Dan Harden - Whipsaw Inc.

Dan is President, CEO, Principal Designer and cofounder of Whipsaw Inc., a highly acclaimed design firm in the Silicon Valley.

Whipsaw designs products and experiences for major companies around the world including Google, Cisco, GE, Intel, Merck, Nike, Olympus, Samsung and many others. Dan directs the strategic and conceptual direction of most accounts and his focus is in technology design where he strives to make complex products simpler, friendlier, more meaningful, and more beautiful.

Throughout his prolific career Dan has designed hundreds of highly successful products. In his early career he helped design the first digital camera for Polaroid, the Acer Aspire line, the original Logitech pointing devices, and the first digital answering machine for AT&T. In his mid-career he worked with Steve Jobs on NeXT computers, Larry Ellison on the Oracle Network Computer and Rupert Murdoch on satellite TV systems. He recently designed many hit tech products including the Google Chromecast, Dropcam security cameras, Livescribe computer pens, Eton emergency radios, Cisco Telepresence systems, Intel healthcare tablets, and Pano Logic, the first “zero client” computer.

Dan has won over 200 design awards and has been granted over 250 design and utility patents. His work is in the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Museum, the Chicago Athenaeum, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Dan's views and work have been featured in Business Week, CNN, Domus, Fast Company, Fortune, Metropolis, Newsweek, Time, and Wired. Prior to founding Whipsaw in 1999, Dan was the President of Frogdesign for ten years, and a designer at Henry Dreyfuss Associates, HP, George Nelson Associates, and Richardson Smith. Dan graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture and Art in 1982.

Whipsaw Design & Engineering: http://www.whipsaw.com/


What are you most trying to accomplish in your work?

Most people benefit from having material things and technology in their lives, but we humans produce mountains of stuff that is often not needed, hard to use, ugly, and gets thrown away too soon. Using my crafts of design and innovation I try to counter that by creating products, brands and experiences that touch or help people in more meaningful and lasting ways. Creating products that are relevant to what we need as individuals and societies; creating products that make life easier, safer or more fun; creating design that is inseparably functional and beautiful at the same time; and imbuing technology with emotion and identity so that it can succeed, is what I seek to accomplish in my work.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

I try to be as unique as possible without sacrificing the needs of the end user for the sake of design, so people say my work is distinctive but at the same time empathic.

I like holistic design where every element of a product or experience makes an essential contribution, without extraneous contrivances. In other words I like to make complex things simple.

I don’t practice only one particular style like some designers because brands and consumers are all different. The key to me is to find that special essence of a given experience, then shape it and give it a voice. This user experience driven approach applies to many diverse fields, allowing me to design cool consumer electronics and computers, useful housewares, fun kid products, and serious medical and scientific equipment.

For product design to impact the world you have to get it manufactured and into the hands of end users, so I push to get as much good design to the market as possible, which sets us apart. To do that you need to work very effectively with people, especially your client whom you need to collaborate with, challenge, and build trust with. I believe in that so much that I named my company Whipsaw after this dynamic reciprocal action between two parties.

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

I was a curious kid that loved to draw, paint and take things apart to figure out how something worked. I built a lot of dangerous things from scratch like go-carts, rockets and explosives. My nice suburban neighborhood in Ohio was quite noisy because of me. Through all that my parents never once wavered in their support of my creative meanderings. They always encouraged me to dream, try new things, and to be an individual. Good parenting is where my creative foundation started. During design school I started to watch consumers interact with everyday inferior products, which inspired me to think that there could be a better way just by applying a little imagination. My explosions were now about ideas.

I’ve always been inspired by fine art, especially abstract painters like Mark Rothko who communicated feeling without literal subject matter. Designing technology requires a similar abstraction and representation of an invisible function to create feeling. I also found beauty in the “machine aesthetic” which is paradoxically almost pure function, so naturally mid-century modernist architects and designers like Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, and Dieter Rams inspired me. Expressive Italian design that didn’t always serve a purpose but made you feel alive, by designers like Mario Bellini and Ettore Sottsass who designed stunning Olivetti electronics, and Sergio Pininfarina who designed Ferraris, also inspired me.

Finally, a few very special bosses of past jobs inspired and helped me immensely, mostly Hartmut Esslinger of frogdesign who was the most intuitive, interesting, and gutsy design leader that I’d ever met; George Nelson the Yoda-like design master, and Deane Richardson and Ed Lawing of Richardson/Smith who unknowingly set off my first and most important design career epiphany while an intern at the age of nineteen.

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career?

Serendipity occurs often in everyone’s life, but it didn’t occur to me how important it is until later in my career. I realize now that knowing when serendipity is happening to you, quickly discerning its significance, and then acting on it immediately are the three steps needed to take advantage of it. You can’t wait around for karma to happen or even go looking for it. I find that if I just focus my passion on my work but in the background stay tuned-in to receive a positive encounter, good things will happen. Projects, people and experiences somehow converge and you feel like the universe is on your side.

My favorite type of serendipity is internal, when a solution just pops into my head without even thinking about it, or when seeing something completely random suddenly conjures up the image I’ve been looking for. I don’t know how this phenomenon happens to creative people but it does and I never take it for granted.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

As a design consultant hired to creatively solve problems for companies in mostly capitalist societies, a long-standing career challenge has been to get clients to do the right thing beyond making money. Companies often resist producing higher quality if it cost a penny more, decline responsible or sustainable solutions because it may not be conventional, don’t take the time to develop something right, and hesitate to take a risk on an unproven innovation. A designer needs to convince clients to do the right thing with their unique analytical and problem solving skills, but also know when a compromise isn’t going to kill the design.

Obsolescence is also every industrial designer’s nemesis and therefore challenge. You pour your heart into designing the ultimate widget and it becomes obsolete after a few years due to changing technology or market trends. One mitigates this by creating as timeless a design as possible but also by doing what nature does - create Brand DNA that propagates in all future product offspring.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

Leaders and Innovators usually are not both, but those that are always have:

- Genuine passion for their craft and company.

- Rare insight or wisdom about the “way of things” and an ability to communicate it so that others can rally around it.

- The attitude that creativity is a way of life, not something you do sometimes to solve a problem.

- Tenacious to the point of being dogged because success requires cycles of failure and a never give up attitude to make the dream real.

- Courage to take chances.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

Design is a potent tool for changing the world because it’s all about solving problems for people. When you witness individual end users inspired by one of your creations, being gratified by its utility, appearance or performance, or if they just possess a pride of ownership, you know you’ve made a difference. When you see this positive affect multiplied by millions of users, one realizes what a profound influence good mass produced design can have on the world. This responsibility to help the end user and the companies that produce these goods motivates me to create the best solution possible. It also motivates me to push the boundaries and advance the state of the art however possible.

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