Reid Schlegel is an industrial designer, an artist, a lecturer, and a friend of Grovemade. We recently took a few minutes to chat about his creative process, his influences, and his favorite pen.
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Tell us a little about yourself; Where are you from, where are you located now?
I’m originally from Bergen County, New Jersey, so I’ve lived very close to NYC my entire life. My father currently works in Manhattan and my mother used to as well, so NYC has always been my go-to city. I currently live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
What does an industrial designer do?
An industrial designer is a dot connector. We look holistically at the problems presented to us and develop innovative - as well as beautiful - solutions. Successful industrial designers are also great communicators. It’s our job to take our team’s ideas and make them verbally and/or visually understandable. Because of this we are able to distill complex solutions into simple solutions that everyone can understand and get behind.
Have you always had an urge to create and draw, or did it come along later in life?
As cliché as it may sound, I feel as though my whole life steered me unknowingly towards industrial design. As a kid, I always drew and painted. A lot of this comes from my parents supporting creativity at a young age, and the classic marker renders that I saw in my late grandfather’s studio. When I was a bit older, my other grandfather started giving me power tools each year for my birthday, and that was when I discovered my interest and passion for building things.
Did you ever think that you’d be sketching products rather than painting the next American Gothic?
It is funny when I look back on my fine arts work from high school and before because everything I sketched, sculpted or painted were products. I drew my shoes, guitars, my jeep… and the kicker is that they were large scale tan paper works. I never really thought I was going to be an artist professionally - it was just something that I liked to do in my free time. Industrial design (ID) gave me the outlet to use this skill in tangent with other skills to be creative on a functional as well as aesthetic level.
How did you get into industrial design?
It wasn’t until I visited Purdue University to see their mechanical engineering (ME) department that I discovered ID and realized that both of these passions could work together for a career path. The grad student who gave me the tour of the facilities asked what I was interested in. I told him that I enjoyed solving problems, sketching and making things with my hands. He grinned and asked if I would like to see the ID department. As soon as he showed me the scale yacht models that the students were making I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I changed all of my applications from ME to ID.
About how long does it take you to complete a sketch from start to finish?
Since I do my Instagram sketches after work, I never let them take more than two hours. A simple marker render can be as short as fifteen minutes, but, on average, I spend about an hour and fifteen minutes on each sketch.
Can you tell us about your process?
Process is a fuzzy topic. Like any designer I have my signature methods and tools that I use to develop my concepts and bring them to fruition. The biggest thing that I’ve learned about process is that you have to trust in yours. Design can be very nebulous and ambiguous. Because of this, it’s easy to feel like you’re spinning your wheels but going nowhere. It took me a while, but when I looked back on my career and realized that the final outcome was successful nine times out of ten, I finally had the courage to fully trust my design process and trust that it would not let me down. That being said, I continually tweak and add new skills to it because it’s a living thing, and never complete or perfect. Each new scenario requires an open mind and your process must adapt to fulfill the ask.
What’s your ideal working condition?
I need a good view, lots of light, a handful of team members whose abilities I deeply trust in, a good espresso in the morning, and a good beer in the evening to do my best work.
What’s your ideal work setup?
Ideally, having all of the tools that you need to express your design intent. There’s no replacement for a well outfitted shop where you can prototype and bring all of your ideas to life. So much is learned from physically holding your concepts and not just seeing them on paper or a computer screen. Additionally, having a fast computer with a large Cintiq is a must. It also goes without saying but I need a good set of Copic Markers, the right pens, and an unending stack of paper at all times.
Do you have a favorite Grovemade product?
Do you listen to music while working? If so, what do you listen to?
I do, but the type varies based on the task at hand. If I’m generating concepts, I usually have instrumental music on in the background that I can tap my feet to (I have always wanted to be a drummer). However, if I’m doing CAD (computer-assisted design), I can zone out and listen to music with lyrics, since I don’t need as much deep focus.
Which artists/thinkers/makers of the past have had the greatest influence on you?
