ProTalk: Designer Sean Kelly – Part 1

The ProTalk Format Change

I’m excited to announce that today marks the day we start a new format for the ProTalk design series. Instead of just reading, I want you to hear the interviews that I capture. So that you can get the subtle nuance of to conversation and really pay attention to the joy, sorrow, pauses and banter. I want you to feel more included. That being said, I want to introduce Sean Kelly of Grovemade:

Sean Kelly is the design lead at Grovemade.

Let’s take a listen to the first part of our interview with Sean here:

My name is Sean, and I was born here in Portland, so I’ve been kind of just sticking around here. And one thing I really love about this city is that I didn’t know I wanted to be a designer when I was young. All the signs were there like leading towards a creative path or a creative career, but I didn’t see it coming. And luckily I had people in my life that kind of inspired me and guided me in that direction, but Portland as a city grew as I grew into the design city that it is today, and I feel really lucky that I was able to kind of be here.

I feel really lucky to be here and sort of my first moment where I knew sort of what I wanted to do was because of my grandfather. He was an architect in Eugene, Oregon. And he designed mid-century like late mid century houses like in the early 70s kind of. And they were all hillside houses, and so he realized specialized in that kind of design. But he wasn’t a trained architect. What he did was he would draw plans. He was really good at drawing, and he did the watercolors and things like that as a hobby. But he would he just learned by doing. He would draw up the plans. He would take them to an architect and get them certified and  figured it out. And then he would build the house himself.

That’s amazing!

Like pretty much by himself. It seemed like my dad would help him every once in awhile as sort of like free labor in a way, but…

And and you were you were sort of on a perch watching this happen, or…

I think I didn’t I didn’t necessarily realize what he was doing until I could I started to understand like people were talking about these houses that I had visited when I was young because they used to live in them, and I don’t have very much, if any, recollection of actually seeing the houses or being in them when I was young, but when I would go to my grandparents’ house, I would be able to play in his office sometimes or just hang out in there. And I would see all the stuff he was working on and see his setup.

So it was kind of really ingrained from a young age of what was going on? There was there was no like no big epiphany?

Yeah, and also my my dad, too, like my parents bought this this old house in Southwest Portland and it was really small and then they had three kids. And my dad just took this house, and he with the help of my grandfather kind of kept adding on and changing and improving the house. And so I grew up in a state of kind of constant improvement of the of the space I was living in and seeing like my dad being able to pick out things and just try to make everything a little bit better in some way and at times even being able to help him; the basement was separated from the upstairs. And so we’d have to walk around the house to do the laundry because the the laundry room was downstairs. And so my dad just dug a hole from an addition that he did in front of the house, dug a hole into the ground down along the foundation which was like a cinder block foundation.

Once he got to the depth he wanted, he just took a sledgehammer and just started bashing through the wall. And I remember him like taking me down in this hole and giving me the sledgehammer and just having me just break through this wall. And then it was amazing because it was it just connected our main lives here to this downstairs area.

So you you really got to see those those transformations take place…

Yeah, and be involved a little bit, too, like like having being pulled in and being able to interact with the process.

Do you remember that first process? Did you say, “Oh, this is part of a process”, or were you more like, “Oh, I’m doing what they’re asking me to do?”

I think I was I think I was just excited just to see like what was going on. I just remember like the stages, like there were specific stages and how I would interact with a you know a half-done part of a house in different stages and you play differently in a room that’s just all plywood floors and like framed out walls than you would in a room that has furniture…and everything’s finished. So being able to have lived in all of those situations was very inspiring just to see that you can you can start something, and you can take it all the way to something amazing.

And so I think that I think that definitely left an impression on me at a young age. I mean all my family members left a creative impression on me in different ways, but those moments specifically kind of led me to want to be an architect. That’s what I wanted to do when I grew up and because you know I felt like you could make money doing art, and people were telling me like art, you can’t make money doing art, like maybe something different in architecture which my grandfather was doing, and I loved houses and I loved buildings like interacting with buildings. So I thought that would be a cool thing to try. And then I lucked out because in my high school they had an architecture elective.

Oh, that’s perfect. So how did you go from architecture to product design?

