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Cellphones readied for recycling. (LEE JIN-MAN/AP)
Cellphones readied for recycling. (LEE JIN-MAN/AP)

Q and A: Robert Brunner

Disposable gadgets irk former Apple designer Add to ...

As head industrial designer at Apple from 1989 to 1996, Robert Brunner developed the original Macintosh PowerBook. Today, the San Francisco resident is CEO of product design and brand consultancy at Ammunition and co-founder of outdoor-grill maker Fuego. The winner of many awards for his work - which sits in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art - Mr. Brunner has collaborated with Microsoft and Nike. He also co-wrote the 2008 book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company.

What fundamental principles guide your work?

Simplicity, appropriateness, beauty and - for lack of a better word - drama. I like to create things that are iconic and stand out, and that excite and interest people.

What is the leading edge of design thinking? What big problems or ideas are the brightest people grappling with?

"Design thinking" has become a loaded phrase of late. I tend to work in two big areas. One is the ongoing march of technology into our lives. What does that mean to us as humans and how do we interact with it, and what does it look like and feel like? The other one, which of course has become an issue in the last decade, is sustainability. I've spent some time looking at what I call trying to make bad better. We're looking at the material and process impact of the things we make and trying to make it less bad.

Design-wise, is this an enlightened age?

Most of the time, I'm dealing with the top leaders of companies and talking about how design fits into their business. I think right now is the golden age for industrial designers - unlike it's ever been before.

What bothers you about industrial design today?

We just make too much crap. Walking down the aisles of the Consumer Electronics Show, I feel nauseous because there's just gadget after gadget after gadget after gadget, all doing the same things, all trying to look different, many of them with debatable value to begin with. What I try to do is stay focused on just making good things - good visually but also functionally - that have life and have value so they're not discarded in a few months.

Where do you get your best ideas, and how much does travel inform what you do?

It's funny, because I was in Taiwan meeting with our manufacturer, and we had decided we needed to do a low-cost product. I went back to my hotel and I went to the bathroom - I'd already been in there 10 times - and I looked down and there was this beautiful conical sink sitting on a cylindrical pedestal. And it was just like, "Boom - that's a fantastic barbeque."

How big a role does serendipity play in new or remarkable designs?

Serendipity is important, but you have to have your eyes open. When my team and I explore something, we try and stay open as long as possible, because many times the really cool stuff comes out of an accident or some small observation. Design at its best is a discovery. If you do the same things that people did before, you're not innovating. And I think that's one of the challenges with consumer research. If great design existed in research, there'd be more great design, because anybody can do research. The opportunity is there but the answers aren't, because people focus on what they know. And if you ask somebody what they like, they'll tell you what they like today. The real innovations happen when you look beyond that.

What did you learn when you worked at Apple? How has that influenced what you do today?

I learned to understand the phrase "design and strategy," and really building a business strategy around great design and building a brand. A lot of what I do today is not just creating individual things but helping companies learn to be better-designed companies.

In your book, you argue that design is crucial to customer experience and overall business success. Why do so few global brands use design well?

I always say that if you look at the number of true design-driven companies in the world, you can usually count them on two hands. There are plenty of smaller organizations that do it very well in individual products. But to be an Apple, a BMW, a Nike - someone consistently doing it - it takes a culture focused on that, and cultures don't happen overnight. And in many cases, it takes individuals with vision and the willingness to push and do things right, and those are rare as well. In the book, I coin the phrase "chief experience officer." At its best, that is also your chief executive officer who's driving the vision of the design experience.

Do you have any advice for companies that are trying to develop a better relationship with design? How can they get away from the narrow definition of design as product?

Companies need to understand what their brand is and what it's about, and a brand is not the elements that they create. A brand is the gut feeling that all this stuff creates for their audience. And so when you understand that your brand lives in other people's hearts and you can't control that - you can only influence it - you start to look at how to design that experience and work it back through the company and get all the pieces right.

What does the future hold for industrial design?

We have to continue down this path of making the materials and processes that we employ the best we can. The other thing is looking at how design can help people make choices that are better for the environment. As a species, we don't like to do anything that's hard. It's natural - we tend to go to things we like. So the more designers can package things that are good for the planet in ways that people like, the more you start to influence the way people behave. It's that simple.

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