E7: Gadi Amit, President/Principal Designer At NewDealDesign – Interview

March 11, 2016


Gadi Amit is an amazing industrial product designer. He’s behind some of the most innovative and lasting products created over the last decade. He started his product design firm, NewDealDesign in 2001. Some of his more notable products include the Fitbit, Sling Box and Google‘s Project Ara. He is a brilliant designer on how to mesh technology with life. This makes for beautiful and innovative life style oriented products. Gadi has received over 100 design awards, including being chosen by Surface Magazine as one of their ‘Power 100’ in 2015 and he was awarded the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2013. In February 2016, Fast Company selected NewDealDesign as the #1 firm for most innovative design. 

In the interview we talk about Gadi’s background. Yes, he loved legos. And we talk about how he started NewDealDesign and what he initially worked on. Then we talk about how he thinks about a new technology and how it can be brought to the world. This includes mapping out the future only 18 months out. His process is fascinating. It’s part art and part science. You can just tell he loves thinking about how technology can be incorporated into our lives on a daily basis.

I hope you enjoy. I did.



Dave: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs.Today, we have one of the greatest industrial product designers in the world right now, so we are quite lucky. Our guest, Gadi Amit started his product design firm in 2000, which is called NewDealDesign and they have worked with companies like Sling Media, Intel, Dell, and Microsoft, and which some of you might be wearing right now, Gadi and his team have designed the fitbit, so you’re taking a little Gadi with you everywhere you go, probably some of you. So, Gadi thanks for being on the show, we definitely appreciate it.

Gadi: Thank you very much.

Dave: So first let’s go over your background and more details around NewDealDesign, but I also would like to try to get into your brain a little bit and how do you think about design and technology because some of the products you make are quite, you know, how you just make it so accessible for people I guess and I’m hoping we can all learn a little bit how you actually make that happen. So first, what was your background before starting NewDealDesign in 2000?

Gadi: So I mean, my background is, I’m an industrial designer by training. I grew up in Israel to a family of two architects and came to the States in the early 90s, worked in a company called Frog Design and went up through the ranks there up to like VP level or something like that, and towards the end of the 90s starting, you know, the dot-com and dot-bomb, I decided that I might as well do a much smaller studio-based design agency that has all the capacities of the very large agencies, but with a lot more, let’s say focus and personal approach.

Dave: Interesting. So growing up were you…, I read in some place that you are into Lego’s like your dad, but were you also curious?

Gadi: Yeah, I used to build just about anything on the planet, a lot of them were kind of mechanical contraptions, I was into crane and with Lego you really have to know the limit of the connection between blocks because as I start building them big and some of these were about 6 feet tall.

Dave: Wow!

Gadi: There is a point where they collapse, so they really had all sorts of tricks and how to put them together, so they are not falling apart. Yeah, so I was kind of a Lego magician when I was a kid.

Dave: A Lego magician. That’s another whole podcast we can bring up, we can talk about the Lego magician.

Gadi: Yeah.

Dave: So when you first started NewDealDesign, you know, what type of projects and products did you guy’s start working on initially? Did you have a niche or were you working on lots of different things?

Gadi: So, we started the studio in 2000 as you mentioned and at that time PCs were still en vogue and things like home media consumption was still en vogue, so a lot of the work we have done in the early years dealt with either MP3 players at the beginning for a company called Rio, that was actually kind of big before the iPod killed it and we have done quite a lot of PC programs at the beginning including companies like Dell and so on, and slowly but surely we kind of gravitated towards the more handheld, the more personal and I think one of the biggest, probably the most important project we have done in the first 2 years was for Palm, we created kind of the entry level palm called Palm Zire, that was our first gold design award and the first product of the year, something that really kind of succeeded very well with the consumer market and actually with women at the beginning that saw it as a very appealing product.

Dave: Interesting, so how did you make the jump from PC’s to more like you mentioned the handheld devices? The first client who said, yeah, you know, you can help us build this hand-held device. How did you convince them to kind of make that leap or was it more gradual, or was there other projects in between?

