He’s a serial entrepreneur. He’s an advocate for “human sustainability.” And he’s the guy who designed a more comfortable way for you to endure a crit—or anything else that requires lengthy periods of sitting. Meet Joe Gebbia, IDSA. He’s the first subject of our new interview series, WHOSNEXT.
MARCH 2008 - Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Joe Gebbia, IDSA identified ID as his chosen career during an apprenticeship with a furniture designer in 2001. He graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2005 with degrees in ID and graphic design and may be best known for his entrepreneurial streak that has yielded three startups in three years. He currently lives in San Francisco.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently working for myself, and loving it. I've got a couple things going that keep me really busy: Ecolect, AirBed & Breakfast (AB&B) and CritBuns. It's the quintessential entrepreneur lifestyle—16-hour work days, six to seven days a week.
Ecolect.net is a company that I co-founded with former RISD classmate (and current IDSA RI chapter chair) Matt Grigsby, IDSA. We had a discussion in 2005 about the pain points involved in sourcing ecologically-considered materials on the internet. I had just gone through the process of sourcing foam for CritBuns, and discovered two things: (1) A moldable, self-skinning eco-foam didn't exist, and (2) There was no online destination to even search for one. Of the two opportunities that presented themselves, building a web site to help others with this process seemed more realistic than developing an eco-foam.
When you think of getting a book online, what comes to mind? Most people say, “Amazon.” When I asked, "Where do you go to source sustainable materials online?" most designers gave me blank stares. I shared this with Matt over coffee in August 2005, and he about spilled it on himself he got so excited. We could sit and wait for somebody else to develop this resource, or we could do it ourselves. Designing for the environment was a priority for us, so we became proactive about the problem. Ecolect is the result of the vision we had that day.
We launched about five months ago, and haven't looked back. In a very short time we have thousands of registered Ecolect members who can search through a growing library focused on eco-friendly materials. I believe the community has grown so quickly because we made it a free resource. Matt and I were very passionate from the beginning about removing any fences between designers and the information on Ecolect. You can no longer say I didn't know where to search, or it was too expensive! It's exciting how the community has grown on the site. We've gotten some great feedback from them on how to improve Ecolect, so look for some exciting updates over the next couple of months.
The other start-up I'm involved in was inspired during the IDSA CONNECTING'07 conference last fall in San Francisco. It was a synthesis of noticing the hotels were sold out on the CONNECTING web site and walking past an extra room in our apartment minutes later. I connected the dots and simply said "What if we rented out the room to a conference goer?" My roommate, Brian Chesky, IDSA, said "Brilliant," and we began to brainstorm. It turns out we could fit multiple airbeds in the empty room. But how could we take the experience further? Why not offer a map to San Francisco, a subway pass and cook them breakfast in the morning before we all went to the conference together? By that evening, we stumbled upon the AirBed & Breakfast concept which is simply about sharing housing for events you’re attending with other conference goers, for less than the cost of a hotel room, but with a much higher level of interaction. We built a web site in four days and even let other designers in San Francisco post their rooms, too. Word got out to the blogs and we had seven people post airbeds (or real beds), all of which sold out. Three guests stayed at our house and we became friends in the end. It was a powerful experience for them—they got to see San Francisco through the eyes of locals. We took them to things like Pecha Kucha night, the Ferry Building and some of the parties we had the local inside scoop on during the conference. It was a win for us (we made money), it was a win for them (they saved money), and a win for IDSA (two of them registered for the conference because they found an inexpensive place to stay through AB&B). We all networked in our pajamas, and it rocked so much that we decided to pursue it further.
I'm proud to say that we've redone the web site from scratch, added Nathan Blecharczyk to the team and recently relaunched allowing people to connect with each other around the world. There are over 100,000 events each year in the US. It's a resource that IDSA members can use when going to the regional and annual conferences. And can you imagine the impact AirBed & Breakfast might have on the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver? We can. There are 10,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 attendees. Add the Obama x-factor of drawing exceptionally large crowds and we think the affordable housing provided by AB&B will allow access to many people who otherwise might not go.
