month on a new project just doing the research for them and we'll produce a series of documents that kind of outlined the design research. How this thing could look like and all the different kind of visual references and formal references and material inspiration that we could use and we call that sort of our design playbook for how the project is going to go. We can always look back to this inspiration deck of like what our initial references are. Then we do sort of a functional research deck where we figure out what the challenges are going to be and the pain points. And we try to find other products that have already solved it. We try to find kind of raw technology that also solves the problems and different modules that we'll need to incorporate. And we'll do material research as well and figure out what the best type of materials are. And I guess another type of research we also do, which is becoming more important, especially with these new D-to-C clients, is that we'll do a market audit as well. So if it's a rice cooker, which we're working on right now, we'll look at all the other rice cookers on the market and internationally and figure out what their price points are, what the different features they include or do or do not include. And we'll kind of map that out for them as well because for us those are also design considerations because we'll be fighting for certain functionalities. Like, we want to include this and some things we're like this isn't necessary, no one else includes this and there's obviously a reason for it. So we try to come in from the front end almost as like a therapist trying to read their mind but also give them everything that we've learned over the course of a month or so.

Stephan: Got It. Then goes into ideation or what's the next phase?

Joseph: So yeah, it's a sketch and ideation phase where we are really just taking all those references and we're beginning to sketch our initial ideas and it'll be two or three of us kind of drawing out what we think the project should look like. We sketch a lot, but they're not necessarily like kind of industrial design, traditional sketches with markers and hear all perspectives. We do sort of a hundred napkin sketches that we can kind of internally understand and we use them to kind of help form how we think it's going to look. Internally we kind of figure out which ones are the winners from that. And then from there we usually bring it into CAD and that CAD process is also part of the ideation. Super rough fast computer modeling. Where we're just coming up with 20, 30, 40 different designs and then we quickly render them. And then those kind of are our version of a hero sketch that we can then show the client and also use internally to kind of have our own brainstorms about where the project should go.

Sina: That napkin sketch point of the project really helps us eliminate a lot of ideas that wouldn't work out in the long run. You know, if it's not jumping off the page or grabbing your attention from a little line drawing, then nothing's going to save it.

Stephan: How quickly does prototyping get involved? Are you starting to make little models or anything at that early stage or usually wait until after you've got something in CAD?

Joseph: For the phase where we're kinda quickly and computer modeling is very quick for us and it can happen over the course of a week or two. And once we distilled it down to like five concepts we'll then make quick models of it out of foam and paper and wood or whatever we kind of can get our hands on. We use sort of a paper modeling process that's pretty precise and gets us a really good feel for the form and scale of it. And we kind of use that in conjunction with those renderings to present the client with sort of the different directions for how the project could go. From there they choose a concept and we refine that and usually, during several rounds of refinement, we will locally get prototypes produced. Whether it's 3D printed and painted or machined or however, whatever the material requirements are, we'll kind of suss that out with them, we'll just continue to refine from there until we're working with a factory partner that can produce it and ultimately the factory and us with the client will get a T-one sample and from the tool or from a prototype from the factory that is to a level that they can use to kind of present to their stakeholders. And maybe their fundraising and they can use that to kind of help drive the rest of their mission throughout the production process.

Stephan: How much has rapid prototyping and improvements there helped your process?

Joseph: It's been huge for us.

Sina: Totally. Totally. It's such a helpful process. Our paper models are great, the phone models are great, but being able to show someone a 3D printed, an exact replica of where the project's going is leaps beyond.

Stephan: Are you using like a form one or something like that or do you or do you always outsource those to other services? How do you think about that?

Joseph: Sometimes we use Formlabs. One of our clients kind of gives us free reign over using their machine, which is awesome and we'll just send stuff through them. But actually some of those are on our website. Some of them are actually photographs, like the paperweight is actually printed on a Formlabs and I think the chair as well for Tectona, a French company. But then the Myra deodorant featured on our website, I believe some of those photographs are actually from a prototype made in Chicago. The ones you see on the Internet now are from our own production. But, it gave us the opportunity to photograph them early and make sure that we were ready for launch and had our ducks in a row.

Stephan: So I have the Myra I don't have in front of me. It's a beautiful object. The case that you built for it is just a very unique shape, I think that you came up with that feels very iconic. Maybe you can describe a little bit more about that particular product.

