Podcast May 21, 2020

Furniture Design: Parameters, Opportunities, and Giving People Choice

LINcast host Gabe Duverge is joined by Keith Metcalf, industrial designer and founder of Design4U, and Samantha Lee an interior designer, strategist and founder of Samantha Lee LLC. The trio discussed the unique balance industrial and interior designers must strike when designing modern workplaces and the common challenges that arise in the design process.

Full Transcript

Gabe Duverge: Hello and welcome to the LINCast, a LINAK Podcast with conversations exploring the latest research and innovation behind actuation solutions. We're improving people's quality of life and working environments through smooth and reliable movement. My name is Gabe Duverge, and today I'm excited to be joined by Keith Metcalf, industrial designer and founder of Design4U, and Samantha Lee an interior designer, strategist and founder of Samantha Lee LLC; both of whom have extensive knowledge and experience in the design industry. Thank you two for joining us today.

Keith Metcalf: Thank you.

Samantha Lee: Thank you.

Gabe Duverge: You two are a unique duo as you represent the two different sides of the design story. But even though you both focus on different sides, there is a lot of overlap on how you must work together to push the boundaries of furniture and office design. From understanding office needs to bringing in the next design trend, you have to tell the full story to make a truly timeless and useful piece for the office. So with that, we thought it would be great to have both of you on to discuss some of the unique challenges we are seeing in furniture design today, and see what they look like for each of your perspectives.

So to kick things off, I thought we would discuss the one that no one likes to talk about: the budget. I know every project is different, but when you're focusing on creating something for a furniture manufacturer, how difficult is it to design with budget in mind for companies and users? I can definitely see how designing something unique is what everyone wants, but when it comes to paying for it, they don't actually want to do that.

So how does that come into play when you're brainstorming or actually starting to make something that you don't over-design yourself out of consideration for the end user?

Keith Metcalf: Well, Gabe, I think I'll jump in here and sort of tackle this question-

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely, yeah.

Keith Metcalf: Definitely designing something within a budget or within limits, it definitely can sort of be very restrictive a little bit, but understanding what the actual client's direction is, and incorporating those kinds of production or processes is key. So understanding the budget limitations really begins in the beginning, really helps quite a bit between the customer and the designer. If you don't have a good understanding there, you could go pie in the sky and next thing you know, you're developing the next space shuttle that circles earth.

And definitely being a designer, having that sort of imagination to go that far, we really enjoy to do that, but we do have to set our focus and our limitations towards what the client wants. And a lot of that has to do with this, looking at those options for manufacturability. Because if you're getting into it where there's more of a product related kind of project versus a space related project, key things about when you say budget is are you budgeting, do you have a limited budget on capital, or is your budget limitations more aimed at the price point? If that makes sense.

Because those are two different entities on their own. Someone could have a good capital investment budget that's willing to pay more for initial tooling and manufacturing processes, whereas another person would be more entailed of trying to just get the product out, they're not really set on a price point of where the product is. They just want to be able to fabricate it with as low a capital budgets. So hopefully that kind of answers some of that in regards to those two different aspects.

Samantha Lee: Yeah, and I'll jump in on that too. There's kind of two ideas, the budget of the client and the budget of the end user. So going back to who that target is and what your end user is really looking for and also what they can afford. But both of them have this whole idea of manufacturability behind them. And like Keith said, we want to basically, dream and sky's the limit on design. But if we don't design with parameters, that concept that we design may never come to fruition. So-

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Samantha Lee: To me, I think design is more powerful with parameters in mind because you're looking at the whole picture and not just the end result. So, depending on what your goal is with this concept and what budget you're trying to meet, I think it's always interesting to look at different industries and different manufacturing tactics like, what can we borrow from a different industry? Keith is always talking about looking at automotive or things that we don't typically see in furniture. How can we utilize those concepts and ideas to create something that maybe we'd never thought of before within a new industry?

Keith Metcalf: I mean, Sam nailed it there. I mean, whenever we get into designing within a budget and you're trying to create these kind of very unique solutions for your client. But yet at the same time, you know that you're not wanting them to break the bank on trying to turn around and pay for this. So, in doing that, I think looking at those other industries, whether it's furniture, toys, automotive, I mean technology, they all-

Samantha Lee: Fashion.

