“Alexa, play the DesignFWD podcast.”

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish there was a podcast that discussed innovations in design, performance and sustainability that positively impact the built environment?”

Us, too. So we decided to create one.

Welcome to DesignFWD, a podcast series presented by Mohawk Group, where we discuss innovations in design, performance, and sustainability that positively impact the built environment. Stick around for engaging conversation with our design leaders, sustainability advocates, and progressive end users who are moving design forward. 

For our debut episode, ‘Let’s Talk Innovation in the Design World’’, we are joined by Scott Star, Director of Product Development and Senior Associate at Gensler New York to chat about product innovation and its relationship to the built environment.

Listen to the DesignFWD Podcast

Elizabeth Bonner: Hello and welcome. I’m Elizabeth Bonner, creative design director for Hospitality for Mohawk Group and Durkan. 

Seth Brewer: And I am Seth Brewer, product director for Mohawk Group.

Elizabeth Bonner: We’re excited to have you join us in this inaugural episode of our podcast series. For today’s episode, let’s talk innovation in the design world. We’re joined by Scott Star, director of product development at Gensler New York, to chat about Product Innovation and its relationship to the built environment.

Seth Brewer:  We are so excited! This is going to be an awesome conversation, so let’s jump in and get started – so Scott welcome, we have some questions for you. Thank you for joining us today – let’s begin by sharing your experience with our audience. So tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Gensler. 

Scott Star: Well first up, thank you for having me on your first podcast – it’s a complete honor. One interesting thing that I should share off the bat is that prior to Gensler I always worked for product manufacturers, like Mohawk, in marketing and product development and licensing roles. But over my career I’ve cut across numerous industries including furniture, surfacing materials, flooring, lighting, bed and bath, kitchenware, travel goods, and fashion accessories. And looking back I’ve brought over 1,500 collections and one-off products to market. 

At Gensler I have a two-fold responsibility: I’m responsible for business development within our product development practice and management of the teams and the processes that address a product design client’s objectives. It’s completely logical, but utterly ironic, that now I market and manage the delivery of product design services instead of buying them. And as someone who has experienced product design from the client side for a couple of decades, I can attest to the unique value that Gensler delivers. 

Seth Brewer: So Gensler has been consistently recognized by FAST Company as one of the world’s most innovative companies. Relative to you practice area, how is the current situation keeping you in the forefront of product innovation?

Scott Star: Hmmm… Well necessity really is the mother of invention. And as it turns out, full-blown crisis is especially effective for driving innovation. In March, this very thought led me to begin researching the commercial ramification of the last great pandemic. Specifically, and given my background, I wanted to know what products were spawned by the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919. I gotta tell you, the whole endeavor was a bit disappointing. I found hand soaps and interesting face masks galore, but I haven’t turned up one Bauhaus-inspired sneeze guard or anything of that ilk. 

That said, the novelty quotient, leapt off the chart when I broadened my search. I learned, for example, that M&Ms, one of my favorite treats I might add, were inspired by a candy distributed to soldiers during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. They needed a chocolate that wouldn’t melt in the heat. Duct tape is another: The idea came from a worker in an ordinance factory during World War II. She wanted to make it easier for soldiers to open boxes of ammunition in the field. She created a tape that provided a dependable seal that could also be torn open easily.

I think what really fueled my interest in products born of crisis was my 9/11 experience: I was at work and remember piling into the CEO’s office with the rest of my co-workers and watching his TV in disbelief as the Twin Towers came down. My life was doubly impacted as I was living just a mile north of ground zero, and also leading product marketing for Samsonite travel accessories. A multi-category product collection distributed in luggage stores and airport shops on six continents. And as the travel security guidelines evolved over the next several years, I found myself developing all sorts of interesting products: airport ID wallets to help passengers present their passports and licenses to security in airports, TSA locks that allowed TSA agents to inspect check baggage without having to destroy the passenger’s lock, and 100ml carry-on bottles to allow passengers to carry liquid toiletries onboard planes in limited volume.

I saw first-hand how crisis and government policy translated into product innovation, so it’s no wonder that the current situation had me primed. 

Today Gensler is working with our manufacturer clients to develop over twenty product lines influenced by the pandemic. Crisis, as it turns out, not only sparks innovation, but it also causes teams to coalesce around a common goal. So the ideas have been coming in fast and furious from around the firm, often driven by the expressed needs of our A&D clients. The trick is to innovate in a way that will not only respond to the immediate crisis, but that will also provide enduring value to our product design clients and their customers.

