Smart Design’s Dan Formosa on the Power of People, Simplicity and Gossip

Dan Formosa


He was on the design team that developed the first IBM computer. He worked on design for the OXO Good Grips kitchen tools and Ford’s SmartGauge we wrote about here last week, but Smart Design founder Dan Formosa has actually gotten a lot of his design education from supermarket tabloids. At AIGA’s Y Conference today, he explains the “Things I’ve learned about graphic design from reading the National Enquirer.”


oxo peeler

Design is about people, says Formosa, more than anything: “We don’t care about the average people, we look at the extremes.” For Corning Glass, Smart was able to design sunglasses in shapes that could fit different face sizes. The OXO peelers, of course, helped a lot of people with arthritis. It may seem like you’re only helping a small group when you deal with something like hearing loss or arthritis, says Formosa, but you’re actually helping a lot of people, due to the percentage of people worldwide that have those problems. But now, instead of thinking about imaginary users created for research purposes, Smart identifies what it calls Six Real People. And it turns out there’s an even bigger challenge working within those constraints. “It’s very hard to design for six real people.” The firm actually talks to groups of blind people, in order to test its products: “Blind people know a lot about design,” he says. “Every feeling and sound and shape is important to them.”

Baseball Field Guide

Smart has even brought more simple design to the world of sports. The Baseball Field Guide is a short book that Formosa wrote and created with Smart Design’s Paul Hamburger that explains the rules of baseball through information design–“Baseball is graphically very interesting”–and of course has a beautiful Web site to match. All the rules of baseball are communicated through illustrations and organized like a reference book where you can look for information while you’re watching a game. Their design was so effective that a writer reporting on a Pirates game used it to see what the rules were for a batter batting out of order. He found the answer in two minutes, and it took the umpires five minutes to figure it out.




Formosa also appreciates customers’ ability to gossip. Smart captured this consumer chatter for its work on the Omron HIP Pedometer, a project created for a health care company. When asked to design the packaging, the design firm was unsure about how to position it to the consumer. So Formosa and his team looked to a reviewer on Amazon, who had great approval ratings and loved the product. His reviews inspired the copy and a more simple, conversational voice. “People have more power and are talking to each other.” During the Q&A moderator Debbie Millman asks Formosa about consumer revolt, specifically the Facebook and Tropicana battles we wrote about yesterday. “People talking to each other is good for design,” says Formosa. “If you have a bad product, people are going to know about it quickly, and for a new product that’s good the buzz will get out there quickly. I don’t see it as a drag on innovation or design, I see it as quite the opposite.”

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.