Success by Design
How an Austin company is changing the way we look at—and use—everything from tea kettles to table lamps.
It’s a typical day in the neighborhood at Austin’s Design Edge. A staff meeting has been called, so forty or so youthful employees are rolling chairs across the concrete floor to the conference room or queuing up at the coffeepot. Co-owner and president Pearce Jones is hurrying around in a T-shirt, jeans, and bare feet, and as usual, somebody’s dog is ambling about the premises. Yet if Design Edge doesn’t look corporate, it is definitely mainstream: Its clients include Dell, Compaq, Motorola, and Toshiba; its revenues have been growing at a rate of 30 percent a year for the past four years; and last year they reached $5 million (a sizable amount in the industrial design field). By reputation and size, it is the best-known firm of its kind in Texas and one of the top ten in the country. It is part of an industry that affects whether and how tens of billions of dollars’ worth of products are perceived and purchased and yet remains as invisible to the public as a stealth fighter.
While the staff is otherwise occupied, a visitor can observe some of those products by walking around the souped-up warehouse near downtown that houses Design Edge’s offices. Lining a broad central hallway is a series of niches with various shapely products on display: a crisp, slate-gray flat-panel computer monitor, an angular red tea kettle, chunky footwear for the new sport of snow skating, and small table lamps that fold flat (one resembles a box kite, another a clamshell). Elsewhere is the Mastermouse, a colorful children’s computer, and a mock-up of a work in progress: the command center for an offshore drilling rig that looks as if it could be on the starship Enterprise.
Industrial design firms like Design Edge are the architects of mass-produced objects, determining not only their appearance but also the way they are used. Open up a notebook computer, answer a cellular phone, adjust a showerhead, click a ballpoint pen, set a thermostat, play a compact disc, squeeze into an airline seat, or raise a travel umbrella and you’ve experienced the handiwork of an industrial designer. The field has been recognized professionally since the thirties but has not attracted the attention that, say, advertising or architecture has. The major players—Fitch, IDEO, Herbst LaZar Bell, and frogdesign—are relative unknowns, as are the more than one thousand small firms whose members belong to the Industrial Designers Society of America. Industrial design’s economic presence is also small; if all the largest firms merged, their total revenues might be $250 million. Yet the influence of industrial design is undeniably growing, especially as companies that used to do their own design and engineering are farming out the work to outside specialists like Design Edge.
Design Edge was founded in Houston in 1986 by two Compaq defectors, Richard Haner and Chipp Walters. Haner, now 45, wasn’t sure he and Walters were smart to go off on their own in the deepest doldrums of the bust. “We definitely had more guts than brains,” he says. Businesses were failing daily in Houston’s doomsday economic climate, but they thought they could make it. They set up in Walters’ garage, brought aboard one of Walters’ old grad school classmates, Mark Kimbrough, and struggled along for three years. They considered themselves lucky in 1989 when they got a contract to design a few desktop and laptop computers for a company in Austin started by a college kid named Michael Dell.
They grew slowly, developing what high-tech experience they could. The owners and their few employees didn’t bother much with image; it was a T-shirts and jeans kind of place. But unlike some of their peers, Haner and Walters regarded that informality as part of their philosophy. “When we started, we didn’t intend to make a billion dollars,” says Haner. “We decided to create a relaxed, innovation-generating environment.” Design Edge’s mantra was “Do awesome design work and have fun.” The three partners knew how easily success could evaporate. If you haven’t enjoyed what you’re doing, all you have at the end is an empty bank account.
In 1991 Dell convinced them that Austin was the place to be, so the five-year-old company packed up and moved. The partners also made a point of branching out, worried that they were too reliant on Dell, which at that point represented nearly 80 percent of their business. Using sophisticated multimedia sales pitches, they managed to land IBM and Honeywell, among other new clients. Two years later, they survived the breakup of the original team when Walters left to start his own multimedia company, Human Code. Haner beefed up the management team by elevating Kimbrough to partner and persuading Pearce Jones, who had been a manager at Dell, to come on as a partner as well. The aggressive diversification paid off. Design Edge’s products began winning awards that raised the company’s profile in the industrial design community, and soon its three principals were besieged with invitations to speak at industry seminars.
Despite the wider range of projects, computer products continued to be the company’s core strength, which served it well early last year when it was approached by STB Systems with a project that was right up its alley. Based in Richardson, STB is a $200-million-a-year company that makes graphics cards (both hardware and software) for the computer industry; one of its special products is a device known as a multiple video port adapter, which lets a person control a bank of monitors with a single mouse or keyboard. STB has been quite successful with the adapter, selling thousands for use by, among others, stock traders on Wall Street—the hotshot “masters of the universe” depicted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities. But STB executives decided the company needed a presence on top of the desk too, not just inside the computer. They thought there was an untapped market for a lucrative new product line: a splashy monitor that would showcase its technology. (Trading rooms typically have more than four monitors per desk and others located throughout the area.) But they needed someone to bring the idea to life.
