Open Source Hero: Tucker Viemeister, Industrial Designer

Architecture / Contributor / Design / Interview / Open Source

“Patents are bullshit.”

As I make my way to the meet point for Tucker Viemeister’s interview I realize I’m actually walking into the studio of architect Henry Myerberg (HMA2), who intermittently pops into our interview between his own meetings. It's appropriate as we’re openly chatting with room for anyone to join, at the dining counter directly adjacent to their conference room and lounge. At one point Tucker points out the architectural principles of the studio's layout. Our conversation eventually turns to a brainstorm about Paperhouses, and though I’ll spare you the full transcript for the sake of focusing on our Open Source Hero today, suffice it to say the advice was at times radical. The storied industrial design veteran talks about his work, architecture, and where progressive education and design live in parallel.

Paperhouses: So, what do you do, or what have you been up to lately?

Tucker: I've been an industrial designer for a long time. My dad was an industrial designer. So I've seen the profession evolve over time. I was at Smart Design and that was strongly based on the combination of designer talent and paying attention to what users wanted; user-centered. I always thought it was easy to design something I liked but knew a lot of other people probably wouldn't. It's also easy to design something everyone else would like but that I wouldn't. The really hard thing is to design something both a lot of people and I will like. That's what I was trying to do at Smart. Then the digital revolution came along and I was interested in smart products.  I was interested in the idea of designing both the interface for something and the thing itself. Smart was more interested in home products . So I opened the New York office of Frog and then quickly went to Razorfish. They were totally in the digital world. It was the opposite of Smart's physical world, although they saw that integration of the whole experience.

Ph: What does that mean in concrete terms. The interface as well as the thing itself.

Well this (iPhone’s) a good example. Most of the buttons are in the phone, but there's one button here. How does that relate to the screen? As computers get smarter and smarter they need less and less physical interface. In fact you don't even need… you could use Siri all the time and not even look at the phone.

Ph: Actually a lot of people do, because the glass breaks so easily. (laughter)

From the designer's point of view, it's what sort of experience they should have and then what should they do. It seems like I'm successful now because I don't have any bias toward anything. It's not like people come to me because I design websites for them. They come to me for a message made somehow.

Ph: Do you think your versatility is your calling card?

Yes. On the other hand, everybody always says “I dunno what you do.”
It goes both ways. There's no term to describe what industrial designers do because some design cars and transportation; there's furniture design, there's exhibit and product design. In product design there's all kinds of sub-categories– electronics, housewares things like that. Toy design… Industrial designers make pretty good graphic designers, too. But all this I didn't think was anything new because when I was in school my teachers were talking about… when you design the teapot don't design just the pot, design the ritual. That's what they called it then, instead of experience, ritual. The teacup, the table, the room…everything should be incorporated into the design.

Ph: You mentioned at Smart franchising the difference between your idea of good design and the mass’s idea… but with ubiquity of tech do you think the distance has shrunk? Has design competency matured in the public or conversely, do you feel like your tastes are more pedestrian now? (Laughter)

Design is much more ubiquitous now in that say, there are laser printers and stuff–people can print out anything they want and make it a poster. There's much more sensitivity about design for regular people. Not that they can all do it well, but I think that that factors into the process. Because a long time ago everyone was their own designer. They made their own bed, their own tools, stuff like that. Then the industry came along and people forgot about how to make anything because they just went and bought it. Now with the rise of Brooklyn and Portland everyone's learning how to make their own pies and stuff. (laughter)

But let's go back to the open source stuff. I think patents are a big bunch of bullshit. People say that the drive to get a patent fuels innovation but it also fuels a whole lot of anti-innovation; because when somebody owns the patent so you can't use it,  you can't build on it, you have to worry about getting sued… there's a whole industry of lawyers and business people who aren't bringing any new value to the world they're just squashing the old one. There are a lot of patents that get bought by people who don't want anyone to use them so that their other patent can be more valuable. I don't see all in all where the value is in all that to normal human beings.

