Don Hogan works as Senior Industrial Designer at AltRider
(Note from the author: Don and I went to college together and are close friends. His work ethic, sense of design and ability to craft great ideas are really incredible. I’m really honored to get to interview one of my best buddies.)
Don, you are awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your crazy schedule to talk to me about design and 3D modeling. Do you ever use what you’ve learned in your work life and apply it to personal projects? If so, could you name a specific project that stands out?
Absolutely. Forcing myself to follow a process is probably one of the major lessons I’ve learned from my early career to now. I recently did a simple countertop project with my wife. We had this one eyesore in a pretty nice looking kitchen overall and it was this green formica countertop, clearly a holdover from the 70s/80s. Even on a simple project like this I now tend to want to do my research, do some sketching, explore a little bit visually, maybe look at some quick color and texture palettes in photoshop and so on. Now for something like that those parts of the process are obviously truncated from what I would do on an actual product design but they are present nonetheless. Really simple things like choosing paint colors may never be the same for me. Now I take environmental shots with my iphone, drop them in photoshop and start colorizing the walls to see what I’m going to get. It’s a lot of fun and gives me such a better idea of what I’m really going to get in the end. Additionally I have a couple of labor of love projects that I kind of chip away at when I’m not preoccupied with something else in home-life.
What would be your dream gig and how close are you to doing it?
Ultimately my dream gig is to be my own boss, consult when I want to and work on my own ideas for designs which I will get produced myself through the connections I’ve forged over the years. I’m a good ways off from being in a position to do this for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m very invested in AltRider and I intend to be for some time. It’s a brand that I helped create, launch, sell and support and I just love the work and the market. My favorite project to daydream about is a cellular phone concept I have which is virtually indestructible, cheap to produce and easy to distribute. I’d like to use my energy and talents to make a real difference in the world. Expanding communication to remote areas (those that want it) can really help a lot of people.
That’s a very noble and ambitious project; global access to communication. I dig it! From what I’ve heard, AltRider relies heavily on you for design and design visualization. How did you get yourself into that awesome position?
Hah! This is a story. It goes back to 2007. I was employed at iDL Worldwide in Portland, OR. There, I designed and developed retail displays, environments and accessories for some really big brand names like Nike, Microsoft, T-mobile, etc. What bothered me more than any of the politics or whatever from that position was the fact that nearly every single thing I designed went into a landfill. The stuff I was designing was not small either, it was mostly powder coated mild steel, wood, laminate, harmful glues 4-color printed graphics and so on. It kinda weighed my soul down a bit and ultimately made it difficult to perform well. So when iDL and I broke up I struck out on my own after moving to Seattle. Now remember this is during the worst part of the economic crash so people were not spending money on design work if they didn’t have to. I had some solid connections from other designers I went to college with or some other connections who used to work at iDL so I kept myself fairly busy for a time, but I just wasn’t thriving. I decided to give a full time position another shot after about ¾ of a year doing freelance. I found the AltRider ad on Craigslist of all places, and at the time it wasn’t even called AltRider. It only stated that it was an “outdoor focused gear and accessories design gig”. It said nothing about what kind of outdoor products but I have always been an avid hiker, mountain biker and camper, so outdoor products sounded just great. I also had in my head that I’d absolutely love to get in on the ground level with a start up and really invest myself in something. Well during the interview with Jeremy and Brianna who started AltRider together, they spent about 50% of the interview covering the basics of my career and personality without ever revealing to me what they were starting up. At a certain point they asked me what my ideal design job would entail at that point in my career, to which I said something like “I’d love to design aftermarket parts for motorcycles, that would have to be #1. A close second though would be designing mountain bikes, or mountain bike components and gear”. At that answer, Jeremy slid the NDA across to me and as soon as I signed it he said, “Well we are starting a company to design aftermarket parts for adventure touring motorcycles”. It took all of my composure to not jump out of my skin (I am an excitable person). We created great products though and we had no parallel even amongst the heaviest hitters in our market so we were able to expand and gain ground very quickly. I left AltRider after a few years and went on to some much larger companies to gain a bit more of a global design view. After doing that for another few years I wanted to come back to Seattle with my wife and Jeremy suggested that maybe I should come back to AltRider to help take the brand in some new directions in terms of new product. We worked out a deal that was good for us both and I was happy to come back to the brand that I helped get off the ground back in 2009.
