The Ottawa Citizen

Technology
Technology | canada.com Financial News

Designing guys

Nicholas Kohler, The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Mike Brown and Kevin Bailey are proof that leaving Nortel Networks can be just the beginning

Design 1st guys

Mike Brown and Kevin Bailey remember well the day they got a call asking for help from engineer John Davey.

Davey's firm, Brytech Inc., had devised a second-generation bill reader that told the visually impaired if they were dealing with a $5, $10 or $20 bill at retail stores.

Brown and Bailey's company, Design 1st (www.design1st.ca), had created the casing around an earlier version of Davey's bill reader, which was bulky and slow, relying on an embedded camera lens.

Davey's new technology, developed over two years for the Bank of Canada, sends an infrared light through an inserted bill, and is much smaller. Davey wanted Design 1st to create a palm-sized product less than half the size of the original that a blind person could tuck into a pocket.

Brown -- a man who seems lost without his blue felt-tip drafting pen -- struggled to make the device easy and appealing for the blind. If with most products, appearance is as important as utility -- for the blind it would be different. "The look's gone -- it's all about feel,'' Brown said.

And if the industrial designer's job is to get inside the user's head and anticipate his needs, pretending to be blind wouldn't be easy. "It's not as easy as just closing your eyes,'' Brown said in his lilting north England accent.

So he carved a series of shapes out of plastic and presented them to a test group of 10 visually impaired people. "We did a full spectrum of shapes -- everything from a cigar shape to a flat square to an artist's pallet with a finger hole,'' said Davey. He recalled his final question to the test group: "How likely are you to confuse this with something else in your bag?''

But neither Brytech nor Design 1st had bargained for the group's reaction to the plastic models. "They weren't holding it as we were anticipating at all,'' said Davey. "It was all held by the fingertips.''

The test group never let the bill reader out of finger-range. "They tended to map the product by making finger-to finger-contact,'' said Brown, closing his eyes and putting the ends of his fingers together, rotating the product with his thumbs in demonstration.

He focused on shapes that let the blind do just that and soon hit upon a prototype that looked something like a square hockey puck. Plain and black, it's the electronic equivalent of nursing shoes -- low on sex-appeal, high on comfort and utility.

But the shape stuck and is now on the market. More than that, it works. It works so well, in fact, that this spring Brytech and Design 1st won the coveted Appliance Manufacturer Magazine award for design excellence -- usually reserved for such big names as Hewlett-Packard and Pitney Bowes.

They won because of their attention to the user group, which demanded features that seamlessly combine ease-of-use with economy of design. Fewer switches to fumble with -- less hassle.

All this jives with the great motto of industrial design: People Want Toast -- Not Toasters. The industrial designer's job is to provide transparent access to a completed task -- browned, toasty bread. If the toaster works, it becomes as invisible in the kitchen as the aroma of new-brewed coffee -- and just as pleasing.

Achieving that's a tall order.

But in a nondescript little red brick home in a swank section of downtown Ottawa, atop rustic, burlap-covered steps, Design 1st is churning out the toast.

Fancy toast Fancy toast Fancy toast Fancy toast Fancy toast

Made-In-Canada Design

A relatively youthful field in Canada, roughly 500 industrial designers work in Ontario, with around 1,000 across the country -- a figure comparable to the U.S. in per capita terms, says Tim Poupore, president of the Association of Chartered Industrial Designers of Ontario.

Industrial design in Canada has grown in the hot house of our schools. The Ontario College of Art and Design has offered courses for decades, while this September is the 30th birthday of Carleton University's program.

Carleton's presence in the national capital -- as well as Ottawa's recent history as a high-tech Mecca -- has made the city a design hot spot, with local companies such as DW Product Development Inc., Gibson Product Design, Hallgrimsson Product Development and Design Interpretive among the established firms in the field.

Across Canada, big companies such as Bombardier and Toronto-based Umbra -- a housewares design firm -- pour large-scale resources into industrial design.

But as Canadians, "we either do really well or really poorly," Poupore said. We're great at furniture or high-level intellectual products that end up in labs or in businesses -- but we tend to flounder with commercial products such as personal music systems that remain firmly in the domain of Asia.

Design 1st has solved a lot of packaging problems for high-tech clients -- and some not so high tech. Products range from robotics to routers, and for Terry Matthew's March Networks, a home telehealth kit putting elderly patients in touch with nurses through a live broadband video connection (the patient's camera is hidden discretely behind a picture frame).

More unusual are its designs for snake aquarium habitats and bedside clocks that emit soothing nature sounds. One of its most recent creations is a sleek casing on a robotic device that runs across wires to scare birds away from a vineyard's grapes.

