July 5, 2007
Design as Business Fodder
Industrial designer Robert Brunner talks about his entrepreneurial career decisions and his post-Pentagram future.
Robert Brunner has built one of the most enviable resumes among American industrial designers working today. In 1984, Brunner co-founded Lunar Design only three years after earning a B.S. from San Jose University. Five years later he left his creation to join Apple as director of industrial design. While Brunner was working on the Powerbook series, “the infamous Newton” as he calls it, and the Macintosh II line at Apple, Lunar’s star rose, readying Hewlett Packard for its 1995 launch and becoming a proving ground for future design stars like Yves Béhar. Then, in 1996, with the 20th-anniversary Mac as his swan song, Brunner left Apple to join the San Francisco office of Pentagram as partner.
In early April, Brunner announced that he would be stepping down from Pentagram to start his own firm once again. When it opens in July, Ammunition will include all 12 members of his Pentagram studio and have offices in San Francisco and Padova, Italy. Brunner says that his attention will be focused not only on consumer products, but also on designs that, like the iPod, will radically alter the marketplace.
We asked Brunner to discuss his prejudice against staying put, what it’s like to conceive a decade of products in a firm better known as a graphic-design powerhouse, and just how he envisions sending shockwaves across the marketplace. His responses suggest that, with three dream jobs already in his back pocket, the best is still yet to come.
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Your employment history suggests that you prepare businesses for their leap into widespread notoriety.
I like setting things up and building things, and then it gets to a point that it’s not continuing to grow and evolve. That’s when I start looking for something else to do. We got Lunar up and running it had a good reputation and growing staff, and then Apple came along. I was young enough to make a big mistake, I thought, and it seemed like an obvious opportunity to really do something.
At Apple I was building a design organization because at that point the company really didn’t have it. It relied on outside consultants, and it had a small crew of people managing products. The whole premise of going there was that I wasn’t interested in watching people do things, I wanted to do things. So over five years we really developed a team and facility and a process and philosophy.
And you leave before you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. To put it another way, did you make Jonathan Ive possible?
It wouldn’t be right to take credit for their work. The seeds for the iMac were starting to happen, sure, but I guess what I really can take credit for is that we created this idea that the design group really owned something—that it was our responsibility to continually develop the Apple brand and make it better. We were acutely aware that it was about what people saw and touched, and that when it was time to move on, we changed.
When I left Apple it was a really dark time, I was glad to get the hell out of there. After Steve Jobs came back, the group started to really perform. Jonathan will be the first to admit that he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without Jobs. Having the support of the CEO is a huge asset. I feel some jealousy because as a consultant I’m constantly fighting with people to push them to do good stuff.
And what was the scenario at Pentagram?
Every time I start making a big change, I reach a point where I want to change and reinvent. The question becomes, Can I do that here or go somewhere else? At Lunar there was the Apple opportunity. At Apple in 1996, the business was shit and the management of the company had changed and it wasn’t much fun. Now I feel like I have taken my form of product design as far as I could go in Pentagram and I want to do something different.
So you’re most enduring design project is yourself. We’re approaching Robert version 4.0.
I’m one of those people who are never happy with their work. There is stuff that I’ve done that I like, but it should be doing more, it should be better. I think that’s what drives a lot of designers. Also, I’m a project junkie. Finding the problem, architecting the solution, and implementing it, is what I do. Then it’s time to set up a new situation. Since I’ve decided to make this change from Pentagram, I’ve been more energized than I’ve been in five years. It’s a new project, a new big project.
Are you suggesting that you’ve been less than energized at Pentagram?
No, it’s the energy I get from starting another big project. I don’t want to suggest that something is wrong there, which is not true. What I want to do now I can’t really do within Pentagram. I need a new structure to do it. The thing about Pentagram that’s really amazing is that the partnership supports you as an individual. I can’t say people are happy about what I decided to do because there are business consequences. But the culture of the company is that you own your business and clients. What I’ve built is mine and if I want to do something else, I get support to figure it out. I don’t think there’s a problem saying that.
If Pentagram is so entrepreneurial—you basically have a self-contained studio in an office that’s marked Pentagram—why can’t you just stay?
This is about personal change and the opportunities out there. On the Pentagram side, it is a multidisciplinary company, but the momentum of the company is squarely around graphic design. My business is healthy but dwarfed by the graphic side. I would like Ammunition to continue to be about brand but with the product front and center.
Secondly, I’m seeing product design change radically. It continues to grow in its strategic position with business, and there are more and more opportunities for designers to work in true business partnerships—to get away from the $100-to-$250-per-hour approach and to get a percentage of a product, a business. There are challenges with fully embracing that approach at Pentagram.
