We had the great pleasure of talking to Barton Smith an industrial/user-interface designer at QPC which are developing the Ouidoo platform, an exciting new mobile platform which utilises technologies like augmented reality among others. Barton explains his journey from humble Monash University in Melbourne Australia to one of the most innovative open platforms in the mobile market competing with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, HP and Nokia. To find out more information about Barton be sure to check out his website at: http://www.behance.net/bartonsmith
Hey Barton welcome to Embody 3D! I have had the pleasure of getting to meet you in a time of great excitement and buzz in your design career. So please tell me where you’re working at the moment and your role at the company?
Hey thanks for having me. Yes it’s been a crazy year for sure. I moved to San Francisco in March to hunt down a new job and it all (coincidently) went from there.
After a bunch of generic “sorry, you’re not the right fit” emails, non-replies and a 5 week pit stop in a San Diego surf town, I started working for a Shanghai startup company called QPC. They began developing AR software for the iPhone and Android in ‘09, but soon discovered they suck. No not really, they are great, but we needed a more powerful device and tailored hardware to realize our vision. I was hired to develop the UI for this new device, which stems from my Locus OS concept. I am now also developing the Industrial Design for our products.
What are the opportunities like in America for Industrial Designers/Interaction Designers especially in the San Francisco Bay Area which is of course home to Silicon Valley. Is it really the land of opportunities or is this only for software engineers?
Although the market is slowly moving East-ward, the Bay Area continues to be one of the liveliest hubs for product design and certainly web startups, which is pretty obvious within days of being there. It can actually get predictably boring when everyone you meet is a designer or entrepreneur—which just demonstrates how common it is. Conversations can feel pretty repetitive, but you miss them as soon as you leave.
So yes, there is certainly more opportunity, but you are competing with far more people, both American and international. Still I was lucky enough to get calls from Apple, Facebook, Yahoo! and others which just wouldn’t have happened had I not been in San Francisco. (OK I lie, Facebook called me when I was still in Australia but the rest all happened from almost the second I changed my profiles’ location to SF).
What made you decide to go to America and pursue your design dreams? Was it risky? Was it easy or difficult? Did you have any support networks or opportunities there before you left Australia?
I always had the plan to try out America at some stage because—with no offence to anyone—working in Australia never seemed like it would give me the opportunity to put a dent in the universe. But moving only became a reality when I realized my opportunity was quickly closing (that sounds like the plot of a terrible soap-drama). Mr. Howard was nice enough to organize a deal with Bush that allows Australian students and recent graduates to live, travel and work in America for 12 months on a J1 Visa. If I was to use it, it had to be within a year of graduating, so in November (2008) I decided I would take the gamble and saved up to leave by March. The only risk was losing the cost of a plane ticket and perhaps damaging my ego. The worst that could have happened was I wouldn’t get a job and had to come home. Not so bad.
I had briefly lived in California a few years ago so it was all familiar, but even the first time it wasn’t really that hard; the Visa sponsors hold your hand if you need them to. And they have soft hands which is a bonus. I left with no job or interviews lined up and didn’t know anyone in SF, but I did have the security of seemingly continuous freelance work to keep me out of the soup kitchens. I met some pretty cool people in the hostels the first few weeks.
Now in hindsight, I fully realize how Australia’s geographic isolation continues to impede our global awareness—which kinda proves my first point and is something I hope to see change. I left feeling pretty confident with the quality of my folio but, in relation to the last question, I soon discovered that the opportunities in America are strongest through their education. It is a requirement in pretty much every ID course that students have between 1-5 internships (more often 5 than 1), which are undertaken over the summer break. And many of these are with some of the world’s best studios such as IDEO, Frog, Fuseproject etc. whose designers lecture at the colleges and often pluck their own students. This is a decent handicap for Australian universities and consequently puts graduates at a huge disadvantage when sourcing work in the US. So my advice there would be to try to get a year experience in industry before heading over.
Throughout your portfolio there is a lot of interaction design or as I like to say experience design. Was this something that you were always interested in?
I originally thought I wanted to be a graphic designer, which still occupies a large part of my life, and I guess in some ways interaction design (well to be nominally correct: interface design) is at the intersection of industrial and graphic design. From second year at uni I tried to incorporate a digital interface into every project as I have always been interested in the whole system, and with almost any electronic product there is that digital interaction. I think understanding both aspects is very important. It paid off given I’m now designing a phone UI at QPC.
