Industrial Design

Kristin Grant–Dad’s an engineer. Mom’s a painter. You could say I was born at the crux of two pretty irreconcilable worlds – science and art are not initially recognized for their compatibility. As a kid, a divided household was undeniably handy – if I ever ran into a particularly nasty multiplication problem, I would holler for Dad. Likewise, if I was ever in a creative jam, Mom was always there to help me through it. This arrangement worked out splendidly for quite some time; however, after a while I grew curious. Could there possibly be an intersection point where these two pillars of my life – practicality and creativity – blended together in seamless balance? After some digging, I stumbled across my answer: industrial design.

Whenever I express my interest in this field, I am usually met with blank stares. Some queries always follow: Are you sure you do not mean industrial engineering? Graphic design? Architecture? Nope. To clear it up once and for all, the Occupational Outlook Handbook describes industrial designers as astute creators who “combine art, business, and engineering to make products that people use every day” (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The goal of every industrial design team, as defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, is to “help produce manufactured items that not only work well but please the eye, and therefore, have a competitive advantage over similar products” (Zukowsky).  While industrial design has continued to evolve since its beginnings in this era to incorporate manufactured materials, its objective remains very similar: to create attractively stylized objects that still serve a functional purpose (Zukowsky).

Sounds simple enough; however, these encyclopedia snippets fail to expose what I believe is the true ingenuity of this field. Imagine – the people who design your cars, your toasters, your sneakers – all are partially responsible in determining how you perceive your surroundings. As our world becomes progressively manufactured, people are increasingly evaluated by their possessions. For instance,if a man drives a sleek sports car down the road, chances are he will leave a different impression on you then if he drove a dented mini-van. Not only do products serve as our gage for others, but also as vehicles of our own individual identities. As Stanford professor Dr. Jennifer Aaker remarks in her article The Malleable Self: The Role of Self Expression in Persuasion, inanimate objects are increasingly becoming “associated with personality traits that provide self expressive or symbolic benefits for the customer” (Aaker 1999). An industrial designer’s ability to understand all these distinct personalities and apply them in the creation of a marketable design is nothing short of genius.

But just how do they do it? How does an industrial designer wrestle with all the basic elements of effective design – practicality, functionality, style – and still manage to emerge with a product that is tailored to the needs of a specific consumer? With too many questions and not a whole lot answers, the logical next step was to ask one of their own kind– so on a Friday afternoon, I was doing perhaps the most stereotypical Portlander activity: drinking tea in a coffee shop while staring out at the rain. What made today different was that I was waiting to meet with Suzy Cessor, a top industrial designer for Nike shoes.

I nervously fuss with my pencils and notebook, and then inwardly admonish myself for being so antsy. Cessor has been in most of my life – her daughter Maddie and I have been classmates for about 14 years – however, I believe the longest conversation I have ever had with her goes along the lines of, “Hi, Ms. Cessor!” Not long after, I see Cessor’s familiar blond bob and smile, so I quickly choke down the rest of my nerves and tea and then rise to greet her. Cessor waves and walks briskly towards me and I notice her outfit, most of which looks comfortable and water proof, is paired with a truly covetable pair of electric green Nike shoes.

We chatter idly about the chilly November cold until I ask Cessor about her start in the industrial design field. Her answer is immediate – “My dad, definitely,” she replies, “He was an engineer who was fascinated by architecture and design. I remember the day he brought the first Mac home – he set it on the kitchen table and said, ‘Now this is really great design’ and then just walked us through what it was. He was very aware.” While Cessor did not realize it at the time, that very same awareness, coupled with an exceptional talent for drawing, would be instrumental in her success as an industrial designer.

“You have to be curious. My favorite question to ask is why,” noticing my confusion, she gestures to my cellphone, which has been resting on the table. “Take your phone. Why do you have a bamboo case? Because it’s wood and it feels more natural? Is it the custom look? Or is it because you were raised in Oregon and being environmentally conscious is important to you?” I nod vigorously, starting to understand. “When you ask these questions, you get deeper into the consumer. You need to understand the buyer in order to make a useful design.” Failure to address essential questions can lead to some inadequate results, Cessor elaborates. A few years back, Nike attempted to convert a profitable running shoe, the Nike Shoxs, into the next successful basketball shoe. Unfortunately, the shoe was cut in a way specific to running that made it too unstable for side-to-side motion. Nike designers attempted to reduce this issue by lowering the height of the sole; however, that effort just created yet another problem – the shoe no longer provided sufficient impact support. In the end, consumers were left with a sub-par product – and their dissatisfaction was reflected in the sales of the shoe.

