The Questions | Stephen Wurth, IDSA | Nestle R+D

If you really want to design for business, you may just have to relinquish a little bit of the idea of ownership of “your” design. Teamwork, says Stephen Wurth, can be a good strategy for climbing the corporate design ladder. He shared that advice and reported on the state of design in St. Louis in this conversation.

NOVEMBER 2008 - Born and raised in Glen Carbon, IL, Stephen Wurth stumbled onto industrial design during his 2nd year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since graduating in 2004, he has worked for Nestlé focusing on packaging and industrial design. He currently lives in St. Louis, MO where he serves as resident social chair of IDSA’s St. Louis chapter.

Can you talk about your current position and what you're working on?

I am part of a small, global industrial design team working on structural packaging and consumer-driven design solutions for Nestle, the largest food company in the world. I am currently based in St. Louis, MO with a team of designers primarily working in the pet care category (Nestle Purina Petcare), but also supporting the global Nestle portfolio/brand(s) as well (coffee, beverage, candy, Nespresso, ice cream, etc.)

Describe the environment you work in. How is your team constructed? What is the collaborative process like?

It’s corporate, but we have fun with it. We have a fantastic studio space in St. Louis and a great supporting team of engineers, scientists and wealth of other knowledge to help us reinforce our design solutions. The designers are placed all over the world supporting each of our core business areas, working in collaboration with marketing to understand consumer insights and design based on functionality, need and emotional desire.

In addition, we are supported by a network of external agencies around the globe and have built good relationships with other renowned, global design firms that have provided valuable insight for how to move forward with our small, growing team.

We also extend a philanthropic arm to the design education community with funded educational projects (FEP) at different (industrial) design schools around the world that provide new, innovative thinking towards Nestlé brands, while giving students a taste of the business world and the constraints of manufacturing and financial models.

In what ways does your corporate design team benefit from working with external agencies?

The external network is just to enhance the global design team’s delivery. We are a growing team at the moment and having a network of strategic agencies to help out gives us a competitive advantage. Our global team is extremely resourceful, but having different viewpoints from other designers really helps push the creativity and designs even further.

How did you end up working in design?

I wanted to be a 3-D animator for Pixar for the longest time and thought graphic design would be the best path to fulfill the dream. In an ironic twist of fate, I did not get accepted into the graphic design program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but found industrial design instead—which opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t even know existed. It was the best choice I ever made and I’m pretty sure no one could top how happy I am with my career choice...unless, of course, you’re Jonathan Ive or Eric Ryan, two of my role models.

What creative disciplines other than ID do you have a background in? How does your experience with those disciplines influence or impact your ID work?

I have dabbled in graphic design and filmmaking and would love to do more. Being an industrial designer, you kind of have to know a little bit about everything when it comes to design which makes me appreciate it even more. I have found a new appreciation for photography, film, print, etc. that ultimately helps me create solutions that are holistic in nature, not just good-looking or only functional. Today, we are seeing a shift from commoditization of products to experiential design; one that involves the consumer throughout the product’s entire life. In order to achieve this, the designer needs to be able to understand what intrinsic elements are needed to connect with the consumer’s emotions, not just their wallet.

Are you able to share any good examples of experiential design from your tenure are Nestle?

The Carousel project is a perfect example of experiential design, in my opinion. That product came entirely from a different project where we were looking at can usage through in-home studies. We observed consumers having a very difficult time storing and organizing their pet food cans and realized there was a need for a product to solve this problem. Instead of just designing something very functional, we wanted to bring the cans out of the pantry or drawer and onto the countertop making it more of a sculptural piece with added aesthetic and functionality. This product was designed with the consumers feeding experience at the forefront.

Where do you see design going in the near future?

We are obviously seeing a shift towards sustainability and environmental impact of products. This is something that designers of all disciplines and, quite frankly, everyone needs to address in their respective fields. The green movement is a powerful shift in global culture and designers need to be at the forefront if they want to evolve. This includes new material exploration, source reduction, better manufacturing processes, light-weighting and so on…

The other shift I see happening in the near-to-distant future is the idea of the “re-premiumization” of products, meaning companies will need to take a step back from the commodity-driven business model and design products that regain the premium nature of yesteryear. What does that mean, Stephen? Here’s an example: The stainless steel fridge used to be a high-end, desired object that sparked conversation and gave social status. Now, you can buy an all stainless steel bar of soap…I mean c’mon!

What should the design infrastructure do to help guide that future in a way that benefits the profession and those who practice it?