Joseph: Yeah, it's a 16-sided vessel, basically or we call it a hardware piece. It's a 16-sided hardware with a cap that screws on and a dial at the bottom, kind of like on a salt shaker, but also like you'd find on a clock or a timer. And we liked that idea of these 16-sides because every time you turn it to raise the deodorant, it lines up with the next facet. So it's this nice little piece of geometry that sits really nicely on your table, but it also literally sits on your table. So if you flip it on its side, it'll rest on that flat edge, kind of like a pencil does, which is just another nice little nod to additional functionality that we're always interested in.

Sina: And there's a utility to those kinds of forms, things like pencils, salt shakers, those nuts and bolts, glasses that have the facets on the sides. It's a language that exists and it's a really nice language to adapt because it brings a familiar feeling to the project while keeping it new.

Stephan: So I'm guessing one of the first sets of questions that people might ask when they're getting started with you is just: How long is it gonna take and how much is it going to cost? Can you give people a sense of the range there?

Joseph: Yeah, I'll speak to the timing. I mean we usually say that a product takes from start to completion about a year to launch the initial phases probably only take about six months, but the back and forth of the factory adds on months at a time. Especially when you're working overseas, you're talking about a week to two weeks between each exchange of a sample. You know, every time the factory changed something they're sending it to you, it's taking two weeks. So that adds up really quickly. So it's pretty easy for us. Will start a project in November and the launch the next November in time for Black Friday, that's kind of a typical timeline. Some things we can get out in six to nine months depending on what the challenge is. The dims bar cart we got done in about five months actually, which was pretty cool and I think that speaks to their kind of infrastructure they had set up already and cost definitely varies when it's something like the Myra deodorant or an electronics piece or a hardware. It's definitely in the high five figures and I mean that's just the amount of time that it takes on our side and I think that's indicative of the value we bring to the project. It can vary. Some projects work on a royalty basis. We're often kind of moving away from that and there's a lot of reasons for that. But we work with on a fee basis and that's worked so far.

Stephan: Do you ever take equity in the company?

Sina: We do that. That's begun to happen as well. Often it's sort of in conjunction with the design fees. So they'll be a bit on the top that's just for on an equity basis. We're always open to it. It's sort of interesting because you meet these clients and they're just two or three individual people and a year from then they might be one of the bigger new startups. When working with Away we didn't know really what was going to happen. They were eight people in an apartment and Soho. And now they're probably the biggest name on our client roster that was of that D-to-C startup world.

Stephan: Yeah, that's pretty crazy. So how do you know if the people that you're talking to a ready to start engaging with you? I mean, outside of obviously that they have the money to get started, but in the very beginning you're talking about this research phase. Sometimes these ideas are very loose. How do you get that conversation started? How do you know that it's like, okay, this is a project that we want to work on.

Joseph: I mean it takes a certain amount of vetting on the front end. A lot of conversations happen before the project even starts to see where these people's heads are at. If a client comes to us, we want to know a lot of things about where the business is at. They're time devotion to it, how serious they are about it, what upfront work they've done.

Sina: We also send them like a list of 10 questions that are kind of intrusive. We ask who their investors are, we ask what their experience is in just physical product. If you haven't worked in physical product before, that can be a huge challenge starting a new product. So we tried to figure out if they have anybody on board who's ever handled something like this before and we will sort of evaluate what their skill-set is and see if it's the right fit.

Stephan: Okay, so you're getting started. What are the first kinds of conversations that inform your research process? Like what are the things you're trying to figure out what this product is? What else are you trying to figure out at that stage?

Sina: We start by looking at the history of the. If you're designing a ladder, you want to look at why ladders have the shape that they do, why every ladder looks the way that it does, why it works the way that it does. You look at the history of the object to kind of determine lessons that have been learned over time and you're kind of designing the next evolution of it while giving it a reason to be new.

Joseph: Yeah. Like for the deodorant, there's a huge discussion on whether it was going to be round or whether it's going to be rectangular because both exist in the marketplace. If you go to your grocery store and you'll see like basically two different form factors and so we spent a lot of time figuring out which way it should be and then ultimately figured out, but I think round would be, would be more conducive for this turning functionality we knew we'd have to implement, so round was.

