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How did you discover you wanted to be a creative director and get started in the field? In 1994, I discovered the Internet and quickly became fascinated with how websites were made. Whenever I stumbled upon a site I liked, I would email the creator and ask how they made it. More often than not, they said Photoshop. So I acquired a copy and began teaching myself how to design. I then bought a book, taught myself how to code and starting making things online. Later, someone came across my site and offered me a job. I was sixteen.

What do designers need to know about entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurship is hard, and while design is very important, it’s only one facet of product development. You may be an unbelievably gifted designer, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to succeed on your own. You will need an engineer who is just as talented as you. Also, don’t fall victim to “build it and they will come,” because your awesome product will fail if nobody knows about it. Marketing is just as important as the product itself.

What did you learn from your time at the innovative Toronto design firm Teehan+Lax? Stay true to your values. Define them early, and don’t compromise. As a business owner, it can be difficult to walk away from a paying gig because the project doesn’t align with your values. It may affect cash flow, but you’ll always be better off in the end.

Create more value than you capture. We spent a great deal of time creating things that we then gave away to the community. We tried things and then openly shared the results, even if we deemed them to be failures. We could have spent that time hustling for new client work, but instead we wanted to help push the design community forward.

How did you react when you learned that T+L was moving over to Facebook? I was obviously saddened to learn they were closing, and it’s unfortunate that such a talented group will be leaving Toronto, but I wasn’t surprised at all. Running a business is all-consuming, and after twelve years, things just ran their course.

When did you realize you would need to split off to give your hardware design business Wattage the attention it needed? Wattage wasn’t actually developed in-house at Teehan+Lax. The idea was born from our experiences there, but we didn’t actually do any work on it until we left. Wattage has an ambitious vision, and having previously attempted to build a few products inside the agency, Peter and I knew we had to leave if there was going to be even the slightest chance of success.

How did you realize there's a target market of people who want to make their own hardware? Having spent my entire career building virtual things, I personally had an interest in creating something physical. You can also look to the success of the open-source electronics platform Arduino and credit-card-sized computer Raspberry Pi, the growing attendance of Maker Faires, or even the number of hardware campaigns on Kickstarter.

But the reality is hardware continues to be hard.

I know many people who have attempted to build something with an Arduino, but gave up because it was too difficult for them—myself included. The vast majority of technology campaigns on Kickstarter ship late, or not at all. It’s simply not for the faint of heart. We want to change that.

We believe if we can make it easier for people to create things with hardware, more people will. They’ll make things that satisfy their individual unmet needs or desires.

When will Wattage be released? The first version will be launching later this year. We’re not ready to share the exact date yet, but you can sign up to be notified on our website.

Will more designers become founders in the future? Why? Sure, I think we’ll see more designers founding their own companies. But I think it’ll have less to do with them being designers, and more to do with the growing startup communities around the world. Entrepreneurship will always be difficult and the odds are certainly against you, but the added support at least gives you the confidence to quit your job and try.

What excites you about design right now? The most exciting thing about design is that most everyone now understands that it matters. Almost universally, companies are making great design a priority, and this will ultimately result in better products for all of us. I’m also thrilled to see that practice of design has moved beyond just aesthetics, and there’s now a focus on something that works as well. Improved tools and an emphasis on prototyping all point to an exciting future for design.

Which designers do you most admire? I suppose the clichéd answer would be Jonathan Ive and Dieter Rams. I’ve long been a fan of Apple products, well before everyone had one in their pockets. And it’s clear Jony’s work has been heavily influenced by Rams. Rams famously articulated his ten principles of good design, which has always resonated with me. His work has heavily influenced what we’re doing with Wattage. Charles and Ray Eames rank high as well. I love how their work is minimalist, while remaining warm and playful.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Being in the Bay Area will likely result in some meaningful opportunities, so pack your stuff up and go.
Jeremy Bell is a self-taught designer and developer who began his career at the age of sixteen in Toronto. Over the years, he has worked with companies such as Google, BMW, MTV, Coca-Cola and most recently with LG in South Korea on their latest Android handsets. He has more than nineteen years of experience designing and developing digital products. Bell was formerly a Partner at Toronto design firm Teehan+Lax for six years, where he led the largest and most profitable team. Now, he’s co-founder and CEO of Wattage, an online platform aiming to make hardware design accessible to the masses.
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