This interview is part of a series of staff profiles on Product Ventures’ talented staff. Below are excepts from an interview with Industrial Designer David Clarkin and Industrial Design Team Leader Luis Gutierrez.
Luis Gutierrez Montenegro is one of Product Ventures’ Industrial Design Team Leaders and has worked for the agency for over 6 years. Luis has led design projects with Product Ventures’ biggest clients including PepsiCo, Keurig Dr Pepper, Unilever, and Henkel. Luis began his career in Mexico where he worked on automotive design. He later moved to the United States to work at Product Ventures. His work at Product Ventures has won multiple packaging design awards including the AmeriStar Award and Worldstar Global Packaging Award.
David Clarkin is Product Ventures’ Industrial Designer and has worked for the agency for nearly 2 years. David began his career in display and exhibit design before applying his skillset to industrial design for Product Ventures. A native New Englander, David’s interest in design began at a young age through sketching conceptual floor plans for houses. In school he first began to pursue graphic design before discovering and switching to industrial design.
Do you have to explain what your job is to your family and friends? Do they understand what you do? How do you approach that conversation?
David Clarkin (DC): I do have to explain it all the time. And usually, I’ll tell them industrial designers are responsible for the look and feel of something like a shoe, a car, a piece of furniture, a cell phone. We’re not engineers, because we look at the human side of things rather than things like the type of material, structural elements and those kinds of tasks. How does a product feel? How do you interact with it? What does it look like? What associations are we tying into this product? That’s where we come in.
Arthur Augustyn (PV): Do you have much success with that explanation?
DC: [laughs] It comes out different every time.
Luis Gutiérrez (LG): My mom still thinks I do graphic design.
PV: Is that the most common job people assume you do?
LG: My wife’s family will talk to me about graphic design and they’ll say, “you’re a graphic artist, you should know a lot about this.” At first, I tried to correct them. Now I’m like, “Yeah, totally. I’m a graphics expert.” [laughs]
How did you hear about Product Ventures in the first place?
LG: I was back in Mexico. I was looking for a job, I used to work for a company called Air Design. They designed aftermarket parts for cars. I’m not a car person, so I felt so out of place. The work was cool because I did a lot of sketching and I got to see a lot of the process of injection molded parts. The work was cool, but I wasn’t really loving it. I started searching for a new job everywhere. I wanted to go out and see what was out there. I checked out China, the UK, Spain… really everywhere. I didn’t think I was going to go to the United States. It seemed so far off in terms of getting selected. There’s so much competition. If you think of industrial design, you think of the US. The industry is very, very prominent here.
PV: Would you say that’s generally true? Industrial design is mostly in the United States?
LG: I think — now that I’ve been in the industry for a while — maybe it was a little bit naïve to think it was primarily the US. There’s clearly a lot of really good industrial design everywhere, but I think at that point — when I was fresh out of college — I thought it would be impossible to get a job in The United States. I had a couple interviews, but nothing really materialized. Finally, when I was about to take a step back and reevaluate things, that’s when Product Ventures called. It was almost destined to be.
It was funny because I had already accepted a different job when I got the offer from Product Ventures. I had to tell the other employer “Yeah… you know I’m ‘starting’ this week,” when I wasn’t actually starting. That other job was going to be another car-focused job. It wasn’t something I was passionate about. I know Sean wants to kill me for that.
PV: Yes, in our other interview with Sean Evelich he talked about being a gearhead. David, I wanted to get your perspective because I know you started down a different career path before coming to Product Ventures.
DC: It’s funny. I had an internship in high school doing packaging design. Somehow in the four years I was working at that internship, I didn’t actually know what an industrial designer was [laughs]. I was doing industrial design work and I was working under an industrial designer who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but I never put two and two together. I went to community college and I was just doing general studies when I took a graphic design class and thought “this is cool.” Then my sister, who had some friends in the industrial design program at RISD, said I should check it out, and I realized this is how people design cars.
PV: The car dynamic returns.
DC: I was really into cars and car design. I’m not into the mechanicals of cars — just the design, the marketing, and the human experience side of it. Throughout college I fell in love with graphic design, then decided to go to the University of Bridgeport to study industrial design. I heard about Product Ventures pretty early on because there were a lot of people I knew who were interning or working here. For instance, I was in the class before Sean.