Stephan: And that is kind of part of your market audit it sounds like. Right. It's like looking at what exists today and then also of course how that form came to be over time.

Sina: Yeah. Part of it's the market audit and part of it is the design research as well. The design research goes broader it dips its feed into things that might not necessarily be in the realm of the project but might have references that we're interested in, but both kind of serve as a gathering place for those kinds of ideas

Stephan: In the beginning, are there any problems that you can point to that happen often where startups, especially like smaller companies who are doing this for the first time, just don't anticipate something that might come up in this process?

Joseph: Yeah, that definitely happens. I mean there's a couple of ways you can go. I mean sometimes they'll present a challenge to us and they think they understand the main pain point and we're like, no, there's like a way bigger one that's going to happen at this stage and we don't know anything about that and neither do you. And we're going to have to find someone who does know the answer to that and that happens often where there's just sort of like a secondary level of it that's just going to be kind of a nightmare. We'll try to suss that out in the beginning just from our understanding of how products work and then sometimes it was also like, hey, this idea kind of already exists and we either need to figure out a way to make this totally different and way better and really use a different type of innovation here or different type of functionality or maybe this isn't the best project for anyone to start on.

Stephan: With Misen, which is the cookware, the pots and pans. People know how to, how those work. It's not like a big jump in terms of trying to invent a new market necessarily, but what was your user research and functional research there?

Sina: I mean, mason was a really great case because Omar, the founder of Misen came to us with a lot of research already done. I mean they're super informed in this space. He was a great resource for us to be able to bounce stuff off of. You know, the crux of that project was creating a premium high quality product that is traditionally three times the price for a quarter of it. Which is a lot of D-to-C brands do that. They were one of the first in the cookware space to try that.

Stephan: Do you ever or often actually find users of that kind of product and when you're doing your research, try to figure out through observation what might be improvable?

Joseph: Yeah, totally. I mean we were actually working on luggage project for a really long time. That is TBD, but we interviewed something between like 50 and 100 young professionals who travel a lot for work and we spent a long time, some of them face-to-face meetings, some of them phone calls. Some of them just surveys, but we kind of asked them a curated list of questions that are, I think are pretty nuanced for because we're coming at it from the design point of view. Just asking, what types of things they do with their luggage that aren't travel related. Do they sit on it in an airport? Do they hang their other bag on the top handle? Does it ever break? What types of things are they packing with them? You know, we'll kind of get one-on-one with our potential consumer and find out that kind of stuff. We're working on a stroller right now that, I think it's gonna be a really great project, but we spent a lot of time talking to parents, figuring out because neither of us are parents. So we really needed to get to know what the problems are and figuring out what types of strollers they have, what they like, what are the problems with their existing ones, how do they use it? So do they throw it into a car? Do they not have a car? Figuring out how a parent in LA differs from a parent in New York. Those are all really important questions when starting a new project.

Stephan: Is that usually on you to go find those users or does the client help in that process?

Joseph: We usually work on it together. It sort of depends on the project, but we like to have our own set of questions and make sure that those are a big part of the survey because I think our way of thinking about the way the product could go and what the problems could be are going to be pretty informative. We run a lean team, so whoever we partner with, we kind of fuse together to be a slightly bigger team and we will tackle some of those broader issues together.

Sina: And the reality is when you take on a client, you're married for a while and so that's why there's that upfront vetting and then once we're in it, we're in it. We're working together and we have a common goal.

Stephan: What's your process for actually coming up with the questions that you're going to ask your users?

Joseph: I think we think about it from how we would perceive a product or maybe our existing issues with them because I think that's why the clients coming to us. So like what do you really think about luggage or what do you really think about deodorant? And so we'll try to kind of be like: Oh, does yours ever just fall over in your medicine cabinet? Mine does all the time and we'll find that, yes, it does. Those things do happen. We'll read mom blogs and we'll read Amazon product reviews and we'll sort of get a feel for the landscape of the problem and try to ask them questions around that. We'll ask a lot of questions about color, like just the size of something. Oh, when you're holding your remote normally is it too big. Is it too small? Do you like the way the buttons feel? Do you wish there were less buttons, more buttons? We'll try to figure out what our design problems are going to be and then ask them if they have an answer for it or if they even have an issue with it or if it's fine as is. I would say we sort of enjoyed those types of questions that can kind of seem random, but we really want to know what color strollers people prefer and then maybe we'll follow suit or maybe we'll kind of shock them with a different type of color and the regular color.