Ph: Have you experienced this first-hand? I mean you have a lot of patents yourself.

I got a lot of patents because I was working with Johnson & Johnson. We were working on feminine hygiene products, in competition with Proctor and Gamble. They would patent any idea they thought of just so P&G couldn't make it. P&G was doing the same thing. We'd patent any dopey idea that we had. You know… what's the point? Who was it patented one-click shopping on the internet? I was working with someone who claimed he patented “using the internet outdoors.” It's like, did anyone get a patent on the Stop sign? (laughter)

Ph: With design, especially, things can't be evolved until there's a sense of adaptability. The opposite of patenting. So what do you think that does for authorship? Say for the garage tinkerer who's just come up with the idea for the tape recorder who is then picked up by Sony who mass-produces it. What about that guy? The worst case scenario without patents is someone gets conned out of profits because they didn't protect their copyright.

It also has to do with what is the reasonable profit you should make from something. My contention is that if you make something good, and someone else makes it too, that's good. Then more people have it and drives prices down and drives you to make a better one. You're more concerned with making better stuff than protecting your ass.

Ph: That's a good way of putting it. They say that in the venture community too. It's “who is actually executing the good ideas.” And with first novels, too. A lot of great writers have unfinished books in their top drawers. With your work, and tying into the idea of open source and collaboration… Do you collaborate a lot?

Yeah, I think it's great. That's another one of my pet peeves. Progressive education is the same as the design process, which is learning by doing and collaborating and all that stuff. Make stuff better. So, that's a whole other story, but I was going to say, I work on this project with Henry (Myerberg) to design libraries for the NYC schools, and first we designed one library with Lonni Tanner, then it came out so good that the Board of Education and the Robin Hood Foundation said “let's make more of them.” So Henry said why don't we get say five different architects to design the libraries together. Each group will do their own library but we'll share notes on how to do things and where to get furniture and stuff like that. It was an interesting form of collaboration where people still had their strong individual voice but we also met and shared our designs with each other.


Ph: Was that a seamless collaboration?

(Incredulous) No. Collaborations are never seamless. Creation isn't seamless. I complain about some things in one process and compare them to the good things in another one. They came out good and everybody shared that. We weren't making any money off it. That was another way to share the burden of the project. Michael Bierut did the design, the logo. Though we did suggest he make (the “i”) an exclamation point because the librarians we were talking with were talking about reinventing the library. Libraries aren't places where are supposed to be quiet anymore.

Ph: You said you have a pet peeve about progressive education and design but I'm assuming you mean the peeve is with un-progressive education.

No, my peeve is that designers think that design thinking and all that is new but it's really the same as progressive education. Designers are in the business to learn. On the other side, from the educator side, their process and curriculum is not being respected by everybody because no one realizes it's the same (as design). Everyone's trying to figure out new ways to be innovative in teaching and it's like we have this system that’s been going on for a hundred years and it works, so… I'm on a crusade to get both sides to benefit from each other. So for designers to benefit from the idea that people who've written lots of books about it and documented it. On the other hand, educators can point to other innovation processes being the same as theirs.

Ph: So funny you should bring up because it's something I've been fascinated with personally. I understand it's a lot sexier to take a class at General Assembly with someone from Tumblr, but you can get the same exact skill set at the Manhattan City College for a third the cost.

Or in the 5th Grade at some place like City & Country School. (Laughter) If you were just paying attention.

Ph: What do you think of these private education initiatives?

I think those are good. But the ones I'm talking about are more like elementary school level. Like, Avenues and the Blue Man Group…

Ph: Blue Man Group teaches?

Yeah, it's called the Blue School. (Laughter) I was just at an industrial design conference and they were talking about doing this innovation project with students and they were like, “no one's ever done this before,” and I'm like, “they do it all the time!” They said “we couldn't find anyone to help,” and I'm like, “guys…”

But anyway… Basically the story was that they were a bunch of goofy guys and got girlfriends and then settled down and had babies, and then they were like “where can we send them to school?” and didn't like any of the schools because they weren't creative enough so they started their own babysitting group and then the kids got older and bigger and kept growing and David Rockwell actually designed their school. I think it's up to like third or fourth grade.