You know, the recent relaunch of Gensler’s first product design collaboration with Mohawk group, Nutopia 2.0 commercial carpet plank, is a great case in point. As part of it’s evolution, Nutopia’s inherent ability to help enforce social distancing and create pathways has been more thoroughly developed and expressed, but certainly not at the expense of the product’s general appearance and long-term appeal. Gensler’s product designs are seeing beyond the pandemic to help shape the best possible built environment of the future. One that’s going to utilize space optimally, based on evolving needs and preferences, one that’s more hygienic, and of course one that’s always beautiful and welcoming. 

Nutopia 2.0 Commercial Carpet Plank Tile by Mohawk Group

Seth Brewer: Those are all fantastic points – couldn’t agree with you more. And love the comment about Nutopia 2.0, that was fantastic and we were so pleased to work with you on that, uh, when it comes to innovation, whether it’s in furnishings, flooring, technology what should product development, product management, and design teams look for and do? 

Scott Star: Well, there is an endless number of excellent processes, guidelines for managing product innovation, and I leave those to the fine people at the Harvard Business Review. But while never ignoring that, here are four down and dirty things I’ve always done that have delivered sure-fire results. 

Number One: Go to where the problems are. Simply because problems are often the best impetus for innovation. If you’re in a manufacturing environment, go to the customer service department. Better yet, go on a long fishing trip with the customer services department because these are the people that you want to talk to. Ask them, “What questions are you getting from your callers?”, “What are the service issues?”, “What replacement parts are you shipping?”, “What are users asking for that we’re not making or doing?”. In an A&D environment you want to talk to your technical directors, One of the many great things that they do is identify problems on A&D projects. Problems that can often be solved with a new product.

A couple of years ago, I bumped into one of the technical directors in the office and he told me that it wasn’t uncommon for TDs to knock edge mounted cabinet poles off of designers specifications. Because they often are not considered to be ADA compliant. Designers, they like the minimalist appearance of edge poles and their custom mill work, but they’re challenging to open for people with limited dexterity, or arthritis, or missing digits. So, working with this information, Gensler created a line of poles that can be edge mounted and that are also ADA compliant. Problem solved.

Number two: Observe changes in codes and regulations. One of the first big projects of my career was launching a very elaborate line of office task chairs. About nine months before the launch, new legislation dictated that the task chairs should not only tilt backwards, but forwards, and they should have adjustable backs, all the better to support computer workers. The project team developed quickly to integrate these features into our line, and when we launched, we were the most up-to-date product in the main – uh, a major manufacturer on the market. This not only helped to win a number of major specifications at the outset, but it also established a competitive advantage that turned out to be very, very durable. 

Number three: Observe behavior. Test the physical evidence or highly reliable and can be an awful lot of fun too. I remember a professor in business school relaying a story about a marketing manager who wanted to fine tune his ad buy to a very specific audience. So he went to a parking lot to where his target consumer shopped, and checked the radio dial through the car windows, A few years ago, Gensler was designing hotel bath accessories for a client and one of the best things we did was to ask our staff to send in photos of the hotel bathrooms and accessories they encountered during their business trips and vacations. This gave the design team immediate insight into how hotel bath accessories were being used across a broad range of global properties and what improvements were advantageous in terms of spatial constraints, maintenance, and interface with amenities such as soaps and shampoos. Moral of the story: You need to be a bit of an anthropologist. 

And number four: Pass the baton. Because a fresh set of eyes can really do wonders. Smart City commercial carpet plank, Gensler’s second collaboration with Mohawk Group, is a great example of this. As part of the process, we created many patterns for Mohawk’s review. One of them became Urban Model, but the coordinating Urban Mobility product came to bat when the Mohawk design team compiled two of our patterns in an offline experiment that paid off with beautiful results.

Smart City commercial carpet plank by Gensler and Mohawk Group

Elizabeth Bonner: I love what you’re saying here – I come from a family of engineers, so it’s been hard at times to get them to understand how closely product development resembles what it is that they do on a daily basis, and it is largely about problem solving. Um, the best innovation happens when we can solve a problem for a customer. And it’s even better when it’s provided with a really beautiful casing like the situation with Smart City. Because that is quickly becoming a favorite among the design team. It has been a really great tile system to use, and play around with, in floor plans.

So what is the best system to manage innovation within a company?

Scott Star:  It’s really different for every business, but in my experience it largely depends on what the organization’s product roadmap looks like. If the manufacturer has a high volume of annual product introductions, for example a clothing maker or a kitchenware manufacturer, you need a more regimented system that weeds out the weaker ideas through a combination of analysis and market testing. This type of upfront analysis usually consists of prototyping or sampling, but this is best accompanied by preliminary engineering analysis, sourcing and production analysis, and cost analysis.

