Redesign of Loon Kayak, 2015 (by Mat Cardinali, IDSA)
Perhaps Maine is not the first state that comes to mind when one thinks about industrial design. Outside of states with prominent industrial design schools in the Northeast, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, Maine is set apart, but certainly not to be counted out.
Industrial designers in Maine work in corporate offices, startups, design firms, and increasingly out of their homes as freelancers. From hand tools and medical equipment to furniture, toys, sporting goods, and much more, the diversity of products developed, designed, and manufactured in the state abounds.
Websites like MaineMade.com and The Makers of Maine podcast hosted by Kristan Vermeulen highlight what a lot of Mainers already know: that this state is full of makers of all kinds. A 2010 MaineBiz article titled, "Mavericks by design: Industrial designers find independence and opportunity by combining art with science," specifically attests to the abundant ID talent in the Pine Tree State, and how more industrial designers living and working in Maine could go a long way in fueling its creative economy.
Architect and industrial designer Patric Santerre, who is featured in the MaineBiz piece, is locally known as an advocate for ID in the state. He teaches an industrial design course at Southern Maine Community College and helms ARCADIA designworks, a multidisciplinary design consultancy based in Portland, ME that he co-founded with designer Celeste Bard in 2005.
Santerre has helped many up-and-coming ID'ers in Maine, such as Andre Clement, IDSA, who worked for Santerre before joining Amplify Additive in Scarborough, ME as an industrial designer in 2020. (Recently, Amplify Additive was named one of the "2021 Best Tech Startups in Maine" by the Tech Tribune.)
Santerre also introduced Clement to Mat Cardinali, IDSA, a freelance industrial designer with more than a decade of experience developing hard and soft goods in consumer, medical, and industrial markets.
In 2016, Cardinali, Santerre, and other local designers had started a group called Industrial Designers of Maine or IDME. "The goal then was to simply connect with local industry professionals over an occasional beer or two," Cardinali says. Upon returning to Maine after two years of living in Pittsburgh, PA, Cardinali was thinking about partnering with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) to start a new IDSA Professional Chapter in the Portland, ME area.
"Mat and I grabbed coffee one day and we both expressed interest in how to grow ID in Maine," Clement recalls. "I decided to help with IDME and IDSA-Portland to help expand the network of existing designers in Maine and attract new talent to the state."
IDSA's city-based Professional Chapters are community hubs for local industrial designers to connect, and for Chapter leaders to provide access to opportunities through events, mentoring, and other outreach efforts. IDSA-POR is one of the newer Chapters in this network, formally established in early 2020 and announced just days before the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted a nationwide shut-down. And while this health crisis has put an indefinite hold on all IDSA in-person events, members of IDSA Chapters, including of IDSA-POR, have continued to connect online and attend virtual gatherings.
Cardinali is the Chair of IDSA-POR; Clement serves as Social Coordinator for the Chapter and Ben Miley, IDSA is Vice Chair. All three earned Bachelor of Science degrees in industrial design from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. Cardinali and Miley met in their intensive, four-year ID program at WIT and graduated in 2007, and Clement graduated in 2018.
Miley is the founder of the insurance SaaS start-up Pabius and also founded the design consulting firm Teyka. "Industrial design work makes up a small percentage of the work I do at this point in my career," Miley says, "but I definitely use skills I learned as an Industrial Designer in almost every project I work on." However, he has found that there are less job opportunities for industrial designers in Maine then there are in big cities like Boston. "When compared to the number of Industrial Design graduates who want to live and work in Maine," he notes, "the competition for available jobs can be quite tough."
Another member of IDSA-POR, Bradford Waugh, IDSA, works in product development and engineering for Johnny's Selected Seeds, a 100% employee-owned seed producer and merchant headquartered in Winslow, ME.
"In my experience, many Maine companies are unfamiliar with industrial design and some of the intricacies of product development," Waugh says. "For instance, my job title is actually Mechanical Product Design and Outsourcing Engineer (I had to double check I got that right), but what they wanted was someone to help them develop new products. The development process when I arrived consisted of vague sketches, hand waving, and a huge reliance on vendors to figure it out. I spent my first year just laying groundwork."
"However, the upside is that even small changes make a huge impact," Waugh continues. "One of the first products I launched with Johnny's was a fairly tame redesign that added a few new features and a splash of color but also knocked $25 off the retail price without touching our margin. The changes were fairly simple; but for an industry that doesn't typically utilize industrial designers, it was huge (we haven't been able to keep them in stock since launch)."
"There are some opportunities here in Maine," he adds, "but you may need to look harder or create them yourself."
Opportunity through Community
While there are engineering degree programs at schools such as the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine, there are currently no accredited industrial design degree programs in the state, and few training courses outside of classes like Santerre's at SMCC. Santerre and the members of IDSA-POR would like to change that; but for now, they're focused on building a strong ID community in Maine, especially now that the worst of COVID-19 appears to be in the rearview.
"Working in our field while in my home state (Maine) has always been a bit of a pipe dream for me after graduating in 2007," Cardanali says. "The economy is fairly small in the largest New England state. Part of the reason we wanted to partner with IDSA is to leverage the vast national and international network of the Society to connect our profession in this region with the rest of the world and economy."
Sterling Blitz Bag, a canyoneering bag designed for efficient packing of rope and incorporating highly durable materials and construction. (designed by Mat Cardinali, IDSA)
With the advent of work-from-home life, Cardinali notes, "companies have realized that their talent search is no longer based on what's a commutable distance. As designers, we have one of the unique professions that can now work with companies all over the world, from anywhere. I chose my home state to be closer to the natural beauty, activities, family, and slower pace of life. Currently, I've been fortunate and grateful to work with amazing companies like L.L. Bean (in our backyard) as well as other outdoor, lifestyle, and medical product companies, from Orlando to L.A. to Beijing, China. The experience has confirmed in my mind that no matter our geography, we can work in, connect, and promote our industry."
Clement, who also grew up in Maine, moved back after college because of a state program that helped to pay for his student loans. "I was able to work part-time for ARCADIA designworks to get my career going when there weren't many, if any, entry-level industrial design jobs in Maine," Clement says. "I was lucky enough to find full-time employment right as the pandemic hit with Amplify Additive, and it was thanks to the network of established industrial designers."
This network and its attendant opportunities are what IDSA-POR plans to grow at a larger scale when they all can safely meet in-person again. "I believe there's an opportunity to attract new talent and start new programs in the state," says Clement, "There are so many manufacturing companies who may not know about or understand the value ID can bring to a manufacturing environment. It would be great to see a college program develop and more integration into high school classes."
Waugh says that his primary goal in joining the Chapter was to help grow the ID community in Maine, and also with an eye on growing the team at Johnny's in the coming years. "It would be great to be able to tap some local talent," he says. "It's also great to have a network to get some unique input from like-minded professionals or to grab some extra help on a project."
Another of the Chapter's goals, according to Miley, is to "bring designers and business people together, so they can learn from each others' disciplines and skillsets." They also would like to "expand awareness of industrial design as a profession, along with why it is an important and noble profession that can be a huge force for good in the world in dealing with the biggest challenges faced by humanity."
All in all, there is a sense of optimism on the horizon: for Maine, the ID community here, and the IDSA-Portland chapter. "We're keeping the torch alive," Cardinali says, "and looking forward to the day when we can do more happy hours, discussing industry topics, networking, collaborating, and promoting our profession locally and beyond."