I think the key is education—and on all levels, not just undergraduate/graduate degree programs, but on the professional level as well. We need to be up to speed on issues and trends that are happening in the design field to stay sharp and creative through all channels. For instance, our St. Louis chapter of IDSA just sponsored an eco-design workshop that included professionals, students and designers of other disciplines to educate the Midwest on the principles and best practices of designing for the environment. Events or classes like this need to be happening everywhere, on all levels.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge that every designer needs to overcome today?

There are two, in my opinion.

(1) DESIGN FOR BUSINESS: Designers need to have a keen sense of business practice and financial implications of the products and packaging they design. The number one missing link for designers on every survey is always the inability to speak “marketing-talk” and understand business. It is so true; being a corporate designer I see this everyday. If you cannot rationalize a concept for its potential value, other than design, it has a much lesser chance of seeing the light of day. Unless the CEO is design focused—like Karim Rashid or Steve Jobs—designers need to be able to have a conversation on a business level with their clients. We are all creative by nature, but backing it with an understanding of basic economics makes us so much more valuable.

(2) LETTING IT GO: We often times want to hold onto “our” design so we can have supreme credit and move higher up faster in our respective companies. Designers need to revert back to the idea of teamwork to really make a product succeed on every level when introduced to market. This means letting a team help build your idea and make it stronger. The best products I have worked on that are either in market or are in the pipeline, have all been the result of a team working together to accomplish the task.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about industrial designers? How can it be corrected?

The biggest misconception is that we are a service and are not a strategic discipline that needs to be involved from the very beginning of projects. Every designer knows that the products we design are only as good as the research we collect, and this means being engaged from the onset of the project. We don't just sketch pretty pictures. We are not engineers. We are most definitely not a service. We should be thought of as a strategic partner with all of our clients, because in the end, the products will ultimately reflect that partnership.

What are your own personal design aspirations?

I’d like to move to a senior position at Nestlé and help continue advancing the global design effort. Then…who knows?? I’ve always had dreams of running my own business, I just need “the” business plan and a nice loan, which I probably won’t get for a couple years seeing how the economy is right now…

Who or what are your sources of design inspiration?

I admire Eric Ryan (co-founder of method:home) because of his drive and ambition as a young professional. He is not even a designer, but had a great idea to turn a typical product category into something special and I’m pretty sure that everyone would agree that he did. Method is a staple of what good design and a great message can do for a business and designers should strive to push this kind of bold thinking and innovation within their respective companies.

I also get a lot of inspiration from sleeping. I am that guy who has the best ideas in his sleep and has to try and regurgitate them the next morning to make sure I don’t forget. Maybe I should adopt that sketchbook by the bed thing.

What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?

Design Sketching by Erik Olofsson and Klara Sjolen is a huge source of sketching inspiration and always energizes me when I am lagging at my desk for any reason. The compilation of sketch styles is a must have for all ID’ers and I would encourage anyone who is even remotely interested in design to have this on their coffee table at home.

I don’t have many website distractions. (Ok, I do…) But I will say music is a huge distraction for me. I love listening to iTunes radio stations and finding songs to download when I get home. Music helps me think through ideas and, believe it or not, I design better with certain types of music playing. It may be Pete Yorn one day and Skynyrd the next—it all depends on my mood.

What have been your biggest and best takeaways from your IDSA experience?

IDSA has helped me create an extensive network of contacts and has given me a chance to help lead a design surge in St. Louis. I am passionate (as we all are!) about what I do and I want my surrounding community to know how cool our jobs really are, and IDSA is a great organization to make that happen.

What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?

Until eight months ago it was that IDSA didn’t have a chapter in St. Louis. Since that is remedied, I suppose it would have to be website navigation, which I know is being fixed, so I suppose I have nothing.

What should people know about the state of design in St. Louis?

Very simply: watch out for STL. We have 40+ members in IDSA_St. Louis alone, with a city that is emerging in size, trend and creativity. No longer is St. Louis just a small Midwestern city with nothing to offer except Budweiser, the Cardinals and the Arch. There is an economic boom happening in STL, and people would be shocked at how bustling the surrounding community actually is, including the creative profession. We have a great mix of consultancies and corporate firms with industrial design as a key discipline, and I am convinced there are even more, we just need to find them.

What would you most like to see IDSA do differently?

I think IDSA should get more involved with student chapters to ensure continued membership and excitement moving into professional life. I had no drive to stay in IDSA after college because STL had no chapter and no one was encouraging me to come to anything in Kansas City—my chapter for three years—so the only reason I stayed was for the literature, Innovation magazine, and the fact that my company paid the dues. Now I have a great reason, but the national organization should make more of an individual effort to keep people engaged.