My design heroes

A while back, on the advice of a mentor, I started intentionally following the work and careers of a few designers that I admired. It’s been fascinating to see how they approach projects, and to try their methods and principles in my own design work.

Although I currently work as a software designer, only a few of my design heroes are from that field. Since I am interested in how design can influence culture, I follow several artists, writers, and filmmakers. And since I still have a special place in my heart for physical product design, I keep track of interesting industrial designers as well. So far they’re mostly men, English-speaking and from the US; I need to expand that (suggestions welcome!).

Here are some of the design heroes who have inspired me over the years (in no particular order):

  • Branko Lukic – Founder of NON-OBJECT, a design firm that specializes in, well, non-objects: conceptual product designs intended to make a point. He recently published a book (and iPad app) that features several imaginary products, each following a different philosophy of design. Basically, industrial design without the industry; since as book reviewer William Wiles writes, “industrial designers are in the vice of the cult of use”. Free from any branding, commercial constraints, or even “target users”, Branko’s designs are unique and evocative. I especially like his pebble-shaped MP3 player, where the form factor and presentation suggests a radically different relationship to “technology”. Branko also does consulting for companies and produces more viable designs; it’s interesting to see the relationship between his “artistic” work and his commercial solutions.

  • Elise Boulding – A peace researcher and workshop leader. With her husband Kenneth she wrote many fascinating essays I’ve read in the collection The Future.

  • Kristina Persson – Sweden’s (and the world’s?) first “Minister of the Future”, Persson works with other ministries and organizations to help them focus on the long term issues for their work.

  • Margaret Atwood – Perhaps most famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, though my favorite of her work is the Oryx and Crake series. Her combination of storytelling, futurism, and environmentalism makes for great worldbuilding.

  • Ian Bogost – A game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, I’ve recently started following Ian’s thoughtful and creative writing at The Atlantic.

  • David Eagleman -A neuroscientist and writer who focuses on the uncertainty of knowledge and the importance of diverse imagination. In his incredible book [Sum: 40 tales from the afterlives[(, he extends the scope of speculative fiction into the afterlife. As with all good speculation, the stories from these imaginary heavens and hells cause you to reflect on this life as well, influencing every reader in new ways. His “possibilianism” movement investigates the limits of science and the role of the unknown in spiritual and scientific practice. His work on time perception is also fascinating and has changed how I get to work every day.

  • Ian Sands – Director of the Envisioning Lab at Microsoft’s Office Labs group, which works on everything from Outlook plugins to touch interfaces to the famous 2019 productivity vision video. I especially admire that Ian has seemingly invented this role and grown this group within Microsoft, a giant tech company, and I hope that points to the value of this work for many companies in the future. Update: Looks like he recently left to start a new firm called Intentional Futures, consulting on some of these same topics. Should be fun to watch!

  • Genevieve Bell – An anthropologist by training, she’s focused on how people use technology around the world. She also wrote a pioneering book on the effects of ubiquitous computing.

  • Stuart Candy – Stuart studied at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, one of the few dedicated futures centers in the world. His blog is probably the best archive of “design fiction” work and ideas on the web, and his own work from Hawaii has really pushed the practice forward in terms of product and process. He now works with Arup in their Foresight team, so we no longer get to see all his work publicly. Fortunately a mutual friend introduced us a while back, and I’m looking forward to following Stuart’s work in the “futures”.

  • Jim Jannard – A designer by training and CEO/founder of both Oakley and RED cameras, Jannard is an inspiring example of how a designer can lead a company. And then buy some islands in Fiji.

  • Jane McGonigal – Jane designs games to save the world. Her large-scale, real-world games have addressed issues such as global extinction threats and personal health goals. Her goal is for a game designer to win the Nobel Peace Prize by 2023.

  • Jonathon Keats – A conceptual artist who creates large scale, constructed thought experiments. Past experiments have included copyrighting his mind, trying to bioengineer God, helping trees paint, and a mobile ringtone based on John Cage’s (silent) composition 4’33”. I like Keats because conceptual art is in practice often quite similar to provocative conceptual design, and studying good conceptual art can push my design work further. Keats starts with an abstract new idea (e.g. “what if trees were artists”?) and then figures out the best way to try it out in the world (“tie paintbrushes to their branches!”). Interestingly, he has at least three separate careers, as an artist, a language critic, and a novelist, referring to the latter two as thought experiments as well.

  • Neal Stephenson – I count Neal as a design hero because he is my favorite living speculative fiction author. His past work has moved from futuristic “science fiction” to “historical fiction” to near-fantasy genres, but in each book he spins out a world that works at least a little differently than ours. His most recent book, Anathem, started from an idea for the 10,000 Year Clock, and he decided to write a novel about a society where scientists lived in monasteries, sequestered from the outside world. He also works as a science advisor to a couple interesting companies, Intellectual Ventures and Blue Origin.

