An Open Source: Designing on an Industrial Level

Louis-Charles Dufresne, Industrial Designer

Louis-Charles joined the LIFX team a year ago as the company's first Industrial Designer. With over five years of experience in fast paced environments, he jumped straight in and began work on a full range of new packaging and (yet to be announced) industry-leading products. In this interview, we deep dive into his experience in Industrial Design and how he sees this expertise can be applied to IoT products.

Head shot of Louis-Charles in black jumper bathed in purple and green light

You’re French-Canadian? Tell us a bit about your career to get to here?

Well, it’s been a bit of a sinuous path. To begin, I studied Product Design at Université de Montréal. During my last year at uni, I got a job as a designer for a modular shelving company that mostly serviced retail clients, providing merchandising and fit-out solutions for boutiques and showrooms. Looking back, it probably was not the most creative job however it completed my school education with solid project managing and PR skills. So after a year, I felt it was time for something different. And different it was. I joined the ranks of the design team at Mega Blocks / Mattel in Montréal as a toy designer for the collector studio. And it turned out to be an amazing fit! I got the opportunity to create construction sets and figurines for top tier video games licenses such as COD, Destiny, Halo, and get insights into this rapidly evolving industry. In a sense, this may have been my first contact with the tech industry so to speak. Anyway, working alongside senior designers, model makers, engineers and graphic designers really forged my understanding of what it meant to design products that would be manufactured by hundreds of thousands. 

 

Then at the beginning of 2019, my partner and I felt the timing was right to try and progress our careers overseas, which is something we always wanted to do. So we packed our lives in a couple of suitcases and moved to Australia. I also took this time to redefine my goals, get creative, work on my portfolio by doing (hypothetical?) projects and assess how I wanted to grow as an industrial designer. This helped me narrow down my job hunt and focus it mainly on two industries that I felt drawn to, furniture and tech. Little did I know, I’d end up meeting the right people at the right time and get a dream job at LIFX.


What makes a good Industrial Designer?

That’s a hard one. I hope it does not sound too cliché but always be eager to learn, overly curious and self-taught. Design is very much a hyperactive discipline and in order to be on top of your game, you not only have to be aware of new manufacturing methods, technologies, trends, materials, but also always be sharpening your skill set along the journey (which shouldn’t represent a big effort when design really is what you thrive for).  In my opinion, a good designer is someone who’s not afraid of experimenting, learning new softwares, building prototypes. Someone who is prepared to fail and start over multiple times, someone who keeps an open minded approach, stays nimble and bounces back with new solutions. Last but not least, I would add that empathy is an essential skill to have as a designer. Too often I see designers that opt out for their own preferences when in reality, the end user and their use of the product is what really matters.

 

Industrial Design requires close cooperation with Engineering. What have been your experiences bringing together these two skill sets when developing products?

It surely does! I think a product is most successful when both engineers and designers agree not to give in on easy solutions. Throughout my career, the best outcomes for products have always happened when working with problem solving people who care about releasing quality products. In most cases, it is not about finding a compromise, but about making both sides work perfectly together. When design enhances engineering and vice versa. 

Obviously, my job is to argue the look and feel of a product, the usability, the uniqueness. I remember when starting out at Mattel, I would come up with a very precise idea for a design and quickly our engineers would explain the limitations of production methods and how a certain plastic part could simply not be injected that way. I was lucky enough to work with engineers that were super keen on providing support and explaining technical aspects so that my next design would be up to the level. It goes without saying, there are plenty of engineers out there who are also great designers. Luckily for us at LIFX, we have one of those under our own roof. Shout out to Matt Redding!  

 

What do you think brands could be doing to make smart home products - technical in nature - more approachable?

I think that going back to the fundamentals of what makes for a pleasant interaction with objects of our everyday life is key. Cramming features into what I like to call a ‘frankenstein product’ is clearly not an avenue anymore. Even though tech is becoming an intrinsic part of our life nowadays, it still can be daunting for some. Human life expectancy keeps going up. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that tech should benefit an extensive range of people from various backgrounds and age groups. It may be easier to guide a 10 year old kid using a new app. He’s probably been using a tablet since he was born anyway. But the reality is that he will likely be using it along with people five times his age. It’s challenging  but it’s more than ever important to do so. We are at this moment in time where we can no longer ignore these principles. Not only do we need to think about usability but also about longevity of products. Smart homes and tech driven products should mainly be about serving people, not the other around. I think that ultimately it all comes down to one thing. It’s about making smart devices that run smoothly, are unobtrusive and solve real problems or pain points.

Secondly, I will always be an advocate for physical and tactile feedback on products. Whether it’s a small detail or a nice distinct finish on a material, our relationship with our most beloved products is usually influenced by such tiny details. It seems like there is a general tendency for smart devices and tech products to be designed with the intent of hiding everything behind a big shiny bright screen. No buttons, no nothing except a big nice interface. Even if some of the most successful smartphone companies have been doing it for awhile now, I strongly believe that it shouldn’t be the same for every single product that hits the market. It’s all about the usability of those devices in the end.

As humans, I believe we still love to touch, feel and gain direct feedback from our actions. It will always feel satisfying to turn a knob or a dial and immediately perceive a response triggered by this interaction. I think smart homes products have exploded in such a way in the last few years, that it's easy to forget about those meaningful interactions that tie us with our favourite products or brands. A good example that comes to mind would be all the latest stuff released by the Google team. The whole Google Home range (now Nest) is a great example of this. Even if the design intent was driven by the principles of AI and voice control, the result is still a beautiful little device that feels well at home in your house. By using new materials like textile and offering a distinctive colour palette that feels natural, it suddenly elevates the whole thing into a  product that defies the typical smart device. It blends well within our day to day environment. It’s functional, practical and distinctive enough while still feeling approachable.

 

If you could lay claim to being the designer of any product, what would it be?

Those who know me well know that I’ve always been a big fan of Nike and sneakers in general. Not only as a customer but also for the amount of effort that goes into researching new materials and technologies to push the boundaries of tech wear. Growing up, sports have always been a part of my life and as a designer, it’s hard to ignore how the equipment plays a role in athletes pushing new boundaries. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that If I could, I would love to be a part of a technical outerwear brand of some sort. Whether it would be being part of the design team at Nike and working on a crazy new type of innovative sole or working on a new highly technical shell jacket for the Arc'teryx Veilance line. In both cases, I’m sure that this would have the potential of being an incredible experience and journey.


But to clear though, I have absolutely zero experience in fabric and sewing patterns or techniques so I’m really dreaming here. Guess I’ll have to convince someone to teach me how to use a sewing machine!