Daniel Streng is Design Leader and occasional entrepreneur, focused on the impact of Design in enterprise. He is a National Design Award nominee and veteran Good Design Juror. Daniel is the founder of Rubrik LLC, and has led design initiatives on a global stage for over 20 years. His current mission is centered around bringing impact to the enterprise C-suite by building design culture, coaching, illustrating impact through partnership programs and road mapping growth of design within organizations. He is as proud to engage with fortune 50 public companies as he is closely held family owned organizations. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Daniel’s unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an industrial designer
Since a young age, I was making things. Inventing, programming, sculpting. I was always a designer. I just didn’t know exactly what that meant. I knew I wanted to make things. I had heard of people like Ray and Charles Eames, Syd Mead or Thomas Edison who have very different backgrounds. Were they Inventors ?
I bumped into the field of ‘Industrial Design’ by accident when I was older. I was helping an immigrant neighbor with his English homework and one day his school portfolio spilled open on the floor and I just stared at it. It was colored pencil drawings on canson paper . Concepts of earbud headphones, car mirrors and next generation radios. He said it was his homework. I literally took the next 3 days off of school and I sat in class with him. Within 2 weeks I had dropped out of med school. I had decided ‘Industrial Design’ was the closest thing to the spirit of my passion.
I can remember wanting to know”why don’t we have this now?” I came to understand that the world is filled with so many great ideas, but on an industrial scale, we have these cultural habits about perception of value. Things like cheaper, is better, bigger is better, faster is better, etc. These take a very long time to change, often decades. If nobody is pushing the marketplace, you’ve got no reason to change. If everybody in your industry is doing it the same as you are, there is not a whole lot of a comfort for you to embrace change if there’s no threatening motivation. When you’re a business leader and someone who is responsible for the bottom line, why change the business? Optimization & following the the other guys is the safe path most managers take.
On discovering my voice as a designer
I continue to struggle with what it means to be a designer. I had always been some who makes or modifies things. I was always making things for my bike, for my toys and modifying clothes. I would watch people, like my grandfather, build machines with tools he had made himself. My mother who made her own clothes, painted and upholstered her own furniture. In the 80s, I eventually began programing because that was another way to create things. It was intrinsic in that time, to me ,that everything could be made. And more importantly made from your own perspective.
I have a clear memory from when I was 6. I asked my parents, why is this product they had purchased was such a piece of junk?’ Why can’t it be made better? They could’ve just changed these little things and it would be so much nicer, valuable, and worthy of us. Just a few short years later I was more focused on things like, why do we have to stand in line for 4 ½ hours at Disney World? They should have us shopping and eatings and doing the kind of fun stuff we came for. In their interest, help us spend our money.
While I was in school for industrial design, I started programming again. I started a company that developed Interactive Media: early HTML and CD-rom and things like that. After graduation I was finding myself involved with physical products with user interface and involved with virtual electronics, digital media. In the business world people had some clear labels around specific professions and domain of practice. I thought this ideas was ridiculous because a lot of gaps exist in the way products are delivered. For me, I ended up selling that first firm and having a little bit of money to travel. Time to learn and form new ideas.
I moved to Chicago around 1993 and sought out people I studied during school. The forefathers of design. I looked for those that were still alive, where they were and how they practiced. I was out looking for people like Dirk Lohan and Bertrand Goldberg (who I eventually met). A lot of the people who were in Chicago had this great history, but a large percentage of them were either dead, gone or no longer interested in discussing the past. I met László Maholy Nagy’s daughter and she wasn’t really interested in discussing topics of design history at all.
People I spoke with started pointing me to Italy, specifically Milan. I went there and was lucky enough to meet a James Irvine on one of my first trips there. James ran the industrial design studio for Ettore Sottsass at Sotsass Assocatti, but he also had his own multi disciplinary design practice. Many of the people who practice design at Sottsass either came from what we might call a visual communications background or an architecture background. I realized that in Milan, they thought about design very different. It was expected that of course you consider the entire process, the entire experience, why would you not? It would be horrifying for you not to consider the whole experience as part of your responsibility as the designer. The designer should take responsiblity for every aspect of the final experience.
I can recall of going to visit friends of mine who worked at Sotsass Assocatti. Ettore would be preparing for a photo exhibit and just coming back from doing ceramics work on an island off the Italian coast. Another friend would be preparing signage and communication work for their Architectural work on Malpensa Airport in Milan and another was reviewing work from a house for David Kelly. These were not at all lines of definition that would be drawn in an American environment of that time. This approach was more in tune with how I pictured ‘whole widget’ vision of a designer. It was how I imagined the roll of Charles Eames or Henry Dreyfus playing out in the 1950’s. Many minds coming together under a singular direction.
I am a Designer, but I also consider myself a chaperone for the process . The Rubrik team is working to cultivate an environment for creating the best possible products and services. It’s about knitting together all of the dimensions into a whole offering. We want to see a seamless ‘whole widget’ practice of good design in all of its forms embedded into organizations of all types.
On starting his own firm Rubrik
I’ve been in the business for over 25 years now. We have an incredible pool of talent and an amazing array of tools for uncovering insights, reframing problems or creating beautiful, meaningful solutions. We know organizations have great difficulty creating conditions for transformational outcomes.
When we started Rubrik, we knew it had to help organizations overcome this challenge by being purpose based.
