Ten years after his death, the anniversary of Bill Stumpf's birth date is still being celebrated by those who knew him and his incredible international design reach. Two years into my career as a designer, which, gasp, makes that two decades ago, I was lucky enough to visit his studio and work on a project with him. The Aeron chair was in final production and we were working on custom colors and materials for a special installation project. His studio was fascinating and conducive to his iterative design process and philosophy. He openly shared his work, his process and his thoughts on how good designers are meant to be servant leaders. Those values were reflective of the Herman Miller core values, the company we both served at the time.
1. Adopt an inside perspective from the outside
Because Bill Stumpf spent time inside Herman Miller as an employee in the early 1970's he understood exactly how the company ticked. This inside experience gave him perspective on how to achieve internal support for his projects. As a consultant, he was able to bring broader views to inform design and focus on innovation instead of being directly burdened by in-house responsive pressures. Productive freelancers typically start as former employees, vendors or clients, or have a process to quickly build support and connections within a client's organization.
2. Failure is the key to success
In a surprisingly organized fashion, various experiments and prototypes from the Aeron, Equa and Ergon chairs were saved around Bill Stumpf's Minnesota studio. Some models were not "pretty" just tests of a specific function or test of an assumption. He was most proud of the failures because without failure there can be no success. The process of iterative design and testing every aspect of that design and the process became the foundation of my own practice and should be a part of yours as well.
3. Guiding principles need to become convictions
In the process of designing something revolutionary, Bill Stumpf came across resistance again and again. Early focus groups wanted cushions on top of the suspension mesh. But he stood behind the guiding principle of building a chair that made people say, "I want to sit on this." He stood so firm it became a conviction. If a design principle is flexible and easily compromised, it isn't fundamental. It's just a nice-have feature. Finding the design principles you are willing to go to the mat over are the ones that need to become the core of your design.
4. Great designers sell as well as design
By getting involved in the sales process at Herman Miller, Bill Stumpf personally saw the complexities of the layered decision-making process in the contract office furniture industry. He embedded features and benefits into his design that would break down objections at all levels. His successful designs sailed through the sales process selling an astounding 10 million chairs, including seven million Aerons. By being a part of the sales process, you can gain valuable information on what to design as well as understanding of how your design features are reading as value.
5. Collaboration speeds innovation
Bill Stumpf did not design the Aeron chair alone. He worked collaboratively with Los Angeles industrial designer, Don Chadwick. Both understood the value of collaboration, and as Chadwick said in an interview series for the Henry Ford Museum, "part of being a good designer is listening to the expertise of others." Using a collaborative mindshare group with a broader perspective and range of skills helps move ideas to innovation. If you don't have the opportunity to be a part of a design partnership, build your own designer mastermind.
Even though he claimed that designing was very personal and even selfish, perhaps the thing that impressed me the most about Bill Stumpf was the lack of ego. His unassuming style was such a contrast to the other design consultants I worked with every day at Herman Miller. Stumpf was both a teacher as well as a student, earning him the kind of respect that creates a legacy. Happy Birthday Bill Stumpf!