Stephan: Does your process ever end that point? Like you do the research and then you realize, I don't know if there's anything we can improve or I don't know if the client likes any of our ideas here. Does the research ever uncover a situation where it's actually best to not keep going?

Joseph: It doesn't happen that often because if we get this far, usually collectively we have a few more ducks in a row. Will we offer an exploratory phase? We'll do all this research we spoke about and do that audit and maybe consult with an engineer and have them vet the project as well. And then we'll kind of offer that as a package and be like, you can go forward from here, but here's our recommendation. Maybe you change the project or you simplify it or hey, maybe you need to figure out a few more things before we get involved.

Stephan: When it comes to something like the frozen yogurt maker, which was not an existing product category on the market, what's your approach there? Do you interview people who like to eat frozen yogurt or is it you're trying to take something that's comparable that exists out there?

Joseph: They were a great client because they were running focus groups by the time we got involved, which was really interesting. They figured out that Boston was one of the biggest ice cream eating communities in the country, which doesn't make that much sense to me because it's so cold. But that was one of the truths they found.

Sina: There are a lot of ice cream shops there.

Joseph: And then we really think that there's a lot of connections to make between other types of products. Like if it's there's a frozen yogurt machine, we actually looked at old school like ice cream machines. All the chrome and the levers and the gauges and things like that that you could incorporate. And to some degree we did. We were really attracted to that stainless steel look. We'll go way back and just try to find different types of things to pull into it. We were looking a lot at like Japanese rice cookers actually when we were designing the frozen yogurt machine. They're both appliances. They both sit in your kitchen but they do totally different things.

Stephan: Is there anything else I'm forgetting about research? Do you enjoy that phase? Is it fun? Like it's so different than everything that comes after it. In fact, I think industrial design is kind of cool because it goes through these very significantly different phases.

Sina: You know, it is really fun because you learn a lot in a relatively short time span. It's like going to school for a month. If we've never worked in the space before that the product is going to be in, it's a huge learning curve. Then we just tackle that right in that first month and you go into the rest of the project feeling confident and informed. It really serves everybody and it's really pleasant process to come out with things that you've discovered and things that maybe you didn't realize from the start.

Stephan: Yeah, it's fascinating for me for when it comes to startups in particular who are brand new. I'm curious to get your gauge on. Do you feel that in general they do have the patients for this process? I mean not just research but something that's going to take a year.

Sina: Yeah, I would say only half the time. And maybe that's actually the biggest reason projects don't work out is because we just explain how much time and money product costs. You know, it's almost like making a movie. It's just a huge endeavor and it takes a village and we try to communicate that patients will be a huge requirement and it's not that they'll be waiting on us all the time, they're just gonna be waiting on the process itself. All that prototyping and the back and forth and people went uptown and then you have Chinese new year to worry about.

Stephan: I'm laughing because I know we're right in the phase where it's about to begin. So, napkin phase, I'm going to call it napkin phase. How do you know you're ready to start sketching or are you just kind of starting to sketch, like while you're researching?

Sina: Things meld together like we do sometimes start sketching little things while we're researching little ideas that come to mind, but the real meat of it generally happens in that design phase.

Joseph: Often something that'll actually happen is by the time all that research is done, we've looked at so many great products for inspiration, so many different things we want to incorporate. Often those first few sketches are some of the best and we'll end up circling back to that first or second sketch. We've done a hundred, but that first or second will be the one that we kind of try to champion because like, oh, this is the most informed one. This is your gut reaction. And often that's what means the most exciting to us.

Sina: Totally.

Stephan: So, when you're doodling and you're making these quick line sketches, do you find that the clients have the imagination to be able to make decisions at that level of resolution?

Sina: Well, you know, that's really a kind of a little part of that phase that happens for us. A lot of that remains internal and what the client ends up seeing are those renderings that come out of the later parts of the process. If it's something that we're excited enough to show, generally the other person will get excited looking at it at it.