The type of challenge that we might see is a client who comes in with some flavor of : ‘I want to create the iPhone of my industry’, because that’s how they can best express the desire. When you go deep to know ‘WHY’? You would be surprised how many people can’t answer that well.
I’ve walked into engagements before where there was a $2 million deliverable by another agency and the CEO had hired them to do it. The way in which it was handed down, the the people in the organization literally had no idea what to do with it. I would often sit down and read these: they had great framing, ethnography, imaginative pros and academic theorems fit for a first rate professor. There would be lots of “why” in terms of testing data but there’s not a lot of “why” in terms of fulfilling the business mission.
This is why we ask questions and build an understanding around as many dimensions of the business we can. We want to get to what is the mission that informs all the stakeholders. When asked, “to make money” is usually one of the early answers. Then there are the marketplace, brand, IP and shareholder value discussions. Getting to that mission and aligning stakeholders on what that means is the biggest challenge with organizations. Without getting to the mission, you get a very safe version of what is already being done. That is not transformational.
On the design process at Rubrik
Our process is always tailored to the challenge but typically it starts with observing and understanding all the stakeholders and the competencies within the organization. Usually you can get a first glance at what a company wants because they’ll tell us when we meet. We will be sure to ask who is the highest level stakeholder that we will likely engage with. That is usually the CEO or an executive vice president and they may not have any idea that we are involved in the process. At very least, we need to meet that decision maker, so that they can express their perspective and vision.
We engage the CEO or the head of manufacturing or VP of marketing down to the people at the plant. We talk to people in marketing or design and they often have very different opinions on how things are interpreted. Sometimes nine different opinions. That is the challenge. Often, high-level strategy is not really connected to the mission, tactical challenges get in the way of making things happen and leadership might not understand the disconnect or why they should or could fix it.
One of the things we do in our process is provide a strategic perspective on tactical activities and illustrate tactical implications around strategy. Sometimes that can create friction but it always results in a better outcome.
One project that represents this approach
This is a project from 2004 for KitchenAid. The design brand manager, who had built up a great relationship with the marketing and manufacturing managers, had been given a lot of latitude. One of the first things was understanding where and how products are manufactured. We wanted to understand the assembly lines, know the workings of the plant, to understand what processes they are capable of and the realities of that aspect of their business.
Ultimately, the program provided both a brand vision and a technical vision for KitchenAid. It gave them something that I would describe as a “north star” or “lighthouse” project where we knew that everything we provided was something that they could implement over a period of time. That approach reflects the nature of their business and the emphasis was around the way a refrigerator works for consumers.
From inside an organization, this kind of work has a long life. It took several years to fully realize in product. Ultimately, what we did was provide the long-term vision and the physical prototypes were a way to communicate that vision and align development teams. The prototype sat in the middle of their space. They would see it 15 times a day every day. It gave the team tools for creating new initiatives and further develop their own programs. It helped to create a multi-million dollar impact on their business.
On the future of the design industry in the next 5–10 years
In five to ten years, design will either be embraced & thoroughly integrated in the C-suite or banished to the basement. It feels like we are at a tipping point. There is both enthusiasm and frustration.
Almost every large enterprise is trying to build or grow some form of design leadership in-house. That includes the biggest organizations and some you might not expect, from Lowe’s, Kraft, Honeywell, 3M, Wrigley, Rubbermaid, Pepsico, CSJohnson, Miller/Coors, Johnson & Johnson, Target, Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly Clark, they’re all doing it. Some of these design efforts will implode because the greater organization failed to embrace it. Others will flourish and we will see Design Leaders grow into Company Leaders, maybe even CEOs.
Think about the recent history of Sony. Design thinking and a design approach in the context of the whole product and enterprise level. This is especially valuable at the CEO and C-Suite level. If leaders don’t understand how it elevates and propels their business. Internal design will turn into a Kinko’s-like resource with no business voice. At best it will be an internal service bureau and atrophy into mediocrity.
There are examples of where design has been highly successful at providing game changing influence in an Apple or Nike kind of way. Design is really integral to decision-making and driving growth within the business.
We need to get beyond the conventional definition of the role of a designer.
Although we’ve been talking about design for a long time, it really is hitting the era in which it will have impact on business or not. The next 5–10 years are going to tell us a whole lot about whether we’re going to change the world or end up with an office next to the boiler room.
On the future of Rubrik
We are helping organizations be more effective. A lot of how we do this is by collaborating with the internal design teams and consulting with manufacturing leaders, marketing leaders and other non-design business leaders. It provides them with a means to engage with design and a toolset to empower the organization through design. A lot of times we do this as part of a Lighthouse or Northstar project. They look to us to bring a fresh set of experienced eyes and demonstrate the ‘Whole Widget’ opportunities.
I do see what we do evolving. Especially since our interpretations of what makes a good product or service is getting more sophisticated. We want to be part of making sure that no six-year-old asks their parents why what they purchased is a piece of junk. I aim to see industry, as a whole, be more effective, create better products, bring more value and a better quality of life to everyone. Design has a meaningful role in boosting the economy, growing business and creating value.
On advice he would give his younger self
I walked into the professional world with a very strong perspective, and a lot of creative muscle, but perhaps not a clear skill to talk about it in a business context. The advice to my younger self would be to focus on communicating these perspectives to those in the position to impact the outcome.