Keith Metcalf:
They all open doorways for each other it seems like. And they have sort of a crosstalk of information or components or processes that can be shared. And yet, oftentimes some designers overlook looking back at the basics of how a Slinky works.

Gabe Duverge: That makes sense.

Keith Metcalf: So it sort of helps with that.

Samantha Lee: How does a slinky work, Keith?

Keith Metcalf: Well, it's just matter of a spring and a recoil system that someone was designing for military use, I believe at one time, and it fell down his steps.

Gabe Duverge: I didn't know that. That's fascinating.

Keith Metcalf: Nowadays you can Google it to find out if I'm right or not. And so-

Gabe Duverge: I'll take your word for it.

Samantha Lee: We're going to fact-check that.

Keith Metcalf: I'm going off an old dog memory.

Gabe Duverge: The more you know, that's what we're just trying to teach you on the podcast, the more you know. I want to transition to a different kind of constraint, which is the office space. Every space is different, as you guys know, and they offer unique constraints. And it seems like office space, they're having to bring different generations working together more than ever before. Generations with completely different interests, completely different styles. An office may contain traditionalist, baby boomers, gen X, millennials, and now as we're seeing, gen Zs entering the office space.

Does this play a role in how you guys design for workplace? Do you focus on one specific thing when it relates to the ages of who's using your furniture and your spaces more than any others?

Samantha Lee: This is kind of a funny question to me, because it's coming up a lot. And I feel like we're trying to put people in boxes. Like, "Oh well, the boomers like this, let's just shove them over there and make sure that they're happy. And gen Z likes this, so let's put them over here." But let's not forget we're designing for people.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Samantha Lee: Every person is unique. It doesn't matter what generation you come from. There's lots of people in my generation who might be more stereotyped like a boomer or like gen Z. I think it really comes back down to there's not really a one size fits all solution, and we need to pay attention to the client and what they're looking to accomplish. And that's not to say that change management might play a hand in that. We can't just put people in a new space and expect them to act differently, but we can give them the tools or create an environment that assists with that.

So I think for me anyway, I've seen more people introduce choice in environment. So when you're giving someone choice over where they're sitting, whether that's open plan or in an office, or maybe they even move around during the day and it's more of a hot desking situation. If they have the choice, they're going to feel like they're more in control, which then leads to higher comfort levels and increased productivity, maybe they're happier because they feel like they really get to choose how they use the space, when they use it and why.

Gabe Duverge: That makes a lot of sense. Keith, anything to add to that?

Keith Metcalf: Well, I'd say one thing that I would say is just essentially, good design bridges the gap between generations and creates generational harmony, if you will, in my mind. I mean because it's not a matter of pigeonholing, just like what Sam was saying, of one generation to the next, it's a matter of creating a solution that solves a problem. And when you do that, it's not specific towards one generation or the other, but it just becomes timeless. And that's an end goal with designs that you develop, it seems like.

Gabe Duverge: No, that makes sense.

Samantha Lee: Keith, I was really hoping you were going to say something I could respond to as, "Okay boomer, okay boomer." But no, I loved it. That's exactly right.

Keith Metcalf: Well, first you're already putting me in the wrong category, I must say. That's the reason why I'd want to be considered a senior industrial.

Gabe Duverge: No, no, that's great. And I definitely agree and from my experience, it's exactly that. If it's a useful, great design, it doesn't matter if the person's 58, or 18, or 28 or anything in between, that's what's more important.

But I do have a sort of related generational question because I do think, especially millennials are talking a little bit about buzzwords and sort of generational terms. But we definitely can agree, I think that millennials have had an effect on all kinds of industries. Every millennial, as a millennial myself, we enjoy having whatever we want when we want it. We're used to two taps of a phone and I'm watching the latest episode of Tiger King. So we have this in craft food and craft beer, where there's more options as quick as you want them than ever before.

How does this change you guys as designers, where people want a workspace that's designed for them at the drop of a dime? How can designers work to create pieces or pieces flexible enough to personalize every one or personalize every space?

Samantha Lee: This one's tough. We were talking about this in preparation and I don't think there's one answer. And Keith said it best, flexibility is relative. So what might be flexible for some, is different for others. Does flexibility mean you're constantly reconfiguring a room or does it mean that you have a mobile ped that has a cushion top so someone could quickly take a seat next to you.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Samantha Lee: So for me it kind of goes back to the end user and helping them to solve problems that are solution driven. But I don't know, Keith, what do you think?

