Like musicians, we think through our hands," says Gadi Amit, fondling three pieces of raw wood precariously bound together with masking tape. Amit has built his 22-year career designing award-winning technology devices for brands such as Dell, Palm, and Verizon; this year, he took top honors in the International Design Excellence Awards. Yet the 47-year-old industrial designer is curiously enamored of the power of craft. "Designers here are so computer minded; I say, 'You guys have computer vertigo, go down to the shop,' " Amit says, referring to the windowless basement workshop of his San Francisco studio, NewDealDesign. "As you play and sculpt with foam and putty, you actually discover, versus a more analytical or cerebral approach. That it's ambiguous and inaccurate is a good thing."
Going analog isn't Amit's only unconventional stance. One of the brat pack spawned by Frog Design, he has become an unapologetic critic of the green-design movement. "In the sustainability crowd," Amit says, "I feel that sometimes beauty is the first thing that takes a hit." The "beauty" Amit is referring to isn't some $20,000 chair enclosed in glass at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but well-built objects so lust-worthy that people will want to hold on to them forever—objects like his prize-winning Slingbox 700U, a media device no bigger than a piece of toast, stripped of a plastic skin in favor of waffled aluminum that is virtually 100% recyclable. "My theory," says the Israeli native, "is that beauty is a very positive, visceral force that we should harness for sustainability."
Over coffee in his studio's loft, Amit talked about how computers are like animals, whether sex appeal trumps carbon footprint, and why buying a Prius may ultimately be an irresponsible act.
FC: How did you end up designing technology?
I wanted to be a car designer, but the design school I went to [in Israel] is a very traditional European-craft type of art school, very much about creating furniture. Nearly antitechnology. But in 1985, I got to know the Macintosh, and I fell in love with it. It's an intelligent object, and since then, I've only dealt with things that aren't just docile objects; they have behaviors.
Some people view technology as cold, sterile. You don't agree?
When I started playing with hard-core technology, I started to realize there is an architectural problem in putting together complex objects; like animals, they have organs. All these computers, these machines, have a brain, so you have to figure out where to put the brain, and the brain is usually next to the face, which is where you interact with people, so those are buttons and the screens. Then there's the plumbing, the digestive system, and how you organize it. Much of the work we do today is essentially deciding whether an object has a body, a head, and four limbs, or a body, a head, and no limbs. It's that fundamental.
You began your career in the Middle East but have spent most of it around Silicon Valley. You've seen a lot of shifts in design along the way.
The '90s were the roaring age of product development meets design. It was basically the first time where the wide culture, not some geek enclave, met the digital age—the first mass distribution of cell phones, PDAs, Web appliances. The 2000s started with this nearly insane drive for all things Web. At the same time, China and Asia became a huge product-development force. Design became driven by a cult of personality, by a culture detached from delivering products for common people. The notion that some European superstar designer builds a chair that costs $20,000 has both a philosophical and a cultural richness, but it's also related directly to the social indulgence of an economy going out of control.
When the economic crisis hit, was that the end of that era?
What happened in 2008 was not just an economic meltdown, it was a social realignment. If a designer in the '70s opted to sell a chair that was a million units, a designer at the end of the '90s or early 2000s wanted to sell two chairs that became a collector's item. That ended in 2008 because the people who financed that were the guys who messed with our mortgages.
What defines the period we are now in? Has the sustainable-design movement become the new industry standard, the heartbeat of mainstream design?
I'm pretty sure it hasn't. The problem with sustainability design today is the perception that it's pure mechanics—let's analyze carbon impact, toxicity, and so on. What I'm saying always is, Guys, you're wrong. Objects have a cultural meaning, and objects that are lovable, that are well integrated into culture, won't be trashed after five years, and so are sustainable. If the object is connecting emotionally, connecting culturally, people will keep it. We still have people using Palm Zire, which we designed eight years ago, even though it's a completely obsolete technology. The bottom line is there's no replacement for emotional connection. Sustainability promoters need to understand that without this emotional, cultural enabler, they face a very tough uphill battle.
Who are these "sustainability promoters" and what do you feel that they're missing?
I had some arguments with Valerie Casey [founder of the Designers Accord]. I think she's very smart, very passionate about the cause. But my professional background is different from hers and many of the people dealing with sustainability, because I'm a form giver, not an academic or a theorist. The nuances of form, imbuing sex appeal into an object, is what we do here. The products have got to sell. We all need to reduce our toxicity and effect on the environment, but we need to be able to do it happily and without too much guilt—in a positive way rather than in a negative way.
Isn't obsolescence baked into the very business models that most companies are built on, particularly technology companies? Realistically, how can a company make money if its customers hold on to its product forever?
I think we should fight obsolescence. My theory is that if you build objects that are designed to stay in use a long time and you require that they're building these objects to the highest standards of sustainability, they'll be more expensive objects that will create the economy and the justification to slow down the cycle of obsolescence.
But what about a company like Apple? It rolls out new products every six months and previous versions become obsolete.
The huge misconception about technology is that it's the hardware that causes the obsolescence. It's the software too. It's inconceivable that BMW would sell a car that won't have spare parts and won't be able to be on the road for [more than] five or six years. It should be legislated that software must be backward compatible for a long time. Just like cars.
Also in the software world, there is a term called "rust." Day one you open a computer and it works really fast, and after a year, it slows down. It's the result of out-of-control cycles of add-ons that are competing for resources on your PC and creating conflicts. In my opinion, this is a big sustainability issue. We cannot just trash millions of tons of electronics every year.
How are you personally trying to put a halt to this cycle with your clients?
The Dell Studio Hybrid PC is one example of a long fight that resulted in a computer that is more humble in performance and really aggressive on sustainability. Dell came to us with the idea of doing the ultimate home PC; you could put it any way you want, horizontally, vertically, all types of things. We wanted to do a smaller computer using a chip set that consumes a lot less energy. Our argument was that computers are so overpowered, they're basically dying of boredom. On a cycle of 24 hours, we might be using 1% of their capabilities.
The problem was the computer business is rigged for the latest, fastest, and so forth, and Dell had an objective difficulty: How does it sell a "good enough" performance computer? The argument was really between the old-fashioned paradigm of speeds and feeds, and a new paradigm of lifestyle that's more about a small footprint. We started working on it in 2005; it finally came out in 2008. It uses 70% less energy and less material, and it's enough for me to use every day as my office computer.
Should zero waste be the ultimate goal of designers today? Designing a completely cradle-to-cradle object?
Everyone here starts a project wishing that the product will last for 10 years, 20 years. After that, we are dealing with disassembly, recyclability, and reuse of materials, reuse of electronics. We do it all the time. The new Slingbox is made entirely of aluminum. This material could be recycled a million times. But I don't define sustainability as everything but plastic, or never painting an object. In my opinion, these are immature approaches. If we really measure the merit of the product—how much good it does versus how much bad it may create—then you get to a really interesting sustainability issue.
I always ask Prius people, "Your last car before the Prius, how long did you hold on to it?" It's 1,000 gallons of fuel just making a car, shipping it, delivering it; the act of discarding it, recycling it, takes a lot of energy, too. So maybe a better thing to do rather than buying a new Prius is keeping your old car 8 or 10 years. It's probably the more sustainable strategy.