I know that I should have a better answer for this question but I don’t follow the art world as much as I want to. Of course I have the stereotypical people like Raymond Loewy, Naoto Fukasawa, Dieter Rams, or The Eamses... but it’s a topic I want to devote more of my free time to in the future.
Which current artists/thinkers/makers have the greatest influence on you now?
What do you do to stay sharp?
I try not to say no to many opportunities. This keeps my mind going and has made me a pretty good multitasker. I also always have at least one book that I’m reading, and do my best to check out the new museum and gallery exhibits around NYC. Most of my friends are designers, architects, or writers, so healthy conversation over a few beers is also a great way to stay sharp.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love that we get to literally sit and think about the future all day, and then express it in creative ways. Working at a place like frog is great because they push you to try new ways to represent your ideas. It makes you continually improve as a designer. The international travel doesn’t hurt either.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being an industrial designer?
For me, getting over ambiguity was the hardest challenge. I thought I was going to be a mechanical engineer as a teenager, so I was ready for a career that had many more black and white, right or wrong answers. Design rarely has this since it’s so subjective. It still gives me the occasional sleepless night, but I now appreciate how much freedom you have as a designer, and that ambiguity is a blank check and not a prison cell.
What kind of equipment do you use?
What skills or training does one need? Do you need an aptitude for art, or can what you do be learned?
Art is like any muscle-based skill: the mechanics can be learned and perfected. The part that takes much more time is developing an eye for design. Having a gut intuition on what is right and wrong takes time and isn’t always explainable. Being a skilled artist is irrelevant if the things you draw are bad ideas, unattractive, or irrelevant. To be an industrial designer you don’t have to be an amazing artist. However, to be successful you have to have a set of skills that allow you to easily communicate your ideas to others, especially non-designers. This can be model making, public speaking, CAD rendering, collages… All that matters is you can get your ideas out there in a way that people can and will want to see them.
Beyond the 9 to 5, you also teach. Can you share why you make the time for that; why it’s important to you?
Teaching is equally as valuable for the students as it is for me. Students still have unbridled enthusiasm about design and come up with crazy ideas since they haven’t had to work with the inevitable difficult client yet. It’s refreshing to see design from this perspective, and makes me energized to go back and do great work for frog. The questions that they ask also help me to reflect on my own path and process and see where I can be more efficient and improve my skills. If you can teach someone else a skill you have to know it backwards and forwards, which makes you stronger in the process. Additionally, I know how stressful it is finding your first job - especially for schools that are located outside of major city centers. I take time to work with students to help them focus on the right skills and help raise their standard of work that future industrial designers will produce. I believe this will result in more talented, thoughtful, and innovative designers who will go on to tackle the world’s major problems.
How do you balance the need for creative expression with design work and deadlines?
There is always room for creative expression when working with clients, though it may not be as much as you’d like. I like the challenge of balancing a client’s needs with my personal perspective on design. It teaches you that your opinion isn’t always the most important one, and you need to be a good listener as much as a good designer to do successful work. I also do a lot of my own work in my free time to let my creative juices out as I see fit on my own terms.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
My professor Ed Dorsa told me before presenting for the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) Southern District Student Merit Award (which I won) that “there is no need to be nervous, no one knows your work as well as you do, so be confident in your work because if you are not no one else will be.”
What advice do you have for the folks just starting out?
Always be hungry. It is imperative to grow your skills and experiences early in your career. I’ve always had the philosophy that you make your own opportunities. Design is very competitive, and if you don’t actively make yourself better and seek out new challenges you won’t get as far as you’d like to.
Read any good books lately?
Do you have a lucky pencil?
Ha ha! Not a lucky pencil, but I always have a Pentel Flair and Pentel Hybrid Technical .05 handy.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually taking a breather from side projects currently. I just finished a big social media campaign for Qualcomm and had a personal bioluminescent terrarium project featured in NYC design week. I don’t really know how to take a break, as I will pick up a new freelance or personal project soon.
What comes next?
I’ll let you know when I figure it out.