Stephan: At that point when you're still just sketching hundreds of different little ideas. Is there some methodology that you use? Are you trying to get at here are the three different directions that we have in mind and going against that or is it more fluid?

Joseph: We're always trying to curate the amount that we show them because the reality is there's not 100 good ideas out there. There's a couple. And so we want to come into it with a small arsenal of concepts, but we try to keep it as curated as possible.

Sina: You've got to give them some decisions that they can make that are going to be sort of low impact at least in the beginning. So we'll allow them to veto a color that we know that they never would have liked, but we really like it. It'll be like a crazy yellow that no one wants but us because we just think that's a really innovative color. Or we'll put a design in that I think ultimately is way more experimental than they're ready for. But it kind of shows them where our heads are at and they'll be like, definitely not that one, but that is really interesting. We expected that, but they feel good that they got to kind of assert their own priorities and maybe aesthetic likes and we'll kind of just get to show them our breadth.

Stephan: But does that frustration ever come up? Do you ever feel like, Oh man, I wish we could just build this and drive the decision making ourselves. Do you ever have the urge to create your own products internally?

Joseph: Yes, definitely. I mean the client issue if you call it an issue? Yeah, it'll happen where we will strongly disagree on something that's being done or chosen and we'll do our best to assert ourselves. We'll make our case and we'll figure out if it's a deal breaker. If it's just going to be fine and nine times out of 10 it's fine. It's like, it may even be the right decision because they know things that we don't, they're more in touch with their audience than we are in that moment. That's totally fine. We've had a lot of projects end up for the better because they kind of brought things back down to earth and maybe kept things a bit more accessible. But that does make us want to have our own brand sometimes where we launch our own product where we do all the creative direction, the branding, obviously the industrial design. And so we get to hold all those keys because I think we have begun to have a lot of opinions from everything from the design of the product to its brand. But also to the business model. We see a lot of companies succeed. We see a lot of companies fail and we have a lot of opinions now and how that can all work.

Stephan: Let's go back to the transition from kind of the ideation phase into CAD as you're moving things into CAD and I guess you're still trying to figure out what this thing is and it sounds like you have a way to kind of move through that process fairly quickly. What are you looking for at that point in time?

Sina: It's sort of like a gut reaction that I feel like I almost like reminds me of when I was in taking painting classes at Risley or something where you kind of look at your painting and you squint to see if it looks any better. Once you've kind of blur the edges a bit and you're just sort of looking at the dark and lights and the color, I kind of do that. At least I like to just kind of look at it and get a really good feeling or a really bad feeling and use that to sort of drive the next step.

Stephan: At what point do materials start to come into the picture?

Joseph: Well, we're exploring them in the research phase and we're thinking about them in the design phase. It really depends on the project. If it's something that's super material focused and it's, as Myra was, we're talking about it at every step of the process, all the way into development when we're like actually getting samples of different things.

Stephan: So in the beginning maybe it's really more, is this thing going to be made out of wood or plastic or metal or glass or something. But then over time you've probably made that decision gradually through the research and ideation phases and then it becomes more about surface finishes and that kind of stuff, I'm assuming.

Sina: Yeah, definitely. I mean we'll always show the client designs that have a material already selected so we we tried to at least have something in mind and that'll mean we'll decide if it's going to be steel, if it's going to be aluminum or if it's going to abs plastic or if it's going to be pt. Will try to have that in mind so that, that's sort of being as transparent as possible I guess, but it also allows us to say we'll have clients come in and be like, I want this to be aluminum and it'll never be aluminum. It'll never be a die cast part like that. No one will be able to afford that and we'll try to drive them away from something that's going to be cost prohibitive or just impossible.

Stephan: How do you decide when to stretch into something that you haven't done before or like a process or a type of manufacturing or material that you haven't experimented with before?

Sina: I think we often try to do it. We really like to learn from projects and not at anyone's expense, but just I think we're very comfortable with new challenges and we speak the language and manufacturing and often there's an engineer who is also part of the project and we'll kind of refer to their expertise. But we really like when we're about to learn something new. I think that that's one of the main reasons take kind of challenging new projects because it's like imagine everything that we'll know at the end of this year.

Joseph: You know, so much of it is about curiosity I think. Because Achille Castiglioni used to say if you're not curious, forget about it and it's kind of that. It's you have to maintain your own interest level and part of that is our desire to learn.