The technical requirements were demanding: STB wanted a flat-panel monitor with two side-by-side screens. Flexibility was a must; the screens needed to be easily raised and lowered, tilted up and down, and swiveled from side to side. But while the specs were exacting, the most significant factor in the design was the personality of the consumer. “These guys are young and wired,” says Vanessa Ogle, the general manager of the Specialized Technologies Group at STB. “They like cigars, fast cars, and single-malt scotch. They are trading billions of dollars of stock a week, and they demand the best of everything.” STB knew what would get their attention: the monitor design equivalent of a Porsche or a Lamborghini.
In March 1997, after reviewing the portfolios of four design firms, STB awarded the contract to Design Edge. “From my perspective, they appeared to be number one in industry knowledge,” says STB program manager Mark Scholten, who was in charge of the flat-panel project, “and they knew the people we deal with all the time at Compaq and Dell.” Design Edge also had the manpower to do the project in-house from start to finish—the design, the engineering, the ergonomics—something that only a handful of industrial design firms in the U.S. can boast. But the thing that sealed the deal was Design Edge’s promise to meet a preposterous deadline. A major securities-industry trade show was coming up in New York on June 23, only three months away, and STB wanted to roll the monitor out there.
Thirty-three-year-old mechanical engineer Robert Garrett and 29-year-old designer Philip Leveridge, plus a small team of other specialists began to work on the STB monitor even before the formal contract had been signed. Given the deadline, the first order of business logically would have been to narrow and focus the project, but instead, Leveridge and Garrett opened it up. “STB initially wanted a dual-head monitor that would sit on a desk,” says Garrett, but the company was intrigued by the suggestion that the product would be more versatile and would sell more if it was modular. Everyone quickly agreed on a plan to design monitors that could be arrayed vertically or horizontally on special shafts—a more interesting project, but also much more complex. “It was both wonderful and horrible,” Garrett says. “A huge can of worms,” says Leveridge. Using powerful computer-aided-design software, Garrett drew the product on-screen in three dimensions, then rotated it and looked at it from different angles to see if the design was feasible. Leveridge, an artist, filled sketchbooks with highly detailed drawings mapping out the overall monitor and all of its external parts. The model shop built three- dimensional dummies. The pace was never less than intense. “At one point,” Garrett says, “Phil hardly left the office for a week.”
The three months went by in a sort of nonstop fast-forward mode. At the end, predictably, there were a couple of throat-clutching moments. Incompatible parts from a manufacturer had to be retooled in a matter of days; Design Edge used its own machining center to fix the problem. And on June 22 the monitor bound for the trade show missed the plane and had to be hand-carried to New York the next morning. But once it was up and running, it was a major hit. Its artfully curved heads rested on a sturdy, crescent-shaped aluminum base, giving it a highly refined but rugged appearance. The detailing was worthy of, well, a fine sports car. “People would walk past our booth, glance, do a double take, and come back to stare,” says Ogle. Some conventioneers wanted to buy it right off the floor. “One man asked if we took credit cards,” says Scholten. (If STB had, the man might have been taken aback. At the time, a pair of fifteen-inch monitors with STB software cost $10,000. Today, because the price of several key components has dropped, they’re a mere $5,500.) But the ultimate compliment came in June of this year, when Design Edge learned it would receive a gold award in the annual international competition sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America—the industry’s equivalent of an Oscar.
Winning the award—its second gold—coincided with more good news: STB asked Design Edge to create the next monitor in its series, the eighteen-inch single-screen version. That, in turn, occasioned more than the usual amount of introspection at Design Edge. Inevitably both the prize and sales of the monitor will increase the company’s profile, but whereas other firms might be inclined to push and grow, its three partners are taking it slow for a while and thinking hard about how not to lose the special qualities that come from being the modest size they are now. “I’m not saying that we’ll never expand to other cities,” Haner allows, “but it would be like splitting up a family.” So they’re looking to keep the workplace much as it is and find other areas for growth. For instance, they might get more closely involved with clients who are developing products, helping them early on with concept and project management, or they might invest capital with them to get a return farther down the line. They know for sure that they’ll take on outside work at their machining division.
In the meantime they’re focusing on keeping the delicate balance between doing awesome design and having fun. That’s why on Friday afternoons someone will get on the PA system and announce, “It’s beer-thirty,” which means that there’s cold beer sitting on the reception desk. Or a rumor will sweep the building that everyone is going to the Dog and Duck Pub. Some corporate types would frown on that, but not those at Design Edge. There they shut down their computers and go along. “We really encourage it,” says Haner, “because we know that on Saturday morning at nine-thirty or ten, this building is going to be full again.”