I have to say living in San Francisco has been the perfect environment to make ideas like Ecolect and AB&B happen. It's the center of industrial design in the US. The center of Web 2.0. A major sustainability/green tech hub. And surging with a supportive community of other entrepreneurs. You have world class ID firms like IDEO, fuseproject, Mike&Maaike, frog and Lunar, next to web start-ups like Yelp, Digg, YouTube and Facebook next to sustainability-minded companies like Architecture for Humanity, Dwell Magazine and Autodesk.
Talk about the CritBuns. How did that project come to be? What's been the response of the design community?
CritBuns is an idea that surfaced in 2000, as I was sitting through an uncomfortable critique at RISD. It's the classic "identify a problem, design your own solution" story. When the eight-hour long discussion had ended, I observed this familiar “bun-print” on the seat of our pants. Basically the charcoal dust of the studio had rubbed off, revealing where our buns needed support. Inspired, I used the shape to create something completely new and different. It wasn't until senior year in 2005 that I really understood how to make it. CritBuns won a design competition that year which covered tooling costs, allowing me to start the business the day after I graduated. The project, to me, was a chance to learn things not taught in design school—like how do you actually get your idea manufactured and on to the shelf of a store? I think it was one of the best experiences to go through right after school, and it has now paid for itself many times over.
When the product first came out, the response of the design community was very supportive of a recent grad navigating the waters of design and business for the first time. From mentors to media, I didn't have the credibility of 20 successful product launches under my belt, but I did have ambition, and I think they recognized my potential over my past. A lawyer discounted his rate to help me patent it. I.D. Magazine included it for their best of 2006 issue which created awareness in other countries. DesignBoom accepted it into their giftmarts during ICFF, and Tokyo Design week. A flurry of retailers around the world added CritBuns to their stores, including, after great persistence, MoMA. What's cool is that CritBuns started as a product for art school students and is working it's way down the pyramid in terms of adoption, because it is for any hard surface indoors or out. Customers now include moms who garden, dads who go to sporting events, kids who play video games, young professionals who do yoga, families who outfit their deck patios with seating and so on.
The experience has been the ultimate business course. Aside from that, one of the highlights took place at the 2007 IDSA MidEast Conference in Cincinnati. I was invited to speak at the conference, and afterward a student approached me and showed me his pair of CritBuns. He explained he purchased them not to sit on, but simply to be reminded that it is possible for a young designer to get their product onto the market. It was one of those encounters you don't forget.
Where do you see design going in the next 5 years? 10 years?
Within 10 years I hope we can achieve "no green design". It will just be "design" with positive environmental attributes a norm, rather than an extra feature. What we're coming to terms with now is that sustainability is not black and white, but rather very much based on context. What is considered a sustainable solution for me and my project, may not necessarily be appropriate for you, and vice versa. So how do you figure it out? We're positioning Ecolect be a resource that addresses this issue. I think in 10 years we'll have many more material alternatives to choose from, along with robust metrics to measure their impact on nature, carbon footprints, and impact on humans.
What do you think is going to be the next big thing in design?
Products becoming more service oriented is nothing new, but will it gain steam in the US? I hope so. Zipcar and other car sharing programs are proving that. Did you know Zipcar has serviced 180,000 drivers with only 5,000 cars? How cool is that!
The term “Human Sustainability” (coined by IDSA member Brian Chesky) is the next big thing. To me, it means a synthesis of: green design, universal design and socially conscious design. You're seeing the seeds of this Human Sustainability movement being planted with efforts like the Designer's Accord and Project H Design. Finding ways to make invisible consequences of a product visible through numbers, like the often discussed product "nutrition label" concept will aide in Human Sustainability. Eventually a consumer will be able to pick up two products on a shelf and compare them like a bag of potato chips. Instead of "Which brand has the right amount of calories, protein, fats, etc for me?" they’ll ask "Which product has the right amount Human Sustainability for me?" By putting that level of transparency on a product, I think it will pressure corporations to own up to their impact, or at least, consider having less of one.