Ironically, the firm's initial big coup was for Nortel Networks, where Brown and Bailey once worked. Nortel wanted a design for its latest IP or Internet Protocol telephone, providing a cleaner, sometimes cheaper and more flexible system.

What Design 1st did for Nortel was transform the spaghetti nest of wires it originally envisioned for the phone's hook-up system into something sleek and easy to install, consolidating its IP parts into just a couple of connections.

Sleek and easy to install product Sleek and easy to install product Sleek and easy to install product Sleek and easy to install product Sleek and easy to install product

It's an approach they learned, naturally, at Nortel, where both men spent time in the corporation's renowned workshop, Design Interpretive, begun in the mid-1960s by Nortel guru John Tyson. The shop spent 30 years riding the crest of cutting-edge telecommunications.

Tyson was Nortel's first in-house industrial designer in 1966, and quickly introduced innovations that transformed the product development process, including placing his designers side-by-side with a gaggle of PhDs -- behavioural scientists, psychologists and marketing experts.

"The whole thing was to drive the creative juices up," remembers Tyson, who famously replaced Nortel's stiff-backed boardroom chairs with bean bags to encourage his team to think outside of the box. "The sense of mischief contributed to the value of the corporation."

Soon, Tyson's crew was creating products combining the best of its multidisciplinary team, from ergonomics to aesthetics.

Nortel's Contempra telephone, released in 1968, is considered a design classic. But in the late 1960s, it was a revolution. In the face of Bell's beige monopoly -- its telephones had barely changed since the 1930s -- Tyson created a bold new phone appealing to consumers who wanted a personal touch to their household objects.

"There's no question that we influenced three generations of telephones," said Tyson, stressing the Contempra's cool mix of usability and "profound simplicity."

Nortel aggressively pursued design-centred research and development until two years ago. Tyson retired in 2000. A year later, Nortel's design group was dead, a victim perhaps of cost-cutting. (Ironically, in October, IBM created a division to help customers design products and get them to market faster. IBM is focusing on the aerospace, defence, medical, semiconductor and consumer electronics fields.)

Brown thinks Tyson's departure may have played a role in Nortel's decision. "Once he left, the emperor had no clothes.''

Since Nortel's collapse, startups such as Design 1st have filled the void with leaner and more efficient services than their giant progenitor. They know how corporations work and know their demands. But they also know how to cut out the bureaucratic, decision-by-committee bureaucracy every large organization falls into.

"You get sloppy and lazy when you're in a big company,'' said Bailey, holding up a model of a new product he just helped create for Brytech, a colour reader that tells the blind what hue of blue a sweater on a store shelf is or whether a grocer's bananas are yellow or unripened green. "In the mid-'90s at Nortel, this was $1 million in research,'' he said. Looking at his own product, he added: "This is three weeks.''

All this in 3 weeks! All this in 3 weeks! All this in 3 weeks! All this in 3 weeks!

Bailey left Nortel in 1997, well before Nortel put Design Interpretive on the chopping block. For him, the writing was on the wall: Nortel's 30-year foray into in-house designing was more or less done. "He was a bright young designer,'' recalled one of his former bosses, Peter Trussler, now retired. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Bailey was a "model of somebody who could work in an interdisciplinary team.''

Ten years ago, Nortel's aim was to anticipate the next generation of products -- many of them space-age items that never made it to market. "That can be heart-wrenching and deflating for designers,'' said Trussler. Bailey wanted to leave conceptual work, dreaming of an entrepreneurial future in hard development. It was a concept he eventually followed to his own solution: Design 1st.

Brown took longer to go.

"I think Mike got impatient working with highly conceptual products that took years to go to market,'' said Trussler. "Though he has a number of standing products -- he wanted more of them.''

Brown is more mellow when he talks about why he left Nortel. "It was not to do with dealing with high-level or conceptual stuff -- that's my strength," he said. "My frustration was I wanted to be more entrepreneurial. The corporate wheels just moved too slowly."

The demise of Nortel design hasn't been all bad. "A lot of expertise has been thrown into the street to fend for themselves," said Bailey, adding it's a situation that's quickened the pulse of innovation in Ottawa.

Today, many of Nortel's skilled designers have spilled into the Ottawa streets, available to help all -- whether startups or bigger organizations such as Nortel itself.

From Idea to Product

It's a Monday lunch meeting over Colonnade pizza, and Guardian Mobility is at Design 1st's red-brick office to discuss how its tracking technology will be packaged.

The device -- little beacons placed anywhere from firefighters' backpacks to oil pipelines -- uses GPS technology to track assets in real time.

Kevin Bailey quips that Guardian's technology will be used to track the movement of rascally federal government employees -- the room explodes with laughter.

