“A lot of designers present their work as if it’s a sort of magic, a mysterious alchemy”

We talk to Ethan Imboden, head of venture design at frog and founder of designer sex toy company Jimmyjane, about designing for people, why creativity needs to be demystified and the challenges of creating a vibrator.

Ethan Imboden
Ethan Imboden

“A lot of discomfort around sexuality comes from wincing, apologetic, ‘wink wink’ treatment of the subject matter,” says Ethan Imboden, head of venture design at frog and founder of luxury sex toy brand Jimmyjane. “This is a fundamental human experience, and I think the major goal for Jimmyjane was for that conversation to be normalised.” 

Product designer and entrepreneur Imboden isn’t shy when talking about his career at Jimmyjane. Setting up the venture in 2002, Imboden’s aim was to create a “design-centric brand” based on “sophisticated product development” which rivalled everything in the market at the time – at a cost. 

“Jimmyjane’s first line of vibrators was the Little Something range. In the Little Something Eternity line, there was one in 24-carat gold, and one in platinum with an eternity band of diamonds around it,” he says. “At the time, the average price of a vibrator was around $20 (£12) – this was retailing at $3,750 (£2,400).” 

The venture came with significant challenges. Using 3D printing as a means of process meant that there were limitations with material. This was set alongside the added difficulty of trying to use medical grade materials to create “luxury” products, and ultimately the taboos in society. 

“Material options were really quite limited, and to rapidly prototype these products on a start-up budget led to some pretty crazy solutions which required bravery from our testers,” Imboden says. 

His aim was to make quality products that stringently adhered to medical requirements, he says – while simultaneously creating luxury design that could be positioned in Selfridges next to the likes of Hermés, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

“It was a really radical departure for the industry and made a really strong statement about a different view on sexuality and the attention we should provide to it,” he says.

But extravagance of materials aside, Imboden says that the inspiration for many of the designs stemmed from simplicity.

“The Little Something range used a very simple design,” he says. “It was a modest, cylindrical shape with two hemispherical ends, designed to be completely silent and waterproof, made out of solid steel but heavy-plated in precious metals.”

This stripped-back minimalism is a concept that the designer has carried across many of his ventures. Before setting up Jimmyjane, Imboden worked to develop products for the likes of Ford, Dell, Motorola and Nike, alongside inventing more than 20 of his own registered patents.

Since 2013 he has been heading up venture design at consultancy frog, which has just released New Matter, a 3D printer marketing itself as “simple” and “affordable” – design thinking not too dissimilar from that used to create his “design-centric” vibrator.

“It’s not specifically for those who have 3D-printed before,” he says. “You don’t need prior knowledge and it is a jumping-off point for people to explore making.”

The New Matter 3D printer
The New Matter 3D printer

The printer includes various 3D CAD systems at different levels of ability, from the consumer-accessible SketchUp to the more advanced Rhino3D, he says. Different settings enable users to either undergo complex sessions to create 3D models, or simply press a button on the machine that enables it to print straight away.

“It’s not specifically made for designers. It’s made for anyone with that creative itch, or that desire to make,” he says.

But how do you create advanced technology to satisfy both an experienced designer and an inexperienced consumer? Handling a water bottle as he candidly answers Design Week’s questions, Imboden marvels at the beauty and simplicity of the living hinge design flip top that enables the bottle to open and shut quickly.

“It’s very simple engineering, but it’s ultimately very elegant,” he says. “When designers see these various solutions, it inspires them and progresses their craft. Designers are people too, and consumers also have aesthetics, and design sensibility.”

He goes on to talk about consumer furniture brands from which he’s drawn inspiration. “Take Ikea – it’s designed by designers for people,” he says. “I friggin’ love Ikea. I appreciate the design thought that goes into it and the additional challenges they address with cost limitations and flat-pack requirements.”

The Kidaptive iPad app for pre-school learners, designed by frog
The Kidaptive iPad app for pre-school learners, designed by frog

Designing “for people” is one of the qualities he admires most in product innovation, says that those designers who clear the haze and “demystify” their design processes are better off.

“I see a lot of designers presenting their work as if it’s a sort of magic, a mysterious alchemy,” he says. “They pull the rabbit out the hat, and there’s a gasp of awe. That’s all well and good, but if you hand the rabbit over to the client and they don’t know how to feed it or look after it, then they’re stuck.

“I really appreciate designers who don’t waste time trying to maintain mystery around their design processes. We shouldn’t be afraid of radically demystifying what we do – it’ll only progress the development and the value that people have ascribed to it.” 

Like the New Matter 3D printer, Imboden designed Jimmyjane’s toys to be user-centric and open for interpretation – regardless of experience.

“We designed them with certain uses in mind, but we also knew people would be doing all sorts of unimagined things with these products, and that’s the point,” he says. “It’s about creating provocative possibility while providing guidance – so people know where to start.”

But ultimately, simplicity and public-facing designs are the outcome of working on a brief with purpose, Imboden says. Whether enabling those with no creative background to 3D print, or changing perceptions of sex toys, holistic service makes worthwhile design.

He recalls his least favourite project being one in a previous role at frog where he was briefed to help create 50 flat panel monitors for a brand that “shall remain nameless” based on sports themes. The project subsequently led to him leaving and starting up Jimmyjane.

“It was the worst because it was so clear to me that it was destined for landfill in the very near term,” Imboden says. “The first question we have to ask as industrial designers, given the repercussions and scale of what we do in the world by creating objects – is should this even exist in the first place?” 

And with Sensel on the way from frog, a new next-generation touch-sensing technology that aims to revolutionise the way artists, designers and musicians work digitally, Imboden says that regardless of whether he’s designing a 3D printer or a soundless vibrator, his ultimate aim is to open people’s eyes to new, worthwhile possibilities.

“I admire entrepreneurship ventures like Airbnb, which are doing genuine good in the world, fundamentally restoring faith in humanity, and helping people to develop mutual respect,” he says. “I guess this was what I was trying to do with Jimmyjane – change perceptions.”

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  • Howard Stein August 3, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Excellent thinking — design that creates such deep user experience that the product disappears.

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