Ph: There's a lot of that too, isn't there. Private solutions to public problems.

Well everybody has their own ideas. I'm working on this project with the BOE and you really felt both sides of the story. The Board's like “Oh man I wish we could get these schools to do these great programs we have,” but the principal or the local board doesn't like it and I'm going like, “they have their own idea of why they can't do what they want to do because the BOE is making them do it.” Actually I think it's probably a good conflict. Different points of view… even though it makes everyone mad.

Ph: Do you think they're listening to each other?

Not so much.  But it's good enough to get them heated up. They both have good ideas. It's just a messed up situation. But the budget for BOE in NY is 17 billion dollars. It's crazy. And something like 1 in every 48 kids who go to school in America go to school in New York. So the other thing about progressive education is people… I went to the Antioch School where collaborating and working in teams was the normal way you did stuff. So now that I'm an adult I expect everyone to work that way. Because working together is the best way you get a solution. Then you realize a lot of people aren't collaborating… don't know how to work collaboratively. They're also out for themselves. They come from a capitalistic society where winning is the goal.

Ph: What do you think is the best way to mitigate that “capitalistic” system, or put it another way: what's the best way to engender collaboration?

I think the best way is for the whole team to sit down and work things out together. And it takes time to get people to trust each other. The way you do it is you make people actually sit down and work together for a long time at the same table. That's the best way. But I also think collaboration has a lot of different definitions. And architects (he looks around the office conspiratorially), are not the best collaborators. (Laughter) Because a lot of what they do is “you do this part, you do that part, we'll have a meeting next week and fit it all together, and I'll decide.” That's the architect’s method.

Ph: Do you think the relationship between designer and architect has changed much, in your experience, since you do so much work with them.

I think so, to a certain extent. It depends on the case. I don't know how it really works but for example Rem Koolhaas and 2 x 4 have an interesting relationship. But I don't know how it really works. Who else, I don't know. I think Michael Bierut in (the library) project was really great. He did the graphics so you can look at this design and put pictures of kids at the top, and thought of bringing this or that program to work on it together. Some of them don't work as well as others, but… you can see in this dark gloomy place he did fancier brighter graphics. i think it depends on both the architect and the designer. I think there are good examples of say, Diller Scofidio doing graphics and other collaborators… Morphosis

Ph: Who are you looking forward to working with nextly?

I'd love to do some kind of old folks things. There's a huge impediment to progress in the distribution model. Sam Farber who founded Oxo just died and I went to the memorial and Davin, the founder of Smart, was talking about this project we did with Sam before Oxo, which was the idea of children's furniture that was also a toy. Like giant Legos basically. So then when we went to sell the things to the stores the furniture guy would say “we can't carry this it's a toy.” the toy buyer said “we can't buy this it's furniture.” It's the same thing with universal stuff. If it's not medical enough then it's not …
I also thought it would be fun to do an old folks home because it seems so easy to make it better. Like a lot of the decorations they put in those places, is hard to use to navigate.

I have this friend Nancy Perkins who became the director of the Lighthouse For The Blind in Dallas and when they renovated the bathroom–she's an industrial designer–she's like “let's just make this easy to see for people who have low vision,” so she made everything black and white. She made everything reserve. So the toilet was white and the seat was black, and then the floor had black tile around the edge. Everything was outlined in black… and it looked really cool.

Ph: Sounds like such a simple solution. Almost obvious, actually. Intuitive. You can see it. (laughter)

It's not intuitive, it's just stupid that people don't do it that way.

At this point Henry Myerberg joins our chat and we talk about Paperhouses. We discuss the purview of Paperhouses at length.

Tucker: This gives me a good idea. The same way you're having open source for the plans and stuff, what if there's open source for criticism? So someone makes their own plans and there's a community of people who go like (he nods, sagely).

Ph: That's a great idea!

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