Stephan: Is there a project that comes to mind where the manufacturing technique, where the material really pushed you in a way that you weren't expecting or was a lot harder than expected?

Joseph: Well, I mean I'll speak to project that you can't really see or to two projects, but we've worked both on a luggage project that was soft, like a soft good and on the Stroller, which is a huge soft good. And getting into kind of fabric and soft good design was a huge challenge that I don't think we quite expected in the beginning because we're used to hard materials. Whether it's steel or wood or plastic, you can kind of get them to move to your geometry, however you design them to. But with fabric, it works in a totally different way. You can hardly even caat it, basically we draw it on illustrator and design from there, which is a totally new way of designing for us. That is a bit challenging. But I think we have a lot of respect for our soft good designers because bags are super hard to design.

Sina: Fabric are totally hard to work with.

Joseph: It's a total challenge. Totally.

Sina: Those projects, while they're difficult, are always fun because our naivety to that process inevitably leads us to ask questions that someone else might not end up asking. And often that leads to a more interesting answer.

Stephan: I think I'm kind of fascinated by this topic right now because I was just listening last night to another podcast that I love called Thoroughly Considered, which is by our friends at Studio Neat. They were on the podcast a few months ago, but they have their own show and if you're still listening to us and you enjoy this conversation. Their podcast is almost like a stream of consciousness of everything that's happening during the product development process and they're currently in the final stages of shipping their most recent Kickstarter campaign, which was for this pen, which is, I think it's machined steel and it's got all these different special ceramic coatings and polishing and they're just going through hell trying to get this thing made. It's been one of the most challenging things that they've produced. And so it's just kind of fascinating. All the unexpected things that can happen as this thing goes from a sketch to something real. A new kinds of problems emerge.

Joseph: Oh yeah. I would say that's probably the biggest drawback to what we do is the unknown and the manufacturing process and it can really make or break a project and seen projects just go by the wayside because the manufacturer just struggled too much with the design. We compromise but at a certain point you lose that initial design.

Sina: The magic.

Stephan: How early does the manufacturer selection come into play?

Joseph: Hopefully as early as possible. That's something we sort of refer to the client for at least to get there because it's a factory partner. They end up going to business with whoever they pick. We try to help them get them and we'll kind of look at what their portfolio is and what they can make and what their samples are and help with that process. But the sooner the better. I think the manufacturing partner is everything and that kind of make or break any project.

Sina: A lot of our projects that end up moving a lot faster or are coming out much more concisely. The client has already selected the manufacturer when they come to us and it makes the whole process so much more streamlined.

Stephan: Let's say like Myra, I could see them having a partner figured out for the deodorant itself, the wax thing is made out of. I don't even really know what it's made of but the outer case that you designed is injection mold. It's a fairly commoditized type of technology to manufacture that. I'm guessing that was something that was picked later on or at what stage did you pick that particular manufacturer?

Joseph: Yeah, that's a good observation that they were picked later on and that stress us out quite a lot. We wanted to pick them right at the beginning. Like, oh, can we just get an awesome injection molding factory please and figure out who's making the tools. They were so confident in their factory network that the engineer just sent it out and the first samples worked basically, which is pretty rare. We're definitely changing the internal engineering to make things work better for new problems that have arose.

Sina: Things that you learn after people get to use it for some time.

Stephan: Got It. Interesting. And I was kind of trying to get to the answer of when we say as early as possible, does that mean before the research phase or can some of the components, maybe things that are like less specialized, be figured out a little later and if it's later, when is that? Is that during the CAD phase or is that during the research phase or, or later?

Joseph: I would say once we have a chosen concept like, hey, this is going to be a wood and steel furniture piece, let's find a wood factory that can work in wood and steel. So once we have the design kind of, it's beginning to get mapped out, that's when we should start getting someone involved. If the client comes to us with an idea for a frozen yogurt machine or a rice cooker and they have that factory already picked out and that factory already makes plastic rice cookers that's incredible. And makes the project even more sort of enticing to us because it means they've already vetted them and they feel that they're capable partner and that means we're going to do a really amazing job together.

