Industrial Facility's Holistic Approach

The London firm isn't content with the designer-for-hire role. Instead, it aims to shape clients' business strategy as well as design

LaCie, the maker of computer hard drives, has a history of working with big name designers. F. A. Porsche and Ora-Ïto, among others, have created popular models that introduced style and whimsy to a predominantly beige market. This "hire a design star" approach has been successful for LaCie and a number of corporations (Target (TGT), anyone?), not to mention for the designers themselves. But when LaCie contacted the London-based Industrial Facility about designing a product, it got push-back. Rather than simply accepting the plum assignment as is, which would have put it in quite illustrious company, the firm started by questioning LaCie's place and purpose within the market.

This is typical of Industrial Facility, a design firm that doesn't stop at product design. As innovation has taken hold of the C-suite, and executives have begun to recognize the power of design in the marketplace, companies such as Industrial Facility have been emboldened to apply their skills in design thinking to corporate strategy.

"It was immediately clear that LaCie had no ownership of the components in its products," says Industrial Facility co-founder Sam Hecht. "It didn't think that this was a problem, but we felt it was necessary to promote the perception that this was a LaCie product. There should be a reason to buy a LaCie product over another brand."

Strategic Planning

The final results of Industrial Facility's work with the company will launch next year. Hecht describes the object, which is still under wraps, as "quite radical and yet totally obvious"—a line that could almost be Industrial Facility's motto.

The boutique firm promotes a concept of both "foreground" and "background" design, offering traditional object design (the former) alongside a more philosophical, strategic approach which uses design as a way to focus or repurpose an entire business (the latter). Its clients range from multinationals including Epson and Panasonic to niche specialists such as Sheffield-based knife manufacturer Harrison Fisher.

It's perhaps no surprise to discover that Hecht spent nine years at IDEO, one of the first companies to recognize and jump aboard this new wave of design thinking. His partner, Kim Colin, is an American architect and curator, and their idea is that combining their cross-disciplinary expertise will prompt design-based solutions that are as unexpected as they are appropriate.

Civil Union

"Expanding a project far beyond the brief is something that's come from Kim's architectural training. Architects are very comfortable dealing with many different scales of problems and in very different territories," says Hecht. "And we tend to do the same thing—open out a project to be a lot bigger than initially anticipated, to rationalize and to justify the direction that we think they should take. It's much more of an architectural process of design."

"I use two words to describe Sam's work," says Cameron Campbell, design principal of the Ideation Studio at Herman Miller, who invited Industrial Facility to visit Michigan to give a presentation on the office of the future. "They are 'iconic' and 'civil.' I don't want to say that iconic design is self-indulgent, but it can be more about creating something that's very personal to a designer. When you add civility, you get true functionality. Those two are very hard to achieve together, and there are very few designers out there who can achieve that unity of opposites." The session was, she says, "wonderful," and she suggests that it's only a matter of time before Herman Miller commissions a tangible product from the company.

Off the Screen

While Industrial Facility's emphasis on design thinking puts it in the same camp as IDEO, Continuum, and other design-driven innovation strategy firms, it differs from those companies in significant ways.

First, the company is determined to remain small, conforming to Hecht's belief that "if you can't shout to someone in the office, then you're too big."

Moreover, the other three employees are senior designers themselves—no lackeys to take care of the grunt work, here. This stems from Hecht's experience as design director at IDEO: As he assumed more senior roles, he found himself moving further away from design and into management. "I wasn't comfortable with that," he says, and as a result, his own company won't follow that trajectory.

Second, and perhaps even more surprising given the absence of entry-level designers, the company recently took a deliberate step away from the computer and "de-skilled" itself, following what Hecht candidly describes as a "disastrous" experience with an Italian chair manufacturer. "Our design looked so simple and elegant on the computer, but when we flew out to Italy to look at the prototype, it was hideous," he remembers. "I found this very intriguing. Why did it look so refined on the computer and yet so absolutely, ridiculously ugly and poorly proportioned in real life? We realized that using a computer means you often end up designing a product that looks great in a presentation but you wouldn't want to use."

Now the designers build old-fashioned 3D prototypes of every product before going anywhere near the computer. What sounds inefficient has important advantages. Perhaps most important, it encourages more iterations, and facilitates discussions with the client. For example, as they were developing a coffee maker for Muji, the company's executives were able to hold it, touch it, and get a real sense of what it would be like to use.

Package Deal

"There's a lot of back and forth," agrees Takashi Yajima, merchandising director for the Household Division of Muji, who has worked with Industrial Facility since 2002. "Industrial Facility has understood our concept well, and they always create a connection between design and commodity."

But what if a client doesn't want Industrial Facility's philosophical outlook and is simply interested in their design eye and practical execution skills? "We find that if we have to persuade a client of our approach then it's generally not going to work," Hecht says. If a company sees a designer as a service provider rather than as a partner, well, Industrial Facility will simply find another client. And there seem to be no shortage of those.