PV: Oh, so you had diverging paths?
DC: Yeah, he started interning here in college and has been here ever since, whereas I boomeranged. I finished my degree at the University of Bridgeport and got a job doing display design — retail displays for a lot of seasonal things. It was a lot of “back to school” for Staples, holiday designs for alcohol brands, and a bunch of different store retail displays for golf and firearm brands. I then transitioned to another role doing exhibit design for tradeshow booths at big expos and corporate events. Then the pandemic hit and the industry tanked. I took some time off, thinking the industry would come back sooner than it did. During that time, I saw a job posting for Product Ventures and I thought “Oh, I know Product Ventures,” so I emailed Sean. That’s how I got here.
Do you remember meeting each other?
LG: It was interesting. Before David started working at Product Ventures, I had too many teammates. We had someone who left, another one changed teams, then another, and then the pandemic. It was tough. It was a little bit hectic. David came in and… that was it. We found our flow very quickly. It’s super important to have someone you can be open with about what is working and what isn’t working. I feel like it’s really important to have a team that finds its flow and I’ve had that since working with David. You learn early on in industrial design there should not be egos and David and I work together very well. We can focus on what’s important: does a product look good? Does the client like it? And that’s it.
PV: Was there a specific missing link that David filled?
LG: It’s his reliability. The fact you have people on a team who can say “I’m going to take care of this,” and a day later — or three hours later, whatever it is — it’s done. There is no need to look over anyone’s shoulder like I’ve had to do in my past experiences. That’s true for everyone at Product Ventures. People take initiative. I don’t have to tell my team what they have to do because they already know their tasks in advance.
PV: David, since you were coming from a different industry, was there something unique that stood out about Product Ventures or working with Luis specifically?
DC: I don’t know if I can describe it, but we do have a good complementary set of skills and understanding.
LG: I feel like I’m not the most organized person. I mean… I am organized, but David takes it to a different level. He’s really well-organized and meticulous. It’s nice that — in addition to being really creative — he has those strong organizational skills. He knows Photoshop and if I’m doing something in a way that’s messy. He structures files with more organization. You can see it just by looking at them. He brought the team’s organizational abilities up a step. Before he joined, our work was good, but it was a bit noisy. Now it feels exactly as it should be — like a very well-organized team. You can see our projects’ stories from beginning to end and really see how the process has been working. That’s hard to find. It’s tough to find a flawless team like ours.
DC: On the other hand — coming in as someone new to the workflow and approach here — it was great to have Luis who knows how projects work. He’s done such a huge number of projects, that he always has a sense of what needs to be done and what order things need to be done in. I had to learn a lot from the start. In my past jobs, design was a means to an end — the manufacturing of a display or booth — but here it’s service our clients buy, so the process is much more in depth. We spend way more time in research, strategy, form language, and all of those things were new to me when I started — especially at the level of quality we do here. The work is more collaborative too. I’ve learned so much from just watching what Luis is doing and then trying to keep up.
When did you know you were interested in design? Was there a hobby or interest from when you were younger that stands out as an early indicator of your interest?
LG: I’ve always liked drawing and it used to just be my hobby. I would always be sketching. This was before college. In middle school — or even younger when I was a kid — I was always sketching or drawing. When I started thinking about what I had to do, I was leaning towards some sort of arts or something. I was thinking about getting an art major… which I don’t think my parents were excited about [laughs].
DC: Design can be a hard sell too.
LG: Exactly. Design is a hard sell and art in Mexico is going to be even worse. I thought about going into architecture, but it seemed too rigid — more math and engineering. I know that’s a misconception about architecture, but it seemed that way at the moment I was thinking about it. I felt more confident after my high school had an industrial designer come talk to one of my classes. They showed a video about industrial design. After I saw the video, I was like “This is it. I want to do industrial design.” I just wanted a job where I could use my hands to sketch. That was it.
DC: For me, when I got to high school, I loved architecture. I taught myself to model in SketchUp and how to do renderings. In middle school I was drawing floor plans whenever I had a free minute. Throughout my whole childhood I would imagine my dream houses with spiral staircases and hidden passages. I don’t think there was a natural leap from that to industrial design, but industrial design ties into those things that I like — in terms of taking an idea and making it tangible. It’s the same idea with my experience of architecture. If I have a concept for a house, can I figure out what it looks like, feels like, how big it is, how someone moves through it, and how it fits in all the things for a house to be complete? I like the part of design where you explore a concept then reign things in and make it real.
