Unless you live under a rock you’ve probably heard of one of these game-changing products. What you may not know is who is behind them: A small but exceptionally productive design studio in Chicago, Illinois called MINIMAL.
Born in 2007, MINIMAL is the brainchild of Scott Wilson, a former Global Creative Director at Nike, who has also led design at IDEO, Motorola, and Thomson Consumer Electronics. Part of the new breed of designer/entrepreneurs, Wilson isn’t just thinking about “look and feel” – he’s thinking about end-to-end product development, from design to manufacturing to marketing to distribution to inventory forecasts.
We recently connected with Wilson about what goes into designing disruptive products, how lounging around can help you crack an idea, and why confidence is one of the keystones of successful branding.
You were at Nike for some time before breaking off to start MINIMAL. What did you take away from the culture there?
They really opened my eyes about how you actually talk to a consumer, and how you craft a story, and how you design to a story. That’s probably one of the most valuable experiences of my career. My boss at Nike, Ed Boyd, told me: “Do what you think is right and apologize later.” That really gave me free rein. And I fell in love with that culture and way of doing things. It’s very entrepreneurially focused. There’s a lot of people at Nike, they go under the radar, and they incubate something, and then they spring it on you.
Your TikTok + LunaTik watches raised almost $1 million on Kickstarter. Tell me about the genesis of the project.
When Apple announced the new Nano, of course, everyone thought about the watch thing. But I wanted to do something a little more premium, something that would probably be lower volume and a little higher priced.
Everybody from Apple on down said it was too expensive, it would never sell for more than $50. Incase took it for about 3 weeks, said they were going to do it and give me a small royalty, but then they decided to back out.So I thought, “What else am I going do with this thing? I’ll just put it up on Kickstarter and see what happens. I’ve got all the contacts to actually make this thing, so maybe I’ll make a few thousand and then be done with it.”
What do you think made it really catch on?
The reason why we are where we are as a studio is MINIMAL has a very high level of deliverables, and a very high level of visualizations and design. When we combined that with the Kickstarter platform, which allows you to do a little video – not too polished, not too raw – people could really see into the process. I think that really got them behind it.
Then the design blogs wrote about it, the tech blogs picked it up. Gizmodo just made the thing spike like you wouldn’t believe. All these elements worked together.
I also think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Apple has a really cool technology that was overshadowed by the iPod Touch and the iPhone 4, so people didn’t really need another multi-touch device in their pocket or clipped to their shirt. LunaTik and TikTok gave it a home.
Do you think all designers should be entrepreneurs? Or is that just your particular makeup?
I find it slightly odd that all designers aren’t like that, because you’re just so curious. For me, I have such a hunger to learn, to try new things, and to connect the dots. I love seeing all kinds of things from medical to industrial to whatever, and then going, “Oh that’s interesting, and how is that relevant to this thing over here that’s in a completely different sector or category.”
I think there’s a difference between a designer who just wants to go to his computer and design things in a vacuum or design things to a brief and not maybe be challenged too much, and a designer that can actually see the connections and challenge the brief and push back and create something that’s disruptive to what’s in the market right now.
Steve Jobs at Apple, Mark Parker at Nike – who I was fortunate enough to work with for two years – those guys are big-picture designers. They’re right-brain, they connect the dots. I think it’s really important to train that part of how you see things as a designer.
There are a lot of people out there who have more skill than I do, who are more creative, maybe more open-minded, but one of the things that I do is I see the connections and I see the opportunities and I can visualize them.
How do you pick your projects?
A lot has to do with the personality of the people that come to us. As a designer, you see the potential in almost anything that walks in the door, and you get excited. But when it really comes down to it, it’s really about the person that came in the door, the person you’re going to be working with. And whether you think they really get it.
The biggest brand in the world could walk through the door, but the culture fit might not be right. Whereas a small, passionate startup that really gets it, and really wants to empower you, is a lot more interesting. But then you have to balance, “So how do you pay for things?” I tend to get attracted to the startups and the free jobs, but you get into trouble if you have too many of those!
Bob Arko [Coalesse’s Creative Director] was talking to me about the live/work concept when they were just getting started. Many companies try to force creative environments using niche and playful furniture like eggs you sit on. In the end, you’re just uncomfortable and worried about looking silly.
I thought: The place I’m most comfortable is in the lounge, working with people. Why is it that when you’re sitting in a brainstorm with people all day long, struggling, and then you go to the bar, and half an hour later, you have a drink, you’re sitting around lounging, and you crack the idea? It’s about putting people at ease.
Bob wanted to create a collaborative kind of conference setting, where as soon as you walked in you just felt like something was different. And we talked about height and scale as a possibility – that was something that hadn’t been played with. I thought, “Let’s just make this whole thing more lounge-like.”
Then, we could take all of the mechanisms out of the task chair that people don’t really use in these long, all-day meetings. Put some of that investment in mechanism into the material, and come up with something that’s a bit more timeless as far as the materials and the execution. I started seeing the idea pretty quickly.
What was the most challenging part of building out the furniture concept?
It really came down to the fit and finish. It’s the marriage of the structure with the 3-D knit, and then the overlay perimeter pad. And making sure those things didn’t compromise comfort. The comfort needed to be just right, too. You didn’t want it to be like a womb chair where you fell asleep in it, you wanted to be relaxed but alert, so it’s a balance.
You’re working on technology products with Microsoft and Dell, furniture with Coalesse, medical equipment with a few startups. It’s quite a range. How do you start a project when it’s a totally new (or foreign) product that you need to design?
Nothing ever really feels that new for some reason. It feels refreshing to me, like, “Oh cool. I need to learn about this now.” But in many ways, it’s the same process. You’re looking for those connections, you’re looking for those opportunities, you’re listening to the users.
Designing something “new” is really no different than anything else. In fact, it’s sometimes easier, like when someone comes in and wants to do another phone: And you’re like, “OK, you want something completely different, but using the same ingredients.” It’s so much easier when you’re doing a medical device, and there’s this new technology or problem that hasn’t been addressed.
What do you think clients struggle with the most?
There are three things I think are a challenge for any company around brand and design.
(1) Confidence. I think any company struggles with it but some are very good at it. Nike will put something out and they seem supremely confident about it. Even if it’s not the best product, they’re so behind it that consumers, for the most part, will follow them.
(2) Authenticity is another one. If you’re not being authentic, you’re competing on price and you’re just chasing the bottom.
(3) The last one is just Being Connected. I think the Kickstarter project shows that being connected to the consumer is super-important when it comes to driving business these days.