How the heck did you first get into 3D modeling?
It was high school when I first discovered the magic of 3D modeling. I went to a decent sized high-school in Waynesboro PA (class of about 312) and we had some phenomenal teachers. In high school I was convinced that I was going to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright so I took a lot of math and a lot of art. There were even some drafting classes on offer so I took those too. Initially though my drafting instructor was an old-boy who just didn’t seem to give a crap about anything but his pension so we learned next to nothing. I feel like I had to squeeze the information out of him half of the time and he wouldn’t offer a solid critique to anyone ever. I don’t know what happened to him but the guy who took his place was younger and clearly cared more about educating. He taught us everything from the ground up, we learned how to use our triangles, how to name components we were drawing, create elevations and ISO views all by hand. It was awesome. Half way through the first year with this guy he started introducing AutoCAD to us. This was R14 I think and it was so fun and so fast that we never wanted to do any hand-drafting ever again. The rule though was that in order to gain access to the PCs which ran AutoCAD you had to complete your drawings by hand first. Things like this are why I really look back and appreciate this instructor. Then one year he got a 3D modeling program in which allowed you to draft a floor plan and extrude it up to create an actual 3D home. That was that and I was hooked. All I thought about from then until senior year was how I was going to design my own home, and I drew it over and over again until I felt it was really something awesome.
Do you have a favorite time of day to model?
I like being in the office before everyone else is, like an hour or two early, put on headphones and rock out while I model. I am a person who needs to compartmentalize in order to focus. Having no one in the office allows me to just buckle down and focus on the challenge at hand. I love those early morning sessions when I can get them. I also like modeling very late at night, I think for similar reasons. I don’t do that one as much anymore now that I’m married and late at night I’m either completely exhausted or hanging out with my wife.
Any interesting side projects you can share?
I love the idea of using design to solve world issues, and to also help educate. I have an idea for a platform to help younger kids get stoked about building their own computers. Platform really isn’t exactly the right word, but it’s a kind of template for anyone at any level to build their first computer and have it look really rad, or to build their 100th and to have it be a true showpiece. It was kind of inspired by a mix of the motorcycles created by Confederate Motorcycles and the DIY vinyl toy scene. I also have a side project that I really hope to start in the next year or two, it’s a motorcycle project. I have long dreamed of taking a Kawasaki Versys (07-10) and completely strip it down and overhaul it, this was inspired by the Wunderlich-made Tarantula, a modified BMW naked K-bike that looked like it would belong to Batman. Finally is the cell phone project I’d already mentioned. It would be completely open source, unlocked and incredibly durable. I want to design objects and tools that last. No more products getting thrown in landfills. I truly believe designers have the power to drive change in the world with their exceptional attention to detail and ability to solve problems with creative process.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into 3D modeling and doesn’t know where to start?
Decide what you want to do with 3D modeling first. I wasted a lot of time because in the beginning I didn’t really know that different software accells at different things. Then you need to find where you are going to get your education. Tutorials work best for me. I don’t really need a person to help me learn software, but that’s just because of how my brain works with things like software tools. I think it could be helpful to think about what things you enjoyed learning, and then consider HOW you learned those things, did you have a tutor? Did you have a great teacher? Did you just figure it out yourself? Determine how you learn best and then look for tools which support that.
Webinars, online classes, tutorials, there are a lot of tools out there that are free or damn near free, leverage those until you can start gaining momentum on your own through experimentation. The third piece of advice I’d give (and I cannot emphasise this enough) DON’T BE AFRAID TO START OVER. I had to learn this lesson many times, it was true for me when sketching and it completely applies to 3D modeling as well. If your model is going south, not looking the way you want and feeling like a lost cause, LOSE IT. The second, third, fourth time you make the same shapes, they will not only look exponentially better, but you will learn ways to make yourself more efficient by figuring out a shortcut or different approach or something along those lines. Once I started forcing myself to never even carry an eraser, I got a lot better at sketching. This holds true to a degree in CAD as well. Mentally prepare yourself to do the same model many times. You WILL benefit from this.