As for interaction design, it fascinates me both digitally and physically. Every product, intentionally or not, defines an interaction between a user and an object; what I enjoy is experimenting with that interaction, either making it invisible, playful or unexpected, and so in that regard I guess I would call myself an Interaction Designer. UX is too casually thrown around though (I would define it as the relentless testing, validation and refinement of an interaction—from user feedback) and so, until I’m more experienced, I’ve leave that title alone.
You also have a blog ‘Something to Think About’ http://bartonsmith.tumblr.com/ filled with random design projects and inspirations. A lot of designers are getting into blogging, do you find it a useful tool for documenting information and connecting with others?
Yeh I have a couple of other blogs too: http://wearetol.tumblr.com and http://stateoftechnology.tumblr.com. Thinking Out Loud (which I’m fixing up at the moment) I use for longer ramblings and the State of Technology is a reference for me to look back on, in years to come, to remember what we had and did.
So for me blogging and “tweeting” has a cognitive value. It allows me to articulate my thoughts and gives purpose to them knowing that at least one or two people (yeh, mum and dad) are reading them. It also gives me somewhere to vent my frustrations with design, which is always healthy. Also, as small a gesture as it may be, having a post reblogged or retweeted, receiving a comment or knowing frustrations are shared, is really rewarding and motivating. Having the information stored in “the cloud” is more convenient than my hard drive too, although I have many more files stored in folders.
I don’t find it has had any networking benefits though. As well as creating posts, I also try to comment on others as much as I can; I think there is a severe lack of quality discourse, especially in ID. In fact there seems to be a general lack of willingness for designers to connect with one another. Or maybe I’m just not cool enough. I love to give and receive constructive feedback whenever possible, but most of us are too content on just patting each others’ backs. Anyway that’s getting off topic.
I couldn’t agree more there needs to be more interaction and criticism between designers!
Student Related Questions
Like one of our recent interview guests Joshua Saling you went to Monash University. How did you find the course there? What were the good things about Monash’s course? And what do you feel could have prepared you more for the workforce?
Everyone seems to have a connection with their university, and I’m no different. Our course’s best asset, to the credit of Mark Richardson in particular, is probably it’s ability to make you think. We were very much encouraged to consider every aspect of a product and always justify every design decision. I think that is definitely an invaluable habit.
As opposed to the work I have seen from RMIT and others, our projects seem to be more concept driven. Which is better, I don’t know, but I’ve always had the belief that university is for proposing and exploring wild ideas and theories. I think the first year in industry will teach you far more practical aspects of design than university ever could, so why focus on that at uni?
One of the most impressive things about your portfolio is the quality in presentation. Did you have prior experience before becoming an industrial designer as a graphic designer or was this something you picked up during your Industrial Design course? How important do you think presentation is for students showing off their concepts?
Cheers! But no it’s nothing I had professional experience with. As I said, it’s always something I’ve been interested in and so I’ve tried to pay close attention to- and analyze professional work, and learn that way. Though now I look back at a lot of the stuff I’ve done and cringe.
Good presentation helps authenticate a design. It will never make a design better, but it will help grab people’s attention, and that could arguably be just as important as the design itself. What is a good design if no one knows about it? I know… deep right?
Haha yes it is like the good old saying “does a branch that falls in a lonelu forest make any sound?” Do you have any further advice for students?
If you eat something hella spicy, drink milk not water. I learned that on the weekend. Water is your enemy.
As for design, think about what you are doing. If you can’t justify a decision, then it’s either superfluous or not the solution. Also university will be your last chance in a long while to express any wild theories or philosophies. So have fun with it and perhaps don’t be too timid with your ideas.
Online presence is another thing. So few people I know actually bother to get their name online. Sure, social media is too much in its infancy to know it’s real worth, but it still has value. Start a blog, join Behance, LinkedIn, Twitter. Comment on work and blogs. The bigger digital record you have to your name, the easier employers can learn about you, your opinions and your contributions to design. And it is an important process in networking; it’s the foundation of all my opportunities this year.