That happened at the U of O. So I went I took the architecture classes in my high school, found out there was an elective, architectural drawing and mechanical drafting. And we did CAD for it. So we would do hand-drawn stuff at first, and then we’d jump to the computer. You know, black work screen with a grid. And we just started laying stuff out. And I immediately, the first day, I like started like you know pulling orbs and cylinders out. I’m like you know like; “Oh, I wish I could like work with this, but we had to do the 2D stuff.”

But I went from there to then running track my first year of college at a community college and getting like you know a scholarship and getting all my prereqs out of the way. And then I went to the U of O, and I knew they had an architecture program.

So that was kind of like, that’s where I wanted to be. Leading up to it, I took a lot of printmaking, sculpture, drawing, painting classes, like a lot of art classes leading up. And I actually got into the art school at the U of O first as a sculpture major and did a bunch of sculpture stuff, and then I was about to transition into architecture, but I had to take one last math class. And math class is not has never been my strong suit, and I worked really hard at that class. I just barely didn’t get it. And I was like, okay, well, I have to take this class again if I want to get to the next thing which was like a type of math that I was better at. And it was like a year out before I could take the class. I’m like, “I can’t wait a year because this is like the one thing that’s holding me back.” And then product design kind of appeared out of nowhere at the U of O. This was the first year…

Out of nowhere?

Yeah. It was the first year they were offering it. My mom wrote me, actually. She was like, “Hey! I was on the U of O’s website.” I don’t know why she was on there, but she she saw a link to that thing, and she sent it to me. She’s like, “What do you think of this?” And I was looking at it. It’s like, this is really interesting. And I I started reading more about it.

And then I ended up, I think I ended up talking to one of the professors about it for a little bit and then I saw that it was the perfect blend of what I had been doing and what I wanted to do which was I wanted to be an architect, but I loved the art that I had been doing. It was this kind of middle road between the two. Also I saw immediately that there’s just so much that you can do. I liked variety. So being able to to kind of choose a path and go on that path for a bit and then choose another path or discover a new path is is really exciting. So I applied. I actually started taking classes before I even got in, so I applied the next year because it was already too late, but I started taking classes at the beginning of that year. So I was in the very first the very first day of product design at the U of O, very first class. I was in that class. So we were the guinea pigs.

Did you feel like by the time you graduated you were validated at the end of it in some way?

Yeah, I think it it’s funny because I interned at Grove, so being here since I was in school, it almost feels like it’s connected to school in a way because I interned here, so that was part of my learning, and then I still feel like I’m directly connected to school by working here still. It’s good and it’s and it’s bad in some ways. So I still feel it almost makes me feel like I haven’t graduated yet. But I think that’s a good…

We should have Ken [Tomita] plan to get you like an honorary diploma.

I think that’s a good mentality to have in anything you do really is to understand that where you were when you graduated is totally different from where you’re going to be eight years later. And looking back, like I’ve learned so much here and doing other things and just in life in general. And that drive and that need to keep learning, like I don’t want to ever feel like I’ve graduated or I’ve finished. I want to I want to keep pushing forward into new things.

I’m going to ask you sort of a particularly cliché question, and I only ask it because I love the wide array of answers that I get to it. Sean, what is design?

What is design? Oh, man. It’s something that I that I that’s a question I often think about, and it’s really, really hard to nail down. , I like to think there’s all these objects in the world that that exist that we use and that we interact with on a daily basis. And I love thinking about the the fact that those things were in someone’s brain at one point. Like it was it was a thought. It wasn’t a thing at some time, and because of nurturing and time and collective effort of different people, it became a thing.

So I think design for me and the way I think about it is like it’s how you it’s how you take those thoughts and those dreams, and you put them into reality. But the main tool for that to happen is you. Like it’s it’s the people that come together to make something real, and without that I mean there wouldn’t be design. So thinking about like just the relationships of people and how they work together I think is is a big the biggest part of design.

The last time I saw you, you had a smock on, an apron on. Is that standard apparel?

No, actually. It’s it’s very strange because everyone used to wear them. And I feel like it’s almost like I’m old guard at Grove now because because I just like wearing it. And I think it’s because you know when you’re prototyping as a designer, you want to have your tools handy. And I don’t like maybe it’s because of like lean manufacturing at Grove or like the way we’ve been working, but I don’t like having to walk too far to get what I need. So I like the the apron and the smock because I can have all my tools right there and ready to go so I can just flow.

