American Design, California Style

As a concept, American design is very tangible. It's unapologetic. It's a roll-up-your-sleeves and get your hands dirty, "show me" sort of design. American designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors alike feast off an American license to create what's next. It's the boldness of a Corvette or Mustang plus their afterlife hot rod modifications. It's Jobs' confidence to create Apple's Mac, iPhone & iPod. It's Jack O'Neill making his first wet suit so he could surf in cold NorCal waters. It's the Yahoo! or Google boys living on air in college and then creating empires from their hard work.

mustangFor many, California is an American design Mecca. Where every decade since discovery, there's a new gold rush. Where pop culture is defined, where Hollywood meets Silicon Valley, beach culture becomes mainstream fashion, where car and music cultures define generations. California is where North America leaves the front door open, inviting the rest of the world to visit and try their luck.

For others, California is the "go west" personal freedom experiment gone off the rails. The land of nuts, dope smokers, protestors and speculators. Where movie stars reign and media moguls are responsible for developing our cultural ills. Where nature clashes with industry and where senseless trends and fads are sparked.

oneill wetsuitBut from my vantage point, they'd all be right. And that's why I love it. California is about potential, where we help America and the world stretch their heads. Where we have the license to boldly experiment and drive toward innovation, then sometimes get it wrong and be okay with that, because the next one will be a monster hit. This is the core of the magnetic pull of California.

At ASTRO we live in and around San Francisco, California, at the epicenter of lifestyle, technology and design, on the edge of America. Bay Area design has become an international magnet for culturally-literate, youth-savvy designers, the kind of kids who were raised on sugary breakfast cereals, media-saturated pop culture and hardwired technology. The same things could describe many businesses here in the Golden State.

apple ipodI'm pretty sure that some of my favorite design-infused brands would not exist if not for having California as a proving ground. Brands of all sizes like Apple and Google, Disney and Pixar, O'Neill and Vans, Nixon and Electric, and so on.

As we built the ASTRO design brand, we've embodied this "California license" and perspective. I've often been asked how we work with--and control the energies of--such creative, adventurous people. My response has been refined to the following: "You can't control them, but you can give them a unique identity, then ask them to focus their talent like a laser for a time to accomplish the goal, typically making them quite lethal, then release them back into the wild until called on again." (Sounds like a California answer, doesn't it?)

cali cultureIn closing, I hope that America keeps our California "go west" spirit alive. But I am concerned that America just isn't making enough of its own stuff. We're defining, designing and developing just fine, but we need to keep making things, too. We shouldn't let China, India and other countries have all the fun of getting your hands dirty or revising a prototype over and over until it's pounded into mass production. We need to do more than click "send" to produce something. We need to keep making things and making them better. As I said before, American design is tangible, and especially when it comes to something like California style, you need to feel it.

What do you think? Are there companies you think epitomize American design or California style?

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Brett Lovelady is the founder and driving force at ASTRO Studios of San Francisco, a company he launched in 1994. Brett created ASTRO to be a pure design culture, where he and his talented crew could blend design skills, innovative technologies and lifestyle influences into high impact, supercharged products and brands.

Within a short time, ASTRO has become an international design powerhouse by designing industry leading products and brands for companies like Nike, Microsoft, HP, Alienware, Herman Miller, Xbox, Virgin and many more. Also, Brett and ASTRO recently spun-off a new company called ASTRO Gaming, providing high performance video gaming equipment for pro gamers.

In the past decade, ASTRO has won numerous design and industry awards, including 2 prestigious BusinessWeek/IDSA Design of the Decade Awards, for both NIKE Triax Sportwatches and Kensington Smartsockets and was featured as one of Fast Company's Fast 50 in 2003. Prior to starting ASTRO, Brett did time as VP of Design at Lunar Design and before that VP of Design at Frog Design on the mean streets of the San Francisco bay area.

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2 Comments

  • Anh Nguyen

    Nice write up, enjoyed reading this.

    @Cold - Because it's something every reader can instantly relate to.

  • I'm the Cold Wiz

    How would design bloggers do if they were told up front that they could not mention or reference the iPod or iPhone in their blogs? It's become as trite of an opening as "Once upon a time....".
    Designers are supposed to be free, new thinkers...so why does everyone (and I mean, EVERYONE) mention these products all the time? You know who doesn't mention them? The people that actually DID the designs! ---I'm the Cold Wiz