Qin Li is the Director of Industrial Design at innovative product and brand design firm fuseproject. Originally from China, she received her B.S. in Industrial Design from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. During her studies in Industrial Design and Graphic Design, she worked at one of the top design consultancies in China, Jimei Design. In 2001, she moved to San Francisco to pursue a Masters of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University MFA program. Over the past nine years at fuseproject, Qin has worked on a variety of design projects including furniture, consumer electronics, interior spaces, health care, and more. Li recently spent some time with Modelo reflecting on her work at fuseproject and what she believes the future holds for industrial design.
On her discovery of industrial design
I grew up in Guangzhou, China. People say it’s the south gate of China, it’s a very active city because it’s close to Hong Kong, and was the first economically open city in mainland China. I liked art when I was little, so any moment I could find I spent painting, drawing, observing and studying. This passion led me to attend the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. When I was training to be an artist I was captivated with graphic design and even wanted to become a graphic designer but then in the end I went to a school that didn’t have graphic design program the year I began. That forced me to open my mind to what I could become.
At the time in China nobody knew about industrial design and it wasn’t a popular subject. I spoke with some industrial design students and got to know them and it was interesting. I started to teach myself industrial design to prepare for school. What I learned was mainly from magazines and design yearbooks, I was teaching myself. One of the biggest things that influenced me was the idea of “design is innovation”. To be creative and think differently. To create something that’s outside the realm of normal thinking — building connections between objects and humans, creating better user experience with beautiful objects.
This focus on innovation was my personal mantra in school and was the reason I decided to come to the United States. At the time China didn’t have the environment to cultivate innovative minds; people just looked at foreign magazines or advertisements and then copied the designs. I didn’t see a place for me to learn more, and I came to San Francisco to study. While working on my master’s in industrial design, I practiced in local design consultancy.
After graduation , I began working at fuseproject. As my career developed I realized that innovation must be paired with perseverance. How do you push your idea forward? How do you continue to refine the details in collaboration with engineering and especially in production? Lots of creativity is lost in these transitions. How do you continue to push forward to provide innovation from the beginning of ideation through engineering to production? Those processes drive me and support my passions from the beginning to the present.
Right now I’m the director of industrial design at fuseproject, I started here as a junior industrial designer. I’m fortunate to be supported by Yves Behar, a world class Industrial Design team, and these major ventures helping me to do great work.
On her role at fuseproject as Director of Industrial Design
I have a team of eighteen incredibly talented industrial designers I lead. I personally oversee each industrial design project at the studio because my passion is still hands-on design even though I’ve moved to management level. I enjoy the design process from beginning to end — ideation, design refinement, 2D and 3D visualization, design communication, engineering, collaboration with clients, the production process, and bringing the product to market. My passion for design also means pushing myself to do work as much as possible, joining the team for concepting, creating our vision in the beginning and finding inspirations, as well as design refinement and production, supporting the team on various design activities, working with Yves Behar, the founder and Principal Designer of fuseproject, to ensure our quality of innovation. fuseproject has several different disciplines beyond industrial design, including brand, digital, business innovation and design strategy. My leadership role means working together with all of these disciplines to ensure what we deliver is complete.
On reviewing design progress
We have internal design reviews in different phases of design activities, and we set up a schedule where the team will talk with me several times a week. When I’m really involved in the projects I’ll see the progress every day. Most of the check-ins are in person, with drawings on the walls, 3D screenshots, mockups, etc… I provide feedback and comments.
Meeting face-to-face really solves lots of issues, but often we cannot. If we can’t the team has to do the presentations or check-ins through email and send them to me and Yves. As we work internationally, and our team is constantly traveling, it’s important for each designer to learn how to communicate effectively through any medium — working through email is just as important as working in-person or through video conferencing.
On dealing with conflicting feedback
One of the biggest issues with design is communication. Because we are designers we all have strong opinions, which is why communication is really important. This starts early in brainstorming the beginning of the project. We set up the goal, the tone for the design and project. If during the design process there are different opinions we discuss it. We will put down pros and cons and everyone brings their materials to support, whether it’s from user experience or from manufacturing, etc… We put this all on the table, talk about it and unify our thoughts. It’s a highly collaborative culture. We don’t have a system where one person says yes and that’s it. We have to listen to everyone’s opinion. Yves plays a critical role as a creative leader, guiding the final decisions on the direction for clients.