Gadi: You know, with Palm it was a personal connection that got us in there, but then obviously we needed to do a lot of persuasion and so on. I think a lot of the sensibilities I had earlier on for softer forms, for softer materials were presented through the design work and were actually pointing towards something less tacky, and I would say more tangible, more tactile, colors that are different than the grabby gray and black that typically the tech world liked to use those days, and it’s more or less part of the DNA of NewDeal ever since to innovate not only in form, but also in the tactility and the color material and finish of the product.

Dave: Interesting. Has that kind of evolved over time, like your vision?

Gadi: Yeah, you know, we have done some interesting things through the years. We persuaded Dell to do a bamboo cover PC something around 2008 or something like that. We are still dealing with natural materials like wood today. Again, the sensibilities are still there and a lot of the work we do for fitbit has this type of thinking about not only form and function, but also the feel of the material and the diversity of appeal, meaning that there is not only one appealing market, they are few and so on and you need to appeal to different taste with kind of a common ground, yet kind of being somewhat open for diversity in your design language.

Dave: Interesting, and when somebody comes to you with an idea or a product and you start the design process, how do you know who you are designing for? I am guessing the customer has an idea of their target customer, but are you also designing for your own sensibilities and your staffs, or how do you combine what’s right for the market versus what do you think is right?

Gadi: You know, it’s a very interesting question. I have been asked this a lot and there is this chasm to some degree between the prescribed best practice professionally and what really actually works in reality, so the prescribed best practices typically deal with market research and sometimes with rounds and focus groups and so on, and these are rather mechanical explorations and they tend to be distilled into documents that are listing features and wish lists or needs and so on or demographics and they don’t really present their designers with a clear coherent point of view. What we do at NewDeal, we add that other piece of it, which is, I call it kind of the soft intelligence. This is the point of view that connects to the human, and if you wish the lovability of the product and these are usually little nuggets of wisdom of life that people bring with them, we have a very diverse group here of designers. You know, I’ll give you an example, you know the first fitbit, we really worked on many ways to attach it to the human body and one of the nuggets that came from the women in the team here was that most of them will probably put it in their bra’s, something that probably won’t come up in any focus group or any marketing research and that became I guess the most successful attachment of wearable ever, and I think at the beginning where about 60% of the attachments, it was sanitized for professional use was a BFC (bra front and center).

Dave: Interesting, and yeah I remember reading that somebody had called your products and … I’ll put links on them because everyone should see them and I think they called it almost, your designs cuddly, which I don’t know if you like that or not, but I like the idea that somehow you are taking this very advanced technology and making it accessible and usable that people wishes, that’s very tough…

Gadi: I think it’s a very important quality for cutting edge products. You see, any innovative product today need to go through a very rigid barrier, it’s the threshold of acceptability. Essentially, why would I do something new as a consumer, you know, why would I adapt to a new technology? Why would I buy it? Why would I adjust my lifestyle to it and so on, and this is where the emotional factor comes in and this is what I’m talking about the lovability, the ability to connect technology in an emotional way to how users live their lives and this is something I think NewDeal is doing phenomenally well, and that is the motivation of people to start something new, rather than continue with the old ways.

Dave: Yeah, now that makes sense. So do you ever go out and seek your own clients and see them with ideas or do people, by now, just come to you?

Gadi: Nowadays, the vast majority of our clients come to us. We have been very fortunate, we have an established, you know, track record that allows a lot of people to know about us and also they come and knock and say, hey we got this problem, can you help? Every once in a while, I am actually pursuing some unique marketing over there, we put together some points of view and we will try to persuade people in that market and see if they like to work with us or not.

Dave: Interesting, do you vet clients? If somebody comes to you with an idea, you seem to have a number of enough home runs is the right word, but successful products, so obviously probably with each product release you want to do well. Do you actually vet your clients before you start engaging with them or…

Gadi: I wish I knew how to do it, you know, many times we have been talking internally how to vet clients and how to know what are, you know, the criteria for the best successful projects and it’s interesting, it is very, very difficult to know that. Sometimes there are 2 guys in a banjo team, you know, guys who just came out of the woodwork, you know, they have nothing. They are so consumed and committed and ready for the fight to really bring this product to market, at the same time very large organizations may have the best technology, best practices so on and so forth, but someone high up at the organization decides to cancel the projects for a variety of strategic reasons, so it’s kind of a sixth sense, I don’t know, and you know, we have been hurt before with beautiful projects that got nowhere, at the same time we have got quite a few people who started as I tend to say “two guys in a banjo” and then became a very nice success story.

Dave: Yeah, hopefully for fitbit you got equity instead of cash. I’m just kidding.

Gadi: I got both.

Dave: Okay, alright good. You don’t know exactly what’s going to work, what’s not going to work.

Gadi: As I said, it’s a sixth sense, I don’t know. I am very optimistic so I tend to give a lot of committed intelligence, good people a chance, and we put all the effort into it and try to make it happen and I got to say, I mean a lot of these ideas get to be elevated and changed and morphed to a different higher ground when we work together, so I really cherish the opportunity these people bring to NewDeal, at the same time NewDeal brings a significant contribution that make those stories and those companies successful as well.

Dave: And what if a client comes and you kind of have little competing visions on what the product should look like and how it should function. How do you balance the inventor or the client’s needs with what you think is right for the market and for this product?

Gadi: So you bring a very interesting point which is, you know, the importance of getting to know each other and when we start an engagement before we really sign the dotted line, there is a very good discussion we’re going to have about the work of NewDeal in the past, the philosophy, how to address the problem, how to address the market, how essentially to work together. So typically once we get to work together, we have a very good understanding of each other and clients especially today with NewDeal’s success, they understand that there is a reason why we do certain things and I’m being very honest about the philosophy behind NewDeal and what we’re interested to do and if the clients agree with that, most likely we will have very little conflicts later.

Dave: Yeah, it’s a smart way to handle it up front.

Gadi: Yeah, definitely.

Dave: Makes sense. So, like I said, I wanted to get into your head a little bit more, I mean, you have opened up your head a little bit which is awesome, but I’m curious, if somebody, let’s say a couple of researchers from Stanford came to your office and said, hey! we got this technology that will, you know, detect glucose just with like a ring on your finger you know, can you design it for us, and so that’s the first meeting and maybe this isn’t the best example and you can use a different example, but you know, what immediately comes to your mind or how do you handle that first meeting? What questions do you ask? Are you thinking about the, you know, how are they going to market this and how is it going to function, are you thinking about, you know, the FDA or what all goes through your mind in that kind of initial meeting?

Gadi: Oh that and some. Yeah, you know, what I do typically in a first meeting is I’m kind of surrounding the perimeter of the problem, so I’m kind of walking around, talking about the technology aspects, issues of for instance connectivity, interaction between the physical and the digital, nowadays we do a lot of digital design here as well, and then we move into aspects of usability including like battery and so on and so forth, and then we go into marketing and costs and pricing and brand, which is also something we deal a lot with, and then we start dealing with the process itself and the different stages in the process. We have an engineering team and whether we need to build prototypes, are these prototypes to go to FDA or not, and essentially 360 degrees of all the story that revolves around the invention and how they want to bring it to fruition or to market and that’s a very interesting discussion and essentially we are debriefing and re-briefing each other, so at the end of that meeting that typically takes something like 2 hours or so, we have a very good common understanding of what could be done possibly and that’s where we actually start writing that brief into a proposal of how to move forward.

Dave: Interesting. You guys do not mess around that first meeting, I mean it’s good you cover a lot of bases just to see. I mean do you have…

Gadi: Yeah. There’s quite a lot of things we want to put on the table and discuss and so on, so as I said we need to have a very good understanding of each other and I tend to look at these meetings very much like dating, you need to get to know who is the other side quite quickly.

Dave: That makes sense, and do you find that sometimes after your first meetings people go scratch their heads and like oh, I guess we’re not ready or you know, we’re not ready for the market, the technology has to be improved, you know…

Gadi: Sometimes, but you know in most cases when people come to us they already have a very concrete idea of what they want to achieve and sometimes we change the timeline for that, sometimes we give them alternative routes, how to get to market faster, may be in lower cost, that’s the interesting thing about what we do today in NewDeal, I call it technology design, but effectively we are looking at products inside out and 360 degrees around, essentially we have the capacity to understand what are the economic factors in the product development, what are the technical factors, how we could accelerate or decelerate sometimes processes in the best way and how to build the brand in the most effective way and so on. So, there is really a treasure trove of information among the leadership team here at NewDeal that could be really assisting young start-ups.

Dave: Interesting. So you’re dealing with a lot of IoT products and it’s a fair amount in the house space. What are your thoughts on the FDA and the regulatory pathway for wearables and how the FDA is handling it. If you have any thoughts on that…

Gadi: Well, you know mentioned two, I would say coined terms that have been thrown around a lot, IoT and wearables. Wearables are kind of a subset of IoTs. IoT devices at home are a big topic. We are dealing with multiple aspects of these. There are security issues, there are entertainment issues, a variety of touch points, and the most important thing about IoT at home today is interoperability, the ability of all these different devices to talk to each other and to be integrated into a seamless, and this is really strong operative seamless system. Currently, there are a lot of issues there. There is no good solution yet. Each device comes with an app. The digital domain is a lot more disintegrated than it seems and actually this is a huge barrier today, which is the actual digital side of IoT. On the wearable side, I think you pointed out to a very interesting phenomenon, a lot of these sensors are now becoming more and more, I call it medically ready, they are not quite there and a lot of that process is relying on the FDA. I have my personal opinion that sooner or later there is going to be some kind of a semi or quasi medical categorization by the FDA. There is a point where you need to really ask yourself what is the greater good achieving perfect accuracy across all conditions and terrains or having a very good accuracy that is good enough for the user to know that something might be wrong and they should visit a real doctor in a real doctor’s office and be tested by real medical quality, medical grade equipment. I am at this point that, you know, I see I’m kind of liberal and progressive on that level, I think that this in itself, this declaration of hey! something is wrong, you should step into a doctor’s office, this in itself is a huge value and I’d rather have devices that could tell me that even though they are less than medically grade devices, this is to me currently the biggest difficulty in this whole terrain, between the FDA and it’s responsibility to medical quality and medical efficacy, and the consumer electronics industry that has its responsibility on disseminating, you know, cool new technologies to a vast amount of people.

Dave: That’s a good answer. Yeah, it’s a complex answer for sure, and like to your point of the wearables, well if it helps diagnose some type of issue that somebody is having, that’s better than what the people have now which is pretty much nothing, and so it might create some false positives but you know…

Gadi: And I take note of the word diagnose. I don’t seek to have them diagnosed. I seek these devices to have 1 little red flag that says something is wrong, you should talk to your doctor.

Dave: Yeah, more like a monitoring system…

Gadi: Okay and this is not diagnosis, this is just raising a flag and I think this is a lot to a lot of people.

Dave: You are exactly right. Well, I think we have about a minute left or so.

Gadi: Yeah. It’s okay, we could take it a few more minutes, just FYI, I mean, okay.

Dave: Alright, I got a few minutes. I won’t take too much of your time, I definitely appreciate it. So do you work with clients outside of California like we work with clients long distance?

Gadi: Yeah, we have clients and potential clients all over the world actually.

Dave: Okay.

Gadi: In Asia, Europe, and you know, yeah all over, Middle East too.

Dave: So how do you work with clients, let say, in Asia. Do you have an initial, and in person meeting at some point. I was also curious about the use of AR (augmented reality) if you guys that could see down the road that make your job a little easier too.

Gadi: Well, you know, I do fly a lot and frankly speaking when you really want to connect and have very good understanding of each other, you need to be face-to-face in the same room drinking coffee or beer and really connect person-to-person and you know the interesting thing about the technology business it is obviously very dynamic involving a lot of risks, a lot of passions, and you really need to deal with the personal factor, and for me that’s been a revelation to some degree and you know there is a tendency to pretend as if the professional world is kind of codified, let’s say stale or sterile type, but it’s not. It’s involving very sophisticated people with very complex motives and very passionate argumentation, so there’s no shortage of personalities and the need to connect to these personalities and this cannot be done by any VR or remote, even though we use a lot of the remote presence technologies like Skype and so on, it’s still very much locking eyes in the same room and talking for real, so to speak.

Dave: Interesting. Yes. Right everyone thinks that the VR is going to change everything, but like you said sometimes you have to get into the same room to make things happen and get on the same page. Since I have you just for a couple more minutes, I got one question that I was curious about was, when you start a project, well you know, you talked about designing for the customer, trying to have the customer fall in love with the product, I think there’s some place you mentioned lust, which I like a lot, so every time you design a product and it doesn’t work out quite like you thought it would, do you look back and say oh! We should have seen that or it’s more each time is it kind of a crapshooter. How do you learn from like, I won’t say failures, but how do you learn to keep improving with each iteration, each new product that you come up with, especially in this…

Gadi: You bring a very interesting point. I think even though NewDeal has been really successful in design and our clients are largely successful, we have our share of failures, and from that came realization in my mind that is somewhat profound about the industry and so on. Most of the projects, at start assume some set of parameters about the future. So if we start a project today, and people let’s say, assume the product will hit the market in 2 years, there is some assumption about what is going to be the price point, what is going to be the passion or the interest of the public at that point, and by the way some of our products are not for consumers or for commercial use, but never mind, there is a whole set of assumptions regarding the future, and the problem with these assumptions is that they’re not always true and it’s not because the people who assume them are not intelligent enough or haven’t done research enough and so on, the problem is very much about this term “future.” The future is dynamic and I think we are living in an era that is exceptionally dynamic, so from all that I actually, 3 or 4 years ago, thought through this whole issue and came up with few nuggets that are guiding our activity today. The first is the statement that I’m telling any potential clients right from the get go, that the only actionable future is 18 months away, it means that actionable future is future you should know enough about and you are capable of knowing enough about and it’s more or less stable, this is about 18 months away and that’s quite a profound timeline because typically it takes about a year to bring a product to market, that means that we need to act very vigorously and aggressively to get the product as soon as we can because no matter what we do the future is going to change, so we need to act relatively fast and from there we actually redesign our product development process to have a very compressed upfront that is doing a lot of vetting and a lot of creative tricks at the very beginning of the project for around 4 to 6 weeks to really sort out all the alternatives, not only from a stylistic perspective, but also from economic and technology perspective and so on, and bring really good alternatives to decision-making forum after 6 weeks or so in which we then decide what the project is going to look like and only then we start a typical linear process, so if I kind of do like a 360 circle around what I said now, my conclusion from some failure in the past was that the assumptions taking about the future would turn out to be wrong because the future changed and the reason the future is changing is because we are living in a very dynamic era and out of that I outline 18 months as more or less the barrier or the horizon in which you could more or less see in each market what’s going to happen and that means that you really need to accelerate time to market in product development and you also need to vet a lot of options very early in the process to make sure you are actually acting correctly for that short horizon line.

Dave: Any by options, that could be a number of things, whether it’s the target market or design or…

Gadi: Yeah everything, one of the things is that, you know, we have a very contrarian philosophy regarding product development, so whatever we are being brought to deal with, we always ask the question of why not, why not the opposite way, and we do that may be 50 times a day, and from these we sometimes come with really unique solutions and sometimes we have to do something completely different than what the client imagined at first and obviously this is a dialogue with the client, so we do it with full transparency and clients come to know a new point of view that is actually more effective and may be saving money, may be saving time to market, or may be strategically positioning them in a better way.

Dave: Interesting. Do you have an example of where the why not contrarian perspective kind of changed the direction of a product? Off the top of your head, if you don’t, that’s okay.

Gadi: You know, we have done few years back the Lytro camera.

Dave: Yeah.

Gadi: At that point, the prevailing view earlier on at Lytro was that it should be looking like a camera and through the initial process we discovered some constraints and some aspects that are unique to Lytro that were putting this concept, we call it “scope” which is kind of a non-camera, I would call it more of an “imager” as a better first product to market and that was the product they shipped for us.

Dave: Yeah, that camera is beautiful.

Gadi: Thank you.

Dave: Well, I think, we could keep going, but that’s a pretty good place to end right there, and Gadi definitely I appreciate your time and getting your insights is really interesting.

Gadi: Thank you very much. Yeah, if you have more questions, feel free to call again and it’s been a pleasure and I love to talk more if there is any opportunity and that’s it.

Dave: Alright, sounds good. Yeah, I will definitely take you up on that offer.

Gadi: Okay.

Dave: Thanks a lot.

Gadi: Excellent. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

Dave: Bye Gadi.