The Power of Good Design: Dan Harden's Journey to Creating Timeless and Impactful Products

This article was written by Pavlos Amperiadis and originally published in Global Design News on February 23, 2022.

March 4, 2022

A Remarkable Journey in the World of Design

Dan Harden is the founder, CEO, and of course principal designer of Whipsaw, a highly acclaimed design firm in San Jose and San Francisco, California. Whipsaw designs diverse products for companies around the world including Brita, Cisco, Ford, GE, Google, Haier, Intel, Leitz, Merck, Motorola, Nike, Olympus, Samsung, Sony, TP-Link, Uber, and many exciting start-ups including Tonal, Ekso Bionics, Harry’s, Peloton, and Tile.

Dan is the highly active creative force behind Whipsaw, where he leads the strategic and conceptual direction of most client accounts. His passion and experience combined with his personal philosophies about art, culture, psychology, and technology permeate the work and the brand. He has created many hit products during his prolific career, including the Google Chromecast, Nest cameras, Brita water pitchers, Dell computers, Tonal strength training system, Cisco Telepresence, Livescribe smartpens, Leapfrog LeapPads, Tile trackers, TP-Link networking devices, Braun healthcare products, Motorola cell phones, Sony audio, Logitech mice, and literally hundreds more.

Dan has won over 300 design awards in his career. Fast Company magazine selected Dan as one of the 100 Most Creative People and called him “design’s secret weapon.” Dan’s views and work have been featured in Abitare, Axis, Business Week, CNN, Domus, Form, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, Wired, and several design books. Dan is a host and judge on the TV show “California by Design” and “America by Design.”

Prior to founding Whipsaw in 1999, Dan was VP and President of frogdesign where he created many notable products, working with luminaries including Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Rupert Murdoch. Before joining frog in 1989, he was a lead designer at Henry Dreyfuss Associates and an intern alongside design master George Nelson. Dan is an alumnus of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, and Art.

Good design is creating “an optimal solution for the given subject” where excellence permeates every single aspect of a product or experience.

GDN: Throughout your long and successful career, you have designed hundreds of successful products ranging from baby bottles to supercomputers. Where did it all start?

Dan Harden:  I think it all started with an insatiable curiosity about how things worked and realizing that I had a gift of seeing. As a kid, I would frequently draw, paint, and take appliances and motors apart. I built dangerous things from scratch like go-carts, rockets, and bombs (my neighborhood in Ohio was quite noisy because of me). Through all that crazy teenage experimentation, my parents always encouraged my creative meanderings. I believe good parenting is where innovation starts. During design school, I started to watch people interact with everyday things which made me ponder about how I could make those interactions better.

Starting out, and for that matter during your whole life, it’s important to explore and follow what inspires you. For me, it was initially fine art, especially abstract painters like Mark Rothko who communicated feelings without using literal subject matter. I paint almost every week with that same goal, and it allows me to access a different side of myself. Designing technology requires a similar abstraction and representation of an invisible function to create a feeling. I also found inspiration and beauty in the classic industrial “machine aesthetic” which is almost pure function. I loved how Mies Van Der Rohe and Dieter Rams nailed that functional expression. Emotional Italian design that made you feel alive also inspired me, especially when I saw Olivetti products designed by Mario Bellini and Ettore Sottsass.

Creative ambition, coupled with an inspirational base that still motivates me to this day, is how I started my career. I worked with design leaders like George Nelson, Deane Richardson, and Hartmut Esslinger, all of whom opened mind doors for me. At the time I didn’t exactly have a grand plan other than to one day start my own firm. I just trusted my gut and went with the opportunities that matched my newly found design values. The career-building details and progression work themselves out along the way.

The challenges never stop, but that’s partly why I love my job. Challenge and Design are natural partners.

GDN: You are the founder, CEO, and principal designer of Whipsaw – a highly acclaimed design firm with studios in San Francisco and San Jose, California. What were the challenges you faced entering the design world, and while making your way to the top?

Dan Harden: My first challenge as a young designer was to find a good job where I could learn and express myself as a creator, and I stubbornly only wanted to work for the firms that produced the best work. I figured if the work was awesome, so were the people behind it, and from them, I’d learn the most. I was ambitious only about design and I tended to resist all conventions. I soon realized that if my design was going to make it all the way to mass production, I’d have to broaden my skill set. I’d need to master the art of selling, writing, collaborating, strategizing processes, and learning about engineering so my design would survive the gauntlet. I also needed to learn to be patient with big bureaucratic corporations that were slow and uneducated about design.

Starting a design firm, as I did in 1999, amps up the challenges by a factor of 10. You need to build a brand ethos and company culture. You need to hire great people with talent who understand the mission. You need to lead creative agencies with a thoughtful sensitivity, while also being a strong and pragmatic business person. You need to attract good clients with your messaging and then keep them. You need to build deep knowledge and expertise across many product categories. You need a strong financial and legal team. You need to figure out how to run a company when everyone is working from home. I could go on. The challenges never stop, but that’s partly why I love my job. Challenge and Design are natural partners.