On design software
Multiple 3D software brings complexity to project resourcing and designer recruiting. Because there are so many types of software 2D is easy, but everyone at fuseproject uses a different kind of 3D software. When we think about resourcing for projects, we need to group the people who use the same software. Sometimes we can’t do this, so we need to find people who can use multiple types of software. This can be frustrating because it’s difficult to take a design from one software to the next, back and forth and make changes. Sometimes if you want to make changes you must rebuild the design. Ideally, everyone would use the same thing so there’s no issue translating files, but in reality nobody has designed the kind of software that’s easy and amazing enough to do it all.
On what makes fuseproject unique
fuseproject has a tradition of creating something unconventional. With every project we have the vision of how to make a business successful and business models that help different kinds of clients. We support civil work and human society. We do those designs without consideration of profit. These different kinds of work elevate fuseproject from a regular design consultancy to another level — a design mission, a design commitment to the larger human society.
From an innovation standpoint we really drive the concept to a level with impact on future markets and culture with each project. We make sure our design portfolio covers different areas because we don’t want to just work in one industry or on one type of device. We’ve made furniture, wearable technologies, electronic devices, iconic packaging, medical devices…. We make sure our designers practice in all different areas and we want to make sure that any type of company can come to us for design. We have a 360-degree approach. fuseproject’s strategy, industrial design, graphic, and brand, digital and user experience, business innovation, all of these give us the opportunity and ability to look at businesses holistically.
We are innovative on the engineering and manufacturing. Lots of design and creativity get lost during the engineering process because there can be limitations, but we push for innovation in manufacturing. With Mini Jambox, we were able to create a more premium look with textures on metal and manufacture in a way that made it affordable.
We want the product on the shelf to look as amazing as the original design. You have to drive the entire design process to make that happen. This kind of innovation through the manufacturer, this design-driven thinking makes our work at fuseproject really stand out when compared to other design consultancies.
The last part (but not least) is that it’s a company made up of many nationalities, over 18 different cultures and backgrounds. And everyone is happy to work here. We see lots of design consultancies where people are switching around, but we have our own unique culture and people really enjoy working here.
On favorite projects:
I enjoy working on Jawbone projects and the design driven products. We work together almost as an internal design team. That’s the reason we can deliver something truly innovative. We work together throughout the process, defining the vision, the user experience, the dimensions and components. I really enjoy that process.
Working with Herman Miller, in particular on the Sayl Chair and Public Office Landscape, is a different kind of experience that I also enjoyed. Herman Miller is a company that has a long history of success. They have a group of experienced and creative engineers who can understand and respect our design at fuseproject very well and work with us from the beginning. It is inspiring and educational. The best design experience is really the collaboration between different disciplines and departments. When I truly collaborated with engineers and when the engineers understood the design then we were able to push the objective forward.
On disruptive innovation:
The Internet of Things is happening already, bringing science and technology to daily life through industrial design. Through this technology you know yourself better, your life is much more convenient. You can control your locks through your phone, from your office… I think there’s a big opportunity to reach out into all these different areas we couldn’t before, to make your life much easier and smarter.
My mom, my daughters and myself all use the UP band so we know how much activity we get each day. Even though my mom is living in China, she can see that her grandchildren slept well last night, that they were able to move around and play. We can stay connected. Industrial design has become a medium to connect science to our daily lives.
On advice she would give herself at the beginning of her career
As industrial designers, we all learn how to be makers from the very beginning. Industrial design is hands on. You have to sketch, design in 3D/2D, draft mockups, make renderings, and make things real… After a few years, I realized that it’s important to be able to communicate your thoughts and ideas. Whether it’s at the beginning of the project, talking to the clients about design opportunity or using your knowledge of industrial design to explain what we can help them with, to bring their product or brand to the next level, or creating the design process through communication with clients and presentation, explaining your concepts and ideas. Being a maker is key, but being a good communicator is just as important as an industrial designer. It’s something that’s crucial for everyone from the beginning, to be able to train yourself not just as a maker but as a talker.