LG: That’s usually the tough part.
Is there a specific aspect of industrial design that keeps you engaged each day?
LG: Definitely the diversity of projects. If you were working for a corporation for one specific industry as an industrial designer — you would be doing the same kind of work all day. In our case, it’s different every day. One day you can be designing a dumbbell and the same day you’re working on a bottle for a toilet cleaner brand, then you’re doing a gallon jug for a water company. There is no “comfort zone” in industrial design. Once you’ve managed the idea of designing a bottle… now you have to switch to “how do you design furniture?” “How does glue dispense?” “How do you pour water ergonomically?” A product’s design tells a story and you have to do that while also making it easy to manufacture for our client’s line. These are all little things you have to catch up on. I know a lot more now than when I started, but I don’t feel like I’m an expert at anything. The more I learn, the more I see how this work is very complex. You’re always learning. It’s challenging and fun. Of course, there are still some boring tasks — like any job — but I would say maybe 80 percent of this job is fun.
DC: The variety is a huge benefit. Something I’ve really enjoyed learning here is the actual consumer research side of things. Seeing our digital ethnographies, focus groups, and researching a specific product or industry — it’s been so interesting. Towards the end of the process, when we do focus groups, it’s fascinating to see how people react to what we’ve designed. I’ve learned so much about empathizing with the end user through research, rather than designing in a vacuum and trying to make something that I think looks good. It’s different when you’re designing to meet a need or solve a problem and striving to do so in an elegant way.
How does Product Ventures differ from other workplaces?
DC: The amount of resources here has been mind-blowing. We have an engineering team, a prototyping team, a graphic design team, a research team, in addition to all the industrial designers. Seeing the synergy between all those different parts and — as industrial designers — we have the ability to talk to any of those people about any part of the project where it’s their expertise and we get real feedback. Or when we hand things off, we know they’re going to make a gorgeous model of this product that is going to look amazing.
What I really like about our engineering team is they understand so many different processes and manufacturing equipment specifics. The number of variables changes every time we have a new client. The fact our engineering team knows what the general principles are but also the details of how the machines work — I’m just amazed by that.
LG: Definitely the most unique thing is there are so many disciplines at Product Ventures. We differentiate ourselves from other places because everyone here — whether they’re in engineering, graphics, research, or prototyping — is super, super talented. I’ve worked in places where it’s hard to get a grasp of how other teams work because there’s not a lot of crossover or communications between teams. If you want to make things work at the pace that we make things work, you have to be in touch with design, engineering, and research all the time. This allows you to get a good grasp of how good they are at their job. I can come up with an idea for a sketch, discuss it with our engineers for an hour, then a couple hours later they have a model we can approve. We send it to prototyping who cuts it and I can hold it in my hand. I can take that prototype and show it to our graphics team and see different ways to design the graphics for it. All those things happen in a day. In other places, the work is very slow paced.
PV: There are other agencies that say they have the same multidisciplinary capabilities, but typically that’s because they’ve outsourced teams to other partners rather than having it in-house, correct?
LG: Exactly. If we outsourced another agency to do something like graphics — you have no idea what they’re doing. You’d hand it off and hope for the best. At Product Ventures, we’re working with the graphics team and they’re working with us. We do holistic design and that’s how it should be.
What do you think is the connective personality trait for people who work here?
DC: There’s a high level of pride in our work. Regardless of the discipline they’re in, people here want to do the best job possible, and they have the skills and talent to achieve it. We all appreciate that in each other. I can even admit it’s hard for me to appreciate my own talents and skills, but I get great feedback from my colleagues all the time. As a whole, we are all trying to produce excellent products and that work ethic is what drives us as a company.
