Six Questions from Kicker: Ted Booth

For the sixth installment in our Six Questions series, Kicker
interviews Ted Booth.


Ted leads interaction design in the New York office of Smart Design. Prior to joining Smart, Ted led interaction design at Motorola Enterprise Mobility (formerly Symbol Technologies) working on a wide range of mobile computers, RFID devices, remote management software services, and desktop and mobile software applications. Ted also served as Interaction Design Director at Method, where his clients included Autodesk, Gucci, Johnson & Johnson, HP, Microsoft, and Palm. He began his design career as an interaction designer at MetaDesign in San Francisco. He holds a Masters of Design from Illinois Institute of Technology.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

There are these little glass jam jars with tin tops that I got from my grandmother, who I think bought them back in the 40’s. I don’t know where she got them but they were just your average dime store variety jars, from a time before plastic was widely used. They were friction fit — no threads or anything else to hold the tops on. When I was a little kid she’d send the jars as gifts each full of the apricot or strawberry jam she’d made; each sealed with wax on top. We’d have to pop off the tin tops and dig through the wax to get to the jam inside. They remind me of her of course, and of the jam. But they also make me think of the time when she bought them and what it was like to live in a world without plastic. They were cheap jars and yet had a level of detail and craftsmanship that you don’t see much any more at the low-end of the consumer goods market. These days we use the jars in my family for holding nuts and leftovers and such. We don’t use them for jam any more, but that’s another story.

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

I’ve always been interested in restaurant systems but have never designed one.  There are so many interesting problems there: hardware and software problems, objects in the environment, and digital systems. It’s very task oriented and repeatable but there are lots of exceptions, such as substitutions, daily specials, etc, all contained in one environment. It’s something that’s easy to relate to, as we see it all the time. Restaurants have multiple users with very distinct contexts – cooks, bartenders, waiters, customers. Plus with repetitive tasks there’s a lot of motor memory, physical patterns people get used to, and quick visual scans. It’s not an obviously glamorous problem set, but here’s a lot of interesting stuff packed in there; and there’s a lot of room for improvement and opportunities using new technologies.

3. What excites you about being a designer? Why do you keep doing it?

So many things excite me about being a designer. It’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else. First, there’s always something new, particularly as a consultant. Every few months brings new projects, new clients, new technologies, new products and industries, and most importantly new design challenges. Even in an established client relationship, there are always new developments, new ideas brewing, new things to explore.

I love the iterative nature of design – the discovering, shaping and making sense of what you’re doing as you go – that is something that goes beyond a job or profession. It never ceases to amaze me that you can never quite tell where the best idea will come from. So the challenge is often one of keeping your eyes open, of listening and seeing, and being able to recognize a good idea when it presents itself – often in subtle and not-so-obvious ways.

Lastly, coming up with an idea is really just the beginning. It’s the crafting of the idea into a real, working thing that is a truly exciting experience. Making an idea come alive, into something that makes sense, is then made and put into the market, and then connects with people in a meaningful way — that’s the hard part. Craft in design is something that has of late been somewhat downplayed, seen as easily commodified and outsourced. “Design thinking” is getting all the attention and is seen by some as the real future of the profession, at least here in the States. Personally, I have my doubts and I think we downplay the importance of craft at our own peril. It’s exciting and fun to have the ideas, to do the hard thinking, but it’s more important (and harder and more rewarding I think) to make those ideas truly real, to make those big ideas come through in all the little details. That’s the stuff that is really hard.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a designer?

My undergrad is actually not in design, so I didn’t think of myself as a designer back then. I did a lot of art back then – drawing, sculpture, music, etc – but didn’t think of myself as an artist either. I started getting into design after college and went to grad school at the Institute of Design at IIT.  Once I’d graduated, I liked to think “yeah I’m a designer now”, but I was so green. I couldn’t really think it or say it with much conviction. I spent the next 6-7 years designing websites, so I thought of myself a web designer, but not really a Designer. It wasn’t until I got off the PC so-to-speak — when I started working across multipe types of devices, working with industrial designers like those at Symbol and Smart, where I had to deal with phyiscal as well as cognitive and UI issues — that’s when I really felt I was a designer.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned, and who taught it to you?

Whenever I’m in a meeting, I always think in the back of my head, “what can I do to make this a productive moment? How can I help move this conversation along, in a good direction?” I think about who the people are, what they’re looking for, what they’re trying to say, how they might be approaching the situation … those kinds of things. Then I try to engage in a way that moves things forward. The VP of design at Symbol, Alistair Hamilton, mentioned this to me at one point, as something he does. I’ve found it to be really useful and effective.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

1) Big eyes, big ears – pay attention, listen, and observe the world around you. Subtleties make a big difference.
2) Never forget craft  – how things come together, and how they respond. The design of the little things is as important as the big picture. An idea is the beginning, it’s how you realize that idea — the nuances of a well-crafted experience, product, interface, story, presentation, workshop, etc. It’s a lot of the roots of design training.
3) You never know where the idea will come from. It’s about recognizing it when you see it, and being open to those moments.
4) Stay humble. It’s rarely about you. Connect with people in their daily lives, that’s what matters. (But hell, if you want to be a celebrity then go for it)
5) Know your material and design in it. If you’re working in injection-molded plastic, you need to now how it works. The same is true for interaction design.