Convergence Conversation: Design for Function and the Future with Greg Westphal

Greg Westphal is an industrial designer with a deep passion for world-building. His experience with design is wide-ranging and global. After studying under Feng Zhu at the FZD School of Design in Singapore, Greg has brought his skills to a spectrum of efforts including designing future cities with advanced infrastructures and architectures. He also has designed some of the future products we use in our homes. But his real passion is for creating worlds that entertain people. In fact, if you’ve played Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War (November 2020 release), you have enjoyed his influence and concept designs as you ran through Miami.

Greg’s passion for travel has given him an incredible visual library to draw upon for his work. It also has given him a deep appreciation for the beauty of diverse cultures. He grasps and shares the importance of expressing cultural uniqueness through design.

This Convergence Conversation is particularly special because, while I appreciate Greg’s abilities and perspectives as a designer, I am especially proud to call Greg my son.

Defining Design

Deb: Design is all around us, but I'm not sure most people recognize it as such. I didn’t until you exposed me to it. Let’s start by describing what design truly is.

Greg: Design is probably one of the most semantically overloaded words in the English language, maybe because it comes into our language from a whole bunch of different sources. Design can be as simple as making a mark on a piece of paper to all the way to something more biblical, like God's design for the universe. What’s important to understand is that design falls somewhere between the philosophical why you're doing it and the tactical how you're doing it. The engineering of it.

"The best way I can describe design is as a process by which you take a given set of constraints and produce a solution, and it also is the solution itself."

- Greg Westphal

This iterative process is going on all the time.  And whether we are talking about transportation design, urban development, or graphic design, the constraints are important. Design takes a set of constraints and applies a process to develop a solution within those constraints.

Categorizing Design

Deb: Can you categorize the different types of design?

Greg: The most obvious and probably the oldest form of design is architecture. People might argue that architecture is more about civil engineering but you’re not necessarily worried about what material to use. If you’re an architect designing a skyscraper, you're considering the purpose of the skyscraper. You start with the philosophy of what the building will be used for — it’s like a dialectic philosophy. If you were to develop a building in Saudi Arabia, you’d think about what it means to put a building in Saudi Arabia and how people will use it. You’ll consider the cultural artifacts supporting the philosophy. There's a process to identify the why and the what of the building and then you engineer its construction.

Then there's a category of design, like transportation design, where form follows function very closely. Just by looking at a truck, you know that it’s been designed for hauling materials. In the same way, if you see a smart car, you know it’s not made to haul a ton of concrete. In cases like these, the design form is following the function. Of course, you can design a car to look like anything — a super sleek and aerodynamic missile, maybe, but that aesthetic isn’t necessarily going to be comfortable for the driver.

Deb: What is industrial design? How is it different from architecture or transportation design?

Greg: Industrial design usually focuses on a product that needs to be manufactured. The classic example is a water heater for tea or a coffee maker. It's a product you bring to an office environment that ends up becoming an appliance. Industrial design usually has the tendency toward becoming mass-produced and manufactured. A Sony Walkman is a good example.

The History of Design

Deb: Talk a bit about the history of design, especially given the constraints of the past.

Greg: My guess is that craftsmen design came before industrial design. Somebody in their house or a local business was making things one-off. The cast-iron pot was one of the first things that were manufactured in larger quantities, and likely marks one of the first examples of what we consider industrial design. It was made in such a way most applicable to all of society. Everyone could use the pot and it could be made rather quickly and cheaply.

It was around the early 1900s when we started to see more industrial designers. Bel Geddes was one, along with Raymond Loewy and a slew of other guys who started designing trains and furniture lines and doing graphic design. At that time, there wasn't much differentiation between design fields. Even within architecture, the Bauhaus movement was designing interiors and appliances to go along with architecture. With the advent of plastics, manufacturing of product lines changed and industrial design began to trend towards appliances.

Today we’re seeing hyper-specialization in design fields. It’s counter to where we need to be headed. It's really hard today to cross-pollinate the design field. If you're a transportation designer you're working transportation. But that cross-pollination of ideas in design is what creates innovation. We don't see many designers like Jony Ive, the designer at Apple, anymore. He worked on a ton of different things.

Entertainment might be the exception. We see some cross-pollination going on there. Entertainment designers have such a wide view of design that they can come in and supplement or spearhead projects in the real world. People like Alex McDowell or Guy Dias are getting hired by companies to work on the design of product lines or urban development. Daniel Simon can go from designing a Bugatti to designing concepts for Tron.

The Purpose of Design

Deb: So what I'm hearing is that design really is very much about what people want to do.

