On this episode, we’re talking about shaping the world around us, one product at a time. Industrial design is all about inventing the future and humanizing technological innovation. To do this, we’re joined by Inna Lobel, award-winning designer, Creative Director, Head of Industrial Design and Interim Head of Ventures in frog’s New York studio.
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Design Mind frogcast
Episode 34: Shaping the World for Good
Guests: Inna Lobel, Head of Industrial Design North America & Interim Head of Ventures, frog NY
[00:09] Elizabeth Wood: Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood.
[00:24 Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about designing the physical products that shape the world around us. To do this, we’re joined by Inna Lobel, award-winning designer, Creative Director, Head of Industrial Design and Interim Head of Ventures in frog’s New York studio. During her eight years at frog, her years prior at Apple and her time as a Graduate Research Assistant at MIT Media Lab, Inna has worked with some of the best and brightest on an enormous volume of design work. Now leading industrial design at frog and as an adjunct professor at New York University, Inna is guiding her teams and her students in designing products that make it to market and make an impact on society. Here’s Inna now.
[01:07] Inna Lobel: Growing up you hear a lot about, like, architecture of the built environment. You hear about interior design. You hear about fashion design. But I don’t know what it is about products. Like, obviously everything in our world has to be designed. Of course it does.
[01:23] Inna Lobel: Design just combined all the things that I loved and sought out as a hobby. I loved making. I love learning about how the mind works. I loved engineering and solving problems. I love the idea of building a business. And design, because of that, was a very natural thing for me to pursue.
[01:42] Inna Lobel: My name is Inna Lobel. I am the Head of Industrial Design for frog North America. And I’m also currently the interim Head of Ventures for the New York studio.
[01:50] Inna Lobel: I didn’t actually know that design existed as a career until I took a class called Product Design and Development. And in this class, we worked in really small, collaborative cross-disciplinary teams. These teams were made up of students from design, from engineering and business, and we all worked together to go through the design process. We identified a need, we designed and built a product prototype, and we also developed a plan for bringing the product to market. And I really loved the notion of crossing boundaries and drawing from other disciplines. You know, it was a moment where all of a sudden I didn’t feel indecisive about what I wanted to do in life. You know, being curious about many different things really came together and to a design career in this really wonderful way.
[02:35] Elizabeth Wood: Industrial Design, called ID for short, is the process of designing physical products with an eye toward mass production. For Inna, her role leading industrial design at frog is all about imagining, making and scaling products that real people will interact with in their everyday lives.
[02:53] Inna Lobel: Industrial design is about humanizing technological innovation. And it’s about giving shape to technology in the way that makes it useful, usable, approachable, meaningful–to fit into the context of our lives. And over the years, that’s actually looked like a lot of different things. So in the beginning days of frog, we helped Apple give form to the Mac. And we developed a design language system for their existing line of products, and also predicted a future line of products. So, things like laptops and phone computers–so, like the iPhone. And we looked at this brief as developing a design language for a new type of product, Telecommunications for the consumer. Artificial intelligence products for the consumer. So what did those things look like when they come off of the lab and become more ubiquitous?
[03:46] Inna Lobel: When frog was founded, most people didn’t understand the role of ID. frog’s original collaboration with Apple in the 80s really helped to shape the modern understanding of design. Over the years, we’ve really been instrumental in figuring out: How do we incorporate technology into our lives? In the 90s technology evolved to include connectivity and digital experiences.
[04:08] Inna Lobel: At all of these junctures, we helped to answer some very important questions for our clients that helped to drive adoption. So one of those questions is how do we humanize emerging technologies? What is the design language? What are the paradigms that they should use? On the functional side, how do we make them easy to use? How do we make them ergonomic? How do we make them easy to understand? On the emotional side, how can we infuse products with meaning? How do we align them with our culture? Or even how should they shape cultural norms?
