Lunar Design, the small but perfectly-formed US industrial design and product development consultancy, inhabits a patch of moonscape nestling between two of San Francisco’s most achingly trendy districts. To the left there is SoMo (South of Market) full of loft-style apartments, S&M gear marts and sweaty nightclubs; to the right, you can mambo to the Mission district, with its offerings of expensive junk stores, cheap Mexican food and designer bars.
Unlike in the UK, where it is the norm to find designers renting cheap space in soon-to-be-gentrified districts, the US West Coast design industry was born in the squeaky clean suburb of Palo Alto. A half-hour drive from San Francisco in Silicon Valley. So, in a land where corporate image is all, the significance of Lunar’s preferred landscape is worth pondering.
Back in 1985, Lunar’s co-founders Jeff Smith, Gerard Furbershaw and Bob Brunner (previously of Interform), set up shop in the heart of Palo Alto. They were in the right place at the right time for personal computing and Lunar built an enviable client list, bristling with major computer industry players: Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Silicon Graphics and Xerox.
So why, in March 1997, did the current principals (Smith, Furbershaw and 30-somethings Max Yoshimoto and Ken Wood) of one of the top design firms in the US (as verified by economic bible Business Week’s annual poll) open a pied–terre studio in the city, which is home to 12 of its 40-strong team? What method could there be in the madness of leaving the lucrative valley?
Lunar vice-president Yoshimoto sees the move as part of a fundamental change in the much maligned client/designer relationship. “The way clients look at designers in the US is a little different to Europe,” explains Yoshimoto. “Whereas the Italian designer is a renaissance person – and they may even play that up – who will design a car, a chair, or a toothbrush for manufacturers who share their viewpoint, American clients are cautious and often adopt the attitude ‘have you designed one of these before?’
“US business has a lot of knowledge and sophistication in brand development – look at Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Companies are realising that if they spend even a small percentage of their budgets on design then their products would also communicate that equity,” he adds.
And Yoshimoto praises Business Week for its annual design issue, which brings the winners of the Industrial Design Society of America awards to “… every business, whether it is making cookies or car-washing equipment… I think the corner has been turned. If you look at the number of product development consultancies setting up in the past five years, industry has to be supporting that growth,” he observes.
Yoshimoto plans for Lunar to benefit from that sea-change. “Being in Palo Alto we got a lot of work because we’re near a certain industry. But I’d like Lunar to diversify, because as a group of individuals we’re capable of designing a lot of different things,” he says.
In early 1997 in ID magazine, Lunar president Jeff Smith named his ambition as: “to grow the company backwards, cultivating the abilities needed to make products rather than the products themselves”. The writing was on the wall. Rather than being lost in anonymous-territory, this cross-disciplinary consultancy offering 2D, 3D and time-based design services – from research to mechanical engineering – shifted sights to broader horizons and pastures new.
Yoshimoto says Lunar moved to San Francisco to keep the staff happy. “We want to be culturally diverse, because our clients and their end users are,” he explains. “And we almost had too many Californian boys working in Palo Alto. Now there are German, French and Dutch men and women here, and we get those viewpoints… but they don’t want to live in a suburb. Designers need to have access to all forms of creativity and there’s so much culture in this city, especially since the proliferation of new media.”
The city’s dynamism is crucial in attracting the kind of designers Yoshimoto wants to work with. “We need young designers. I know they’ll make manufacturing or strategic mistakes so I’m involved in design reviews and critiques. But they bring a fresh outlook, which is really important, and it can be honed, incorporated into the design process and tempered with reality.” Integrating what, in the US, are defined © as two distinct disciplines – industrial design (dreaming up concepts) and product design (making them work) – produces what Yoshimoto describes as: “worked out stuff… conceived with the engineering and manufacturing processes in mind, so the design team’s concepts get to the market”.
Admittedly, San Francisco’s design scene is booming because of the fallout from Silicon Valley, but the city is also perfectly placed to service other industries, regionally, nationally and internationally. For starters, local clients looking to buy design would rather not make the lengthy and pricey journey to New York. Second, San Francisco’s hinterland, the Bay Area, surrounding one of the world’s largest harbours, boasts a major seaport and is America’s most sophisticated, tolerant and fun-loving municipality. The significance of this is not lost on Pacific Rim consumer electronics giants or global corporations from farther afield looking to inject a mix of computer literacy and US-biased street cred into products aimed at the world’s largest, most affluent market.
Which is where Lunar steps in and clears up. As three recent projects demonstrate, it is well able to cope with a variety of demands. In 1996, Dutch multinational, Philips Electronics, teamed up with Lunar to exploit the new CE operating system in a palmtop, complete with Internet access. Microsoft had licensed the technology to Philips alongside four other electronics’ manufacturers, “… but Philips was new to this industry and had a couple of missions to achieve,” recalls Yoshimoto.
“We really thought about the usage models of those little devices, and created more space by changing the connective activity to a software modem and flip-up x-jack rather than a bulky PC card. Philips wanted something distinctive, with features that added value,” he says. Demonstrating how the contrast wheel fits into an indent in the funky, but classic casing, Yoshimoto continues, “… the shape isn’t arbitrary, we used it to express function”. Launched in 1997, the Velo 1 picked up a slew of computer industry and media awards.
When computer personnel change jobs in the valley, they take their allies with them. An “in” at Microsoft, which came via a manager formerly employed by Apple, led to Lunar designing a telephone that uses a computer database. The resultant Cordless PC Phone System, launched in autumn 1998, is Microsoft’s most high-profile article of domestic hardware.
Wood, Lunar’s director of industrial design, recalls that the software functionality was set, but that Lunar worked out “the practical matters, how the phone connected to the computer and the transceiver”, he explains. “We collaborated to ensure it made sense in Microsoft’s product line, but still looked like a phone, so no one in the household would be frightened of using it. That meant grouping the function buttons for easy use, and making the phone ergonomically comfortable despite the bulk of electronics housed inside.”
Lunar’s latest project, a just-launched “breakthrough” toothbrush for Oral-B, was 18 months in development and required a $70m (42m) investment in manufacturing equipment alone. Billions of units are to be produced, and Yoshimoto is a happy man. “Oral-B is a Bay Area subsidiary of Gillette, which owns the German design firm of Braun. It wasn’t concerned over whether we’d designed a toothbrush before because it understands how a creative team can bring value to any kind of product,” explains Yoshimoto.
With a handle designed for optimum comfort, “… you keep brushing for the required two minutes, and ultimately, that’s a design solution that improves efficiency”. A toothbrush is a long way from a computer, but the intricacies of the prototyping and testing process, and the vastness of the financial investment involved, require just as much sustained commitment on the side of the designers.
Having American homes, hospitals, offices and cities full of “worked out”, functional and beautiful stuff will, in the end, convince manufacturers and the public of the value of design. Rather than sticking to its home turf, Lunar wants to raise its profile beyond Silicon Valley in the hope that it can contribute to such a future. That gamble looks to be paying off.