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Starting a Design Studio During a Downturn, Part 4: Developing the Kicker Culture

We started Kicker Studio out of a desire to work differently. Our strategy was to combine the disciplines of interaction design, visual design, and industrial design to make devices that are designed with a truly integrated approach. Wishing it and doing it, however, are two different things. While we shared an interest in designing for new technologies, and a common vision for the kind of company Kicker could be, we were five different people with different experiences, coming together to start something new; and as in most collaboration, there was a learning curve toward understanding each other's points of view.

kicker collaboration For some of us, design until now had been entirely physical, and focused on the mechanical properties of products, while to others it had been mostly digital palettes of hexes and bins. For our new company, it had to be a combination of both. We were excited to learn from each other, and put our approach to collaboration to the test. We embraced the challenge. How hard could it be?

A bit harder than we thought. We were still learning how to communicate with one another internally. Combining multiple working styles and overlapping skill sets required a lot of patience as we got to know each other. As we worked together, we came to know each other's strengths, and how each of us could best contribute to the fabric of the group.

We quickly learned that we each approach problem solving differently. To wit: while we were working on Canesta's Gestural Entertainment Center, we created a prototype living room environment in our studio. The Canesta camera that powered the entertainment center covered about 70 degrees at 10-foot distance, and we needed to get a sense of how much of the room that would be. So we all set out to solve the problem simultaneously. Already at his desk, Tom went directly into the graphic design program Illustrator—he'd draw a living room to figure it out; Mike quickly turned to his rulers and calculator—this was definitely a math problem for him; Dan stared toward the ceiling, pondering the solution in his head; and I tried to get Jody to help me bodily approximate the distance between pieces of furniture in the room. We were greatly amused by each other's efforts—why leave the problem to one person when all five can work on it at once? We each arrived at different answers, but it was how we each got there, and what said that about us, that we found most interesting. We would use this as a strength going forward.

kicker collaboration The Canesta project was a great exercise in collaboration, experimentation, and learning by doing. These are especially important in designing for new technology, as there is still so much to be discovered. And since there often isn't one expert, the collective intelligence is particularly important. We worked in small teams, often exchanging roles, and taking the time to step back and observe the progress, and learn from other people's work. And some of the best ideas we had came from the corner of the room.

But our nemesis was (and continues to be) the recession. There's no test of office harmony like the financial frustration we'd found ourselves in the spring of 2009, and we needed to be especially aware of how our individual stress was felt by the group. It's sometimes difficult to balance one's own needs with the needs of the organization, especially in harder times. Through difficult conversations, we learned that we needed to communicate more, listen to one another first, and not assume that everyone else has drawn the same picture of a problem. We realized that our different perspectives were quite complementary, and would serve our collaboration well, both on projects and in dealing with the challenges of running a business.

kicker collaboration Around March, when it looked like the economy had gotten the best of us, we knew we needed to do something with a view to the future, or else call it quits. To create the possibility of a future, we needed a new Kicker project that we could talk about. If clients weren't paying for work, we could at least design our own project to demonstrate our approach. Hence, the Kicker Touchscreen Conference Phone was born.

Why conference phones? We all know conference phones suck. It's an area vastly underserved by new technology. And it was something, we hoped, that everyone (especially potential clients) could relate to. We wanted to combine the humanity of in-person meetings with the convenience of efficient technology, and show that form and function, designed together, result in a better product.

This project was an opportunity for us to work toward a common goal, at a time when it would be easy to splinter off into different directions. We needed an opportunity to collaborate toward something that we were all passionate about: designing product behaviors. And it allowed us to focus on something positive when, frankly, there wasn't much else to be positive about. We were excited about the problem, the possibilities and the process of learning from each other's expertise. Through this experience we developed a few core tenets for Kicker projects: the ways in which we get most from our different points of view. And here they are:

kicker collaboration Get everyone involved in the research. We formed teams of mixed skill sets and had everyone observe small offices making conference calls. We wanted to benefit from the different perspectives of each discipline, and got better ideas as a result.

Create design principles that will govern both the physical and the digital. This will ensure a cohesive experience from both sides. Our conference phone was designed for transparency, so you can see what is happening on a call; openness, so that it phone works with other systems like calendars; and it's unobtrusive, so it doesn't get in the way of communication, as so many phones do.

Evolve the form and function in tandem, allowing for lots of back and forth. We explored the object and interface designs at the same time. After we mapped out the features our phone would support, we did what we named a Functional Cartography to figure out what functions belonged in hardware, and what functions belonged in software. We kept it up on the wall for reference as we went from pencil sketches to wireframes and 3-D models, and we constantly revised. This allows us to also synchronize the emotional feel of the interface and the form as we moved from wireframes to color interface designs, and from 3-D models to renderings.

Get to something physical quickly, so that everyone's talking about the same thing. Be it a sketch or a drawing, a found object, or a cardboard prototype, we found this extremely helpful. When we started talking adding removable microphones to the phone, for example, we quickly gathered found objects that represented what we meant to make sure we were all talking about the same size.

kicker collaboration There were still amusing communication gaps from time to time. Once, for example, when Dan, an interaction designer, was talking about putting a button on the "chrome" of the device, Mike, an industrial designer, turned around in disbelief: "You want to put chrome on the device?" he asked, incredulously. Dan meant the edges of the screen, often referred to as the "chrome" by UI designers, where menus and controls often go, not the metal finish. We've learned to embrace these opportunities to learn from each other as reminders of the relationship between the physical and digital.

The experience of running this project internally confirmed for us that we really could work together to make something special. And it helped us realize and articulate a Kicker DNA—made from the sum of our individual strengths, one that we now felt confident taking to our clients and show them what we could do.

Next Up: Staying Focused

Read Jennifer Bove's blog Design in the New Economy
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Jennifer started her multifaceted career in tangible and interaction design at the circus—quite literally—at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. In the last 13 years, she has created multi-platform products and services for myriad clients including Nokia, Yahoo!, BBC, Gucci, and American Express. Her design management background includes the Prada Epicenter store in New York, which inaugurated a new paradigm of tangible retail experiences. Jenn is fluent in French and Italian, and has lived and worked in the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany. Before Kicker, Jenn was VP of User Experience at HUGE and at Schematic, and is on the faculty at New York's School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design. Her work has been exhibited throughout Europe, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Jennifer has a Masters in Interaction Design from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.