• Interview Excerpt: Max Burton, Founder and Principal, MATTER, San Francisco

    Check out some great work from Max Burton.

    Interviewed while Mr. Burton was Executive Creative Director at frog in San Francisco.

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

    For me it’s a very instant read. I know pretty much immediately if it’s in or out. I can do a fairly quick sort of 20 portfolios, narrowing down to the three I like in just a few minutes. I’m looking for work that’s original and beautifully presented. Since I am an industrial designer, the physical form has to be amazing. For what I call the “first read” or the “instant read,” the design must be iconic and memorable. Then there’s the second read, which is where I really get down into who I might choose, and that’s when I dig into their process–making sure they’ve done research and identified a user and a need. Ideally, I like to see an insight discovered during the research phase turned into a solution. This shows a good process and the candidate’s inclination towards empathy. For the third read, I like to see that they’ve demonstrated all the necessary skills and knowledge to be an invaluable industrial designer. This is where I look at prototyping, drawing, rendering, and 3D CAD skills, as well as choices they made on materials and manufacturing techniques.

    Has there been a portfolio recently that resonated with you? What about it stood out?

    Interestingly enough, I don’t see as many great portfolios as I used to. I think partly because people who are choosing to study design aren’t choosing industrial design as their first choice anymore. Even the volume of portfolios is less than what it used to be. I actually liked the portfolios of the two interns we have coming into frog; both of their portfolios were really excellent. They had a lot of original thinking and a thorough process. They tackled some unusual spaces, which is appealing, rather than seeing yet another sketch of a shoe or a car. You could tell immediately by looking at their final forms, which were quite fresh. An original solution demonstrated that they looked at a problem from a different angle, or a new perspective.

    What do you expect to learn from a designer during an interview?

    The tough part about hiring a designer for their first job is that they have to be firing on all cylinders. They have to be creative and skilled in all key areas, and that’s asking a lot. I expect not only a great idea, but also a great articulation of that idea through form, colors, materials, and finishes. I expect a great ability to present their work with exceptional rendering skills, 3D CAD, as well as good process. I like to see a good process book. I want to see that not only is their sketching good, but more importantly, that they think through sketching.

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

    The biggest shift I’ve seen is that once upon a time product designers were trained very much in technical skills. While this is important and I support technical competency, the design world is expanding and we have to take on more of the upstream thinking on a project. That means defining what the opportunity is as opposed to simply refining a pre-existing idea. This means working as a team, alongside strategists, researchers, and business people to look for these opportunities. The way old-school industrial design was set up was that the industrial designer was the first step in the assembly line of the production process.

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    If you were just starting out now, what advice would you give yourself?

    Being a designer today requires both depth and breadth. If I were to start afresh, I would demonstrate that I have core competency in my area of expertise—industrial design—but then I would show breadth in my ability to think beyond the physical to solve a problem, or originate an idea. In design today we tend to be discipline agnostic when we create. I don’t think I would have to prove to everyone that I am an expert at interaction design or strategy but that I know enough to collaborate and communicate with other experts and occasionally contribute an original idea. It’s very rare for an industrial designer to work in isolation these days, so I would show how I worked on a group project. I would show how I was effective at collaboration, and show what I contributed, as well as how my thinking helped influence the results in a positive way.

    [ … ]

    Anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about? Any final words of wisdom?

    Follow your heart. Do what you are good at and what you enjoy. Like me, you probably chose to become a designer because you love to be creative and make things for people. You probably enjoy seeing people use your products and the delight they experience when they use your design. Creativity, empathy, and compassion for people are the virtues of a great designer. If you possess these qualities and aspirations, your career as a designer will be long and rewarding. If your motivations are about money and climbing the corporate ladder, you will be disappointed and frustrated. For the long haul, you have to love what you do. Take this approach and everything will just simply fall into place.

    Max Burton of MATTER

    Max Burton of MATTER

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