• Interview Excerpt: Ken Musgrave, Director of Industrial Design and Usability, Dell, Austin, Texas

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    What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?

    The caliber of the portfolio has gotten better and more sophisticated in the last eight to 10 years. It’s truly remarkable how much progress has been made. Most people need to understand that when they are doing their schoolwork, much of the work that they are doing is not just to satisfy the requirements of their university, but also to be able to compete in a global marketplace. Probably 20 years ago you only needed to demonstrate a couple of skills to get your first entry-level job. In fact, back then it was about sketching and, in some sense, about form development. Now we are looking for a lot more demonstrable capabilities in these portfolios, and one of the reasons why we rarely hire someone straight out of school is because we are looking for diversity and experience. Diversity can be solving design problems for a variety of different types of user needs, maybe a variety of different industries, and in a variety of different manufacturing processes. They need to demonstrate that they have experiences that are broad enough to be able to bear the challenges that we have.

    We are looking for something beyond that. We’re looking for demonstration of critical thinking: the ability to take insights learned from the user’s needs and the technical challenges, and find an opportunity space––tying that to how the company is going to see value.

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    Have you seen a portfolio recently that stood out, and what about it caught your eye?

    I have seen a couple that were close but I have yet to see a portfolio that puts it all together. I think that the concept of a portfolio has to change to a certain extent. Portfolios have historically been about a collection of cool things they’ve done in history, and about the object and the artifact. I think the portfolio needs to be unburdened and be more of an inventory of capabilities, proved with artifacts, insights or communication, and a demonstration of skills and reasoning. I’ve just begun to see portfolios that are doing that. Instead of having the collection of all the things they’ve worked on, they’re actually talking about what these combined experiences have done for them professionally. As such, they are creating a collection of capabilities and new tools in their own toolbox.

    A person can bring in a portfolio that has really thoughtful design in it, and extend that into the reasoning behind it. I’ve seen folks try to do this and then they get overburdened with methodology. They are confusing methodology with technique. All of these things need to be emphasized: to demonstrate, to think, and have an ability to distill an essence of an idea, the root of its insides and how it was clearly and cleanly connected to an outcome.

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    When you find a designer and bring them in for an interview, what do you expect to learn from them at that one-on-one meeting?

    I expect them to demonstrate that they have a command of their design skills and competencies. I would hope that they can clearly and succinctly explain how they were able to bring order where there was chaos. It’s really interesting, especially with more junior designers: they’re trying to translate what they’ve learned in an institution to application in their first professional opportunity. Very often they’re not really sure what to emphasize and I always tell everybody to make sure to put their conclusions into the context of what’s happening to that business. In most cases, product designers end up working in business—that’s why it’s called industrial design.

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    What would you say are the characteristics or qualities necessary to be a successful designer?

    The ability to take complexity into simplicity and clarity. What continues to be critical is curiosity and imagination—the curiosity I cannot emphasize enough. Most successful folks are the ones that want to understand more, the why behind the why. They want to understand the root of an opportunity or a reason as to why something exists and maybe challenge some of those conventions. They look for inspiration from unexpected places.

    To have imagination to bring ideas and thoughts from other industries and have the ability to create something that has not existed in a new space. The overarching theme is simplification: how do we take a complex world and complex life, technologies, situations, and continue to distill them down to their simplest form? That quality and the ability to do that elegantly and efficiently is going to be one of the most critical attributes.

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    Ken Musgrave of Dell

    Ken Musgrave of Dell

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