[04:39] Inna Lobel: We help our clients figure out how do we stand out in a crowded market? How do we differentiate our designs and make them visually and experientially compelling? How can we reinvent and shape the future whether in response to technological advances or cultural transformations? And what other possibilities lie within our technologies? What untapped markets can we explore and open up? So, this is really where my team and I spend most of our time: trying to really help clients answer one of these questions or you know multiple of these questions.
[05:12] Elizabeth Wood: For Inna, there is an important and distinct relationship between the practices of design and engineering, both of which are core to industrial design.
[05:22] Inna Lobel: Design and engineering are very symbiotic. They typically happen concurrently. And each plays a really critical role in the design process. They’re a little bit different and they play off of each other. On the design side, we’re really defining what we should make in order to improve the human experience. It threads the possibilities that are unlocked through the technological innovations that are happening, the ways that culture is evolving, human behavior, cultural, market realities, and ultimately, we’re designing very tangibly the experience we have as we move through the world. And when I say tangibly, I don’t necessarily mean just the physical experiences, but just the broader experience in the world.
[06:04] Inna Lobel: At frog, our engineers develop a feasible product architecture that bridges the gap between design concepts and their actual realization. And they’re really informing the evolution of design throughout the entire development process. They also look into the near and far future to define: Where is the technology going? What are the emerging technologies? What is going to be the impact of those emerging technologies, both, of course, experientially, but also on the product, right? And so they’re also kind of continuously looking at the horizon at which technologies will be ready for productization.
[06:38] Inna Lobel: When we’re looking into the future and thinking about, well, what could be, we combine what’s happening on the culture side with how technology is evolving, and we marry those kind of down the road. But at every step of the way, we do follow a human-centered design process. So whichever fork we take, it always converges and it’s always the question of, well, is this even–should we be making this? Is this something that answers a human need? Is this something that is worth pursuing? It’s actually one of my favorite spots of the design process is thinking like, well, what should be and then if that’s what it should be, is it supported by technologies? Like, how could we do that?
[07:19] Inna Lobel: As we’re ideating, we’re thinking about: What is the right interaction with the product? How does that product fit into our world? We now have more places to distribute that interface and the functionality. So on our end, we now have to spend a lot of time thinking about where should that functionality live? Should it live only on the product? What extra goodness do we get from part of the functionality migrating to the phone, for example? Are there additional opportunities and experiences that open up because of the data that these products provide? So there’s all these new considerations that we have. But fundamentally, we’re always thinking about: Is this the right thing for the product? Is it the right thing for the people? How do people want to interact with these products? And what else can we offer now that we have so many more tools to bring to the table?
[08:15] Elizabeth Wood: With so many important questions to answer, it can be difficult to know where to begin. For Inna, there is one methodology that she has kept coming back to throughout her career.
[08:26] Inna Lobel: This answer might be a little bit on the nose, but I think actually, like the human-centered design framework is honestly the most useful framework that I come back to again and again. We really want to be specific about who we’re designing for. And always keep that at the center of everything that we do and kind of use it as a benchmark and criteria when we’re making decisions. Like, okay, well, is this particular archetype of person going to benefit? Are they going to genuinely like the outcome? It sounds so simple because it’s kind of like, right in the title: human-centered design. But when I teach this framework in my classes, this is the one that people–the light bulb goes off, and people are like, “Oh, I get it. I see how all these things connect.”
[09:19] Inna Lobel: Yeah, it’s really important to be very specific about who you’re designing for because you can better cater to the needs. You can make a product or service or experience that’s genuinely useful and enjoyable for them. And it’s actually a really hard thing to do because it’s very easy to pile on features. And this kind of framing is the one that allows you to let go of the extra features and create a really crisp product and experience. It really ultimately gives you a competitive edge in the marketplace.
