Reducing Friction : An Interview with Mark Dziersk of LUNAR

Mark Dziersk is a designer on a mission, to discuss how emotion, feelings, behavior and forms of products interact with one another and create genuine experiences. I first met Mark at Herbst, Lazar, Bell and we have kept in touch over the years discussing a range of issues, especially around thought leadership of different design disciplines. He is now Managing Director of LUNAR in Chicago.

Mark is genuine and accessible and has found ways to keep his child-like curiosity in the face of many years of professional experience dealing with companies who want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. While I am sure there is a pragmatic dimension to Mark, my belief is that he feels that those bases are covered by others and his role is to ask why, and did you consider.

He mentioned that the role of a designer is to reduce friction between user and product by using creativity and emotional engagement as a gateway to functionality. This is a compelling approach and reflects Marks many experiences with consumer based products in a world of choice.

He traffics in ideas and operationalizes them through engaging clients by being a proxy for the market. This is a life well spent.


Industrial design became product design and now I hear terms like designed objects. Why does the name of this field keep changing?
That is an interesting question, but in my view the name industrial design fundamentally does not change. The field is morphing and becoming different, but the name industrial design is a brand with a promise attached to it with 55 years of investment building that brand. There will be industrial designers 55 years from now. The idea behind these other names is fleeting. Charles Eames had no problem identifying himself as an industrial designer. Neither do I, and hopefully neither will my son.

I recently attended an event in California where architects were in attendance. One of the participants was Gerard Furbershaw from LUNAR, an industrial designer who was being honored at USC. Afterward, both Gerard and I were flooded by architects who wanted to know more about industrial design. When you build a building, you may influence thousands of people. When you design a product, you have the potential of influencing tens of millions of people. That defines industrial design – we design for industry and what we make is made in numbers – which is a critical distinction.


Product design seems to be at an in-between design discipline – on one hand you have communications and on the other you have architecture. How has this in-between affected the practice of product design and how has it allowed product design to reinvent itself?
As regards the in-between, architecture it seems is greatly affected by not just the economy but by being satisfied outside the profession. I read somewhere once that non-architects build 90% of our built environments, every so often you will get a building by Rem Koolhaas, but most of the built environment does not seem to involve original thinking by architects. So where architects were the pinnacle of professional thought leadership many are now being bypassed by the built environment.

On the other extreme, with the development of the internet you have a total lack of permanence in the way we communicate. If you read a book on a kindle, it is the words that matter and images are fleeting into the ether. Some of our clients complain that printing itself is disappearing.  Today, Industrial Design is the effective in-between. It still has time relevance and a great number of products, will last for decades in certain categories. Even the fleeting things like tennis shoes and cell phones, if done well, will still have a cachet after they have been redesigned. It is all driven by the idea that brand and product are the same thing.

I used to say ten years ago in the class on design I teach at Northwestern, “Brand and design are the same. When you don’t consider them the same that is when the trouble starts.” The reaction was usually skepticism, but look at the market now. For example, Lamy ( (pens) does not make trendy pens because they are in vogue, they hire designers to design a pen that represents the brand that they will sell for forty years. In one of his speeches recently, Gary Smith from Herman Miller said it best, Words don’t matter. The power of your brand is defined by the human experience with your products. This is a firmly held belief at his company where they still sell many of the same products that 50 years ago delivered the same experience.
I think industrial design today has never been more relevant because of this truth.


What are some of the challenges facing product design as a discipline? What are some of the challenges facing product design to the clients it serves?
The process of industrial design is most important. We view it as a verb, not a noun and used to call it design thinking. Most professional people are trained to be efficient to answer point to point as quickly as possible. Industrial designers are the exact opposite. When we are given a problem, we push against it and ask if it is the right problem to solve. Then we think about all the possible ways to address it, and then we prototype a few and see if these learnings are creating insights. The answer that usually comes from this is the best answer not just the first right answer. Apple does this and in my view this is why Apple is the most valuable company in the world. Other companies like Lamy, Starbucks, Virgin Airlines, Herman Miller, get it and stay relevant – and constantly search for lift of their brands through the process of design thinking.

The challenges facing industrial design are three fold. First, it is counter intuitive to the idea of quick innovations to look at strategic processes that plan for success long term. Design as strategy can be like pushing a rope up a hill. It is becoming easier with iconic companies that are doing what we are proposing, but we are not even close to a tipping point. Second is supply and demand. Many designers are in the service of humanity and not business and are quiet and ply their craft. Major corporations do not usually create leaders from introversion and we do not have enough leaders in industrial design to influence and lead companies. Third, the profession itself is highly influenced by technical advances and we have to keep up with it, which is overwhelming us and affecting our strategic role.  Innovation and management consulting people see the value we are bringing and are muscling in, they want to traffic in what industrial designers do – but have not figured out how because it requires full commitment to the cause.


