Six Questions from Kicker: Robert Brunner

In honor of Device Design Day 2011, we’ve partnered with Core 77 to profile our exciting line up of speakers, and ask them our  Six Questions. For our eighth interview of the series — now only a few says from D3 — we’ve talked with Robert Brunner.

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for 7 years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. Around the same time, he helped launch the Beats by Dr. Dre brand of headphones with Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine and hip hop icon Dr. Dre.

Robert has received numerous awards for his work in product design from prestigious organizations such as IDSA, Red Dot, Good Design, and iF. His work is also included in the Museum of Modern Art product collections in New York and San Francisco. In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do you matter? How great design will make people love your company along with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He has also taught advanced product design at Stanford University.

He’ll be speaking at D3 about the notion of “Ideas, Not Objects,” and the importance of creating products that embody this principle.

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

This is hard to answer. I really don’t have a lot of things that I could describe as cherished. I have lots of things I like, and they tend to move in and out of “cherished” status. My Jasper Morrison “Low Pad” chairs are a long term love. Or my Eames benches that serve as coffee tables in my living room. But I guess my current cherish is my Audi S5. Love the car. Great merging of emotional/functional design, performance and sensitive detail. Above all I love the sound. It makes me feel great every time I drive it.

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

Again, tough question. Lots of great things where I wish I’d thought of it or participated in its development. If I had to pick one I’d say the Olivetti Divisumma 18 calculator by Mario Bellini. Really obscure (today) and old school, I know. But it was always an inspirational piece for me. Great marriage of form, function, material, use and manufacturing. Google it. Totally cool.

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

For as long as I can remember, I have always been about making things. Well before college, I was building things. Always fooling around creating something new in the garage. Being a designer affords me to fuel that passion on a day-to-day basis. Today, it’s not just about the objects, but also about building ideas, businesses and creating markets. But I inherited my father’s inventive side and my mother’s artistic side. So I really had no choice.

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

I really did not know what it meant until design school. I original studied engineering because it was what my dad did, and again, because I wanted to make stuff. But not until I stumbled into it on a trip to the art building did I know the industrial design profession existed. In retrospect, I was a designer back in 5th grade as I built bikes in my garage. I just didn’t know it then.

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

The most important lesson I have learned is that it’s not worth doing it unless its done right. This has been taught to my by the experience school of failed efforts and disappointments. Managing compromise is always part of the game in bringing things to market. But I’ve learned what the boundary conditions are of what it is that makes something great, and to fight hard not to cross them. At least then I can sleep at night.

What are 5 things all designers should know?

1. Perseverance. It’s hard to make great stuff. Never say die (for as long as you can).

2. Responsibility. You are driving things that will affect a lot of people, from your development partners and your clients, to the people who use the things you create. Don’t let it scare you or cause you to freeze up, but always be cognizant of the impact of your decisions.

3. How to communicate. Most designers do not know how to do this. Learn to write and speak well about your work. It will serve you for a long time and can be the difference maker.

4. Empathy. Learn how to put yourself in other’s shoes and see the situation and opportunities you’d miss from your eyes. It will make you very valuable

5. How to enjoy the journey. You have one of the best jobs in the world. It’s a long, wild ride, so have fun with it and don’t dwell too much on what went wrong. Keep your feet moving.


Don’t miss Robert’s presentation Ideas, Not Objects at Device Design Day,  This Friday, August 5th in San Francisco.