LG: One thing I’d add is the fact we’re not a massive company means we have a more familiar dynamic with our colleagues. Whereas in other workplaces, there’s a little bit of a wall there. I don’t think that is the case here. We all want the best for everyone and there are no egos in that sense. What I like about working here is no one ever gatekeeps ideas or information. The individuals that work here always have a willingness to help. If I have a question, I can just jump on a conversation with Sean. He’ll spend an hour with me fixing something and I would do the same with him. There is always this flexibility of “your project is also my project, because I work here too.” If someone is struggling to meet a tight deadline, there is never the feeling of being alone in it because everyone wants to help out and make it work.
DC: Even the office is setup that way. We have this central area with desks and it makes it really easy to walk over to a prototyper, or another designer and ask them a question. There are no long hallways, everything is less than 30 seconds away.
PV: You two literally face each other. You even got standing desks so you can talk directly.
LG: At first, I didn’t know if I wanted a standing desk. Then David got one and I thought “Well now I want one” [laughs].
DC: Josue and James are getting them too, so we’ll have our standing pod.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on in your time here?
DC: There are two that stand out to me as most interesting so far. One was a project looking at inclusivity. We had to solve questions like: what might be a challenge for a specific age group? Or how would you design something for a person with arthritis who can’t necessarily apply pressure reliably? It was taking a piece of packaging and following the consumer through the entire lifecycle to see what the challenges might be based on different levels of abilities. It was really interesting to learn about the human body and to expand my empathy for people’s experiences. It was eye-opening.
Another project I really enjoyed was a project about hydration. We were looking at a client’s next generation of packaging. We were considering what they might do if the single-use water bottle was dead and consumers didn’t use them anymore. We researched different companies that are doing things well, but not necessarily in the hydration space and translated those connection points to this brand. We looked at standalone water filters and stores you could go to and fill up your reusable water bottle, but also accessories to remind you to stay hydrated or making the product easier to carry on-the-go. We came up with so many different avenues for that project.
LG: I worked on the hydration project too. That’s definitely up there for me too. It was an approach I really enjoyed a lot.
PV: You both worked on that project? Was there a project you liked where you didn’t work together?
DC: Every project I’ve done, Luis has been on [laughs].
LG: Yeah… I think the project we’ve done lately where we’ve been able to do more of the strategic design part — I think that’s the fun part. Any agency has good designers that can design a cool looking water bottle or detergent bottle. What differentiates us is there’s a bit more strategic thinking behind an idea. It’s not all hypothetical of course. It’s based in ethnographies with research and a lot of cross communication between teams that leads us to coming up with a strategy for the client. Those are the projects I enjoy the most — when there’s a bit of freedom and different avenues to work on. The conversation is focused on strategic territories your product could land on and different interpretations of those territories — born out of hypotheses of your own experiences with the clients and interviews with consumers. All of those factors lead to very different designs. I think that’s cool. There’s a lot of strategic thinking behind it. I enjoy that because it’s less about the aesthetics, the ergonomics, and visuals. It’s much deeper. It’s about the meaning of the products. When you have a territory and a strategy, the design part is almost a science. To get there you have to really push and pull and mold this amorphic blob that starts taking shape more and more. I like that because it makes things more challenging.
What’s a personality trait or skill someone needs beyond being good at their job to work at an agency?
LG: I touched on this a little bit earlier, but patience is one thing. I mentioned not having an ego. It is very important to come in open-minded and to do what’s best for everyone, not what’s best for you. If you have an ego, you’re going to get frustrated. It’s not always your design that gets picked. You have to be very open. The more you let go of your ego, then you start picking up that your other teammates also have good ideas. Whereas in other places, the communication between teams might be lacking. It’s best to have the mindset “I did my best. The team can do whatever they can with my design for the project.” It’s important to have a good sense of what’s best for the bigger picture.
PV: In a way, the environment here is almost designed to be ego-annihilating. You can’t say “our designers, and the consumers, and our clients don’t understand my idea is actually the best!” At some point, too many people are disagreeing with you.
DC: Yeah, it’s really a collaborative atmosphere. The idea of not having an ego to protect has helped me learn so much about helping other people and asking for help myself. I know I can rely on others if I’m stuck somewhere — either to leverage their expertise or their time — to get something done and done well.
Do you have prior experience that set you up for the fast-paced environment of an agency?