How did you decide to focus on packaging as a specialization? How has packaging changed since you first started being involved with it?
Less, sustain, pain, act of violence and shrink.

Less is interesting. I worked on a hybrid between a product and a package – the Kodak reusable film camera. They are one and the same and held as an ideal and part of a closed loop recycle system. Less packaging is better from a sustainable standpoint for a user. Why don’t we get things where packaging is integrated vs. applied and full of old school brand messages and violators?

By Sustain I mean that our future customers who are children and teenagers and are growing up thinking about sustainability, which was not talked about when we were in school. My daughter, who is in school, is being exposed to ideas that will greatly influence her purchasing decisions and will consider the sustainability of the product as a priority.

Packaging is the first touch point of a product and what P&G called the second moment of truth. Many packages require an act of violence to open them to get to the product. I once watched a woman struggling with a welded blister package. She went to the kitchen to get a steak knife and if you were a Martian watching her attack a package with a knife what would that say to you? When packages are done well, there is a ritual to un-packaging and this process leaves a subconscious print on a person’s thinking.  95% of why we buy is based on subconscious response. Even if that statistic is half right, that is still huge. Being frustrated with packaging can greatly affect future purchases.
Shrink refers to pilfering. Making packages hard to open is a yay-boo dichotomy. We are making better products that are more valuable and then you need to protect them more, so packages become larger and harder to open. The trick is to do it with less rather than more and to create ways of opening with ease rather than pain.


How has material sciences affected the knowledge and practice of product design?
Across the board in every way imaginable. We call it CFM – color, finish and material. You can minimize shrink by imprinting packaging with codes that highlight tampering. Today some plastic is engineered at the molecular level to have luminescent or transparent effects.  Think about it at one time we only had one option, phenolic plastics.In the 1980s a whole new generation of plastics came on the market like polycarbonates, Lexan, ADS, and polypropylenes. Each had specific properties that could be exploited for specific applications.

Prototyping has been greatly affected as well. Now we have plastics that stretch and have unbelievable characteristics and we can now rapid prototype with actual materials that we did not have before with functional characteristics. A laser is used to solidify a dust or a liquid to generate a shape or form. With older plastics, you could not make clear flexible objects. Now you can simulate the actual final materiality in prototype form. It is important to design thinking as the closer we can simulate the final product in prototype stages, we can validate our thinking earlier and faster.

The new LUNAR bike design, Vela, is a good example of cutting edge materials. In order to sustain a 170-pound individual, it is made from carbon fiber that blends tensile structure in the frame. The flywheel is suspended in tensile strength by wire. In the future we may even be able to suspend the flywheel with magnets, introducing a new material and eliminating the older.
With the increased integration of microchips in products and their ability to communicate and deliver services to users, how has this affected the issues that product design integrates in its process? Services affect the meaning of the artifact and in many cases, without the service the value of the product diminishes.

It is an interesting shift. Digital intelligence and huge advances in cloud technology has affected the practice of industrial design. Jeff Smith one of my colleagues at LUNAR lost his phone in Hawaii, and was despondent, until he realized he still had all his data in the cloud. A molded cup may have a chip to inform the recycler of the proper method for recycling. In a restaurant a glass may inform the waiter that your cup needs refilling. With the price of chips falling, why not put them in everything.

However, this does not change what the industrial designer is expected to do. Design icon Henry Dreyfus defined industrial design as eliminating friction between objects and people. We make products that are more entertaining, easier, more beneficial and emotionally satisfying. Steve Jobs redefined the personal computer because people did not want to know computer code. He essentially was reducing friction.

We still have to keep as the number one goal, to reduce the friction between a person’s ambition with the product and the performance of the product.


You mentioned that 80% of all new products fail in the marketplace. Why? What can companies learn from such a high volume of failures to improve their abilities to be successful?
To be fair, the 80% or higher is a generalization and many failures are based on brand extensions. If you thought about certain medical products the failure rate is very low. That said, even if you accept a 40% failure rate, it is still very high. I blame companies that aim low and hit their target vs. companies that make big bets. Companies in general are risk averse. Business books advise to fail often in order to learn and talk about embracing failure – which is great, until you fail and get fired.

The design process allows for failure in a controlled way and both embraces and mitigates risk. You are presented with a problem then push back. You then go wide and think about all the possible answers using the left and then the right side of your brain. The process mitigates risk. If everyone embraces a process that is risk averse, the results can be uninspiring. You hit the lower target but nobody cares. Emotional response to products is the new standard for success. During the process it is better to elicit an emotion, love or even hate, than not to have an emotional response at all.


