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What kinds of product design portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?
For a portfolio to capture our attention there has to be something engaging, something beautifully functional popping off the page. My tendency is formal beauty. Exemplary functionality and exquisite proportions garner my attention first, whether it is entry or senior level. We carry a high aesthetic acumen here, fused with intuitive functionality. Next, I peruse for well-rounded skill sets. For the manner in which we work, we are not looking for a designer to come into our office and revolutionize the way we are going to design. Evolution perhaps, but we have an established, tried-and-true methodology. Plus, it happens to say “Michael Graves” on the door, so one can generally figure that there is a design vocabulary at work here. We are looking for designers to come and learn the intrinsic way we design, first and foremost.
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Has there been a portfolio you’ve seen recently that caught your eye? What about it stood out?
There has been a portfolio that caught our attention recently, and yes, we actually hired her. The work in the portfolio was very well rounded and there was a systematic approach that worked well to showcase every project. Again, this was looking at a portfolio for an entry-level person; my requirements are different for someone at a higher level, such as a senior designer or design director. For her, there was an understanding, a way of thinking, and a balance to all of her projects. It wasn’t heavily laden with research. Remember, I’m looking through these portfolios very quickly, so I want to get to the essence of the design brief, what they set out to do, what captured their attention, what inspired them, where the research piece informed the design, and if there was any ethnographic work done.
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If you had an opportunity to guide an industrial design student in how to create a portfolio that would resonate for you, what would you tell them?
I would tell them exactly what I described about the candidate we hired in the last question. Tell me three to five well-rounded problem-solving design stories, utilizing all of those skill sets. Design every aspect of it and make it clear and visually exciting. Show me you are well rounded and can sit down on day one at our office and be able to contribute in all the ways I described above and below.
What do you expect to learn from a designer during the interview?
I expect to learn that they are able to communicate and that we have made a connection. We’ve had young designers come in who’ve had beautiful portfolios, but they lack social competence, so they can’t communicate properly, or be comfortable around people.
Again, we take a really balanced approach. One needs to have socialization skills—some level of character and personality—which is evident through their work. We operate in a team environment, so one must be able to express and present their thoughts in a way where they don’t take themselves too seriously. Also, we are a small, efficiently run team, so it is impossible to hide out.
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What characteristics or qualities are necessary to be a successful designer these days?
You have to present a range of poignant ideas. You have to tune in to what the client wants and you have to design and present it in a new and compelling way. You’re hitting all the tenets that they have openly discussed or documented, so there must be a level of familiarity with what the client has stated. Then you interpret it back to them in some really exciting approach that they would never have considered. That’s the role of the designer: to be fresh, original, contextual, and transformative in a believable format. Ultimately, for our clients, the design has to be tangible and imbued with feasibility. There has to be an essence of “I’ve seen this before, but never like that.”
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Looking back, if you were just starting out now, what advice would you give yourself?
At Parsons I had an excellent art and architectural history professor and a good design studio department that played really well with how Michael works and his utilization and knowledge of design history. I knew how to draw, draft, make models, be crafty—all skills that are needed here. I would say I wasn’t as well-versed or confident in my design conceptualization, but by working here I was able to improve. Working in this office during my early, formative design years really helped complete and complement my Parsons education. I actually needed to be here during those years to get what I call my “MG masters degree.” After all, Michael is an educator and was a Princeton University professor of architecture for 39 years. I was really lucky to have direct access to Michael Graves and he loved the product design projects. He loved—and still does love—working at this scale. I was able to become very friendly with him and learn from him directly. How wonderful it is that I am still able to learn from my mentor.
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Design is not to be reduced to an afterthought. Design is first and foremost in everything you do, time and time again. Design is an embedded spiritual practice performed on a daily basis. Michael is “design” and it is intense and moving.
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Anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover? Any final words of wisdom?
I wish to stress the importance of developing environments, products, or experiences that are beautifully integrated. Beauty goes hand-in-hand with functionality. It goes hand-in-hand with the research and innovation. I’ve seen a lot of products that don’t take that into consideration. It’s just not stressed or taught enough. Having an understanding of classic disciplines—golden sections, formal beauty, function, and composition—inform what one can do. I know people have moved away from hand drafting and understanding orthographic projections, and they are designing on the computer. But designers must carry through their early influences of understanding the basics. That is what I’m looking for.
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