What is the biggest challenge that every designer needs to overcome today?
The biggest current challenge is this conditioning that we have that says "green costs more". BS. It doesn't always cost more.
An upcoming challenge that our profession hasn't met head on yet is design work being outsourced. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman paints a picture of our profession in 20 years, where much like manufacturing left the country, so will design. It's no secret, really. IDEO recognized this years ago, which is why they've gone further upstream in their client services to helping companies with design strategy. China has how many new design schools just starting up? I don't remember the figure, but it was more than 10. We do have a saving grace in the cultural differences that come through in design. Sure, another country can compete on price for design, but can they compete on emotion and meaning? I consider myself a cultural relativist, so I say no, they can't. (I hope so, at least.)
It's a topic I'm very interested in, and would like to study further. I think organizations like IDSA should, too.
How do you explain your profession to those among your friends and family who have no knowledge of ID?
I got really good at this when I worked for Chronicle Books. I was the only industrial designer in a company of 200 people who had focused on graphic design for the last 40 years. You have to explain ID in a way that fits into their world view, their frame of mind. For someone who has no knowledge of it, I step into their shoes and point out objects in front of them, in their life. "That's Industrial Design on your feet, on your eyes, in your laptop bag. It's improving the things you use in everyday life in a way that can be replicated via mass production for others to enjoy as well."
In general, I like the definition Paola Antonelli (MoMA curator) shared once: "Design is the opportunity for art to penetrate people's lives." There was a definition written on the wall of the ID department at RISD that I'll never forget: "Anything that is made by humans that is not art or architecture".
What are your own personal design aspirations?
Well, on my bathroom mirror is a note that reminds me of what I should be focusing on throughout the day: designing products and services for humans that simplify life and have a positive impact on the environment. My aspirations are to fulfill that with whatever it is I might be doing—a consulting gig, a project with Citizen-Citizen or decisions we make for the direction of Ecolect.
Who are your design inspirations?
I've always admired the Eameses as this sort of idealistic couple who were able to create more ground breaking design work by sharing a romantic relationship together than if they were only just business partners. You've got to add Paola Antonelli to the list. She's our industry's diplomat to the world, fighting for design whenever she can. She rocks.
The presentations by Steve Jobs make great case studies in telling a story. Robin Chase from Zipcar is an inspiring speaker, as well as Sir Ken Robinson, who I look up to. I also appreciate what Mr. Béhar and Mr. Ive are doing with bringing good design into not only the public's eye, but also into the eyes of CEOs and boardrooms, too.
Michael Carabetta, Creative Director at Chronicle Books has been a standout design mentor for me. I also enjoy the filter that Julie Lasky brings to I.D. Magazine and her design lectures. Susan Szenasy (Metropolis) is inspirational in how she cuts right through frivolity and speaks her mind about issues.
What are your favorite design books or online distractions?
I enjoy books by Seth Godin, and am impartial to just about anything that comes out of Chronicle's design team. Cradle-to-Cradle was a crucial read for me when in school.
What's been the biggest benefit(s) of your IDSA membership?
The biggest benefit of my IDSA membership is the sense of community it affords, which is perfect for independent designers/small studios like myself who don't work in large offices.
What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?
One thing I would most like to see the IDSA do differently is update its web presence. I wasn't a member when the current IDSA web site launched, but I'd say the times have changed. Expectations are higher for the web than the experience idsa.org delivers. A good site acts as your representative to the world, a marketing tool, a rallying point for your community, completing the story about your product/service/organization. In this case, it's not only about facilitating connections among current IDSA members, but enticing new ones to join the organization, which I sincerely hope the next version executes on.
Secondly, how about getting a preeminent leader in industrial design, Apple, involved in an IDSA event? CONNECTING'07 took place in their backyard, and there was zero (public) participation. I know I wasn't the only one there who thought that was weird.
Lastly, focus on the first one.
Learn more about Joe and his work via these web sites: