• Interview Excerpt: Robert Arko, Principal/Partner, A+O, San Francisco

    Check out some great work from Robert Arko.

    Interviewed while Mr. Arko was the VP and Creative Director at Coalesse in San Francisco.

    What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days, and what brings in a product designer for an interview?

    There’s always the random portfolio that’s really inspiring based on a philosophical view of design. Designers work across a broad spectrum and you see that in portfolios. People can be strong in methodology or strong in a skill or strong in a vertical. Furniture design is one vertical. It’s one type of product and in a scope of that vertical one of the things that sets furniture design apart from some other forms of product design is the complete integration of engineering and expression. You cannot separate the two. It’s not a packaging exercise, it’s closer to architecture than other forms of product design.

    Then there’s our focus on human-centered design, so people who have strong methodology or background in user-centered practices, where they are taking insights from the real world and translating them, stand in contrast to more formalistic design activities. Of course, they’re both important but I’m looking for that breadth of methodology and experience.

    Another aspect that’s really important in the realm of furniture design is spatial competencies. Not every designer has those. An understanding or an actual practice in interior design, or architectural or environmental design, where they are relating how users in a spatial context are interacting. That’s what furniture is, it’s different than doing a device that has a user interaction emphasis to it. It’s more of a spatial interaction.

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    Have you seen a portfolio recently that really stood out? What about it caught your eye?

    There’s some incredible talent out there. When I look at the practices we are used to in the design world, compared to my colleagues in engineering or marketing where they are limited to a résumé and a conversation, while we have this portfolio tradition which offers up so much more perspective on an individual’s background and how they think. When you couple that with a personal interview and the résumé to give context to depth of experience, it’s just…I’m just so glad I don’t have to make hires outside of the creative world because without that portfolio I’d feel really stunted.

    Talent is something that goes beyond what can be easily captured in a résumé and it comes through in a portfolio. People who are curious, people who have the ability to translate ideas in remarkable ways, I can see that in a variety of ways.

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

    I’ve spent nearly 30 years in this profession and as a designer and I’m looking at portfolios from a rich perspective, so I can get a lot out of a portfolio and it helps me with the filtering process. I have a strong philosophy about the hiring process and I take it super seriously, so I will make sure that we’re looking at the right spectrum. I follow it up first with a phone interview and that is to talk through issues, hear the person articulate the white space in between the sentences, to talk about intent of the projects. To get a familiarity on how mature they are in their design practice.

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    What kinds of characteristics or qualities are necessary for the designer to have in order to succeed?

    There are so many things, but the bottom line is you got to have talent. Like in any creative field––if you’re a chef, or an actor, singer or musician, writer––talent is the unquantifiable thing. The intersection of talent and experience is fundamental. There’s another thing about personality types that is huge. I really value curiosity. If there is one thing that I’m looking for it’s people that are curious and act on it. It’s a stance on life. Not everybody has that, and that applies to an engineer or a marketing person, any field. I’m looking for people that have that and it comes through the work and the conversation.

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

    I learned really early how important the sequence of choices are to a career path. Any given position sets the framework for the next position—the next possible adjacency idea. You are, in a sense, what you were doing last. It’s not saying it’s impossible to make a 180-degree turn, but it tends to set a context for the next position. Designers should really think about that. There’s a time in your life to be exploratory, to go for it, but ultimately to get to a career path you need to start making some decisions.

    I moved to San Francisco with just a couple hundred dollars, so money was important, but never dominant. I came to understand that you get paid in variety of ways. You get paid in experience, and you get paid in notoriety. So make sure you intern for the right person, for the right experience and if they are noticed in the world, that will mean something to you, too. You can have a right job monetarily but a poor level of experience that’s not going to get you very far.

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    Robert Arko of A+O

    Robert Arko of A+O

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