“The best designs skate the edge of functional engineering, manufacturing feasibility and emotional aesthetics.” That founding principle of “ninjaneering” is just one of the design nuggets Thomas Parel shared in this interview.
OCTOBER 2008 - Thomas Parel took a circuitous path to a career in ID. He grew up in the United Arab Emirates and was on a path to medical college before answering the call to design during his undergrad years at Ohio State. He has worked for Concept Center International (CCi) for five years and lives in South Carolina with his wife, Ning, who recently gave birth to the couple’s second daughter.
Tell us about your current position and what you're working on.
I work as a senior industrial designer for Concept Center International, based in Anderson, SC. We are responsible for the industrial design of home improvement products for brands like Ridgid, Homelite, Ryobi and Craftsman. I have worked on everything from power plugs to pressure washers, as well as the latest project to hit the stores: a set of 18V contractor tools called the "Ridgid X3 Combo Kit." The design of the circular saw and the area task-light was my responsibility.
What disciplines other than ID do you have a background in?
I have a pretty decent grounding in storytelling, drama, music and illustration. If you peeked into any of my high school text books and notebooks you would have seen sketch blueprints of sci-fi vehicles and superheroes. The Indian education system does not really offer you a lot of choices—medicine, engineering, economics—and if you are a real dullard, art. In the midst of training for medical college, I decided that thinking up new ideas, and representing them was what I really wanted to do. With what information I could scrounge at the time, graphic design seemed like the direction to follow, but eventually I found myself sucked into the ID program at The Ohio State University.
How do your interdisciplinary proclivities influence your ID work?
Currently, I follow a lot of business, technology, automotive design and engineering blogs as well as podcasts to try and figure out what the other disciplines in the product development business are excited about. New releases in the video game industry and movie industry are good barometers on where culture is headed. The skeletal designs in the Transformers movie, for example, were a fun influencer in the design of the Ridgid X3 circular saw. The key is tapping into multiple streams of information to give you a bigger toolbox to work with.
Where do you see design going in the near future?
Design will always be about rapidly providing elegant, functional and aesthetic solutions. While there will always be a niche for slower, higher-end product designs, the pace of work for most designers will be faster, and involve more factors. This won't come as a big surprise to anyone in product development. The last eight years have required industrial designers to flex more of our engineering skills. At CCi, we refer to this branch of ID as “ninjaneering.” When enough engineers start shooting down your designs you start engineering your concepts to prove that they are feasible. The best designs skate the edge of functional engineering, manufacturing feasibility and emotional aesthetics.
The next big gap I see is the one betweendesign and the business side of product development. We will need to develop more fluid tools and methodologies to establish the tangible value of design and allow us to quickly evaluate designs and attach dollar values to innovation.
As far as visual cues go, the last few years have been tough for the US consumer and our designs reflect that mental state. Hard edges and rational surfaces abound in our products and our automobiles look like suits of armor. People will get tired of jumping at every lurking shadow, and I have a hunch that technological optimism will return, as will a cleaner, more fluid form language. This needs a tremendous amount of empathy on the part of the designer to anticipate the need before it arrives.
What should the design infrastructure do to help guide the future in a way that benefits the design profession and those who practice it?
With regards to design schools, there seems to be a false dichotomy of idea generation on one hand and the craft of design on the other. However, nobody is really pushing students toward excellence at either end. The blue-sky projects are never blue-sky enough, and the real-world projects give scant attention to manufacturability. Rarely have I seen a student project that connects the dots of emerging trends and technologies, while fully exploring what a particular manufacturing method could really accomplish. Students need to be pushed to generate ideas which are viscerally beautiful using all the tools available to the ID community. It's like learning to drive; you don't spend a semester learning the intricacies of the steering wheel and then proceed to master first gear. There are many things that have to happen simultaneously, and the same applies to learning industrial design. In fact, it will be critical that students feel comfortable with brainstorming, engineering, marketing, styling and research techniques to the point that they are happening automatically and without too much conscious thought. In the next 10 years we will be expected to deliver far more depth to our clients.