[09:57] Inna Lobel: I teach two courses at NYU: human-centered design and entrepreneurship. I teach both within the ITP department and at Stern. I teach students how to make sure that they’re addressing a need that somebody actually has. Again, I think that’s really important. I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong. I teach them both hard to identify and to solve for those needs. And because it requires dealing with a lot of ambiguity, I also teach students how to tackle these really broad, ambiguous, ambitious problems in a structured way. And they really love it. Like, there’s students that come to me and they’re like, “You know, after I took this class with you, I’m now redoing my entire thesis in order to follow the structure” or “I’m using this structure in order to develop my thesis work.” So that’s been really cool.
[10:41] Inna Lobel: It’s been really rewarding to teach students. I think it’s a really valuable problem solving tool. And the students always told me that they feel like this methodology grants them a superpower, which I agree because I think, with these really ambiguous problems, it’s really easy to get deer in the headlights and do nothing. And so this is a way for them to break down these really big problems into tractable segments that they can actually do. The students I have are really bright and they’re ambitious. I hope that they use this methodology to tackle really difficult problems, and that they feel empowered to launch their own business or product–and to make really big meaningful impact on the world.
[11:22] Elizabeth Wood: Of course, the world is in a constant state of flux. Inna shares several trends that are having a profound impact on the product design practice and telling a bigger story about how the products we interact with are shaping society at-large.
[11:37] Inna Lobel: I think impacting the design industry within the next five to 10 years, I think there’s two buckets that really do stand out to me. So the first one is this renewed emphasis on sustainability, circularity, regenerative practices, climate technologies. One, it’s very imperative that we figure this problem out. I think it’s really gotten to a point where people feel it. And so there’s a lot of enthusiasm for you solving that. I know at frog we’re all hands on deck on there. But I also just feel the world shifting, I really do. I think that everything is going to have to be rethought–our entire physical world, all the products. How we make the products? What products exist? How do we fix the infrastructure that we have? If we’re going to electrify everything, how do we do that? I think that’s probably going to be a seismic shift in the industry.
[12:37] Inna Lobel: No talk these days can really be complete without mentioning AI. But it’s also one of those things that at least at frog, you know, certainly that slack channel must be one of the most must be one of the most active Slack channels and I really haven’t seen another technology come about that has generated this much of a paradigm shift. And I think people are, you know, trying to figure out what exactly it means. I don’t see AI replacing designers. But I do you see that it’s a tool that’s really helping everybody increase their creative output.
[13:09] Inna Lobel: I really enjoyed reading the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The way that he describes storytelling as having this really central place in, in culture, and that’s something that I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. When you look at really good design work, I think story really bubbles up to a very important place. And it’s interesting because in some sense I think story can feel like a very trivial part of the work that we do. And in fact, I’ve found over the years that it’s a very important part–because that’s the thing that contextualizes the work that we do in our culture. That’s the thing that gives it meaning. And so I found that I actually spend a lot more time thinking about what could the story be. How is this related to kind of the progress that’s happening around us? And how we relate to each other? To our built environment? To the experiences we have?
[14:12] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Inna will share details about her award-winning work with Campfire, an AR/VR venture.
[19:16] Todd Taylor: Hi, I’m Todd Taylor, Executive Director of Marketing at frog, part of Capgemini Invent. frog is proud to be an official partner of the Cannes Lions 2023 Festival of Creativity. Join us in the frog Cabana at Cannes from June 19th to 23rd to talk Chief Challenges and Creative Confessions–and to hear discussion with experts from leading brands including Adobe, Forrester, Mercedes Benz, UN SDG and many more to be announced. Find out more by visiting cannes.frog.co. Check today’s show notes for a link. We hope to see you there.
[15:02] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Inna Lobel. During her time at frog, Inna has had the opportunity to bring her deep industrial design background into her work with some very ambitious organizations. One example was working with Campfire, a venture looking to transform physical product design collaboration for an increasingly virtual world. You can find a link to the case study in this episode’s show notes.
[15:25] Inna Lobel: Campfire was such a fun project. For those who aren’t familiar, Campfire is an AR/VR collaboration tool for distributed design and engineering teams, and includes a couple components. It has an AR/VR headset, a sensor pack that sits on a mobile phone that creates a really seamless interaction with this new type of technology. There’s a console and there’s a software suite.