Nevertheless, Cessor still believes in the power of eccentric creative thinking, “Not to use a cliché or anything, but inspiration truly can come from anywhere” she says, “I was staring at my tooth brush the other day, and I loved how the bristles moved. And I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be awesome if shoe soles mimicked this design to increase mobility? If you’re able to think like that, you’re a person I want to collaborate with.”

` By its very nature industrial design is an extremely cooperative field, constantly depending on the teamwork of its members. “We have these people at Nike – we call them “energy vampires” because they suck all the life out of a project,” Cessor says. “You know what I tell those people? You guys are paid to create. The idea that people ask your opinions about how to make things better… it’s an enormous honor and privilege”. If you’re not willing to work with others, you can be replaced, Cessor adds. While she classifies herself as a “hired gun” – a designer who specializes in brainstorming creative solutions to problems – Cessor says that people of all interests and specialties are required to create a successfully designed product. Color analysts are needed to predict the next hot hues. Engineers determine and adjust a shoe’s limitations. Market researchers observe recent trends in order to decipher what products will sell. In short, the industrial design field attracts all sorts of people with one shared passion: a desire to make the world better through more efficiently designed products.

At this point in our conversation, I begin to wonder if my initial notion of industrial designers as these uncannily perceptive individuals, gifted with an innate understanding of the people’s material needs, is entirely accurate. Rather, it would appear the design field is an exchange between all sorts of people – the consumer and the inventor, the engineer and the artist. Perhaps this varied perspective is why there appears to be a product customized to every individual’s wants and needs.

Interested in exploring this little hypothesis further, I prod Cessor for additional resources and contacts. “You should talk to Bill Dieter,” she says, and I quickly scribble the name down. “He founded Terrazign awhile back –took a completely different path than what I did.”

That night when I get home, I do some searching to find out more about this Mr. Dieter and his company. His site advertises Terrazign’s unique ability to use materials such as fabrics, metals, and plastics, to create anything from adjustable speed hurdles to specialized backpacks (see cover). Typically, companies will come to Terrazign with a problem that Dieter and his five person team will then solve by “building, prototyping, and testing” product solutions (Terrazign Inc). So far, it would appear their methodology is working – the Terrazign client list boasts big names in both the technology and industry fields, such as Intel and Nike. According to an article written Erik Siemers of the Portland Business Journal, in 2009 Terrazign landed a huge project with NASA designing a treadmill harness to keep astronauts from losing critical bone mass while in space. “There’s only a few fish in the pond doing this type of stuff for NASA,” Dieter is quoted saying – very impressive considering that at the time of the interview, Terrazign was a 3 person firm with only $500,000 annual revenue (Siemers).

A bit of a space geek myself, I eagerly send Dieter a couple e-mails until we settle on meeting the following week. At promptly 5 o’clock the subsequent Thursday, I stroll up to Terrazign’s yellow back door and give it a tug. Locked. Standing awkwardly in the driving rain, I check and recheck my phone to make sure I have the right date. Yep. Right location? I glance around, uneasily noticing how all of the surrounding outbuildings look extremely similar. I am about to turn around when a small bespectacled woman inside glances my way and hurries to open the door. “It wasn’t unlocked?” she asks incredulously. I merely shake my head in response, momentarily enraptured by the studio. The high peaked ceilings give the space an almost church-like aura that is grounded by methodically arranged industrial equipment. I’m in the right place alright.

“What’s your name again?” the woman asks. After I come out of my daze to answer her, she leans off the balcony and yells, “Bill! Someone named Kristin is here to see you!” A man of medium-sized build appears from behind the bulky machines with an unidentified power tool in his hand. “Hi Kristin!” Bill shouts back, “I’ll be up in a minute. Nice to finally meet you!”

I am then led into a peculiar room that seems half-studio-half-office space and told to wait. A couple minutes later Bill emerges from the shop and gives my hand a firm shake. After some brief introductions, he leads me down the stairs two at a time to the studio where he proceeds to guide me through shop. Our footsteps clatter on the concrete floor and reverberate around the high ceilings as Dieter and I walk through a maze of silent metal machines, pausing occasionally to discuss the amazing capabilities of a certain contraption. The machine over there? It can carve metal using a high-pressured stream of water. This one? A laser that can be programed to etch an intricate design on any material. That sewing machine? It can stich through plywood.