Stephan: Well, and presumably with that product, I mean there were modules that you were able to inherit that had a lot of the engineering already figured out so that keeps it a little bit more straightforward. You're not designing everything down to the individual and that's in bolts.

Joseph: Yeah. Not the internal, but everything on the outside of that frozen yogurt machine was designed by us. That was a lot. That was a hard project.

Stephan: A lot of components. Is that the project that had the most components out of any that you've done?

Joseph: Next to the Stroller, which one day everyone will see. But yeah, the frozen yogurt machine had a lot. I mean, just the button on the top or that kind of spindle shaft looking thing inside the visor and that whole thing lifts up and it didn't always lift up that way. We had designed to lift up another way. So this machine went through almost different designs just to get it right. But we just saw as such a tremendous opportunity that we kind of made sure we were around for the long haul.

Stephan: Do you remember seeing the Juicing? The Juicero? What were your thoughts when you saw that thing come out? Especially the tear downs that people did kind of how it was engineered?

Joseph: Well, I'll talk about this just because I remember the moment it happened. I mean, when we first saw the design, I really liked the design. I was like, oh, that's a very thoughtful approach to designing something like this and of course it was part of the research. We looked at it like, we were like okay, interesting. Moving on, and then when the tear down started happening and all the terrible reviews and the jokes and the YouTube videos and the articles, we knew that that was going to be a problem because once people get that critical lens on, you can make any machine look really silly and frivolous and stupid. We knew we were using a new piece of technology, the flash freezing that had never been used before, but it still really concerned us and I guess I'll speak to this vaguely that we know for a fact that that fall out made people very hesitant about the appliance kitchen space and made people pretty nervous about this machine as well.

Stephan: So I want to hear a little bit about the tools that you're using as things are moving closer to production, are you primarily using Solid Works or Fusion 360 or something like that? What are you using for CAD?

Joseph: Yeah, We're using Solid Works in Keyshot and Rhino. We're using a lot of different softwares to make it happen. Honestly, whatever the designer likes to champion you can do a lot of cool things with.

Stephan: Yeah, Keyshot I remember when I was in school is just coming out and that software has come a long way in terms of just making the renders so realistic in terms of finishes and lighting and all that kind of stuff. It's pretty amazing what you can get out of it.

Joseph: Definitely. I mean when we get a new client, I actually tried to explain to them what the renderings are going to look like because I'm like, by the time we're in two months from now, you're going to be looking at a render that basically makes this look finished. You're going to get a real feel for what the design is going to be like. We'll even show them an example of it because it's just, it's such a fun moment when you're looking at an almost finished product. Even though it's just digital it's just so good for the storytelling.

Stephan: That seems like a real opportunity to have people face-to-face. If you're rendering things at low resolution, you can power through them like one every minute or every five minutes. It just kind of iterates on maybe what the finish is going to look like, what colors might look like, what this thing looks like from different angles, that kind of stuff.

Joseph: Oh yeah. I mean it's a huge part of our ideation process and we're very digital studio. I feel like it just happened because of the time we were graduating, but all of these tools became really important and we just, I think we learned how to use them at the right time and it's just always been part of our process. Some people want to go to a wood shop and cut stuff up and make something from there. We sort of use a hybrid approach, but the digital components are just very helpful to us personally.

Stephan: So as things get into the production process, maybe describe some of the key milestones there.

Sina: I mean after our concepts picked we're rolling in client feedback. There's a couple rounds of development where we're having check-ins with them showing where the designs that they give more feedback somewhere in the middle depending on the project and engineer gets involved and we start speaking with the factory partners, showing them and getting their feedback and that kind of rolls forward in that feedback loop until we're giving the factory something to send to prototype and send back to us.

Stephan: How many iterations of prototyping do you usually go through or I guess at this point it's a production sample.

Joseph: Yeah. It's a factory prototype. So like with the Stroller there's no way to prototype that but anywhere else but a store factory. So they are rapid prototyping parts and painting them and you know, using off the shelf metal components and then having a soft goods sample room, make the samples of the soft stuff and it all kind of comes together. But once you try to use it, you realize that everything can break in a second and that it's truly a prototype, but it's a cool moment when you're looking at the first physical sample, whether it's from the factory or from Chicago, it really starts to tell you what's about to happen and that's when we really get excited.