Keith Metcalf: Well, I mean I think people have always, to a point, people have always wanted something more customized towards them. Now, I will say with this generation, it definitely is a lot more so like, like you were just saying. But I mean it kind of boils down to what people want. And we've got to keep in mind how we're going to achieve that and the requirements that's behind it and how it relates to each of the individuals. So you want to design within limits, but you do not want to limit your design.

What it boils down to is, to coming up with products that can be personalized but yet fall within standards, if you will. Because there are standards out there, and I'm going to use the example of ergonomic standards to adapting to the way the human body and everything works. But it all becomes so relative to how a person likes a chair when they sit in it, and whether the cushion's too hard, too soft; it all is very relative. But I mean, so that's where I'm going back to you. You want to design within limits, but you do not want to limit your designs to just solving a problem or solution. You want to also give that kind of understanding or answer that this design can be adaptable for multiple people, or for multiple spaces or for multiple users.

Samantha Lee: So with you saying that, Keith, it's kind of like you're still designing this product or designing a concept that answers a problem or is set out to, whether it's answer a problem or create a solution, whatever you want to call it. But it's almost like a height adjust table, right? So a height adjust table has different settings for people with different ergonomics, and you're still solving the same problem. You're still getting people to stand up, you're still getting people to spend less time out of a chair and in a healthier condition. So that's the goal, right? You're just providing people with as many options as possible so that whatever they decide, it's still a good option.

Samantha Lee: So to me, that's kind of, I don't know, where flexibility is within product design. It's giving people every option they could have, and each one that you're making available to them is a good option.

Gabe Duverge: That makes a lot of sense, definitely. These are all great points, and to move forward a little bit, I wanted to talk about technology, which definitely seems to be one of the bridges to providing this additional flexibility, the flexibility we've been talking about in the workplace. Whether that bringing adjustable movement, as you just mentioned, Sam, to a new area of the office or incorporating a smart feature to furniture that hasn't always been seen as quote unquote smart.

How difficult is this to keep in mind as you're working on design with customers on projects or anything in that nature?

Keith Metcalf: I'll go ahead and chime in on this one.

Gabe Duverge: No, please.

Keith Metcalf: Since I am kind of a tech head a little bit. So, and I think it's important to remember that technology is another tool. And it's not something that I feel that you need to ... You don't want technology to become the driver of design, but yet you want it to influence the sort of timeless capability that that product could have. And what I mean by that, people have come to expect a seamless integration between their spaces, between their products, of being able to have that flexibility of adapting to their needs, whether my chair inclines and matter of fact, it turns around and it has a Bluetooth technology that coordinates back with the table that knows when I went up a certain height or when I went down. And so there's always that kind of ... maybe you have some kind of ergonomic setting that goes back and forth and it keeps it standard, so at least your proper settings.

But we know that we want to have that functionality of a table, of a surface, of a place to write on, a place to do our business. So the technology all of a sudden becomes another essential component of that design, but yet it's seamlessly integrated into it, that it doesn't affect the actual design itself, but it's just put into that design.

Now you got to be careful about that too. Prime example is just even getting on this phone call of making sure that all of our technology was in sync and our voices could be heard and everything else. And there's sometimes a little bit of us jumbling, tripping over ourselves, trying to get it to work, but yet at the same time, we know it's there, we know it's there, we know it gives us that flexibility.

Samantha Lee: Yeah, this question kind of made me laugh because it's like, how hard is it to consider this? And I think we're thinking about this all the time. And usually it starts with some ridiculous sci-fi comment that we laugh about and it's like, "Oh, that's totally out of this world." But what happens next is, you can almost hear the wheels turning and we start thinking about a concept and how that could be implemented. And through different iterations and even just quickly testing it in our minds we're like, "Oh yeah, that actually could work in this way, maybe scaled down version." But I think we're always trying to think about that. And I know Keith always says for sure it's not programmed in my brain as well as it is in his, but we're always thinking about that.

And I think what we try to do is give our clients various options of technology. So whether that's low tech, or high tech, whatever the concept is, we know that technology isn't going to be achievable for everyone, especially considering that it adds costs. But if we can give options and then that client can decide where to go with that option, I think that's what value we bring to the table is as designers with providing someone, we're still solving the problem, but here's a range of options that you could choose, and one might be a super high tech version.

