Two Kiwi designers are playing on the big stage in the US. Words: Frank Nelson
The job title of “Disrupter” on Josh Handy’s business card is perhaps the first indication of the edgy, slightly irreverent nature of some companies – and some designers – in California.
“It’s about having a disruptive product,” explains Handy, a New Zealand industrial designer now firmly established on the West Coast of the United States. “You can’t afford to blend in or offer the same experience as anyone else.”
Handy and his wife, Sally Clarke, a graphic designer who’s also a Kiwi, both work for Method Products, a young San Francisco company offering around 100 environmentally friendly household cleaning
and personal-care products. That’s becoming an increasingly crowded field, as almost every manufacturer now trumpets a long list of “green” credentials. Add acres of supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of sustainable, environmentally responsible cleaning products, and Method would seem to have its work cut out.
But the company, with just under 100 staff, a base near Chicago and a small office in London, is doing remarkably well, thanks partly to what Clarke calls “a culture of being unconventional” – an approach that worked well for the likes of Google and Yahoo.
“The basic theory is that if you follow conventional practices you get conventional results,” says Handy, who makes it clear that little about this company, from its product formulas to the containers they come in, is conventional.
That approach starts at the top. Owners Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, both in their thirties, are not above a little humourous hyperbole, describing their all-natural products as “gentler than a thousand puppy licks” and “able to detox tall homes in a single afternoon”.
The company has also recruited a small army of about 20,000 advocates – of whom roughly 2500 are what Handy describes as “hardcore” – who march under the quirky banner “People against dirty”, writing letters, blogging and generally test-driving and promoting Method’s products.
Besides being good for the planet, the company’s aim is to make its products beautiful to look at. “Cleaning products often spend a lot of time out on counters and are highly visible,” says Handy.
Since we have to live with these products, mostly bottles, why make them ugly, with screaming graphics, he asks, when they can be sympathetic to the home, decorative… and different.
One of Handy’s contributions in the battle to stand out is Lil Bowl Blu, a toilet-bowl cleaner deliberately designed differently from the ubiquitous toilet ducks cluttering millions of bathrooms.
Incidentally, Lil Bowl Blu is so green and friendly it’s safe enough to drink. According to Handy, company co-founder Ryan has been known to down shots of the toilet cleaner just to show visiting journalists what wholesome ingredients Method uses!
Part of Method’s philosophy is to promote the free flow of information, ideas and communication inside the company, and one result of that, says Clarke, is a greater role for designers who are involved at every stage. She says in a traditional manufacturing company, design consultancies are often brought in only at the end of the process, perhaps for input on something like the label. But at Method, she and Handy are part of the decision-making process right through from product development. For Handy, the main difference between working in the US and New Zealand is the sheer size of the market. “You can do things here at a scale you can’t imagine in New Zealand or Australia,” he says.
“New Zealand has some great [design] companies but the scope is so limited. This is the market for design work. You can be really influential as a designer here… you just have this huge stage to play on.”
That’s crucial for an industrial designer like Handy, who sees America’s vast marketplace as vital to his work. “I look at my career in terms of how effective I’m being in changing behaviours,” he says. “We’re designers, not artists. We need solutions that provoke social change.”
The change Handy and Clarke, parents of two young boys, are currently looking for is to get toxic chemicals out of people’s homes. “Design is a Trojan horse for that… it’s an issue you can be passionate about,” he says.
Handy, who’s 40, and Clarke, 39, took the long route from Auckland to San Francisco, stretching the trip to a dozen years with significant stops along the way to work as designers
in London, New York and Sydney. Born in Wellington, Handy attended Auckland Grammar School and earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Auckland University before spending 18 months completing a masters in industrial design in Sydney.
Meanwhile, Clarke, who was born in London and grew up in Auckland, nailed down a three-year graphic design degree at the then Auckland Institute of Technology before joining Curious design consultancy to work on branding and packaging.
Handy returned to Auckland, developing bench-top kitchen and cooking appliances at Robinson Industries, but after three years he and Clarke headed to England to test their design skills in London.
There, Clarke worked in branding and packaging for major supermarkets and companies such as Nestlé and Cow and Gate, while Handy joined Frazer Designers, focusing on handheld, high-tech communications devices.
Three years later the couple headed for New York where Clarke was design director with Manhattan-based Cornerstone Strategic Branding, leading a team whose portfolio of food and beauty products included household names such as Perrier, L’Oréal and Nestlé.
Handy, who initially led design engineering at Deskey, embarked on an MBA in design management through the University of Westminster, in London, adding a business perspective to his proven technical and aesthetic design skills.
Then in late 2000, he moved to the studio of legendary global designer Karim Rashid where, over the next three years, he worked on a number of award-winning projects, including one for a client called Method Products. The birth of their first son and lingering memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted Handy and Clarke to leave New York, make a 2003 Christmas trip back to New Zealand, then head for Australia. Rashid says he was sorry to see Handy go.
“What ultimately makes a great designer is a perfect balance of left and right brain. If you are too right brain, you are too artistic, subjective and in turn will never get work to the marketplace; if you are too left brain then inevitably you can do competent, objective but very uncreative industrial design.
“Josh is a nice balance of both and that’s what makes him a great designer that I was sorry to lose. But he went on to work with one of my clients and is continuing to shape this world into a more beautiful, better place.”
Settling in Sydney, Handy joined Housewares International (HWI), a publicly-traded consumer goods wholesaler supplying markets in New Zealand, Hong Kong, the US and Canada. Although the company was putting out about 2000 new products a year and winning design awards, everything was on a frustratingly smaller scale than Handy had grown used to in New York. So after two years, he and Clarke were once more eyeing the Big Apple.
But meanwhile, Handy had again crossed paths with Method Products, meeting Eric Ryan at a Chicago trade show, and when Method offered him a job in early 2006, the couple chose San Francisco over New York. By then the pair had a lot of design industry experience and credibility, so it was no surprise that within a year Clarke, who initially freelanced at Method, was offered a full-time position heading packaging and graphic design.
“New Zealanders in London and the States have a great reputation,” says Handy, who thinks a certain instinct for design is almost part of the Kiwi character.
“Growing up, they are always looking outwards at other countries and cultures, and are very aware globally. They are particularly attuned to trends and savvy about what’s going on.
“I still think perhaps New Zealand designers should travel the world as much as possible but really New Zealand is pretty progressive.”
- From ProDesign 105 with additional images.