Design Specific Questions
Currently you are working as a creative designer at QderoPateo developing next generation smart phones which has taken you around the world including places like Germany, Paris, London, Turkey, Hong Kong Shanghai, Beijing and San Francisco. Could you tell us a little bit more about what your role is and what you have learnt on your travels?
Well, the travelling is more a reflection of the current flexibility of our company, than it is of the job; I’ve been very fortunate really. You could describe my position as almost contractual freelance. So Germany, London, Shanghai and Beijing were work related, but the others were for fun. However, I am now more consistently based between Melbourne and Shanghai, so while the world travelling will subside a little, the trips to China and Taiwan etc will be more of a regular occurrence.
Now as I’ve had time to let it settle in, I’ve realized how beneficial travelling has been. It really gives you a diverse understanding of… well, our diversity. The East could not be any more of a cultural contrast to the West as it is linguistically.. I couldn’t even pretend to understand the psychology of Chinese consumers, but I’m quickly learning.
At the moment the smart phone market is one of the most exciting platform areas in technology with Apple IOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry and HP/Palm going head to head. What do you think the future holds for the features and interfaces of mobile devices? Is it search and discovery? Better information? Is it social? Is it location? Augmented reality or something else?
First, it’s kinda funny that you left out Nokia, but hey that’s about the most accurate depiction of their standing.
I’m actually really frustrated with the phone market. The (efficient) “app store” has been one of the best innovations for portable devices, yet it is quickly blocking new innovation. It has made it considerably difficult for new players to enter the market. No apps means no users, no users means no developers, no developers means no apps and so it goes on. And so these new companies can’t bring their ideas to market. Apps can only offer limited functionality—what manufacturers need to be able to do is define their core experience. We can’t be expected to sit around for Apple, Microsoft or Google to innovate, and regardless each company has their specific focus. There are too many smart people in this world with too many ideas for the market to be limited to two or three monopolies—i.e., mobiles shouldn’t follow the PC paradigm.
Mobiles need an “open apps” platform independent from the OS. These will come in the form of web and native apps that are cross-platform and multi-device. So now, what will all these smart people build into the core experience that apps can’t do? True social integration that links all your apps to one central account, or allows you to view friends’ photos the second they take it, without any conscious uploading; contextual awareness so that phones know where you are, what you are saying and doing and can predict what you want to do next; quicker access to more relevant and richer information; fully graphed environments that are integral to every relevant activity, enhancing the mobile experience as the social graph has done for the web; devices that can speak to any other device, so your phone can become a game controller for your friend’s console.
I could go on and on. Of course this is my personal view, not necessarily QPC’s.
Haha yes Nokia was left out for a good reason, but they are developing some decent phones every now and then. Could you give us some information about what the QPC Ouidoo platform is and how it’s different from the existing market players?
Unfortunately I can’t give you any more information until it is publicly released, but we think it’s a significant detachment from current devices. Of course there will still be grids of icons and “widgets” but the phone’s core structure and the way you interact with these elements, I think, has a fundamental advantage.
Are there any important skills you are using both design-related and business-related in dealing with these new product areas of interaction and interfaces?
I don’t know if you’d call it a skill, but I’m pretty (ok, worryingly) obsessive. I can’t let anything be approved without knowing we’ve carefully considered and analyzed every aspect of it—and that these assumptions have been tested and proven. In interaction this includes issues of consistency and predictability or knowing that each element is the best representation of its function. I also have a condition for logic, both on a systems and micro level. It’s argued whether logic is an appropriate assessment for IxD given that people are illogical, but I still believe that given our diverse computations, logic is the only common measurement we can all share.
How do you use sketching and CAD in the design process?
I’m one of those product designers, whose sketchbook is filled (or not) with mostly 2D sketches that other people probably can’t understand. It’s funny you stress about sketching abilities in school, then you see sketchbooks from your favourite designers and realize how primitive they are. Although I’d still love to have mad skills with my pen, it’s just not a priority. I do a lot of thinking—the form is always second to an idea or function. I tend to try to visualize many of my ideas first and if there is a part I can’t see in my head I will sketch it out. Then I will try to realize that idea and form in 3D. Usually it never turns out as you envision it, and that’s where the real design happens.
Do you have any final thoughts or comments?
Anyway I could keep rambling and bore the hell out of your readers, but if anyone does wants to ask me anything more, they can shoot there questions over here: http://bartonsmith.tumblr.com/ask