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  • 07.02.09

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

The five designers from five very different backgrounds learn how to work together–and sometimes, how to speak the same language.

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.

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kicker collaboration

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

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

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

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.

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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

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
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

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.

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