You’re the founder and chief instigator at ASTRO Studios, a San Francisco–based agency that designs both products and brands. What do you think of the consumer electronics (CE) industry at the moment, and where do you see it headed? Ah, ASTRO’s bread and butter! It’s a big industry, one that really needs to be segmented to be considered, especially as formerly smart-free categories of products are joining the fray—housewares, jewelry, apparel, vehicles, rooms, houses, cities! But to generalize a bit, CE products in many categories have evolved to take on more human characteristics, and this will continue with more artificial intelligence (AI) applied. For example, we know voice is a huge AI opportunity; but over time, is application of voice better as a private personal experience or a shared group experience or both?
I actually like most of the prospects of AI applications in electronics, especially as they become predictive. That should have a huge impact. For example, imagine that you’re working, and your kitchen provides you with a sandwich before you ask, so you can keep going—hopefully just like your parents did for you whenever you forgot to eat because you were completely focused on your homework. I think things like that are magical and very soulful, creating new relationships with consumer electronics across a wide range of pending improvements to the human experience. I think some of the CE industry will become very good at this, and others not so much.
What emergent technology or platform should designers keep their eyes on? ASTRO works in and around many of the known acronyms: AR, VR, MR, AI, ML and so on. Many of these will continue to jockey for attention and leadership, likely blending into their own solutions. I personally look forward to AR, or augmented reality. I believe AR, audio and visual will help us begin to look up and improve human and hands-free/device-free interactions while curating our levels of connectedness, untethered. You should keep your eyes open for varying levels of AR in our design tools as well; this will likely accelerate dramatically in the coming decade.
What’s one trend in product design you want to see more of? And one you want to see less of? As the expectation of premium design for all goods and services becomes the norm, it’s nice to see designers slow it down a little and look for ways to create more soulful character for their products and brands. One way we do this at ASTRO is to have designers share their ideas on video, embedding authentic dialogue and models or props into presentations. Think Indiegogo or Kickstarter videos you believe in and want to support. A little live action and testimonial goes a long way.
I’d like to see less first ideas move ultrarapidly to prototype and then to production. We have amazing tools that help us visualize things faster and more realistically, but I fear that instead of exploring and marinating their ideas, many designers have moved to grabbing the first concept that’s good enough, pushing to produce it without proper process, iteration and reflection. Sometimes it can work that way, but these “rapid” projects typically feel more like half-baked clones rather than crafted originals.
One of ASTRO Studios’ longtime clients is Shinola. What lessons can marketers and designers take away from the brand’s growth? ASTRO was fortunate to work with Shinola’s founder, Tom Kartsotis, who has a strong, uncompromising vision for the company. His goal—to create jobs while revitalizing a classic American brand—transcended classic design briefs and inspired all team members to design with a soulful purpose. So, an inspiring, well-articulated and consistent vision from the top has helped this brand grow at all levels.
Additionally, Shinola’s teams are masters at integrated brand communications and merchandising. Their branded stores set the tone and tell the story in a very premium yet approachable, Americana way, ultimately enabling their clientele to adopt the brand as part of their own personal identity.
How is the process of visual branding similar to product development? The top-line similarities are where they both start—where we inform and position the work ahead. To begin, they both require gaining data and empathy for the audience. Next, it involves a rapid immersion in the client DNA in order to authenticate our point of view and design recommendations. In consumer goods, you also have huge overlap in the practical skills, like the application of color, materials and applied graphic effects between products and branding.
With the advent of amazing digital tools in both arenas, the differences are more blurred now than ever. At ASTRO, we’ve always had both product and brand design because we need to communicate our work in the most appropriate form, like products wrapped in branded materials as soon as possible in the process.
What is the most exciting work in interaction design that you’ve seen recently? From its inception, ASTRO has combined strong brand communications, interaction and experience design with industrial design. But at the moment, AI, AR and some VR—in both visual and audio—may be the most exciting technologies we’ve seen in decades. They’re creating deeper interactions and becoming more useful in everyday life.
When we designed the identity for VIVE—HTC’s virtual reality brand, or “VIVE reality brand,” as we liked to call it—we had to design not only a logo for classic applications, but also a multidimensional mark that would live in the VR realm. We felt that in VR, the identity had to be more than motion graphics for a video bumper, but something that could morph and change, and update as needed without losing its recognition—all while being “transportive” in its nature. The VIVEPORT logo we created for VIVE also helped us make the case for interacting with the logo as part of your immersive VR experience, like moving through the center “port.” This approach opened the door to infinite interactions with the brand.
How do you keep the environment at ASTRO Studios innovative? By attracting ambitious clients that challenge our fearless, talented teams. Our clients are invited to visit or hang out in our environment. But as our designers have to live there daily, it’s built for them—to inspire their best efforts. Designers are like powerful free radicals in a vessel. At times, you just have to harness them, and then focus them to become effective. Then, release them quickly so they can return to moving about freely.
What advice do you have for a designer who’s trying to get her side business off the ground? We work with a lot of startups of all kinds, and we’ve launched a few of our companies from idea through exit. And consistently, my number one piece of advice for designer entrepreneurs is that you need to learn to run a business.
If you’re selling your services, products, time, advice, et cetera, you’re still running a business. So learn about all the parts before starting it, especially the parts you don’t like. Then, when you get going, you’ll know how to hire people to help you with those parts.
Also, a side or part-time business is usually a nice hobby, but likely not built to reach its full potential. Businesses deserve full-time attention. I’m often told that I love ASTRO Studios so much because it’s the project that’s never finished—also known as a business.