Pure art is a noble pursuit. Applied art is a business. That's one reason design firms have been so eager of late to add consulting and manufacturing to their core aesthetic competencies. It's also the rationale behind the mission of Eleven, a five-year-old, 15-employee company that specializes in elevating prosaic items to new heights, not of beauty but of function. "We didn't start this company to fall into the trap of producing a wave of sexy, seductive translucent crap that no one buys," says Glen Walters, a co-founder and Eleven's managing member.

Still, functionality is not what springs to mind when you visit Eleven's offices, on the outskirts of Boston's Flat Iron district. The atmosphere is creativity chic: young, black-clad employees sit side-by-side, sketching to the beat of their own individual soundtracks, delivered via headphones. In Walters' office, Beatles figurines crowd the desk and a Dr. Seuss book lies next to the computer. The white board is blank save for a lone verse from "All You Need Is Love." "We keep it loose, creative, and chaotic long enough to let the sparks fly," Walters happily explains.

Loose and creative were Walters' watchwords and visual flair his goal back when the manager was working as a freelance product designer. Then, in 1990, Walters met an independent inventor who introduced him to the possibilities inherent in the most mundane of goods. The inventor's own innovations included the Fastek buckle, a plastic snap-together clasp that is ubiquitous on gym bags and backpacks; and the foldable Pack & Play playpen. His financial -- and from a designer's view artistic -- success, persuaded Walters that "creating breakthrough products that achieve record sales at Wal-Mart could be more rewarding -- and certainly more lucrative--than stylizing products selected for their aesthetic beauty to be displayed on permanent collection at the MOMA." In 1996, Walters recruited another designer and two engineers, and the four launched Eleven.

From almost the beginning, Walters and his partners -- Benjamin Beck, Dave Harting, and Doug Marsden -- pursued contracts to design products for other companies. (Over time, they have won business from Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble and Burton Snowboard, among others.) But they were more interested in dreaming up their own innovations for which -- like the inventor -- they could collect hefty licensing fees. At first, such conceptual baking-from-scratch proved difficult. The co-founders would waste days waiting for the "bolt from the blue," which generally arrived in the wee hours of the morning and -- lacking all context -- was quickly forgotten. They solved the problem by drawing up criteria meant to define desirable projects and lay out a process for completing those projects:

  • Isolate a low-tech product that currently sells extremely well through retail channels, and improve it. Enrich the product through value-added solutions that are embodied in an aesthetic that makes clear the advancements it offers in terms of intellectual property.
  • Gain an extensive knowledge of the players supplying the world with the selected products.
  • Begin a journey of understanding about the user and how he/she understands the current product offering. When designing your product, go beyond consumers' current knowledge base. Design, test, and dig deeper than almost any client would pay you to do.
  • Sell your intellectual property based on a track record of success and innovation. If you solve both the consumer problems and the corporate problems, you can win at this game. If you reinvent what a corporation is currently selling, it can often make the leap.