Gabe Duverge: It's all about flexibility.

Samantha Lee: That's right.

Keith Metcalf: That's right. I mean it does tie back to one of the first questions about budget too. A lot of times I've seen in some of the projects I've done, is incorporating technology becomes an option that is more ... sometimes depending upon if it's like what Sam said, a high tech or a low tech, it definitely can change you into a different budget category.

Gabe Duverge: Right.

Keith Metcalf: And making sure the client understands that is an important aspect. Because sometimes they just sit there and say, "Well I know my phone works and it connects onto my printer." But actually understanding the app that has to be integrated in between all that to allowing this to be real seamless for you, I mean there's still some work and some additional expenses that could occur there. So a lot of times almost the technology aspect becomes another column, if you will, on those projects.

Samantha Lee: Right.

Gabe Duverge: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, go ahead.

Samantha Lee: That goes back to what's your strategy? Are you trying to be the best product? Are you trying to be the cost leader? Are you trying to have a very focused product with a narrow solution? If you're trying to be cost leader, you probably aren't going to go for the super high tech version, because you want the lowest price point. But if you're trying to be a high tech product with your strategy and go to market that way, then maybe it's worth spending the extra money, so that you can be the differentiator in the market.

Gabe Duverge: Definitely. Definitely. That makes a ton of sense and I'm very interested in how technology now that as we were talking about, that may be at the high level of the budget. Your super smart and integrations with the Alexa or Google or anything like that. Sorry if I made your speaker turn on at home.

But in 5 to 10 years, is that then the low level of technology and what becomes the high? And that to me would be super interesting. And sort of goes into my, my next question, which is, you two are working on projects consistently. You're tackling a lot of the challenges that we've talked about today, budget, space and creating flexibility in a lot of different ways. Where do you guys see the next level of furniture design moving in the future? And how does that help influence what you guys choose to do in the immediate timeframe?

Samantha Lee: That's a good question. We've been taking in a lot of information as we go through this time and this pandemic, and there's a lot of extra time to think. I tend to think that these things high level, and kind of try to predict where they're going to trickle down. And for me I see a lot of new behaviors being formed and I think that is going to then transition into different initiatives for companies. Whether that be inserting more health and wellness or maybe their values shift a little bit to what people are finding valuable now, because obviously we're all caring a little bit more about basic needs than we were a month ago. So I think that new behaviors are going to create some new initiatives and then as designers, we're going to have some new problems to solve.

And some of that's going to be within person to person connection. I think that's all going to be very intentional, whether we're designing workspaces or products. Why are people meeting, what is going to make this meeting a success, et cetera? And all of that is going to inform what products come next. And I know, Keith, you had some thoughts on this too; we were talking earlier.

Keith Metcalf: Yeah. Through the challenges that we've been facing, and challenges in general, I should say, with every challenge, there's always new gateways for us to walk through. And looking forward, and looking how that relates to products and furniture, and when I say furniture, I'm not only speaking in the office furniture or in the home furniture or in the health care furniture, but furniture in general, I think that there's going to be a lot more solutions available out there that allow us to create these kind of separations or allowing us to create these areas of distancing one another from one each other. I almost call, it working on some concepts and almost thinking about, it's like social separation, but yet, I also want to create an optional social separation, because you're not always going to want that. And whether we're dealing with some kind of elegant screen to a new fresh air flow filtration system that's built into our chairs or into those screens, I think those products will start becoming available for us going forward, and it will create a healthier lifestyle, like what Sam was saying, that people will be looking for.

I also know that going back into those co-work spaces, you sit there and if you remember someone coming in there coughing or sneezing, it wasn't really thought too much about. Somebody would say, Oh I got a cold or something. But now it's taboo. Somebody come in there, and they're going to be looked at as, okay, if you're coughing or sneezing, why are you here? And they're going to want them... It's not a matter of you stopping work just because you're sick, you can still work at home. So maybe sick days are no longer anymore. I don't know.

So it's kind of interesting with the whole working remotely and how it is going to impact. I mean, heck, if you're allowed to go out, any of you, you can go to the local 7-Eleven or go to the local gas station and they now all have these pieces of plexiglass between you and the client. So you got to think, and that's more in protection for that worker, more so than you, because that worker is seeing so many different people a day, whereas you're one person, one of the persons that they're seeing. And I think to a point, we're going to have to think about that in product relations, that hey, we got to protect those people and maybe it is going to be, instead of having chairs that gang together right next to each other, there might be some separation in between them, maybe a work surface or something like that.

