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