For John Kembel, the “aha” moment came in seventh grade when he built a spring-loaded fork that hurtled forward to stab food on a plate. (Peas don’t stand a chance!) For his identical twin, George, that moment arrived with his introduction to Lego at a neighborhood friend’s house. “It was the set that allowed you to build a Volkswagen car, and I built just the seat, which actually reclined back,” George says. “I remember thinking, This is unbelievably cool.”
Those boyhood experiences creating and building planted the seeds of passion for design in these twins, now 33, who (perhaps unsurprisingly) have pursued nearly identical career paths in the field. Although in retrospect that path may look planned, the twins say their direction evolved from the core elements of design philosophy in which they were trained: Get an idea, test it, learn, and adjust. “You can apply that way of thinking to just about anything,” George says.
Both brothers wound up at Stanford University pursuing mechanical-engineering degrees. A turning point came in design guru David Kelley’s product-design class their senior year. “The class shifted my thinking from just solving problems to finding the right problems to solve,” John says.
John and George returned to Stanford in 1995 to get master’s degrees in product design, and upon graduation, the brothers started their own design-consulting company. They bought two secondhand screaming-yellow swivel chairs, rented office space next door to a KFC in Palo Alto, and began working with IBM, LeapFrog, and Paul Allen’s Interval Research. The client work underwrote the brothers’ sideline creative experimentation, which produced a plethora of toy, lamp, and technology prototypes. One of those ideas, a computer user interface that would let people surf the Internet without using a browser, was a clear opportunity to launch a dotcom startup. John and George dived in as CTO and CEO, respectively. (It was 1999. Who didn’t?) The yellow chairs made the leap as well.
George admits he was slightly worried that being removed from direct product development would mean losing the creative buzz of his work. But he found that building a company used the same philosophy as design. “Working on a startup is nothing but working in collaborative teams, problem solving, and iterating,” he says.
The company they launched, DoDots, followed the typical Internet-company storyline. While John says the process of laying off close friends was horrific, he doesn’t regret his dotcom experience. “In two years, we went through a business cycle that you might otherwise expect to see play out over 10 years. So we had to learn at an incredible pace about striking partnerships and managing teams,” John says. “But the biggest takeaway for me was realizing that there is a lot of joy in the effort and the learning in the moment.”
After DoDots, the twins took detours: John spent eight months globe-trotting from Bolivia to Australia with his wife; George worked for a year for a venture-capital firm. “The VC space is not a design-driven culture,” George explains. “You’re one step removed. You’re picking companies, but the creation is going on at the companies themselves. Losing that direct connection was demotivating for me.”
Back from the diaspora, the two are working apart. John is at Carnegie Mellon pursuing a doctorate in human-computer interaction. George is back at Stanford as executive director of the university’s new d.school, an interdisciplinary program that allows students to apply design thinking to such challenges as overhauling the K-12 school system in the United States.
Asked if the future will bring another Kembel Brothers Inc. project, George smiles broadly and swivels in the yellow chair now in his office at Stanford. “It’s already in the works.”