Editor's Note: Voting for the Readers' Choice from among the winners of Inc.'s Best In Class Awards for today's best-designed American-made products has closed. The results: Announcing the Inc. Readers' Choice for Product Design 2014.
If you asked Neil Grimmer, the only thing more exciting than the recent progress of design is its future.
With new technology like 3D printing helping make design more accessible, the Plum Organics co-founder and former senior designer at innovation consultancy IDEO is downright giddy over the prospects for his industry and business in general. "The more ideas there are out in the world that get brought to life...the better we're all off for it," he says.
The San Francisco-based Grimmer has more than a decade of design experience--first at IDEO and then as a vice president of strategy and innovation at Clif Bar & Company. And though has moved on to baby food in his latest company, the import of design is never out of his thoughts.
To find out why design is so important, I spoke to Grimmer recently by phone. Here's an edited version of our interview.
What's your definition of a good design?
Neil Grimmer: The conversation around design used to always be around form and function. What I get inspired by now is design that constitutes form, function and the future. So it's designing a better social or environmental impact. That's very similarly to what we've done at Plum, where we design a baby food product that was ultimately trying to deliver better health food for little ones, and do it in a way that had a lighter footprint on the planet. I get really inspired by that. One of the best examples in my mind is probably Tesla right now where they really combine amazing aesthetics and user-centered design with an awesome sustainability story attached to it.
What's your favorite you've designed and why?
NG: Pioneering the spouted pouch baby food for Plum Organics. In 2007, we were looking at the baby food category that really hadn't seen innovation in the last 50 years. We found this spouted pouch in Japan and it was perfect for the application of baby food. It was flexible, it was light, it had a better environmental footprint, but it was also super easy to use. What we found was that with babies who were nine months to a year old, you could actually hand the pouch over to them that they could start feeding themselves. We like to say that design was so intuitive, even a baby could use it.
Why should entrepreneurs and business owners care about design?
NG: The kind of design work that we practice at Plum is called human-centered design, where we take and put the people that we're in service to right at the center of the process. In our case, it was looking at the needs of young parents and their kids. Some of the best design out there does that. It's fundamental to the process. It seems intuitive.
If you were creating a healthy food for a baby, wouldn't you think about the user experience of your product for that little one? The crazy part about it is, people don't, and they haven't historically.
That's why IDEO's been so successful over the years, because they really brought the idea of taking that design practice and applying it to problem solving across any number of areas outside of just creating the product. It's not only smart, it's also intuitive. When you put the needs of the ones you serve at the center of everything, you will design solutions that will ultimately meet their needs.
How will design continue to remain relevant in the future?
NG: The evolution from design just being product-centric to design being a way of thinking and a way of solving problems has future-proofed it in a lot of ways. Now people are taking that design thinking practice and applying it to solving business problems. It's opening that notion of what design can be and the impact it can have in the world in a pretty big way.
What products or categories do you think could benefit from design help?
NG: There are 3,000 products typically in a grocery store. If you ask the question, "Are they better for people's health?" or "Are they better for the environment?" and the answer's no, there's an opportunity for reinvention. I think that's where design can really benefit people in the community.
What's your best advice for entrepreneurs who are interested in design?
NG: Just start playing. The process that a lot of us use is out there, readily available. A lot of the tools that we all use are becoming democratized where they're really accessible. Start grabbing the process and those tools and start playing. Fundamentally, especially for young designers, it's about what is your unique gift combined with something you really care about. If you can put those two things together, you can find the subject of what you want to design and then grab that process, grab those tools, and make it happen.