Stephan: At some point, the client has to start investing in tooling, which is a pretty big commitment at that point in time. How do you walk them through that process?

Joseph: We actually work with this awesome engineer who has like a piece of software that'll help them. It's like a tool calculator which is cool. So we'll kind of work with him to figure out how to get the tool cost right for sort of selling them on a part of it. But yeah, I mean even in the beginning cause I'm like every plastic part you see is made by a tool and all those tools are like $10 to $20,000 and you can add up how many parts you have. And you know, you can do the calculus there to figure out how expensive this project's going to be. We'll spend a lot of time figuring out how to use factory's existing tools. And just to modify the part slightly, we'll try to reuse the tool to make multiple parts, which is kind of a fun challenge and sometimes we're only allowed to make a certain amount of parts and that's our budget. The rest will have to be off the shelf or you know, we won't get to do it. But yes, that's a huge part of all of these projects.

Sina: When we get to the point where the client's looking at tool numbers we've prepped them for what they're going to be looking at and we've told them so many times that this is going to be expensive or it's going to be cheap or whatever. And at that point they're sold on our idea and we're all on-board with the concept. So there's a lot of prep before we get to that point.

Stephan: How does your billing process work? Are you charging them as you go in chunks or is there some sort of like upfront payment and then payment at the end or how does that part work?

Sina: Yeah, I mean it's built on milestones, so we deliver something. There's a payment associated with them.

Joseph: We also have a number of retainer relationships that are on a month to month basis.

Stephan: So that works out okay. In terms of making sure you're getting paid for the work along the way.

Sina: Yeah, it aligns everyone's incentives at a baseline, no one feels like they're out, no one feels like they're not getting what they deserve.

Stephan: That makes sense. And then once the project gets into production and goes out there and in the real world, what's it like for you at that point? You're presumably eagerly anticipating how people are going to use this thing, how they're going react to it. How does that feel? How does that go?

Joseph: Well, I think that's a good question because I think it speaks to another facet of the studio that is harder to define, but we really help our clients launched the product. We promoted heavily through our channels through a really great curated email list that we have. We have a substantial Instagram following we know a lot of different press outlets and contacts at those places. We'll really help make sure it pops, especially if it's a product we're really proud of, which is actually my favorite moment is when we're telling the world personally, hey, we just designed this deodorant hardware, it's better for the environment. When we can show people that for the first time, it's probably my favorite moment and when people are kind of reacting to it and it's getting press, I think that that's a really great feeling. And then of course there's the sort of residual, just seeing your products out on the street or seeing them in a store, seeing them in someone's home. Just not even expecting it being on vacation and a gift shop in Paris has something. It's a really exciting feeling.

Stephan: What's next for visibility? What are you up to here in 2019? What are you looking forward to?

Sina: Well, there's going to be a slew of new projects that come out this year with varying intensities and some of our most complex projects, some of our most in depth. We're really excited about that. New furniture, new products, electronics, electronics, the stroller that we mentioned. It's going to be a diverse kind of group of work. I think we're excited to see it go out there.

Stephan: So your website: vsby.co. If people are interested in talking to you about their projects what should they do?

Joseph: They should email us. We respond to every new inquiry about a new project and we always want to hear what they're thinking about doing.

Stephan: I hope people do go check out your website because it's just, all of your projects are so wonderful and beautiful and well thought out. And I hope people get a chance to actually try. The Myra is really cool, Dims, which we didn't really talk too much about, but is a really interesting brand that just launched, making furniture. I thought that turned out really great. I haven't seen it in person, but I would love to. So I really encourage everyone who's listening to go check it out and if you've got a project, reach out to them. Instagram is also great, your Instagram is indeed really cool. What's your handle there?

Joseph: It is vsibility_office.

Stephan: Awesome. Well thank you so much. It was great to have you on.

Sina: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Stephan: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, if you got something useful out of it, I would love to hear what that was. Consider writing a short review. Could be just a sentence long by going to iTunes and searching for Well Made. I want to hear it all. I want to hear good, bad. I want to hear your constructive criticisms. I am just trying to make this show as useful as possible for you. So tell us what you think that is the very best way that you can support the show. Thanks and see you next time.


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the Lumi blog. This episode was edited by Evan Goodchild.

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