Greg: I think most designers would say design is about visual communication of purpose. But is also very much an aesthetic pursuit. For example, a guy named Philippe Starck invented a squeezer for extracting lemon juice. It's a beautiful form, but not functional. If you try to get lemon juice from it, you're going to get seeds in your cup and juice all over your hand. In this case, the constraint might just have been to make something aesthetically beautiful. It’s an expensive piece. Someone who can afford this particular lemon squeezer probably is not squeezing their own lemon juice, so isn’t thinking about how it actually functions.

In a way, it’s kind of like a Ferrari, which is designed like art. On the other hand, you have a Prius, one of the best-designed electric vehicles on the market today. Unlike the Ferrari, it’s not designed for a completely different aesthetic. It's designed to function and look like a safe electric vehicle. There are actually people who want a car that looks like an electric vehicle because it broadcasts to the world that they are trying to save energy. The Prius looks like an electric vehicle, and that's why people buy a Prius.

greg Westphal design purpose

Deb: That’s a very human-centric way of thinking about design.

Greg: A hundred percent. Design is entirely based on the end-user. The person buying a Ferrari is probably not the Prius target audience.

The Future of Design

Deb: What about the convergence of technology and people? How might a designer think about something like a kitchen or appliance from a human-centric perspective, instead of a technology-centric perspective?

Greg: That’s a good question. I think kitchens are probably the most designed room in a house. A large number of ergonomics and human ideas are built into the kitchen. That fact can get lost because there’s so much focus on smart kitchen technology these days. Your fridge will talk to your oven, which will talk to your iPhone, and they'll all sync up with smart screens that broadcast information. Let’s be real. There's no apparent reason for a microphone in the fridge.

What is getting lost is the design. We need to go back to the basic questions. What are you doing with the kitchen or the appliance? Sometimes we are so fascinated by computers and what they can do that we default to trying to answer a desire for better design by putting a more powerful computer in something. That way of thinking stagnates actual design or material design, and functional design.

The biggest kitchen upgrade in the past 20 or 30 years has nothing to do with a computer. It’s the rubberized grip like Good Grips. If the rubber gets wet, a person can still grip the tool comfortably, safe and ergonomically. Plus, it’s affordable. And that’s why it’s on all of our kitchen stuff.

When you walk it back, you can see the human-centric constraints. Why does a fridge exist in the kitchen? To preserve food. Before the fridge, we had ice boxes. What about a computer helps the fridge preserve food? By adding sensors we can detect or predict the rate of decay of certain items based on gas from rotting fruits and vegetables. A hundred years ago the constraint was the cost of preservation. Today, that constraint is more an environmental concern.

In the future, we might see refrigerators designed into packaged items, or glass containers that store certain foods in certain ways, or some sort of recycling component that would compost food as it starts rotting. But there’s a trade-off. If you’re designing a refrigerator that uses technology to satisfy an environmental constraint, you have to ask how an eight-foot-tall, double-door fridge with freezing capacities and a screen that could broadcast an NFL game is satisfying the intent. Something that consumes more metal, more plastic, and more energy than its basic form is going against its design purpose.

Deb: I’m thinking every company needs to have designers on their teams.

Greg: Every company should probably have a designer to apply its design principles. When Jony Ive joined Apple, a lot of other tech companies decided they needed an industrial designer on their team too, and hired people to try to chase what Ives was doing. There was spinning of wheels trying to duplicate what one other person was doing.

But the reality is that if you give the same brief to ten different designers, you will get ten different solutions so long as you give them enough time. However, the first solution from all ten designers will look extremely similar. But as you give them time to iterate and really sink their teeth into the effort, they're going to bring their own perspective.

Raymond Loewy is probably my all-time idol because he worked on Lucky Strike cigarette packaging. Then he worked on the Studebaker Avanti and on NASA’s Skylab. He had an amazing breadth and always brought his own ideas. I would like to see design become more abstracted again and regain cross-pollination across design fields.

Connecting Design to Humanity

Deb: What is your hope for the future?

Greg:  People in Poland should have different solutions from people in Singapore because their cultures are distinct. I really hope that over the next a hundred years, there's more of a focus on individual communities and geographic locations getting to have their own products and solutions.

"I hope we can deglobalize in such a way we can still take the benefits of the globalization that happened in the past hundred years, but we start designing for culture again."

- Greg Westphal

If, as Greg described, design is a process by which one takes a given set of constraints and produces a solution, it is worth considering the future constraints we should consider. We know technology is changing how we live, work, and engage with one another. In almost every case, it’s designed for those purposes. But we can’t forget that while we might use these things as resources, we still are driven by human expectations, hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. Even more than new technologies that equip us to do more as they become more sophisticated, these human-centric constraints must remain at the center of all design philosophies.

I wonder what new opportunities for variation, creativity, and uniqueness will emerge from the convergences of technology and people.  Will technology allow us to more easily express our individualism through design? If so, what an exciting future that could be.