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Executive Design Director Thomas Overthun is an industrial designer who has worked at IDEO for nearly 25 years. He’s been the lead designer for a wide range of products we use in our daily lives, and, over the years, he’s observed an evolution of the industrial design discipline. He believes the key to bringing great products to market lies in a holistic approach.

IDEO: What does it mean to you to take a holistic approach to product design?

THOMAS OVERTHUN: When companies look to design and bring a new product to market, it can be tempting to zero in on the product itself. But we cannot expect the product to do all the work, and it cannot shine if the stage isn’t properly set. We're driven to find beauty in what we do, though we understand that this means different things to different people. In the context of what I like to describe as holistic design, it's the search for a singular, unified voice. In other words, how might we connect the dots across different parts of a product’s experience? IDEO is a place where diverse teams of industrial designers, interaction designers, and brand strategists—to name a few—are closely collaborating under one roof so that service, screens, form, function, and brand are all working together like an orchestra to create the most elegant solution. Whether we’re designing a product with a heritage brand looking to stay relevant, or a startup on its way to the next round of investment, we bring these business opportunities—like INFARM and PillPack—to life with design. Applying holistic design right from the start serves as a powerful north star in the design process and ultimately creates a genuine connection for brand and consumer.

How do you see product design changing in an increasingly digital world?

Today, well-designed physical experiences and products help brands build relationships with consumers and differentiate themselves in the market. With wearables for instance, we design the physical device as a vessel for technology, but we also take great care to design how the device itself reinforces the relationship for the consumer with the service and brand.

We recently partnered with the team at Sensassure, a startup focused on designing a solution for monitoring incontinence. We were blown away by their commitment to users, literally sleeping on the floors of nursing homes for months, testing prototypes with residents and care staff. Beyond the industrial design of the product, our collaboration with Sensassure aimed to push the design of the incontinence tracking system from acceptable to desirable. We designed the product and its surrounding touchpoints to feel fresh, modern, and appropriate for a brand that wants to bring a sense of normality and dignity, along with tailored care, to people with a physically and emotionally challenging condition.

Sensassure Block R2

Starting from the client’s working prototype, we redesigned the hardware system for the sensor, protective sleeve, and peripherals like the charger and hub. In parallel, we created a new logo and design language, including a graphical system specifying how type, color, and patterns work together on product, packaging and digital platforms.

We also collaborated closely with Peeq Data, which is focused on streamlining the process of video capture for amateur sports. Put simply, players wear trackers that trigger video cameras placed around the field. Founder Mark Gray approached IDEO asking “How do we unify an offering that consists of a mixture of digital and physical products, some of them developed by Peeq and others, such as tripods and carrying cases, coming from existing sources?” Taking a step back from the hardware kit, we quickly realized that the actual product was going to be well-edited, branded video clips of the game and highlight reels for individual players. We developed a comprehensive approach to Peeq’s visual brand identity, branded video elements, and hardware design.

Peeq Blocq R6 New

We developed an icon and graphic pattern—code-named the “kick”—that appears in the logo, the typographic system, the title sequence, and the motion graphics separating video clips. The 10 degree angle appears across the system, including the physical tracker, which has to represent the dynamic character of the brand and athletic context, yet be unobtrusive during games. We also designed three different solutions for wearing the tracker: a clip-on pouch, a sticker, and a sweatband, giving players a choice appropriate for their sport.

What edges are you excited to push with your craft?

Making service tangible. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we can bring more physicality to service brands. How might we design beyond the screen to make service brands like AirBnB feel more tangible? I’m interested in designing brand “totems” that are iconic of the cultures of those companies and how their customers relate to them.

Connected products for the home. As the nature of “home” is changing, and often becoming less permanent, how does the design and role of objects within the home change as well? How do they create relationships between their users and their environments? How do they become “portable” to give a sense of home wherever you are? And as we see the next wave of “smart home technologies,” how can the physical design of these products be as intuitive and smart as their functionality?

Modernizing brands with heritage. Using design, we can transform the role of legacy brands and people’s relationships to them, like we did for Brooks England. Brooks has been around for more than 150 years and came to us to design the Cambium bike saddle—their first new product in decades—and later the Metropolitan Collection of cycling bags. The new materials, modern shapes and fresh design language still reflect strongly what the heritage brand represents, but also show a bold and modern aesthetic that will carry the brand forward.

Brooks Block

Cambium’s focus on modern form and departure from leather prompted a new take on cycling bags. Minimal, custom-designed hardware, few visible seams, and bright interiors with distinct quilting and largely monochrome exteriors define the Metropolitan range. Visual elements on inside labels give a nod to Brooks’ long history.

How do you see the role of the industrial designer changing?

Now more than ever, the role of the industrial designer is expanding to engage a broader range of partners in the design process. Beyond more traditional partners—engineers and manufacturing experts—we’re working closely with interaction, communication, user experience and brand designers. To ensure a holistic overall experience, our goal is to be both deep and broad in our capabilities, enabling us to do more for our clients.

  • Thomas Overthun

    Executive Design Director, IDEO San Francisco
    As an executive director of industrial design, Thomas Overthun leads design teams to focus on the entire journey of each product.