Market testing exists along a continuum of sophistication. It can be as casual as a series of key account presentations, or as heavy-duty as a full-blown market test. For example, soft tooling your product, and in the case of retail, selling into a smaller channel to gauge acceptance before moving into larger channels that could demand guaranteed sales and mark-down money for products that tank. 

On the other hand, if the manufacturer has a low volume of product introduction, for example, the next generation of a current generation of a flagship product: an auto, or a smartphone, or a wall system, you need a really good person or team that’s capable of collecting and processing the points of view of all stakeholders, in a highly rational way, I might add, someone who can do a complete 360 evaluation with operations, sales, marketing, legal, QC, sustainability, customers, and end-users. It’s challenging work. You need someone with a lot of fortitude, a real Maestro. 

Seth Brewer: Well you know that here at Mohawk, we do pride ourselves in leading the way in innovative flooring solutions across all of our different platforms whether it’s fibers, backings, etc. but there is a way to manage that innovation, and it’s managed differently whether you’re a manufacturer, it’s quite different from the way it could be, or can be handled, or managed at Gensler, so tell us some of things you do to help your clients deliver innovative solutions.

Scott Star: Well, it’s the only product design resource associated with the world’s largest A & D firm – Gensler has a virtually limitless amount of insight at our fingertips to help drive innovative solutions. On the macro-level, there’s the Gensler’s Research Institute. You may not know this, but Gensler awards research grants to  groups of its employees to band together across offices and practice areas  to study different issues associated with the built environment. It’s an amazing thing to see: The Institute exists to explore the intersection of design, and business, and behavior, in a way that identifies solutions for improving the built environment and human experience. The associated thinking and findings are of enormous benefit across the firm’s practice areas and projects. Also on the macro level, we publish our work by surveys. Conducted around the globe, these surveys assess what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s next when it comes to strategy and design in the workplace. 

This macro thought leadership actually inspired the carbon-neutral Nutopia and Smart City products that we designed in collaboration with your company. Both are visual metaphors for the future of cities, which is central to the firm’s work and vision, and both products also align with Gensler’s G3C challenge. And our path toward carbon neutrality. When it gets really exciting for me, though, is at the micro level where we’ve created the Spoke Research Initiative to take on each product design project. Contrary to what one may imagine, we don’t start sketching things up as soon as we get a client’s design brief. Rather, we begin with the visioning phase, similar to the visioning used with our architectural projects. It could be qualitative, quantitative, or projective. Regardless, it taps into the experts across our twenty-six practice areas and fifty global offices, whose experience and insight is apropos to the project. This allows us to get multiple points of view from interior designers, architects, technical directors, resilience experts, brand design experts. And ultimately, it allows us to assess a manufacturer’s need before we start designing. We wind up validating the brief, fine-tuning the brief, or completely rewriting the brief. 

One of our clients came to us about two years ago to design his new entry-level de-mountable partitioning system. The glass door fronts use the commercial workspace to create private offices and meeting rooms. In the course of our visioning, we uncovered a need for a new type of wall system, one that could partition and design open areas to create more privacy at will, one where office workers could easily change the face of the system, from metal to fabric, to markerboard to cork to completely open, to allow it to respond to immediate and evolving demands. So you can see by thinking beyond the initial brief up front as part of our research phase, we created something far more innovative. 

Elizabeth Bonner: I think we’ve definitely reached a time where flexibility means a whole lot in any office space because we’re constantly changing tasks and changing the way that we do things, which is case in point in the fact that now all of a sudden, we’re all working from home. So how do you feel innovation has been impacted by this switch to working from home? 

Scott Star: In a way, virtual communication is a godsend in innovation because we’ve been able to effectively conduct roundtable discussions, focus groups, and press interviews. You’ve seen all the digital platforms that are at our disposal. People log in and express their thoughts remarkably well. The process is especially good for covering all the discussion points, the fixed agenda. When it comes to innovation, I have to say that what is not on the agenda is equally important. The thing that’s missing in all of this is spontaneity, getting called into a conference room on the spur of the moment because there’s someone with a good idea that you should meet. Walking by a coworker’s desk, seeing something unexpected and interesting on a person’s monitor and getting into a discussion about where it can lead. Bumping into a designer or a technical director who’s on the pursuit of a product that simply doesn’t exist. Proximity is a very powerful catalyst for innovation. Of the many reasons why the office is more important than ever, this one would be at the top of my list. 

Elizabeth Bonner: Well, Scott, this has been a really insightful conversation. We really appreciate you and your time today. 

Scott Star: It was an honor to be with you. 


See the products referenced in this podcast at the links below!