LG: In a way — designing in college. I hate saying that because I feel any major would say “mine was tougher,” but I do remember my college experience involved a lot of training, having three classes with three different deliverables, and many times it was a same-day deliverable. I remember, most of my school’s buildings would be closed at 2 am except the architecture and industrial design buildings which still had their lights on. There were always so many things to do and it was very fast-paced. At Product Ventures, I think that’s huge too. There is a pride about working here. You see some work from other places and you ask yourself “this took you four months?” We do big projects much faster. That’s partly because of our process and our access to other teams, but also our skill and the talent of our staff.
DC: I think for me, there’s a huge contrast from my prior work experience. Here the projects have so much more consideration in each step of the process. I’ve worked at jobs where the entire design for a project can be completed in one day and that doesn’t happen here. But the amount of work we do in our timeframe is mind-blowing to me when I step back — or zoom out on our Miro board. I’ll think to myself “We did that many sketches? We did that much research? We did that many CAD models?” It’s really cool to see. When you’re going through it one step at a time, it’s fast-moving, but it always feels manageable.
LG: When you find yourself saving revision 25 of the “final” document… Like today, I started saving my textures and it was literally “bumpmap_55.” [laughs]
DC: Third time’s the charm? [laughs]
PV: Or 55th’s the charm. Version 56 is really going to be the one that works.
What would you say to people who are considering working here?
DC: I was super intimidated to work here. All throughout college I thought “there’s no way I’ll be good enough to work at Product Ventures.” And it’s true, I had a lot to learn when I started here, but the atmosphere is so collaborative and the people are so willing to help and teach. I have found it to be such a joy to work here, it didn’t turn out to be an intimidating atmosphere by any means.
LG: You should have a lot of patience. I’ve seen a lot of times where interns or designers come here and get frustrated quite fast because everyone’s talented. It happened to me when I made a sketch and I saw all the other designers’ sketches and thought “God, I have a lot to work on.” To David’s point, everyone is really willing to help you. You need to put in the work and then it will eventually turn around and you’ll start seeing how it becomes easier, but it takes a lot of patience. You also need to be patient with clients while trying to find your flow. Once you find that, I think that’s half the battle.
DC: Another thing I’d add is working here is very much an industrial designer’s dream. The resources, the way projects are set up, the processes we go through — it is a very complete and ideal industrial design process.
LG: Yes, one hundred percent. I have friends that went to school as industrial designers and I don’t know when the last time they actually put pen on paper. Other industrial design jobs can be disconnected from the artistic aspect. What’s cool here is we have the engineering part of the process, but it’s definitely still artistic. Like when we do sketching or concept generation weeks, that’s so much fun. You put your headphones on, look at your tablet and start sketching. That’s the fun part.
DC: The other fun part is the refinement phase, when we’re working with the engineers to get CAD down. When we get to see a foam version of our work, we get the real feeling of the design before doing more iterations. That hands-on part is super informative.
What are your favorite movies?
PV: Luis, both you and Sean are big into movies so I’ll ask you about movies too. Sean gave me a wild list. Laura’s was also odd.
LG: Mine is going to be very stereotypical. A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite movies. I watch it once every couple of years. I still think it’s a masterpiece.
PV: One of our first conversations was when you told me your interest in movies is because you like really sad and depressing movies.
LG: Is it. Yeah, I like sad and dark movies. There’s something cool about a movie making you feel terrible. When you realize, “Oh man, that movie made me feel horrible.” That’s cool.
PV: Like, the filmmakers had an emotion they wanted to convey and they successfully put it into your experience?
LG: Yeah. I feel bad for a movie character. I think that’s cool. It’s easier for a movie to make you laugh than it is to make you sad. Or really the feeling of dread. That feeling of “I cannot watch this anymore.” I love that. A Clockwork Orange is good at that. I also loved Sound of Metal. That’s more of a happy movie. Or maybe a more realistic one.
PV: David, do you have similar taste in movies?
DC: My favorite movie is The Emperor’s New Groove [laughs].
PV: A perfect point of comparison for you two. I haven’t seen that one.
DC: It was produced by Disney, but it’s not a “Disney” movie. It’s characteristically an entirely different movie without any of the Disney sauce. It’s just ridiculous, over-the-top, and uncalculated because they produced it in like six months.
PV: That’s a good answer. I appreciate the nuanced response. Thanks for chatting guys!
LG: Thank you.
DC: Thank you.