  • Neill Blomkamp – Stuart Candy pointed me to Neill, a filmmaker who combines a cinéma vérité style with incredible digital effects to create new believable worlds. His first feature film, District 9, uses a number of innovative techniques and is an incredible example of concept design and philosophical fiction.

  • Robert Egger – Design director at Specialized Bicycles. I’ve admired Robert’s work for literally decades–ever since I started cycling over 20 years ago. While he manages the day-to-day design work for Specialized products, his most exciting works are the concept bikes he builds on the side. They clearly influence the design direction that Specialized takes and are inspirational and exciting on their own. A racing friend helped connect me with Robert once for a meeting; it was amazing to see inside the shop and learn about his process.

  • Will Wright – Will designed SimCity, The Sims, and Spore, among many other innovative games. I especially enjoy his talks, which are always unpredictable and fascinating. Once at a Stanford talk I attended, he opened a Powerpoint deck with hundreds of slides, then scrolled through them calling out topics that he could cover. Based on votes, he then improvised a talk that connected the most requested topics along with random new ideas. Much of his work is similarly focused on emergent themes; using evolving software and games to explore possible new worlds.

  • Anab Jain – Anab does a wide variety of work, from futurist thinking to interaction design. Her Power of 8 project is a great example of collaborative future-casting. One of my favorite projects is her Yellow Chair, which offered free wifi to anyone as well as a chair to sit in. The way she prototypes in the real world is inspiring and fun.

  • Jason Rohrer – Jason uses often-simple computer games to explore philosophical ideas. His Passage, a 5-minute low-resolution game, was perhaps the most moving experience I’ve ever had with software. His lifestyle and process are unique, but it’s clear that they support his amazing work.

  • Jonathan Harris – LIke Rohrer, Harris focuses on using technology to create emotional experiences. One of his creations, We Feel Fine, takes what was emotional (human experiences) but was put in a less compelling format (online blog entries), and seeks to highlight the emotion again. His manifesto on the digital world is also moving and inspiring. Not a lot of updates since 2009 but I’m still curious about what he’s up to.

  • Brendan Walker – The “world’s only Thrill Engineer”, Brendan started out as an aircraft engineer before studying industrial design and starting his artistic and consulting work. He has designed commercial theme park rides as well as temporary experience installations. When we lived in London I visited (though couldn’t participate in) one of these installations, a simulation of an airplane crash and evacuation in the amazing Shunt Lounge underneath the London Bridge. Brendan now runs Aerial, which “specialises in the creation of tailored emotional experience.” Here’s a fascinating interview about his process from 2008.

  • Matt Jones/Jack Schultze/Matt Webb – These guys would each be formidable on their own, but their work together at Berg London is especially fascinating. Their video sketch “The Journey” was one of the most beautiful and elegant concept videos I’ve seen. I suppose they do commercial work to make money, but their artistic work seems like their true passion–and they combine the two well. Overlapped a bit with Jones during my last year at Google and he’s super thoughtful and kind as well as talented.

  • Brandon Schauer – His cupcake model of product strategy was one of the most influential ideas for my design work in the last year. Brandon is excellent at practicing and teaching design strategy.

  • Johnny Chung Lee – Of Wiimote whiteboard and $14 Steadicam fame. Really insightful and creative guy in both hardware and software; he sees through the technology to what it means for people’s experience. I couldn’t be happier that he’s now working at Google.

  • Mark Coleran – The guy behind many of those gorgeous computer interfaces in movies–the ones which look incredible at first but would probably be a real pain to use all day. Still, his design work pushes the boundaries of UI design and of people’s design expectations for products. Coleran has also worked on a couple real software projects, but his work there is much more tame. It’s been interesting to see the Android Honeycomb design team go in a direction clearly influenced by these future visions, and it will be very interesting to see how it works in practice.

  • Jan Chipchase – The most hardcore design ethnographer I’ve seen. Worked at Nokia for many years, focused on emerging markets. His process involves helping teams of engineers, designers, and researchers go into the field, and then guiding their observations into product insights. His passion for people and their unique behaviors and traits is inspiring, and the little bits he shares with the public on his blog are magical and world-expanding for me.

  • Graham Jenkin – I worked for Graham at Google for several years. He’s a great manager but also a very strong designer, and he continually improves his design skills by stretching to take on new projects. Graham is a great example of design leadership in a big company–he builds strong, trusted relationships while also pushing design boundaries. He encouraged me tremendously in my design growth–including the recommendation to identify and track my design heroes. Plus he has a great accent.

  • Jeff Veen – In the young field of web design, Jeff is the elder statesman. From designing and HotBot to founding Adaptive Path and MeasureMap, which led him to Google and his work there, and now on to founding more new companies like Typekit, Jeff has pioneered what a designer can do in the web world. He’s also a 6’6″ cyclist, so he’s a somewhat more believable role model for me.

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