With regards to general infrastructure in cities, it would be a smart idea for cities to set aside incubation zones for creative, fast-paced enterprises. Dubai, for instance, has created "cities within cities" with industry-specific tax incentives and shared resources. Dubai started with an "Internet City" and has rapidly added more like the "Health Care City" and a "Media City" with more on the way.These micro-cities have been a catalyst for the development in Dubai and attract the best international talent, gradually increasing Dubai's sphere of influence in the Middle East. Similar micro-cities for creatives would be a smart bet.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge that every designer needs to overcome today?
We are having to generate more ideas in progressively faster cycles. Ideas and beautiful solutions are the reason why we are hired. We need the ability to consistently come up with ideas while consistently shepherding those ideas into new products. The challenge is cultivating creativity where timelines and timidity are pushing teams to a thoughtless path of least resistance.
What are your own personal design aspirations?
I wish to be a part of creating the future. I want my daughters to think of the future with even more wonder and optimism than when I was a child.
Who or what are yoursources of design inspiration?
My ID work is a reflection of all the cultures and ideas that I stew in. I am an Indian who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and who now designs in the US. All of these cultures are rich veins to pick inspiration from. You never know when some obscure piece of information or technique will affect your process. The more ideas and technologies that you track, the more ingredients that you have to cook your concepts with.
Designers from Central and Eastern Europe seem to have a really dark and high contrast style that appeals to me. I really admire the work of Ken Okuyama, and his sense of craft and precision. Nature typically has multiple solutions to problems like protection, locomotion, durability and articulation that inspire design solutions.
Music is also an indirect source of inspiration when I design. For example, Ridgid power tools don’t make sense with a Moby soundtrack, while they do make sense in the context of a Metallica CD running in the background. That’s the music my customers listen to. As an aside, I can't listen to music or the news when trying to analyze and solve problems. I can only stream music when sketching and rendering. It's funny how the brain works.
Can you talk a bit about the team you most frequently collaborate with?
I work with a great team, who are good personal friends: great guys like Clint Thackery, who mentors me with regards to managing my own projects and faster sketch techniques; Tac Ohi, I/IDSA, whose eye for detail is a large part of the success of the Ridgid line of power tools; Chris Lewis, who is a master of fast prototypes and giant foam aliens; Ben Thomas, who demonstrates the power of perseverance and personality; and Ken Brazell, IDSA, our director, who has slowly built the strong reputation of our department one functional innovation at a time. That's why I am here. I am still learning.
What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?
All are pages on my Firefox homepage. For podcasts: Icon-O-Cast, Business Week’s The Welch Way, Peter Day's World of Business, Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio4 (witty political commentary and general irreverence).
What have been your biggest and best takeaways from your IDSAexperience? What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?
IDSA's strength is in facilitating the high-touch experience of meeting fellow designers face to face. CCi uses the Southern District conference as a very fertile recruiting opportunity for our design team. IDSA also works on a systemic level to advocate for industrial design as a profession. This is conversely a weakness, because there is no tangible benefit for the individual designer. The dialogue and critique needs are increasingly being met by sites like Core77 and networking by sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. My biggest gripe is the feeling of throwing money into a black hole without a return on investment. Personally I prefer to concentrate on the local level by assisting Ryan Harrison, the South Carolina IDSA Vice-Chair. He is a grassroots organizer with a great problem solving mentality.
What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?
- Actively recruit non-industrial designers into IDSA because we need thought diversity.
- Decrease the membership fees
- Prototype numerous member services on a small scale, with measurable performance metrics rather than waiting for a grand reveal of something irrelevant.
In other words apply design thinking to the IDSA.
For more information on Thomas Parel’s design ideas and inspirations, visit http://pareldesign.blogspot.com/.