Good design sometimes goes beyond exceptional purpose, beauty, and function. It moves us as if it has a soul.

GDN: 73 of the products that you personally designed in your career were awarded a Good Design Award from Chicago Athenaeum. What are the qualities of a “Good Design” for you? And what do you consider your best work?

Dan Harden: Good design is creating “an optimal solution for the given subject” where excellence permeates every single aspect of a product or experience. It’s well made with good sustainable materials; it’s sensory-rich so it’s tactile and pleasant to look at; it deserves to exist because it solves a problem; and it’s a timeless discovery as if it should have always existed, like a grand truth. Good design sometimes goes beyond exceptional purpose, beauty, and function. It moves us as if it has a soul. When all these qualities exist in a design, it usually leads to business success, and when truly great, it causes a cultural shift.

I’ve designed a lot of products that became very successful such as the Google Chromecast, Brita water pitchers, Tile trackers, the Dell Precision line, Logitech mice, Samsung appliances, and TP-Link routers.

I consider my best work to be those projects that completely shifted the paradigm.

The Adiri baby bottle, the Nest Dropcam camera, the Tonal strength training system, the Ceribell electroencephalogram, and my recent lounge chair called Skrolla are good examples of that.

GDN: Being an award winner of Good Design 2021 with your furniture design of ARC, and numerous times before that with a long variety of successful projects, how have the awards facilitated the promotion of the firm’s design projects?

Dan Harden: By consistently winning awards year after year, our brand stays top of mind. Awards help to reveal and reinforce what we believe in as a team of designers. This in turn helps to attract new clients and new talent. For most designers, winning and being credited on a design award is a big honor since awards are an industry-sanctioned recognition of what design excellence is.

You should be creatively courageous as a designer, so I like the Chinese proverb “if the wind doesn’t blow the grass doesn’t stir”. To me, it is a perfect design maxim.

GDN: After materializing so many projects and ideas into real designs, what has changed in the way you approach the art of designing? What is your design philosophy, and how has it changed over the years?

Dan Harden: I generally practice design now the same as I did at the beginning of my career. I view design as a dynamic interplay between objects, emotions, and experiences, and my job as a designer is to optimize that interplay. That objective hasn’t changed, but of course, many other things have. The tools are way better, especially CAD and 3d printing which allows you to materialize faster and with more precision. The design process has evolved to be more strategic, thorough, and inclusive. Business has finally clued in to the power of design because it’s proven to be a strong economic stimulus. All these advancements mean that designers have more opportunities than ever, and also way more responsibility.

My personal design philosophy is mostly just a framework of beliefs around what I think good design is and how it should be practiced. For example, as a designer of mass-produced products, I sometimes approach a problem as an artist would, where I think about what emotion I want to communicate and then use just the right medium to convey it. I’m always seeking a holistic composition of sorts. Simplicity is also a theme because it’s the hardest to pull off well, but sometimes simple isn’t enough. People crave connection in design as they do in life, so sometimes you need to add a conceptual hook, like a clever detail or a surprising material, to create a bond with the end-user. That hook is usually the indispensable thing that makes the design really sing. I also think you should be creatively courageous as a designer, so I like the Chinese proverb “if the wind doesn’t blow the grass doesn’t stir.” To me, it is a perfect design maxim.

I don’t really think about design philosophy when I’m actually solving a design problem. That’s all nonverbal intuition. Solutions lurk in the subconscious, and they are informed by life experience. When the design problem has simmered in your head for a while and your creative conditions are right, the answer somehow just pops out. If I get stuck, sometimes, I’ll view a problem through a philosophical lens just to joggle my mind, but I don’t sit down and say, “Today I’m going to design something around this philosophy.” Design shouldn’t be prescriptive.

I do however think designers should establish their own philosophies, not only to push themselves but to also explain their visual craft to others who aren’t designers. A verbal narrative always works better with people who aren’t visual. If you’re trying to sell your design, use philosophy to bolster it, but remember to keep it real and genuine.

GDN: In the post-COVID era, what’s the designer’s role in your opinion? We all need to adapt to new standards, but how will the future of design be affected by such changes?

Dan Harden: Covid exposed our deepest anxieties about many things, not only about a deadly disease. It showed how divided we are as a society; it made us question how safe we really are, and it made us think about what really matters in life. It’s a wake-up call for many people who are realizing quality of life is the ultimate aspiration. This is a perfect opportunity for design to shine because the quality of life and quality of design go hand in glove. When people realize what they truly need in their lives, they always turn to quality over quantity. Their consumption patterns and priorities get reset, and the over-hyped inferior products become irrelevant. It’s a chance for designers to step up to the plate and do what they do best – craft positive change to improve life.