How has product planning changed?
Lifecycle initiatives are important in industrial design. In the 1970s and 1980s we ran away from Jay Doblin and his notions of product planning and process. Industrial design became specialists and did not think holistically. Then there was the rise of brand and marketing firms that filled this void. In older industrial design offices, everything was under one roof. We now have a fractured landscape of specialists that do not collaborate well with planning.


You mentioned in a DMI lecture about how “tribes” are creating new purchase and marketing paradigms for traditional product design offerings by telling companies what they want. How have the advent of crowd sourcing and the mining of ideas into the development of products like Quirky affecting product design?
I consider crowd sourcing an intriguing distraction. Quirky and Kickstarter are interesting social constructs as a niche, but I do not see it as a new vanguard for innovative product development. Crowdsourcing is about the universe of opinion and getting ideas out and how many people share in the idea.

Tribes are about people who are drawn to be together without being conscious of it. Tribes are a deep and spiritual adventure. Although that sounds complicated to embrace, it certainly can be done. Especially if you can empathize and put yourself in the place of people who you are designing for and understand the emotional drivers. Tribes communicate and that is what defines them, they form around a like or desire. In comparison, crowdsourcing is a part of tribal thinking, but it is ephemeral, DIY and self-interested. Tribes require a societal understanding and that goes broad and fits with the process of industrial design.


It seems as if many of the products that we use have planned obsolescence built into them. Further, products can no longer be repaired due to repair costs in many cases being greater than the cost of the product. How can this model be changed that is more sustainable and allow people to keep their products longer?
I have a couple of thoughts on this. If you identify why a tribe wants to be a tribe and you make a product they share, you have done the first thing right – making an emotional connection. Then you need to make the product valuable in its manifestation. The third thing is to make it last, which is a variable. I do have things that do not work anymore and I still keep them, as they are a carrier of memory.

Intelligent disobedience comes into play. Businesses established planned obsolescence, not industrial design. We have to understand and design for disassembly, and the right process of co-mingling of different materials. We need to use materials that can be repurposed. The Kodak camera mentioned earlier can be ground up and re molded the lens and other internal components, repurposed. IDSA has a manifesto about these principles based on the Okala process authored by Steve Belletire from Southern Illinois University.


What was it like securing your first patent, and what is your view on patents after securing over 100?
Well, I made a plaque out of the first one when approached by a plaque company. The first major design award was different emotionally, for a color measurement system product for Macbeth. I was so happy, but when I was awarded my first patent, it meant something different. I brought value to the world, rather than an individual being acknowledged for a design award. It is a deeply satisfying affair and feels more permanent.


If design at its core is about telling stories around artifacts, why aren’t designers better facilitators at talking clients through not just the direct product changes, but all the related issues?
That is a great question. I go back to the fundamental dichotomy. There is a priesthood of designers that are ego driven that telegraphs nobody can do what they do. These designers have a deep emotional investment but the model holds them back from being taken seriously by others. We also need to learn to partition emotions to serve a greater purpose, and sometimes designers have a problem with this.

We need to educate the profession in different ways especially regarding what other disciplines participation brings to exploring a problem. Trafficking in ideas requires a perspective. Ideas can be fragile  like a butterfly’s wing and need nurturing and careful handling to not be crushed and to emerge. We need to be conscious of that and affirm thinking, to nurture, before we criticize. We also need to act more like a conductor, rather than a single musician.

That said it is time for design to lead. To be that conductor. Recently a group of designers were really excited for being invited to a marketing meeting. I told them to invite the marketing people to their meeting. By definition, we need to start and manage the conversation, rather than being reactive to the conversation. Especially if we are the ones who understand tribal values and behaviors, we can inform other specialists.

Abraham Maslow once suggested that human needs come first then higher order emotions can be fulfilled, but I like to say that Maslow never met an iPhone. Products compete at the same level of performance, but a product’s physical beauty and quality can be the great differentiator. Nature has known this for millions of years.


You have stated that design thinking is a problem solving protocol and can save a lot of wasted effort and ensure a better result. Why has there been so much internal discussion within the design community about what design thinking is, or what goes into design thinking? Can non-designers do design thinking?
Design thinking has been co-opted by writers.

They suggest that anyone can be a design thinker, and in the end it is just thinking. But by placing design before thinking it defines the protocol of creativity that is reduced to practice, to me that is what defines design thinking. Design thinking is a simile for the industrial design process. There is not anything that cannot be remade in a better way with design thinking. The protocol is efficient, repeatable and rarely fails. It is based on leveraging creativity which is a powerful human motivator.

Designers as a group are fortunate to traffic in these ideas. Every day they apply and are motivated by creativity and get to see and participate in the results. It is what in my view, what makes being a designer fun, meaningful, always interesting and in the end, a life well spent.

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