The Questions | Alex Diener, IDSA | Pensar

APRIL 2009 - After a chance brush with design, Alex Diener chose to study ID at Western Washington University under Arunas Oslapas and Indle King. He’s since worked for SonoSite Ultrasound and Ziba; and is now creative director for Pensar. By drawing animals in motion, Alex Diener learned how to draw quickly with a strong gestural sense. That’s not all it taught him, though. And it’s not the only lesson he’s acquired thus far in his career. Pensar’s Creative Director shares several others in this conversation.

How did you end up working in design?

I was raised on a steady diet of Star Wars and Legos. Star Wars was everywhere growing up—inmy room the walls were covered with the blueprints of the vehicles from the movies, which I traced daily. Legos were another huge influence—building something from nothing was the best way to spend a rainy Seattle afternoon. The need to create was set from an early age.

After a near-miss with animation, I studied industrial design at Western Washington University, and furniture at Dansk Design Skole. I started my career with SonoSite Ultrasound, designing mobile medical imaging equipment.

Have you studied other creative disciplines?How do those skills impact your design work?

In high school, I was bound and determined to become an animator. At 16, I started visiting the zoo to study and draw animals in motion. It taught me patience, proportion and the mechanics of movement.

It forced me to draw quickly with a strong gestural sense—something that was a valuable carry-over into design. The ability to observe a subject and record that observation in line, words and theory was another skill that transfers to design.

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

As Pensar's Creative Director my work is two is two-fold: I’m providing our clients with products and ideas that will help them expand their business, and I’m building a design team and culture within the company. Pensar is an integrated design and engineering team with seamless communication between the groups and a total willingness to forge new ground. Having engineers as integral members in the creative process allows us to find new solutions and push into production faster.

Alex Dienr Sonosite This past year, we've continued to work on consumer and medical technology, but have also expanded into automotive (racing seats) and fashion products (eyewear). Going forward we'll be helping our clients retool their product line to be more environmentally sensitive.

Can you tell us about the environment you work in?How is your team constructed?What is the collaborative process like?

We have three dogs that call the office home, and they remind us to keep things simple. When I'm stressing over the details, a cold nose will nudge my leg. We work hard, but also believe great ideas come from places where you can relax and laugh. The tough decisions are made on the foosball table.

We construct our team differently for each project. Each client has unique needs and strengths—and we assemble the appropriate team to support their goals. Our industrial designers build a research framework to identify the user experience and business objectives with the client, and then we begin up-front brainstorming with our engineers. They help us quickly expand and build on our ideas with relevant processes and technologies.

The design process is one of inclusion, and we invite our clients to be part of it. Bringing more people into the fold is critical to product success: in-house design, engineering, marketing, sales, manufacturing, tech support and distribution teams are all important. There are huge financial gains to be had if you can leverage their years of experience and perspectives on the past and future. Combine that with a fresh set of eyes and ears and new ideas form.

For example, sometimes shipping size and weight considerations aren't included in the design spec. These factors can have a significant price tag if the shipping, distribution and sales model aren't factored in from the beginning. If you have a multi-disciplinary team, those savings will be recognized and realized.

Tell us about the thinking behind the Indulgence Shower.What is the status of that project?

Industry is in a transitional space right now. We know that products need to change in ways that make them more energy- and resource-efficient.But companies are just beginning to figure out how to make those changes.

With the Indulgence shower, we wanted to show that products can employ new modes of conservation and operation, but still embrace the experience people love. We love to relax in the shower after a long day—it’s a quiet place where you can reflect and breathe. We wanted to keep that experience, but cut the energy and water waste out of the process.

 Indulgence was inspired by what some call “the Navy shower.” On aircraft carriers, personnel are required to rinse, then turn off the water while lathering, then turn on the water again to rinse off.It’s great for conservation, but it’s a poor experience. There’s the hassle of turning the water on and off and the heat escapes quickly, leaving the user wet and cold.

Indulgence uses mist jets to keep the user warm between rinses and to connect them with a sauna experience. To achieve this, we incorporated the hyper low-flow mist jets commonly used in the produce aisle. Four mist jets can cover the body with a fine spray of warm water, allowing them to spend as much time breathing the warm vapors and reflecting on the day without the guilt of 2.5 gallons of water per minute going down the drain.

The project will remain a concept unless a bath manufacturer would like add it to their product line-up (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

You've done work for Jimmy Jane. Do you find it difficult to have serious conversations about the design opportunities in the sex industry?

