Q&A: Dan Formosa, award-winning product designer

An award-winning designer, Formosa spoke with us about designing IBM's first personal computer, how design has changed over the decades -- and why you should have meetings in elevators.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

When Dan Formosa co-founded Smart Designback in 1981, he had a simple principle in mind: "Design should be about people, not things."

More than three decades in, he says he's still fascinated by the ways in which people's emotional and physical needs relate to design. He and his firm have designed dozens of products that are used every day, from OXO's Good Grips kitchen tools, to Flip camcorders, to photo printers, hospital gowns and even cars. Still, "most people think products just fall out of the sky," he says. "When you point out to people that everything they touch was designed by someone, it just boggles their minds."

An award-winning designer with a Ph.D in ergonomics and biomechanics, Formosa spoke with us about the past, present and future of his field — but first we wanted to hear about his work on the original IBM personal computer.

You're one of the few people who can say, 'I helped figure out how IBM's first PC would look.' How did you get involved with that project?

I was just out of school and working in the office of a well-known designer named Eliot Noyes. One of the projects that came around to them was to design IBM's first home computer. Of course, at that time, no one knew what a home computer was or why you would need one. How do you design a thing when you don't even know what it's going to do? This was a very interesting and extremely secretive project, but no one thought it would be revolutionary. What we designed in 1977 was very much like what was introduced in 1981. We created three prototypes: one was beige, another was red and the third was teak wood, if you can believe that.

Which color did you prefer?

I was wondering if teak was really the way to go, but I wasn't anti-wood. At the time, all the high-end stereo equipment had wood, and no one knew what this thing was going to be. I was definitely into red. I don't remember me saying, 'Let's make it beige.'

You co-founded Smart Design in 1981, a few years after that IBM project. You've said your firm was built on the premise that design is about people, not things. Is that something you see designers acknowledging more now than when you started out?

The state of design in the U.S. was pretty dismal in the late 1970s. That's one of the reasons we started our own office. A designer's role was at the end of a project to basically put a shell over a toaster or a television or to give things more perceived value than they had. The designer's role was not to go out in the field and talk to consumers. That was marketing's domain. Design was all about visual aesthetics, not usability.

That approach lasted for quite some time, but it's changing now. We were working on a project here recently for kitchen products — appliances that are not out yet — and we went out and spoke with people who are blind. Not because we were designing these things for people who are blind, but we figured it would be very interesting in terms of usability to figure out how someone blind makes orange juiceor coffee in the morning.

If I'd told designers in 1980 that we talked to blind people about design I'd be laughed at and thrown out like I'm a crazy person. In 1990, they would have laughed, but not as loudly. In 2000, they would have laughed a little nervously, like a giggle. Now, if I stand in front of a group of designers and say that we talked to people who are blind, everybody gets it.

Smart Design has designed more than 500 products for OXO, including the "Good Grips" line (pictured above) Formosa helped create.

What do you think helped change that?

A big change is that people used to buy by brand and they're not doing that anymore. They're going online — to Amazon, to blogs — and reading the reviews, then buying based on what others are telling them. In order to sell a product now, it has to be extremely usable and exceed expectations. That means a lot of attention is being paid to design because everyone realizes they need to get five-star reviews. Now designers have to get their acts together unlike ever before to figure out how to deal with these issues of perception and usability and biomechanics and all the other factors that result in five-star reviews. It's also elevating the discussion of design within corporations and getting the attention of people at much higher levels.

But are there areas in which you still wish product designers were putting more emphasis on the user?

Design and behavior is a major topic that's been addressed for a long time but not nearly enough. In healthcare, for instance, companies have traditionally focused on a pill or molecule rather than the fact that a lot of patients don't stick to their [medication] regimen. There are huge opportunities in healthcare innovation around usability.

Then there's also the issue of gender. The problems there are so ubiquitous that we don't even see them. In consumer electronics, for instance, the whole field is male-oriented. You get a female walking into a store like Best Buy and all they want to do is run out screaming. It's like testosterone city in there. How do you design appropriate electronics for females? Usually the knee-jerk reaction is, 'Oh, you mean we have to dumb it down.' But no, usually what you have to do is make it much smarter. Males will put up with things that females don't have time for because women are actually operating on a higher plane of intelligence in many ways.

I like where this is going. And I see so many "women-focused" versions of products that look exactly the same as the original, but in pink.

Exactly. It's totally offensive. One of the things we smirk about here is that they treat the female version as if it's a niche market, but most people out there are female. The way females approach televisions or barbecues or consumer electronics or the car is a whole different mindset than the way males address it.

Another thing that's detrimental to this idea of gender-specific design is that it's so politically incorrect to sit at a conference room table at a corporation and discuss the fact that females think differently than males. Everyone avoids the topic and instead just takes the position that males and females are the same, but they're two totally different animals.

You've been working in this field for more than three decades. What's something that still puzzles you about design?

Sometimes if I just explain to people — even a group of designers — how the hand works, it's interesting how many designers could not tell you. Certain things that should be basic common knowledge to successful design are just not taught, whether it's perception or psychology or physiology.

So ideally, designers should be taking more science classes?

Yeah. Quantifying things is great. The misconceptions people have even with simple questions and whether they're statistically significant or not is tragic. Now that we have everybody's attention, I think if designers don't pick up the design research ball and run with it, people from other fields are going to control design — psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists — and they're just going to tell the designers what to do.

Formosa worked on the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid's SmartGauge with Eco Drive. The design went on to win the Interaction Design Association's 2012 award for “Best in Category: Disrupting."

We talk a lot about creativity for Pure Genius. Have you always had a desire to create?

When I was in high school, I was somewhere between engineering and physics and and chemistry and art. Without sounding too pompous, I've always appreciated Leonardo da Vinci, who would not make a distinction between science and art. Somehow, over the centuries, our school system has separated the two. You don't have a left brain and a right brain. You have a left half and a right half. If someone tells you they're left-brained or right-brained, then the way you should read that is they are half-brained. Putting those two halves together was always my desire.

Once your interest in design was sparked, how did you develop your design sensibilities?

My design sensibilities are body-focused. I put the body first and then the design emanates from there, like an extension of the body. I notice that I tend to be a little more comfortable with organic shapes and mechanisms. I'll design things that are not perfect circles. I studied biomechanics, and the human body doesn't have many straight lines or pivot points.

What do you turn to when you're in need of some inspiration?

When people say, 'Let's go in the conference room and come up with some new ideas,' I think, 'Let's go in the elevator because on every floor new people are coming in and there's not much happening in the conference room.' I once took our group on the Staten Island Ferry and we had our idea session there. We don't do that nearly enough. Designers are a little conservative with running outside. They think they should be at their desks. But if you're going to design a kitchen item, why sit at your desk? Go sit in your kitchen.

You've said that, as a product designer, "We don't care about the average people, we look at the extremes." Why?

So many companies come to us with their 'average consumer.' That may make sense from a marketing point of view, but we don't really care about the average person because that doesn't tell us about the spectrum. The analogy I usually give is that if you designed a doorway for the average person, half the people who used it would bump their heads. What we really want to do is understand the extremes. A lot of times, there are really good ideas at the extremes — and the average is covered there, too.

Images courtesy of Smart Design.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards