Sean Kelly is the design lead at Grovemade.
Last week we started our interview with Sean. Part 1 can be found here.
Here is the second part of our interview continued with Sean here:
Gabe: How do you cull your ideas? How do you pare them down? I mean I assume when you’re coming out with like say a belt buckle or a stand, you’ve got like a thousand ideas. How do you cut them down?
Process. Yeah, we we put them through we put them through a process.
And is it a vetting process or…
Not necessarily, but in but through through the process that that that we use to to design products here at Grove. So it’s a process pieced together from you know, like anyone’s process, it’s pieced together from a bunch of processes as well as like things that have worked for you in the past or how you work best as a designer or just as a person. And so it’s endless models. Wear testing; like it with a belt buckle, for instance. It’s it’s it’s creating models we’re testing. When acrylic models break when we’re trying to wear test them, then you have to upgrade to you know 3D printed steel models. And you just keep pushing it. I think there’s there’s a quote that I really liked from “The Little Prince” where it’s talking about you know tearing something down or or or stripping something down to its nakedness, and in that nakedness, that’s the essence of of the idea. And so I’m I’m really paraphrasing it. But it’s a great quote. And I like to think about that when I’m designing something here at Grove.
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.” – de St. Exupery, Antoine. Wind Sand and Stars. Trans. Lewis Galantiere. New York: Harcourt Inc. 1967
So for instance we used to add a lot of materials altogether to kind of create like this mix, this mash up of of things for like on the monitor stand there’s metal. There’s the laptop one. There’s metal. There’s leather. There’s wood. And so when we were designing the key ring, we were trying to put it wood, metal, and leather into the designs. And as we were designing and making prototypes, we were like, oh, this is too much, too much, too much! And we just stripped away the leather. We don’t need leather. And we’re like, oh, wood. You know, this is going to be outside. It’s going to get wet, like all these different things. It breaks. So strip away the wood, and then you’re left with the metal, and we’re like, oh. Why didn’t we just start with that? Because because your your mind like goes to all these crazy places and things you want to try, and you don’t necessarily ask the right questions at first. And then you as you’re using it and as you’re making models, then you see like oh, this this won’t work because of this.
That’s a good feeling, too, when you get to that spot of “just enough.” Yeah, it functions the way you intended.
Yeah, you can cut and that moment when you can cut something away and be like, oh, we don’t need this entirely. It’s it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be great without this. Not just fine. It’s going to be better than it was. Like it was trying, this thing was trying to support this other thing, and this other thing is just detracting from this thing. So pulling it away all of a sudden opens up doors that you didn’t even see at first which is pretty fun. And that just comes with trying it. You just have to any idea that you had, you have to try. if you if it doesn’t get if it doesn’t come out of your head, it’s going to bounce around in there and mess up the other ideas. You feel like it’s just going to like it’s going to snowball, and you’re not going to ever feel satisfied. So you have to you have to try it, and once you’ve tried it, it’s out there in the world, and you can move on.
So do I guess that answers the next question which is, do you fall in love easily with your ideas? And describe that sensation of falling in love with an idea that ends up on the cutting room floor.
Yes. I do fall in love with ideas. When we first designed the knife, I was obsessed with the thought of integrating the clip into the blade.
Oh, yeah. That’s kind of cool.
So when it was a bent metal because the blade was bent, and the clip went on the outside of the housing and then it would clip on your pants, but then when you opened it, you’d flip the clip around, and it would like lock into the handle. I was kind of obsessed with that, and I rolled with that for a little bit. I was in love with the idea because I was just like this is so weird and and cool at the same time. And like no one’s done it. I think with every single project I have an idea at the beginning that I just kind of my mind latches onto. And that’s where that comes in where you have to like take it out of your mind and make it. And then once you make it, that either proves it or it or it doesn’t.
I’ve had so many times where I’d like hold a print, and I’ll be like, oh, yeah, that’s stupid. It it functions perfectly in the vacuum of your own brain.
Exactly. It’s very it’s a very strange sensation. And then you you kind of become fixed on that idea, too. So getting it out there is good. Also, there comes kind of ego comes into that I think a little bit. Like we become attached to ideas. But the one of the best things to help with ego is to have friends around you who can tell you like, “Stop that. It’s a great idea, but it’s not working.”
Let’s go back to Circle for a moment. For an outsider looking in, this was kind of a big deal for a designer two years out of school. How did you get involved, and what was your biggest design challenge on that project?
Yeah, it was it was pretty exciting when it when it came about. It was my friend one of my friends from high school who was actually a senior when I was a freshman, but we knew each other. My friend knew me specifically after not seeing me for so many years. Luckily, he stumbled upon me on the Grovemade website, and there was a blog post about me a long time ago and back when I had my first portfolio online, there was a link. And years after that there wasn’t a link. So he hit the the sweet spot where he was able to click on the link, and he saw one project that he’s like, oh, that’s like the material that I want. That’s kind of like the aesthetic I want, the function I want. And he wrote me, and the next day we had coffee because I knew him immediately.
He went to college with a bunch of people I knew, too, from earlier in life, a different college than I went to, but we kind of still had like that same connection with each other. And so we had coffee, and it was really great seeing him. And he told me about this idea. And the best part was is that it kind of hit me where I was at at the moment. I wasn’t a parent yet, but I saw that need and I saw my parents had that kind of software on their computer and saw what they went through with like setting it up and all that stuff. And then now I like the aspect of like the time setting on it in terms of you know we’re on our phones constantly when we’re together like…
When I’m at home with my wife, like we’re both on our phones sometimes and just like sitting and like looking at stuff when we’re right next to each other. And so like having this thing that can can help guide in a way, help guide you to have a more balanced life was something I was really, really into. And the fact that it was for kids was really exciting, too because I was thinking at the time my wife and I were talking about you know starting a family, so it seemed like something…
That’s a very logical piece, especially if you can design it. I mean, how more intimate with a project can you get, right?
But it hit me emotionally, I think, too which was really it’s really great when something can do that, like you feel invested in it in that way, like this is going to do something really good for a lot of people, and that was like sign me up right now. I want to do this. So we had that coffee, and then the very next day, I met with the team that they’d assembled for the project. And then we just started rolling from there.
Yeah. Looking back I always call it serendipity. It just kind of came together.
And and what was what was the biggest design challenge on the project?
I think definitely you know working in a team. We all had different ideas of what we wanted it to be, and being able to accept that not everything that I wanted to do with it was going to be put into the device. You know, like not maybe the form wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be. The function didn’t turn out to be exactly what I wanted it to be. But what it does for the user is exactly what I want it to be. Like it’s everything I want it to be. So that was really important. And and looking back like the box most people are putting it with their router like…Kind of hidden, and it’s and it’s more of the software. But just being able to be on that team and have that experience and and do something different than anything I had done before — because I did do some projects in school that were digital like the you know the combination of a physical device and a digital software coming together and creating some sort of experience. And so it was something that I was moving towards that I wanted to do. And I hadn’t had an opportunity yet, and this one just fell into my lap. Which I’m very thankful. Yeah. It was really fun.
So going back even further back to school, was there something you wished you received in your education that you wound up learning later?
I think any school you go to there are things that you can say that like you know I wish I had this or I’m glad I had that, you know? There’s the things people like, that they don’t like. I was definitely a guinea pig, like one of the first.
I think it was the second graduating class through the U of O’s product design program, and the first class had four people. The second class had 13. So it was a really small class. And since then, though, the program has grown and changed and morphed and like they’re using different modeling software…when I was there and their structure of the class is a little bit differently. But I think I got what I wanted from it, definitely. But at the same time, as I moved forward professionally in in my career, I’ve seen where some discrepancies have been. But that’s okay because you can you can pick that stuff up.
Well, I think I mean to your point, it’s because you had this nice latchkey between your university time and Grove, it you’re sort of still learning, right? So I guess the takeaway there is like if you get yourself into a position where you have a seamless transition between one education format and another, you can back fill whatever voids you’re missing. I guess you can do that regardless in life, but it certainly helped in the work setting, I think.
I think too, at the time at the U of O, I did the the program down in at the school in Eugene. Then I moved to Portland, and I did their one-year BFA program out of two which is when I did the internship here at Grove. And in Eugene it was very, very focused on the making and processes behind you know manufacturing or design. So my first product design class, I learned what a parting line was. And I didn’t I don’t know how I I never noticed that line before or even really given it much thought, but like after that one class, like learning about parting lines, all of a sudden there were parting lines everywhere.
And I was obsessed. And I became obsessed with understanding the process behind how each thing was made. And I think that was something that I really, really loved about that program was just that understanding of you know if you have an idea, here are the five different ways you can make it. And those five different ways can produce five different variations of that product.
So let’s do a little pop quiz trivia here for you. Coca-Cola bottle. Where’s the parting line?
Oh, I haven’t even looked at the the one that look that’s modeled after a cocoa pod like the old school bottle.
The glass bottle, yeah.
I just drank one the other night. Let’s see. A silhouette, curves, and then it has those little ripples. I don’t know. It could be along the sides that the logo is not so down…down the sides?
You got it! Yep. Right down the sides.
Yup. I was reading about it, actually. , there was like the history of that bottle, and I’ve been reading about it online like a month ago. And they were talking about how it was modeled after the pod, like the shape was modeled after a pod. And a bunch of people started copying the shape.
And now that’s like the ubiquitous soda bottle silhouette.
Yeah. But I was like, oh! I didn’t I didn’t know that part of the story that it was modeled after the pod. The little details on the glass are beautiful. So yeah. And then everything tastes better out of the bottle, of course.
I totally agree. So where do you find yourself most comfortable in your design life behind the CNC or behind pack stacks of Post-It note drawings?
I almost feel like I don’t find myself comfortable anywhere because you know…
Are you introverted?
I think can you be…Yeah, you can be an introvert/extrovert. I think I can definitely fit into both molds. It depends on… or maybe I don’t I don’t fit into a mold. It’s just …
You’re on the spectrum somewhere.
There’s no parting lines here. I guess the human version of a parting line would be a belly button. Yeah. I think I don’t feel comfortable doing anything really because I always feel like I’m reaching for it, like I’m trying to reach for something and you know sometimes you’re not always on on your A game when you’re working, And that mixed with trying to design products that at at least at Grove products that are going to be made by people that are here, so you want to do right by everyone that’s here.
They’re going to look at you and be like, what the heck?
Ah, dang. This is so hard to make. We’ve had products like that were that were too hard to make. Well, but yeah, I think the idea that you’re you’re always reaching for for something better and always trying to push yourself. And you know it’s not good to be uncomfortable all the time, but it’s good to have that discomfort because that discomfort guides you to ask questions that you wouldn’t.
Yeah. “What are your limits?”
Yeah, and try to push past them. I mean, just just recently I love sticky notes, by the way. I do feel very comfortable when I put on a good song, and I’m and I’m flowing with sticky notes. It’s always always really fun. But then there’s that point where you have to you step back, and you’re like, what have I done? There’s sticky notes everywhere, and you have to somehow the sticky notes have taken you on a journey someplace, and you have to figure out like where the forks in the road were and that those forks most often are the different ideas.
Well, I mean I’m looking behind you, and I see all of the different color segmentations. So clearly there’s there’s some sort of logic behind the layout, right? So yellow means either drawing or specific thought.
Yeah, yellow is ideas, red is question or like something that we have to do; to look into. And then blue is a commitment. So that Kevin and I laid that out when we first started working together on the in the design department here. We’re just like we need a way to because we just had sticky notes everywhere. Like everyone’s using them. And I was using yellow, and he was using a red pen. I was using a blue pen, and we were, like, “Oh, we need a way to work together.”
I could do a whole podcast just on color coding. My girlfriend’s calendar is the most amazing mosaic. It’s like a Jackson Pollock of color. It’s incredible. And you ask her what each one of those means, and she’s like, oh, well, green’s blah blah, and red is blah blah. And I’m like, that’s amazing! My brain doesn’t function like that.
Yeah. I do this at home now, too. Like that’s that’s my color coding for sticky notes. And I don’t know if I if I ever worked someplace else if they had a different color mode, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it. I think I definitely could.
So speaking of sticky notes, you know, I see these hundreds of them around your your workspace here but no real illustrations or renderings in the traditional sense. Why is that? Like you have very beautiful line work but it you never go past that like level one illustration. Is it just because you’re the one who needs to understand what that looks like, or is it because everybody around here understands three-dimensional form and can kind of…
I think it’s I think it’s a bit of both of those things. Something that we did early on when we first started doing the design department here at Grove is we discovered quickly that we didn’t pull out Copic markers very often. Instead we were pulling out stacks of cardboard and and pieces of wood and just hacking them together and getting to work on that on the actual visual for physical form that we could touch. And I think part of that is just because we’re making it here if we have the tools, but also you know the fact that we’re making it means that we’re not handing off a a rendering to someone, like we’re handing off…
You don’t need that communication level.
No. We’re handing off a prototype to someone and saying, “Hey, like this is what we’re making. Here’s the files that come behind it.” But what I love about sticky notes, again back to the sticky notes, is when you’re sketching on a sticky note, it limits you to that one…
…Idea. That very specific thing. And so Kevin and I would have and even now me working here like when I’m sketching on the sticky notes, I can just fill a board with ideas sketched out with little call-outs and things like that. But I just really love that and being able to see the grouping of them and then being able to organize them into kind of different categories and then also being able to pull out things and we will go to 8.5 x 11 paper but typically I’m jumping into CAD back to sketching. And the sketching helps me sort out the ideas that I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to do them in the CAD yet, and then once I get that sorted out with the sketch, then I jump into the CAD again and I do it. Or I jump to do a model.
There’s a lot of back and forth between those two things, and it all sounds like it goes sticky note, CAD, sticky note, CAD, sticky note, CAD, shop, CAD, shop, CAD, sticky note…That’s that’s kind of cool.
It jumps. It’s just a constant cycle. But that also it’s it’s kind of a funnel, too. And it’s also a reverse funnel. So at first it’s a reverse funnel, and then as you’re sketching and you know doing that jumping, it’s kind of moving in.
Yeah, just like a turtle’s mouth. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a turtle’s mouth, but it’s much like that.
I try to stay away from the turtle’s mouth.
They have amazing digestive tracts. It’s it’s like thorns, one one-directional thorns. So like once you go down this far, you can’t go any further back up.
That makes me think about the turtle in “Neverending Story” in a totally different light.
Oh, yeah! I never thought about that. Totally!
It’s terrifying because Atreyu…Atreyu? Well, I forgot what his name was, but, yeah, he’s so small compared to that turtle.
Oh, yeah. He’d get eaten up. So really, the drawings provide sort of a supplemental component with your design conversations with Ken and the team. How do you archive a system like this, or do you archive a system?
When we finish a project, we usually take all the sketches, some that are on paper, some that are on sticky notes, and we will put them into a folder or a file, and then we’ll put them in a filing cabinet. And then we just save them for you know if Max needs them for photography for photographing process or if we want to photograph our process later on, or we photograph during. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re moving so fast that you don’t stop to really think.
You don’t have time.
And so Kevin and I actually recently we pulled out a bunch of stuff, and we took some photos just to to have it digitally, too. But that little filing cabinet over there with the plant on top, that one has…
It’s such a humble little piece of furniture in this space!
Yeah, that’s the that’s the design filing cabinet. It has all of our working for the last three years in it. All of our sketches.
So we’re almost done here. What’s been the most meaningful product you’ve worked on, and why?
Sorry. I know that’s a hard question. I mean, what’s your favorite child that you had?
I’ve only had one, so you, well, I guess if you count a dog as a child, too, that’s hard to say. Yeah, I think it depends. It definitely depends on the product. I think at at Grove it’s more for me it’s been more about the business of Grove and and seeing it grow and go through good times and bad times and and you know it’s still here. And it’s all about the people, like even though sometimes people have to leave and like things happen and stuff like that, it’s always, always about the people. And I think that is part of the most meaningful thing about working here is the team and like the group of people that we’ve put together. Like that’s really special, and that’s something that I’ve always latched onto, like I’ve thought of I would like to go work at this other place and I’m looking to to do something different. But I always come back to: I love being here because of the people that are here, whether they’re new or old.
Yeah, you can kind of count on them.
It’s just fun being able to have have that group but also have full control of the entire process which is really fun, and that control comes by working together which is really great. And then at circle it’s it I always think of this as like that’s meaningful to me because of what it means for people that are using the product, like what it’s doing for their lives. I know the kids hate it, but looking back at my childhood and then looking and now as a parent like seeing how important -0 especially the screens have become so just ingrained into every single aspect of our lives the idea that there’s something that you can do to choose to turn it off, and it kind of helps you turn off everyone else’s so you can come together or do something together. I think it’s definitely all about people. So any product that that does something really wonderful like that or a business that brings people together I think is is really meaningful, and I like that.
That’s awesome! And what sort of recommended reading would you give to students who are still trying to figure out their lives in design school?
Oh, man. I think it’s not necessarily always about the design books. There’s there’s a lot of really wonderful books. “The Happiness Advantage” is one that I read two years ago now, and it’s really stuck with me. It’s like a way to approach how you live and what you do. It’s a very business-y. There’s things that you can apply to every aspect of your life in there which I really, really love. And then design books. I mean, I have a “Manufacturing Processes for Design Professionals”
That’s a good one.
“The design bible” as people call it. And when I first got it, like I use it for class, I didn’t really read it as leisure, and then after I graduated I just sat down and I read it cover to cover. Like I re-processed everything in there I hadn’t learned about so just understanding the tools that are available to you and like you don’t have to stick to the to like the the big ones that everyone knows about. Like, there’s little things that can open up ideas that you didn’t even know were there yet. And then you know just latch onto designers and things that you that you enjoy and like what you’re passionate about and the things that you like, find people that work within that, or find people that you can you can look to that have been there before that have done it before and like learn about them and their process and learn about you know their ethos in a way. And then if you can meet them, that would be awesome. I tried tried to I tried to I kind of stalked Naoto Fukasawa in Tokyo one time, and I looked for him and I wasn’t able to find him. But but I had some photographs.
What a great adventure!
Yeah. I had some fun adventures on the way. But yeah, just just being curious and listening to those around you and those that you admire and read what they’re reading.
Any final thoughts on design?
I think what I like to always say to younger people or even people older than myself, too, it’s like when you get stuck and when you get really, really focused on something, it’s good to step away, and it’s always good to ask for help because you you always feel like you’re alone in your mind sometimes when it comes to design, but there are people all around you, and everyone has wonderful, amazing minds and ideas and souls and they can apply those things in ways that you’d never even imagine.
So being able to reach out to anyone is is key. And people everyone is willing to talk to you and to to help you. So just being not being afraid, not having that fear.
Next week, we’ll be talking with co-founder of Grovemade, Ken Tomita, about his origin story, his path of looking for challenging environments to grow and what his business means to him.
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!