It helps me flow. And also it it’s almost like a security blanket in a way, I guess.

Okay, yeah. You’re kind of swaddled...

But I’m standing like with my hands in it. I like to just I don’t know I just like having it on. It just feels it feels good. When you’re eating lunch like the crumbs drop on it.

You’re protected.

Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s great. It also has some history on it, too. Like there’s objects, little things on it that are leftovers from different people who have worked at Grove. It’s just…

Oh, okay. So this isn’t your apron.

It is my apron, but there are symbols of things that have happened to the apron and and things that have been given to me that I keep with the apron. Just kind of little memories. Because a lot of people have come through these doors and and left to go do other amazing things. So I like keeping little memories of those people.

That’s awesome! Sort of like a totem blanket.

Yeah. Or like a what is it? The the flare from “Office Space” on the on the on the restaurant jackets. One of my flares fell off, though, recently, so I have it up on the board, but I’m going to put them back on.

That’s great! Okay. I might have to take a photo of that. So it’s safe to say you’re sort of the head of the design component of Grovemade, here.

Yeah, but it is it’s very very team-oriented, so Ken and I work really closely, and then when Kevin was here we were all a very, very tight unit. And there was no one. I was sort of helping directing and guide and the energy of the design, and Ken was helping direct us in terms of you know the fits and what the business needed. We all helped each other.

When I was talking to Ken last, we talked about how this place is it’s not really a company. It’s a team–It’s a family. And I mean that was reinforced. I just heard it again, and I wish I recorded it again of the meeting happening. And you hear applause. You hear laughter, and like it’s a it’s a genuinely warm environment. And the fact that you keep totems of people who used to be here, I mean, you don’t see that, that often.

Yeah, and it’s kind of nice.

You have sort of a unique opportunity to foster what products get to the consumer. Is there something that you do to identify what might make it to the product line and what won’t?

Well, earlier on about probably two years ago we had more of a wide scope of what we thought would go with our customers would accept and also what we thought that we could make. And we tried a bunch of stuff, and we we saw what worked and what didn’t work. And then that recently has been do- the more of the guiding force for what we’re designing and when.

Just this year we’ve been really getting to know our customer a lot more, really diving in deep. Ken and Jim and Nick and I, recently we did phone interviews with a bunch of our customers who had bought iPhone cases in the past just to kind of learn who they are, where they’re from, what they do for a living, like what they like, or why they bought our case, like kind of just learn about like what brought them to us and like what that relationship is and what they’re like as as people, what they’re into.

That’s great. I mean, the reason that’s great is because you keep skipping ahead with my questions. It’s really funny. I was going to ask you, how do you empathize with your potential users? It sounds like you’re doing focus research.

Yeah. For a long time, like we were the users. So we were designing things that we wanted to see in the world and that we would use for ourselves. And there are you know we we thought that you know there are a lot of people like us. And they appreciate the same things. So we wanted to design things for ourselves that were for those people that we would use and that they would use. And we discovered what was working through that process and what wasn’t working and one thing that we wanted to add to that was really focusing in on who are our customers because that’s something that we thought we knew, and you know early on when you’re selling iPhone cases, your customer base is so broad. But as you start getting more specific into the desk-related stuff, you know, everyday carry-related stuff and anything else that we’re designing, the people become more specific. And so we really wanted to jump in. And so learning that dive was about iPhone customers specifically. So we were talking to them, learning from them, and one thing that we found out, too, is that a lot of people own multiple of our products and the the reasons for buying them and the directions for buying them are totally different from buying an iPhone case. One fun thing from the interview, it says I think at least four of the people I interviewed are coming in for tours when they’re in Portland.

That’s really unique. You don’t hear about too many businesses that not only design their product but manufacture it saying, “Hey, come on in, customer! Come see everything else.” But I think it’s a great opportunity for you to really create some intimacy with the people you’re working with.

How do you put yourself in their shoes regarding experiencing the design problems that they do?