[15:50] Inna Lobel: We helped Campfire with several things including brand strategy, brand identity, industrial design language system and pitch deck design. We did the entire project in the fall of 2020 while we were all working from home. It was truly the product that we wished we all had. And our collaboration helped them to raise an $8 million round of funding, which we’re really proud of and happy. So congratulations to Campfire. I actually just saw that today they became available to a much wider base so I’m excited to catch up with them about that.
[16:28] Elizabeth Wood: It was this work with Campfire that helped Inna earn a ‘Rising Star’ award from WIN, which stands for ‘Women in Innovation.’ This award was not only a chance for Inna to reflect on her career, but also more specifically to reflect on her experience as a woman in this sector.
[16:44] Inna Lobel: Women in Innovation is a nonprofit that was founded to close the gender gap in innovation. And the WIN award really celebrates individuals for creating products, services, experiences that are inventive and commercially successful. It was really a big honor to win this award. Innovation is really, really fast paced. We move from project to project. It’s really easy to be swept up in the day to day. Winning the award was a really special opportunity to step back and reflect and, yeah, honestly I don’t do that very often. So it was good to have that moment.
[17:22] Inna Lobel: Overall, I’ve had a very positive experience as a woman in design and engineering. I’ve had great teams, really supportive managers. Overall it’s really been for me a wonderful experience–probably most likely because of all the people that came before. I am definitely aware that I’m continuously judged in a way that my male counterparts are not. I’ve had to learn how to defend my views and share my perspectives while also coming across as approachable, welcoming, open and receptive.
[17:56] Elizabeth Wood: As interim Head of Ventures in frog’s New York studio, an entrepreneurial mindset is key–and this mindset has led her to becoming a mentor to the entrepreneurial community. Again, there’s always one key lesson Inna finds herself teaching more than any other.
[18:12] Inna Lobel: I’m very involved with the entrepreneurship community and I really enjoy doing this work. I help founders think through challenges related to product design and development as well as their go-to-market strategy. And I also help founders tell their stories so it’s really cohesive when they’re pitching. For me the benefits of being a mentor is just the opportunity to think about and be involved in and accelerate the bleeding edge of the technological and cultural edge of innovation. I really like that. I don’t know, I just genuinely enjoy talking to these entrepreneurs and helping them navigate.
[18:49] Inna Lobel: You know, at frog I’m very involved with our ventures practice here at frog. It’s one of my favorite things to to work on. And again for very similar reasons. I really enjoy giving shape to these new ideas. I love collaborating, thinking about how they can change the future. How do we stand out? How do we make these new inventions and innovations usable, useful, adoptable? So yeah it’s just a very big part of what I do and what I love?
[19:21] Inna Lobel: The biggest thing that I’m always talking about entrepreneurs with is: Who are you designing for? I was just talking to a friend of mine who started a company, and it’s going great, I’m very proud of him. But he was telling me that, like, when we talked, he was like, two months into his company, and I was kind of asking him, well, who are you designing for? You know, who’s the archetype? And, you know, who have you talked to? And he said that that actually really impacted his entrepreneurial journey. And he took nine months to go and talk to all of these potential users to really hone in on the value proposition. That was really wonderful to hear. And I have to say, I think he’s doing great. Even though it’s one of those things that I’ve already said, honestly, I think so much of it boils down to: Do know who you’re designing for? And what are their behaviors? What are their genuine needs and pain points so that you can tailor the product to actually answer those? You don’t want to create a product that nobody uses.
[20:27] Elizabeth Wood: To Inna, individual programs don’t live in a vacuum. Design decisions made on each project have lasting impact, whether that means defining a new product category or influencing future product design standards. This is not a responsibility she takes lightly–and it has required some pretty intensive design research.
