Inside the Series: California By Design

On any day of the week in Silicon Valley, countless people are developing a new product, idea or experience to launch into the market. The industrial design world has no shortage of contenders. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show, for example, the exhibition halls are packed with the latest innovations—many of which vow to disrupt an industry or make life more convenient and exciting.

Well for the first time, you can go inside the process of creating that next big idea. In the upcoming California by Design: Innovations series, some of California’s top designers and entrepreneurs will pit their projects against each other for a shot at the coveted title “Innovation of the Year.”

The show has selected a range of revolutionary innovations to spotlight—from household devices to transportation and space exploration technologies. The series kicks off with 33 innovations, and over the course of six episodes, an esteemed judging panel will whittle this number down to one.

California by Design is all about Californian innovation, ingenuity and design excellence. It’s about inspiration, disruption and changing the game.

– Mike Chapman, Executive Producer

Executive Producer Mike Chapman first launched the show’s concept in 2017 as the highly acclaimed Australia By Design series and decided to bring the down under hit to the US. Naturally, his first stop was California. Chapman explained, “California by Design is all about Californian innovation, ingenuity and design excellence. It’s about inspiration, disruption and changing the game.”

Whipsaw CEO Dan Harden served as an international guest judge for the Australian series. He found himself with a more substantial role, however, for this California offshoot where he wore both judge and presenter hats throughout five episodes. I recently sat down with the two of them to get the inside scoop on this groundbreaking innovation competition series.

Q&A with Mike Chapman and Dan Harden

Can you take us through how the series was conceptualized?

Chapman: So four years ago in Australia, I was speaking to an architect about how there needed to be a more intelligent discussion around design. We ended up putting an architecture version of the show out there, and our motto became refine, refine, refine until we arrived at the format we have today: a design discussion in front of the general population.

It’s not black turtleneck to black turtleneck talking about design. We’re using proper design people, such as Dan, with expertise in launching great projects into the market. That won us a lot of favors within the design community who understood they needed a bigger voice in the world. When you ask the guy sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game what’s good about design, he just might have an opinion after watching our series.

When you ask the guy sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game what’s good about design, he just might have an opinion after watching our series.

– Mike Chapman

This began as an Australian design competition series. What compelled you to adjust it for an American audience?

Harden: When I met Mike in Sydney, one of the first things we talked about was how the concept would work in California.

Chapman: Dan just kept saying, “Oh my god, Californians would love this. You have jeopardy, judging, and the hook of wondering which project will move onto the next level.” Dan was a big shot designer from Silicon Valley, and when he served as a judge for the Australia series, it went super well. It was also just really exciting for us to have a guest star. Those early talks with Dan definitely gave me the confidence to bring the series to California.

It also felt very natural to progress with the Australian format that was already working. Australia was our incubation space, if you will, for this type of design show. In the end, we didn’t worry about the turtlenecks, because we’re trying to attract the non-turtlenecks and keep them hooked.

Which innovation in the California series left the biggest impression on you?

Harden: I presented five of the California By Design stories. Admittedly, the one I thought wouldn’t be very exciting was a virtual reality experience because I don’t really know that field. But when we flew down to Inner City Arts school in Los Angeles to check it out, I became really inspired by how the kids used virtual reality as an interactive thinking tool.

I’d never seen that type of enthusiasm from middle school students before. It really took me by surprise that the project I was initially the least passionate about was the one that actually turned out to be the most thrilling.

Chapman: Another of our projects, The Baby Barista, has a really warm human story about a mother who was looking for a faster and more convenient way to get bottles prepared at the perfect temperature.

Her elevator pitch was: I want to make up a baby bottle, one-handed, in 30 seconds. She went to an industrial designer and found the solution. Every new parent will be inspired by this.

Harden: I remember Mike had only one take left when we were wrapping up that segment. The camera was literally one foot from my face, and I knew the baby sitting behind me was about to burst out crying, so we quickly scrambled to complete the take. Right on cue, the moment Mike yelled cut, the baby started screaming.

It really took me by surprise that the project I was initially the least passionate about was the one that actually turned out to be the most thrilling.

– Dan Harden

What would you say was the most ambitious project in the series?

Chapman: There was a cool company that developed a lander intended to travel to one of Jupiter’s moons. One of the primary goals of space travel is to achieve a truly lightweight exploratory craft. Their mission will be to determine if any water can be found under an ice crust, because where there’s water there could be life.

Harden: All the things that designers normally worry about were irrelevant in this project. Some of this was 3D modeling; some was manufactured.

Lifting up weights and carrying them to Jupiter’s moons has serious constraints. Usually, something like this requires more stuff, but this project was all about reductionism. The result almost looks like a root system. There’s not a straight line on it. It was really exciting to walk around in it.

Mike, how was it working with Dan on your show?

Chapman: Dan’s got an enormous design brain. I respect him tremendously and can see others do as well in California, which is arguably the design center of the world. It was refreshing to work with someone so respected but without the ego. Dan really understands how important it is to raise the design conversation.

Did any of the concepts presented in this competition reflect what’s to come in this next decade of design?

Harden: One of the notions presented was that of regenerative design, which we’ve called “autocreation” for this past decade. We had a good discussion about this among the judges. Some of us were worried; others were excited.

It’s a harbinger of things to come where the computer isn’t designing for you but providing alternative suggestions that may lead you in different directions. It’s artificial intelligence, but if you augment it, it becomes your intelligence as the creator.

Another thing we talked about was an entirely new type of airplane service. That could be something to look out for this decade.

Chapman: The airplane model reflects upgrades to service design. The experience presented had the feeling of a private service intended for the general population. Within 15 minutes of stepping out of your car, you’re on the plane.

Harden: I also think the show identified the blurred line between design and engineering. We think about design as an artifact or gadget—form follows function—but it’s starting to change and become polymorphic. Now it’s more of a verb. It’s a way of thinking of an experience—like the school using a software-learning platform to change a process, or like the project alleviating the pain points we all have when we travel.

These things all make a contribution to the quality of our lives. This show accurately captures the narrative of where we are today.

This show accurately captures the narrative of where we are today.

– Dan Harden

What were the main lessons you learned (or that were reinforced to you) through this process about design?

Harden: I’ve always had a very user-centric approach to design. If I keep focused on people’s experiences and combine those with art, I start putting configurations together that solves problems through psychological insights. That’s the magic soup for me.

This show definitely gives people a little more understanding of what this world is all about. It provides enlightenment to viewers, which goes to my philosophy of giving back to people.

Chapman: We wanted to have an educational institution as one of our partners because our viewers include a lot of moms and dads, so we got the Academy of Art involved. This show makes industrial design a possible career path for all the kids watching along with their parents.

The design profession is also currently out of balance between men and women, so we additionally wanted to raise visibility for girls contemplating this industry.

Dan, what was your favorite moment on set?

Harden: I’ve been doing design every day for 35 years. When I was working with Mike, it was interesting to hear him say, “My audience won’t care about that.” For me to force myself to take what I do and simplify it down into concise soundbytes…that was an interesting challenge.

Design has to be sticky. The same way Mike looks at a TV segment and knows right away what will work and what won’t. This whole experience taught me that, sometimes, you have to throw out what you know.