“I like to think of this as my giant sketchbook,” Dieter says, gesturing around the studio, “I don’t like to draw – but that’s ok, because there’s not a wrong way to design – it’s just a process of creativity.”

Dieter believes that this type of thinking is what really sets the Terrazign design process apart from other companies. “We start by asking our client a lot of questions – it’s almost like being a psychiatrist, but you are looking at problems that are not solved through someone’s mind, but via products,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “After that, we go through a brainstorming phase where we cull through all the possibilities to determine which ones have any merit. Then we start to play – by building refined prototypes, we begin to understand what is truly happening. It’s in those very fine details that things start to really sing.” Dieter says this particular method of product trial and error of is rather unusual – most designers will do some sketching, maybe make a model out of Styrofoam, and then send the plans off to another company to make a more accurate prototype. Dieter believes that the Terrazign’s model gets to the root of the problem faster because “you’re constantly thinking about the project – it’s not in someone else’s hands.”

In the end, Dieter says he thrives on projects where “I walk out of a meeting with a pit in my stomach, thinking why are we doing this?” Recently, his team made a pop-up weather enclosure for Segway “that was so fun, so very challenging” because of all the unusual considerations that were necessary for the strange two-wheeled vehicle. Their crowning gem, the NASA treadmill harness (36 of which have already been flown into space), posed a whole different set of obstacles – Dieter recalls presenting the project to NASA space engineers and being told that certain buckles would just work themselves loose in 0 G. “We were constantly learning things about space… it was absolutely fascinating.”

Rather than ask the question I dearly want to at this point – Can I work here? Please?! – I shyly ask Dieter what an aspiring industrial designer should do to immerse herself into the field. Dieter laughs and says, “You know, I was always that kid at parties opening up people’s phones for no good reason. Do yourself a favor – go buy some stuff at Goodwill and just start taking them apart. It’s amazing what you’ll learn.”

Yet at the same time, Dieter recognizes that people come into the industrial design field from all different angles. While he was trained at Rhode Island School of Design (arguably the best design college in the country), Dieter believes a design major “is not absolutely necessary” – in fact, his own employees’ degrees range from bio-med to mathematics. Because in the end, Dieter believes it’s all about finding “what works best for you. That’s the bottom line. If you were going to walk away with one thing today, it’s how do you imagine communicating your ideas?  If it’s sketching, that’s great. Origami? Fine. There are some people who can draw a line, and it might be the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see. I can’t do that. But you know what? They say a sketch is worth a thousand words. I say a prototype is worth a thousand sketches.”

Dieter goes on to explain that while he thrives on working with his team members, none of them share the exact same creative process. He counts off on his fingers each member’s respective capability – genius with tools, excellent sketcher… and it is hard not to admire each individual for their creative talent. Yet at the same time, whenever Dieter recounts a completed project, he describes it as being accomplished via team effort. No “I” or “me” but rather… “us” and “we”. As a society that values individual achievement over the success of a team, this inclusive perspective is initially jarring to an outsider. However, then I remember that industrial designers create for the most diverse focus group on earth – the world’s consumers. We all struggle to represent ourselves efficiently and accurately, and industrial designers provide the tools. So it is no wonder then that the diversity of individual industrial designers mimics the diversity of the world… but what makes designers different is their understanding that combined talents, in the end, create the best projects.


Works Cited

Aaker, Jennifer. “The Malleable Self: The Role of Self-Expression in Persuasion”. Journal of Marketing Research. 36.1. (1999). Web.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Industrial Design”. Occupational Outlook Handbook 2012-13 Edition. 2012. Web. 23 October 2013.


Cessor, Suzy. Personal Interview. 18 October 2013.


Dieter, Bill. Personal Interview.  7 November 2013.


Siemers, Eric. “Terrazign’s Space Age Harness Wows NASA”.  Portland Business Journal 22 September 2009. Print.  


Zukowsky, John. “Industrial Design” Britannica Online. 23 October 2013. Web.


Terrazign Inc. Terrazign Product Design. Terrazign Incorporated. Web. Retrieved 6 November 2013.


Image Credits

Nike Inc. Nike Hyperdunk 2013. 2013. Web. 


Terrazign Inc. SPARQ Agility Web. 2007. Web.


Terrazign Inc. Nike Compression Pack. 2000. Web. 


Terrazign Inc. SEGWAY i2 Handlebar Bag. 2006. Web.


Terrazign Inc. SPARQ Speed Hurtle. 2006. Web.


Walldime. Blueprint Backround. 2011. Web.            




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