[20:48] Inna Lobel: One example of this was when we designed the Tetra countertop dishwasher. You know, all of a sudden, we reinvigorated that market for countertop dishwashers. There were lots of new entrants into the market. And they’re all using these new interaction paradigms that we invented. It changed that whole category. So through the products that we’re doing, we’re also shaping the product categories. We’re creating new categories. And we’re also influencing the environmental impact through those decisions that we’re making. And so being mindful of this, this is one of the things that I want to make sure of: When we’re doing the work that we’re doing, we’re shaping the world for good and we’re being really intentional with the decisions that we’re making because they are radiating out from what we do.
[21:34] Inna Lobel: frogs are creative. They’re smart. They’re kind. Fearless. They really want to get to the truth of it. And, you know, are really meticulous about, well, is this the right question that we’re solving? Let’s make sure we’re asking the right question here. I think our clients have been really amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to work with startups, which I love, to Fortune 50 companies. And all of these are really prioritizing the value of good design–this opportunity to work on the future. Always being kind of at that periphery has really kept me here.
[22:14] Inna Lobel: All the things that brought me here again, they remain to be true. I really love solving those big difficult, meaningful, multidisciplinary problems and putting people at the center of the design process. When I think back to all the projects that I’ve had the opportunity to do, my first project was designing the future of connected motorcycle riding. In order to build empathy with riders, I had to go and get my motorcycle license. So that was, you know, what a great introduction. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to Italy to learn about how world-class baristas form more meaningful relationships with their customers and how those types of espresso machines are built to be horizontal and lower so the baristas can actually engage with their customers.
[23:03] Inna Lobel: I’ve had the opportunity to define several categories of products, to, you know, working on medical devices and mobility and autonomous scooters and direct air capture machines. I’ve worked on a positive air pressure mask, which we started designing in the studio in March 2020 and ended up designing in our homes. Worked with headphones for the AI age and AR/VR collaborative technologies. So all of these have really, I think, been a lot of fun. They’ve allowed me to work on where the technology is going.
[23:43] Inna Lobel: I think another thing I really appreciated is just this ability to move across both industries and disciplines. So the projects that I’ve worked on and led have been multidisciplinary. You know, we’ve had to develop a brand. We’ve had to develop strategy. We’ve had to design pitch decks and develop a visual design language and tractions with the products in addition to industrial design, of course. It’s been wonderful to be here. Kind of surreal to reflect upon it, actually, in this moment. Yeah, it’s been a journey.
[24:20] Elizabeth Wood: In a world that has become so concerned with all things digital, it’s easy to overlook the impact of the hardware we engage with on a day-to-day basis. During our conversation, Inna warned against this, and offered some advice for keeping on the right track.
[24:35] Inna Lobel: It’s really important to realize how much our day to day is really impacted by the things that we interact with in the physical world. And I think that there has been a discounting of that. But I think it’s actually wrongly discounted. I think that if people didn’t get to move through the rituals that they’ve created and use the products that they love, I think it’s going to be a little bit frustrating. The motto that I really like is “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
[25:08] Inna Lobel: A lot of the things that we do, they require you to kind of just dive in. I really like to be learning all the time. I like to be learning new things. I like to think about what’s happening across different industries. The “stay hungry” part, I think, speaks to that. And I think “stay foolish” grants you this opportunity or it grants you the permission to go into something new–and it being okay that you’re not an expert in it. And I think in fact, in the work that we do, those two things really come together in a nice way. Because, you know, you want to be thinking about something new. You want to be looking at something new with fresh eyes.
[25:51] Inna Lobel: The work that we’re doing requires you to ask questions that the experts have missed–to see those questions, to notice those questions and to trust that those are the right questions to ask. I think it’s a really important lens that we bring to our work, is this questioning lens, that really comes from being an outsider. I think it’s what allows us to rethink an industry, to rethink a product, to rethink an experience that’s always been done in a certain way.
[26:25] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank Inna Lobel, award-winning Creative Director, Head of Industrial Design and Interim Head of Ventures in frog New York. Thanks for giving a voice to the value and lasting impact of industrial design.
[26:50] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. That’s frog.co. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.