Are you the first Pentagram partner to resign rather than retire?
The only thing that is close is Mervyn Kurlansky. I think he wanted to open up an office in Denmark, and the partners in London said no. So he just left. Everyone else has been either asked to leave, has died, or retired.
That actually brings up another point on the personal side. I couldn’t imagine hanging out at a single job until I’m 65. But I expect I’ll continue to work with the partners on programs. Many of them are the best at what they do.
What was your best work at Pentagram? Or, what work best intimates what you want to accomplish with Ammunition?
I tend to do two types of work. One is very much traditional product development, the other is working with companies to develop strategy. We did a core strategy for HP about four years ago which really set that company in an entirely different direction design-wise, and you can see the impact of that coming out of the company today on a real consistent basis. On the traditional side, the best work I’ve done in the last five years is definitely the Fuego barbecue. And that circles back to why I’m doing this: I’m also a partner in that company. I find that when you have that connection to the business, really an ownership of where it’s going, you not only put more into it, you also have more control over it. That barbecue has been completely driven by design and my and my team’s ideas. And then we worked it into a new business. It’s a great object and it’s just taking off.
In another recent project, I’ve been doing audio products in partnership with a fairly well-known hip-hop producer in L.A. which are coming out in early summer. It’s the same kind of model as Fuego-iIt’s not a product development company, it’s a record company, and in both of those cases I’m helping drive the business and the design proposition together. I really want to be in that position where you’re not just hired to come and do something and move on, but you’re really integrated into the business and you use your talents and abilities to make it successful.
For those of us who didn’t see the Discovery channel reality show, can you provide a synopsis of the Fuego experience?
When I see the thing I’m completely embarrassed, it seems contrived and silly to me, but people enjoy it because it tends to explain the design process really well. A production company wanted to do a show on product design, but they agreed that the typical lead times were too long. So instead, we dreamed up our own project, designing the ultimate barbecue, and we asked Rob Forbes to play the client. We went through a five-week process of coming up with an idea, developing it, and building a working prototype. It turned out really well and I tried to find someone to manufacture it, but no one got it. So through a friend, we decided to make it our own. It’s kept me busy these last couple of years, and now we’re shipping our fourth container.
Why didn’t the existing manufacturers get it?
It’s not a traditional thing. When you look at outdoor cooking, of course it’s about the cooking but it’s as much about the socializing and the performance of being a cook in the middle of your guests. And that’s where the whole idea of the island came from. What I always say about traditional big-lid barbecues is that it’s bad feng shui since you’re placed to the side with your back to everybody. We decided to put the Fuego in the middle and make it a part of the experience—but then it can’t have a lid and you can’t roast a goat in it. Manufacturers said it didn’t have the same features and aesthetic as their existing series.
So will Ammunition only focus on Fuego-like products that disrupt the market?
That would be great and a lot of fun, but those things don’t come around everyday. People say they want differentiation, but mostly that means new features, a different appearance. When you look at the really successful stuff, it always moves away from everybody else and takes a risk. You can mitigate that risk by basing it on what people really like. If you really look at what people do with a barbecue, for example, it can propel you in a new direction. I’m not so full of myself to think that that’s the only thing we’re going to do but you can use that approach for things big and small. If you spend too much time looking around at everybody else and trying to figure out what micro thing you can make better, you’re just going to fall in with the pack.
Isn’t this ethnographic approach standard procedure for designers nowadays?
It’s not rocket science. But you have to work with people to get them to understand that. A lot of people talk about market disruption in the context of marketing or business models, but a lot of people still don’t talk about how you use design to do that. I haven’t invented a kind of design that changes the direction of things, but I’ve developed it as a focus to move in a company in a better direction.
What about the name Ammunition?
I was playing around with a lot of names. I like it because there’s an obvious meaning: fodder for business. The way we’re going to really present it, though, is ammunition for life, the stuff to live. I want to brand it in a much softer context.
Would you say that Ammunition will combine the entrepreneurship of Lunar, the workplace mentality of Apple, and the total-design awareness of Pentagram?
I think that’s probably true. At Lunar I learned a lot about the entrepreneurial side of business. At Apple I learned a lot about how to use design strategically and really use it within a culture of an organization. And at Pentagram what I learned is really how brands are constructed and created and communicated, and what an experience is all about: When you’re working with other people who are designing a program for a bank, not just the logo but the buildings and the interiors and everything else, you start to realize how this idea of a tone of voice in the experience works, and how people see it.
Is Ammunition your last job?
No, I doubt it. But you never know where it will go. The way I’m setting it up it could be much easier to morph and change.