Good design balances form, functionality and aesthetics in a way that makes the work put into it invisible. A beautifully crafted object can be useless if it doesn’t perform its function; likewise, something mundane as a stapler can be aesthetically pleasing. It’s a balance that the best designers make seem effortless.
To learn a little about the thought that goes into designing everyday products, we spoke with Jeff Miller. Jeff currently works for Poppin, a small company designing pleasingly modern office and work supplies. He’s previously worked with some of the biggest names that come to mind when you think of well-designed products, including Herman Miller, Bosch and more.
Tell us a little about who you are, your current position and how long you’ve been at it.
I’m Jeff Miller, Vice President of Design at Poppin — a one-stop shop for workstyle. For more than four years I’ve been responsible for heading the design of all the products we make; from pens and notebooks to desk accessories and furniture. Prior to joining Poppin, I headed my own design practice combining a research-driven consulting background, with a more personal elemental approach for a range of clients in the areas of consumer electronics, furniture and interior design including: Bosch, Cuisinart, Herman Miller, Panasonic and Samsung. Concurrently, I was the Creative Director of Itoki Design, a New York-based subsidiary of one of Japan’s largest office furniture manufacturers. Years prior, I was the long-time member and Vice President of Design at ECCO Design, in New York, where for more than a decade I was involved in product development for global brands including: Apple, Colgate, Corning, LG, Motorola, OXO and Procter & Gamble.
What drove you to choose your career path?
From an early age I was art tracked, gifted at drawing and sculpting but without ambition to create art for its own sake. I knew I wanted to make things, and that left architecture as a realistic professional pursuit, but the scale and scope of developing buildings didn’t appeal to me. I was more interested in the way flip-top plastic shampoo bottles worked, considering why the underside of a telephone couldn’t be as beautiful as the top, endlessly reconfiguring bicycle components into new kinetic creations, and, of course, furniture. So it’s what I always wanted to do, but didn’t know it was a job until I found a book about famed industrial designer, Raymond Loewy in my high school library. (No internet back then)
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
With the above realisation, I set about getting trained as soon as possible. I sought out local internships in design, and summer high school programs in industrial design at both the Rhode Island School of Design and Carnegie Mellon University. That armed me at a young age with a better portfolio than most to apply to design school, and so I attended Carnegie Mellon for four years, (with a summer design internship every year in between), earning a BFA in Industrial Design and graduating with University and Department honours. At the time, facing those interminable four years, I couldn’t devour the coursework fast enough, and just wanted to get on with becoming a “real” designer. But looking back, I’m thankful for the solid foundation and principles that still guide me, despite how much technology and product development has changed in 25 years. (I prepared my first professional designs on a drafting board with a pencil and sent blueprints to the factory. Now everything is 3D CAD)
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
Nope — just the BFA, the portfolio and the experience.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Thinking. I spend a lot of time in meetings and responding to emails, but the most fruitful thing I do is to think. I’m not always at my desk but when I am, I’m often sitting with my eyes closed.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
That it’s all dash and show. That a good idea can catapult itself, without intervention and evolution into a successful product. Design is an even blend of marketing, engineering and sculpture. Like dance, when done well, the resulting artifact seems effortless and predetermined. But in reality the simplest ideas require experimentation, trial and error.
Do you have any design pet peeves? I’m thinking of products that prioritise aesthetic over function, that sort of thing.
It’s in fact easy to make something complicated. It’s much more difficult to make something both simple and functional, but that’s always been my personal objective and I’ve found great synergy with this direction and Poppin’s needs as a brand. Our effort is to build a growing collection of disparate products that yield a common aesthetic and feel like a family. We want to make things that are quintessential, that feel both contemporary and timeless and at home in any environment. A contrivance or flourish can attract immediate but fleeting attention, while elemental distilled design that performs, attracts enduring admiration.
What are your average work hours?
In the office? 9:30 — 6:30, five days a week. But I often lay awake thinking about tomorrow’s work… only it’s not so much like work, it’s more like daydreaming… only it’s nighttime. I also travel on 16 hour flights four times a year, and there are plenty of late night emails and phone calls with our overseas manufacturing team.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Waiting. It’s a counterintuitive shortcut, but if you put something aside for a while, the next time you pick it up you’ll tend to have the right answer.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I’ve had the opportunity to work on various luxury goods in which premium materials and construction were afforded. In Poppin’s particular business (as in most others) we are always balancing variables of cost over value. Rather than emulating finishes and processes that are out of range, I believe the most merit and beauty lie in exposing basic construction and honest materials.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
It’s not really that terrible, but realising a better way to do something after it’s already done. Happens almost every time, whether it’s better efficacy, cost, function, finish, or form. You just deal with it. Nothing’s perfect. There’s always going to be another way.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
The beginning and the end of a project. At the beginning there are endless possibilities that stream forward. It’s exciting to wade deep into that opportunity and swim toward the meaningful currents that represent the best ideas. At the end of a project, if it’s been well thought about and well prepared, the result is a very satisfying culmination and realisation of your vision. And what’s more, if it’s successful in the market, if others want it and appreciate having it, that is the ultimate satisfaction.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what’s an average starting salary?
Corporate pays more. Consulting pays less. If you own your own consulting business, or own your own manufacturing of your own product, or are paid a royalty for products that are made in quantities of hundreds of thousands or more — you can make more.
How do you “move up” in your field?
In-house corporate design and large consulting firms have ladders to climb as with any business organisation. If you’ve got the chops, the experience and some good opportunities you can leapfrog your competition by going out on your own, potentially making a name for yourself, potentially paying yourself more, potentially failing splendidly. At least it will be splendid along the way.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
They’re entering the game after I’ve already played half the match. I have my standards and ideals about what’s appropriate for our company and our customer, which has my ideas already more focused around probable outcomes than they might expect.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Enter early and often, as I did.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.