It’s a chance for designers to step up to the plate and do what they do best craft positive change to improve life.

After COVID, many activity processes including work, travel, education, entertainment, fitness, and shopping will need to be rethought. Process design is a natural extension of UX and service design, which industrial designers have been doing already, so we have a good start. Furthermore, thanks to the last decade’s emphasis on design thinking, which considers a user’s complete experience journey, industrial designers are prepared for this process design challenge. Process design adds new layers like time and space onto a design problem, forcing the designer to become like a conductor, tying together disparate interdependencies into a well-timed coherent whole.

The pandemic has also shown that one of the most important fields of innovation that designers should be involved with is medical equipment, wellness devices, and healthcare. Designers have been designing medical hardware and UX for many decades, but they’ll be sought after more in the post COVID era due to rising demand and new advancements in precision medicine, robotics, telehealth, AI, and more. Designers will play a major role in how this scientific progress gets channeled into good, intuitive, and thoughtful products.

GDN: Technological advancements and innovations have also created an ever-changing status quo for the design world and our society. What impact do they have on your design practice?

Dan Harden: Technological advancements have a massive impact on our practice, both in terms of the way that we work (CAD, software, control, collaboration tools, etc.) and the work product itself. Roughly 80% of our work is technology-based, whether it’s cutting-edge consumer electronics, scientific instruments, robotics, or medical equipment. We are often tasked with defining the identity of a new piece of tech from scratch, defining how it will be used, and strategizing how it will be developed and ultimately productized. Often the technology itself feels magic. We try to celebrate that magic in the actual design whenever we can, without sacrificing the end user’s ability to understand it or appreciate it. The technology is often pretty abstract, so it’s up to us to give it expression and personality. This is what makes tech design fun.

Design at its very core is a communication tool, so one way design practices can make a difference is through better messaging and storytelling of the most effective eco-solutions.

GDN: One of the major sustainability discourses is that human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. Can design practices create a more sustainable future in your opinion and how?

Dan Harden:  When you see how many of the world’s problems seem hugely insurmountable, combined with a cacophony of marketing gimmicks that flood our TVs and smartphones, it’s easy to get discouraged as a designer. Especially if you’re a fixer type that thinks, “What can I possibly do? I’m an artist and a maker.” That’s exactly the key. The thoughtfulness, compassion, and empathy that designers instinctively offer as artists and makers are precisely what the world needs more of right now. Designers have an uncanny ability to cut through the haze and offer up a totally new and unique approach to solving a problem. They are particularly good at solving individual product problems, but these skills should be broadened out to larger infrastructure level problem-solving where they can make a bigger impact. This is not just a suggestion; it’s becoming a duty.

Many sustainability problems are made worse by ignorance, untruths, or poor communication. Design at its very core is a communication tool, so one way design practices can make a difference is through better messaging and storytelling of the most effective eco-solutions. They can also encourage good purchasing decisions by showcasing a product’s sustainability features from the get-go.

Designers also need to keep the pressure on technologists and engineers to continue the conservation-minded reductionist trend we are seeing. We do this by making sure that “less being more” is a desirable trait to consumers. We make sure that sleek slim minimal stuff remains cool. We beautify simplicity. This also presents an economic incentive to get clients to do the right thing which, in turn, helps the sustainability objective.

GDN: Coming from a design professional of your level, what advice can you give to young designers at the start of their careers?

Strive constantly for excellence and don’t compromise on it. Never settle for mediocrity

Dan Harden: First, that design as a profession is not only immensely gratifying to do, but it’s also one of the best ways to change the world. Now more than ever designers are sought after, listened to, respected, and even revered for their creativity. Jump on this opportunity now. We worked hard to get the design profession to this inflection point.

Start by dropping fear and doubt. Just try new things, stretch yourself, experiment, and have fun. Keep your mind wide open so that inspiration flows to you naturally. Most of all just go for it. Don’t care what anyone thinks, especially your peers who are all trying to out-cool one another. Also, don’t rely too much on formulas, I find them limiting. Finally, strive constantly for excellence and don’t compromise on it. Never settle for mediocrity. The world has had enough of it already.

GDN: Last, what interesting current or upcoming Whipsaw projects would you like to discuss as part of this interview?

Dan Harden: At any given time at Whipsaw we run about 60 projects simultaneously. Most of them are very interesting, but at this point in my career, I am most excited about projects where you have the opportunity to really push boundaries. We recently started an initiative at Whipsaw called Whipsaw Design Labs (WDL). WDL is a design playground. It’s a place where our internal team explores concepts just for the sake of design instead of a client problem. WDL has no requirements, clients, timelines, or limits. Just pure Design spelled with a capital D. If a concept looks promising, we reveal it, develop it, and consider it for production. The ARC chair came out of WDL. Here are a few other outtakes from WDL.

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