Gabe Duverge: That definitely seems like it's something could become the new normal for at least the next year, to two years, to maybe three and beyond, because it definitely will have some permanent impact on us and how we do things. But you're absolutely right. That's a great point to bring up.

Keith Metcalf: Yeah.

Samantha Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gabe Duverge: Anything else to add to this before we wrap things up?

Samantha Lee: I don't think so. My mind's buzzing though. I feel like I'm going to go write a journal entry up now.

Gabe Duverge: Please do. No, that's great. I love hearing that.

Keith Metcalf: Look towards the clouds and you may fly, but look towards the stars and you'll make new discoveries. That's a quote I did a long time ago, so,  I planned that.

Samantha Lee: I love that.

Gabe Duverge: I love it. Yes, definitely. I think we-

Samantha Lee: We all need to throw down some smoke and disappear after that, Keith.

Gabe Duverge: Magician David Copperfield style.

Keith Metcalf: Yeah, that’s right. Boom.

Samantha Lee: Keith out.

Keith Metcalf: I had a camera. Drop the mic.

Gabe Duverge: We certainly all learned a lot. I've definitely learned a lot from you two. And I want to thank you both Samantha and Keith for joining me today. Thanks for joining me guys.

Keith Metcalf: Yeah.

Samantha Lee: Thank you.

Keith Metcalf: Thank you. It's been quite, quite fun. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah, it's been great. 

I want to thank the listeners for listening in to another episode of the LINcast. Also want to remind you guys if you want to learn more about design related topics, we have a lot of content at linak-us.com. And thanks again. We look forward to talking to you next time. Take care.

 

About Samantha Lee and Keith Metcalf

Keith

Keith understands product. Understanding product doesn’t just mean understanding design, it means understanding how good design becomes a reality. Keith has comprehensive knowledge when it comes to bringing an idea from concept to creation. From the smallest detail, to how a product aligns with an entire brand, Keith brings product to life.

Sam

As a design strategist, Sam takes the ambiguity of design and organizes it into process. Having a strong background in Interior Design and Marketing, Sam knows how to turn a space into an experience. Spaces are defined by their contents, and Sam understands how the big picture is defined by the small details.

Together, Keith and Sam operate as counterparts to design and develop the best and most relevant product solutions delivered through comprehensive and stimulating marketing campaigns. As Keith and Sam have a history of working together, they are able to channel each others’ strengths to elevate each other for a dynamic partnership.

Keith Metcalf Bio

Keith E. Metcalf is an Industrial Designer with over 25 years of design experience. He has a passion for all facets of design with a strong focus on furniture. 

Keith has designed a wide range of award-winning products including bicycles, toys, contract office furniture, smart devices and more. During his journey, Keith founded Design4U as an innovative and integrative design studio. Operating as a holistic "maker" space, Design4U utilizes in-house capabilities and technology to create new and inspirational solutions for all markets.

Keith is an active participant in his community, continuously supporting the growing of young minds. “First and foremost, I have a family that supports my crazy ideas and channel inspiration. My sketchbook is my doorway to unlimited imagination that I carry with me everywhere.  Ideas don’t work on a schedule; they are envisioned through everyday experiences." - Keith Metcalf.

Website: http://www.design4ullc.com/

 

Samantha Lee Bio

 

Samantha has a diverse background in marketing, design, and strategy. Her career has led her to work for both small and large firms including one of the top furniture manufacturers in the country, boutique design firms, and promising start-ups. With projects ranging from logo design to go-to-market strategies, Samantha has worked across industries in education, healthcare, hospitality, entertainment, and manufacturing. Currently running her own practice, Samantha collaborates with clients to bring ideas into existence through strategy and design.

 

“As a creative person, my mind is always processing. I love a challenge and the learning, understanding, and resolution that comes with it. Problem solving is one of my favorite activities, as it is one of my strengths. I work to design experiences that are memorable and meaningful, experiences that impact lives for the better; functionally, physically, aesthetically, and psychologically.” – Samantha Lee

 

Website: https://samanthalee.co/

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