Culturally, the topic of sex is shrouded here in the US, whereas in Europe (and elsewhere) it's more transparent.Perhaps that's why European designers like Marc Newson (a London-based Aussie) and Tom Dixon (a Brit) made some of the first moves in bringing sophistication to an industry dominated by camp.Developing products that are simple and hygienic, with a focus on sensuality and interaction, will be the key for the sex industry to increase acceptance and improve returns. Jimmyjane (www.jimmyjane.com) and K-Y (www.k-y.com) are both taking advantage of this market opportunity.

What are your own personal design aspirations?

Continue to work with people who love to design and laugh.Designers put in long hours, so we better enjoy the company, right?

I want to develop products that are responsible.By becoming designers, we've made a commitment to improve the relationship between people and their objects (i.e., experience), and objects and the environment (i.e., lifecycle). Improving the end-cycle relationship between objects and the environment isn't going to be solved overnight, but I know I'll be a part of the generation of designers that help move industry in a new direction.

Who/what are your sources of design inspiration?

Isamu Noguchi never fails to amaze me.His mastery of form and proportion, in such challenging materials and scales, is something to behold.If you come to Seattle, don't miss his Black Sun sculpture in Volunteer Park. (www.noguchi.org/blacksun.htm)

Big cities and quiet natural places have equal but opposite attraction. It's fascinating to watch the human drama that unfolds in Tokyo's Shinjuku station, then contrast that with the quiet trails of Montana. The urban environment illustrates the context that we made for ourselves, while the nature reveals the relationships and mechanisms that made us who we are.

What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?

Natural Capitalism is a book that inspires me and one I feel best describes the challenges before us. I share the belief that the needs of business and the environment can be enhanced together and aren't mutually exclusive. People (notice I didn't say "consumers") are begging companies to provide them with new products that are a healthier alternative.Let's start that discussion with our clients…

My favorite web distraction is NotCot.org.It's steroids for inspiration, but kryptonite for productivity.

Where do you see design going in the next 5 years?

Design will be helping manufacturers develop strategic products to combat a flood of low-cost, well-designed goods that will challenge established brands.People demand value. If there is significant room for improvement in a company’s product line, there will be another company trying to capture that space.

In 10 years, expect global regulations on carbon emissions, which will be a sea change for design. Our palette of materials will evolve and aesthetics will change as a result.We won't even recognize the piano-black boxes of the 2000s. It will be a really exciting time for designers, but scary for businesses which thrive on predictability. We're going to have to learn to prototype quickly and often on a mass-market scale.

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

There is a need for young designers to be able to discuss their efforts and future with someone outside their organization. It would be great if the industry provided more opportunity for mentoring young designers. If we want to improve the profession, let's match time-tested wisdom with youthful enthusiasm.

What is the biggest challenge that every designer (corporate, consultant, educator) needs to overcome today?

Corporate designers need to illustrate to the executive team how design can improve their business. There needs to be a free, open and ongoing dialogue between designers and executive management. If it doesn't exist today, start developing that rapport tomorrow.Give them a tour of the studio, have them participate in brainstorming or a usability review, and they'll have a better understanding of the role design plays and will likely go to bat for you when you need it most. Cultivate design heroes in your organization.

The design consultant needs to keep their eyes on the true needs of their clients.Design can have a profound effect on a business—and can determine ultimate success and failure.Let's listen carefully, do our homework and make sure we design for them, not us.

Design educators need to forge stronger relationships with industry.By collaborating with practicing designers, educators and students get a true perspective on what industry is looking for from graduates, and curriculum becomes relevant to the ever-changing face of design.

What have been your biggest and best take-aways from your IDSA experience?

IDSA helps you develop a family of designers who can collectively achieve bigger things. During school, your classmates help sharpen your design instincts as much as your instructors do. As a professional, you need to connect with others for encouragement and guidance in building towards your goals.

What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?

I commonly hear, "Where is the value in joining IDSA- what's in it for me?" The IDSA web site should answer this question clearly for different customers such as an ID graduate, a designer with five years experience, and a design manager.

What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?

I'd rather see more frequent, smaller scale events aimed a building designer's skill sets at every level. The needs of recent grads are vastly different from design managers… A recent grad may be looking for ways to improve their sketching, while a design manager may be seeking advice for better controlling a firm's finances. I hope we can identify the needs of the different segments and design information and services that meet those demands. Our membership will rise, revenues will increase and IDSA will be able to bring more value to the design community.

I would love for IDSA to have a "living library" of interviews and presentations from design and business thinkers that are available at no cost to the public. The TED (www.ted.com) content is amazing—why couldn't we provide the same after each district or national conference? We would be seen by designers and the public as an organization that provides value.

IDSA needs to reach outwards. The IDEA Awards is a great start—but how do we speak to business leaders on a regional/local level?Let’s find that channel and continue to illustrate how design can improve the bottom line.