But the applications for the technology are endless: companies will know if their pipelines are corroding, if a cargo of meat is rotting, or if the brakes on a train carrying that cargo are about to burn out.

Those many applications, though, are a headache for Design 1st, which must find an all-purpose method of packaging the technology, whether it's in a refrigerator or an inferno.

"It's rained on, birds poop on it, dogs eat it,'' says Tom Johnson, Guardian's business director.

Behind him, Peter Parkinson paces the floor distractedly. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt bearing the image of Minya -- a large lizard-like creature who in Japan's famous monster movie franchise is Godzilla's adopted son.

Discussion today revolves around how to change the unit's batteries. Mike Brown's design has a worker sliding a tray of batteries in and out of its bottom -- "which can be a real advantage if I'm halfway up a ladder or hanging off a pipe,'' he says. "It's idiot-proof.''

Parkinson likes the sound of that: "Toolless, brain-dead battery replacement is an absolute requirement,'' he says, quoting one of his clients.

Still, there's a problem.

Bailey's diagram shows how the beacon's components come together "in terms of piece-parts and sandwiches,'' its two halves approaching each other in mid-air like two lovers -- screws brandished -- coming together for embrace.

For Parkinson, it's the embrace that's the trouble. "Is it common to have things snap together and be watertight?'' Brown looks down. "That you can drop in a swimming pool,'' he says, pointing at the battery pack.

Parkinson isn't convinced. "That has to be watertight,'' he says again.

At issue is how the unit can allow for easy battery replacement at the same time as it protects those batteries from the moisture-laden elements.

To solve the problem, Johannes Hill, Guardian's product manager, wants to custom-make a water-tight battery pack. Two years ago, Hill and his partners sold Northwood Technologies, a wireless telecommunications software company, to Marconi for $42 million. "We cannot build in feebleness here -- we can't afford it.''

Bailey, who opposes the custom-made battery pack as expensive, muscles into the fray like a referee. "You're just stepping down that path of complexity,'' he says. "Do you want that headache?''

Hill closes his eyes and rubs his forehead, tapping the table rhythmically -- snare drum-like -- with his other hand.

Later -- despite the debacle with his clients -- Bailey calls the meeting a success.

Can Guardian articulate exactly what it wants? No, Bailey says emphatically. But dealing with a client's vague notions of what their product should look like and do is Design 1st's job.

More than that, Design 1st has locked Guardian into some decisions. Now, whatever the outcome of the battery debate, the look and feel of the device -- what designers call its "20-foot view'' -- and its features, have been hammered out.

The rest is mere detail.

Guardian's beacons could have come out quite differently -- ugly and hard to use.

"Canada's full of these kinds of companies,'' says Bailey, pointing to a photograph featuring a box full of multi-coloured spaghetti -- something that works but has no life, none of the aroma of browning toast. "It's one of those magic wand things,'' he adds, noting Design 1st could take that black box of wires and make it into an easy thing of beauty.

Industrial design firms normally operate independently of engineers. That means they often get bogged down in what Brown calls a "time-sucking cycle,'' where a product gets tennis-balled between designer and engineer in its journey from concept to physical thing -- bounced back again and again to the proverbial drawing board.

At Design 1st, it's all about "fast-tracking'' -- a speedy trip from idea to product that's insured by a dual-pronged approach bringing the skills of the designer under the same roof as the engineer from the get-go. "It's a real marriage between the art and the engineering,'' said Brown.

It's an approach that Canadians are particularly good at -- and one that is finding favour abroad.

"The full-service offering in Canada is a bit of an anomaly in the States," said Poupore, president of the Industrial Designers of Ontario. "We blend more readily. It may well be that that's something we can export."

Poupore argues it's the smaller scale of Canada's economy that promotes a one-stop-shopping approach to product development -- with designers and engineers attacking problems together.

Ready to Bounce Back

In the midst of all that design activity, Design 1st wants to stay small and local, at most expanding to serve the domestic Canadian market while perhaps embarking on the occasional overseas venture.

If Design 1st's numbers took a dive with the market's slump -- from seven to four full-time employees -- it's ready to bounce back.

"We will rise again -- with the market,'' laughs Bailey. Grow a little, sure, but keep on the level keel that avoids the boom-and-bust scenario of the past few years.

Annual revenue may hover under $1 million -- the target is $2 million -- but it's a long way from the early days when Bailey financed the fledgling firm with "sweat equity built on the backbone of learning and long hours.''

Born of the Nortel behemoth, Design 1st intends to stay a nomad firm that darts in and out of client companies, does its job -- and goes on to the next.

Making toast, not the toaster.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2003