I couldn’t agree more. Everyone learns differently and finding a method that works best for each person helps immensely! Speaking of webinars, now would be a great time for me to bring up that on September 9th, 2015, I’ll be featured on Novedge.com doing a webinar talking about detailing a model. Here’s the details:
So getting back to it, what, if any, critical role does 3D modeling play into the actual design process of your project(s)?
Less and less as I get better at actual designing objects. 3D modeling can become a crutch very easily, and it’s insidious. It’s like sculpture in a way, only the tools have their own will and they will be happy to impose it upon you and your design sense if you are not very careful. I have started forcing myself to only model exactly what I sketch. It’s a little sad that I have to do that, but in my position I don’t have any design mentorship, no CD above me, and no peers around me to help challenge me. I am forcing the issue though because the moment I become a slave to the tools in whatever software I use, I start down the path of happy go lucky design, and I don’t want to find myself 20 years from now, looking back on a highly mediocre body of work. Use whatever gives you the most freedom to create your concepts and shapes, then make yourself learn the correct tool or software to make those shapes. This is why I’m learning Alias, it is not a simple program by any means, but it’s complication actually derives from the desire to make the designers more free.
Do you have a favorite recent project? If so, can you share some images from it?
Well sadly a lot of my most recent projects are not yet in production, so I can’t share any pictures. One of my favorites though over the past couple of years was the Torq collection for Briggs & Riley. Briggs had never done a hard-sided luggage set before and neither had I honestly, but it was a great project for me to cut my teeth on injection molding and mass production in Asia. I learned about sourcing raw materials, managing injection molders, testing components and keeping quality standards high. I actually have a couple of patents in the system still for this piece and that’s pretty exciting. I started with Modo to work on the initial design package (attached). After presenting to my suppliers in China, I then worked with their modelers and we went back and forth through iterations of shapes. At this point all further modeling was done in Solidworks. One of the most interesting things about working at Briggs was that all of the components on the bags were 100% custom. Every zipper puller, bumper, foot, wheel and handle, this made the projects very difficult to manage, but the reward was huge.
If you had to start all over again in your career as far as using a 3D modeling software, is there anything you’d do different?
Great question. I’m not really sure! I think the path I took really worked for me, but of course there are things I would improve. I think one of them is not being so fragmented early on. I didn’t know what I was doing so I fumbled around with a lot of different things for several years. As such I didn’t really master anything, this is kind of my MO though. I wish I would have just learned Alias from day one, I don’t think there is anything out there that gives a better sense of structured freedom than that. Also I would like to talk to my younger self and tell him to stay focused. I’m excitable and I’m curious. I’m a tinkerer and a nerd. I get excited about learning new things and software is no exception, so if I could have just stayed focused longer on any one package, I’d probably be in a slightly different position now.
Getting your idea out of your head and into the computer, do you draw first or jump right into modeling?
Draw draw draw and then draw some more. The instructor who taught me the most about modeling, Scott Rittiger knows my habits well. He once commented on a Facebook post where I was showing some renderings or something. He said “sketches! I want to see more sketches!”. They harped on us about sketching enough in college and they harped on me the most because all I wanted to do was tinker with CAD. Drawing is expressive, 3d modeling is a tool. I do use Modo for some 3D concepting on occasion but only when it really makes sense. It’s much more effective for me to just sketch or use Sketchbook Pro to make some designs which I like, and then sort out how to get them realized in 3D. This both drives me to be a better modeler, and to sketch things which are more feasible in reality. I think the edge that Industrial Designers have over other artists when it comes to making objects is that they literally think in three dimensions. I want to find myself in a position where I can, without fail, translate what is in my head to the paper in sketch form with consistency. CAD software thinks in 3D for you, I feel like that takes some of the hard work away from your brain and can de-train that 3D thinking mentality. For example I’m working on a clamp project (don’t laugh, it’s going to be a really great clamp) at AltRider right now that I used this process on. The sketches I chose for the final form to take into CAD were very nearly dead on accurate to the reality of the required wall thicknesses and tap depths and overall bounding box. Its a good feeling for sure, to feel yourself dialing your processes in like that.
Don, thanks again for taking the time to talk to me and hope that you accomplish everything you strive to! If anyone I know can, it’s you.
Are you a professional 3D artist or designer? I’d love to talk with you about your work! Reach out to me here and maybe you, too, will be featured in the ProTalk!