When Kevin and I were working together a lot, we did a lot of sort of things what we called brainstorms, but they were also brain writes. We would we would try to embody and think about a situation so we would when we were designing a certain collection, we would think about the moment that you’re using that collection and like what’s happening before that? What’s happening after that? What’s happening within that moment? And what is the person who’s using that product? Maybe it’s an existing product already. What are they going through? Like, what’s in their mind? What are they feeling when they’re doing it? And we would write all this stuff out, and we would talk about it and discuss it. And then we would kind of dive into the lifestyle, maybe the person that we were designing for so we we would look at different websites or magazines. Or we would go places to actually like be in spaces where we thought our products would be used. And we would just experience that that space and that moment and try and identify where the points of tension were and also where the points of opportunity were. How we could change something that’s been the same way for a long time or how we could improve on something that’s been the same way for a long time.

I think the catch-all that we did for the entryway collection is a good example because everyone has stuff that they carry with them, and we all throw it different places. For me personally it was just on my kitchen counter like in a bowl.

Thinking about like we were designing for a specific kind of style of house and the specific style of lifestyle. So thinking about what does this person have in their home? How do they enter and exit the home? What’s going through their mind? What do they want to do? How do they want to unload and also gear up? And what solution can we design? And it wasn’t a shelf. It wasn’t a piece of furniture. It wasn’t a bowl. It was something between all those things that combine those things and created sort of a station.

That’s cool. I every time I go on the website, I’m always kind of fascinated by how the collections are laid out and everything just fits really well together. It’s really well-designed and very thoughtful on how each piece relates to the other piece. I can’t wait to see the blotter pad. That’s just going to be rad.

I like what Jim, our COO says about it sometimes. He talks about this idea of a red thread like interlinking everything. And at Grove there’s certain aspects of each product that come from the very original product that we did. So we made an iPhone 3 case a long, long, long time ago and there is like one specific detail that carries throughout every single product.

It’s like a specific angle or a specific shape, and that’s the thread that ties the product that we just designed to the product that we first designed. But that thread also as we’ve designed more and more, it it’s become more subtle and subtle and subtle and subtle as you move out. But there is an essence especially when designing for a brand you have to keep that continuity over time but also push it in a way that makes the products new and exciting. And that’s actually one of the really fun things about about working here is is doing that.

Are there any problems you have have a harder time seeing because you’re the one solving them versus experiencing them?

I think so. I mean, it’s it’s really hard to to get out of your head sometimes or get out of your personal level sometimes in terms of like your thought process and really think differently. That’s a hard question. I think that sitting here you know doing something on screen or drawing it or putting up sticky notes like it it doesn’t have hold weight sometimes against actually going out and doing the thing.

So it’s sort of a design assumptions versus design experience.

I feel like it’s very easy to make assumptions. When you’re designing things and when you’re when you’re thinking about people, especially even like even just thinking about your coworker or even your significant other or your children. It’s like it’s very easy to assume what they’re feeling or or what they’re going through when in reality we are all in ourselves alone and like we have we only we know what’s going on. And so it’s really hard unless you just ask someone. I think as designers, it’s important that we ask questions constantly and like talk to people. Talk to the user.

Well, I think it’s it’s interesting because I learned a lot about cognitive therapy, and a lot of people don’t take the time to think about what they’re thinking or feeling. They just take it sort of for granted. And so you have to come in and almost be their “cognitive guide” so that when you wind up solving a problem for them, they’re like, “Oh! All of a sudden, this is easier. Oh, this functions so much better. Or, “Oh! My experience is so much smoother now.“ A lot of people kind of take that for granted, I think. I don’t know, though.

I think it’s because we just move so quickly. I know that we we load our lives with things that we feel like we have to do or we need to focus on a lot of the time. And I think a lot of our brainpower is put towards that when in reality if you make small shifts, you’re able to kind of step back and see yourself from outside yourself in a way and and be able to recognize where these things are that you want to grab — things that you’re really trying to grasp, and then you’re able to to to move forward those things.

You can find more of Sean’s work at both Grovemade and his personal site – SeanMiKelly.com

Stay tuned for next week when we continue on with Sean’s interview and learn a little bit more about paring down ideas, the parting line of a human being, and the value of Post-it Notes.

 

Are you a professional 3D artist or designer? I’d love to talk with you about your work! Reach out to me here and maybe you, too, will be featured in the ProTalk!