Interview with Isis Shiffer, Design Lead at Spitfire Industry, by Ray Fontaine
Transcribed by Cassandra Hickman
Industrial design encompasses almost every product you touch, from the car you drive to the phone you use to the chair you are sitting in right now. If urban design defines the zoning of buildings and architecture shapes how those buildings look and function, then industrial design creates the objects that fill all of those spaces. Industrial Design inherently touches our economy and personal lives.
Clever Tech Digest sat down with Isis Shiffer, a young and acclaimed industrial designer who started her own design consultancy before the age of 30, to discuss how new, rapid prototyping and computer aided design tools are changing the way products are developed, manufactured, and distributed. Shiffer shares her point of view on the state of the industry.
You have won accolades from the James Dyson Award, been written about in publications like The Huffington Post and New York Times, and exhibited in Dubai Design Week. You could probably get a job at any design agency you wanted. What inspired you to start Spit Fire Industry LLC and be your own boss instead?
There are a few things. First of all, the starting salary for an industrial designer in New York City is pretty low. You can live off it, but not very well. I’m an adult, and I like my creature comforts. I want my one-bedroom apartment, and I want my bicycle collection, and damned if I’m getting other people’s coffee.
But the main reason that I didn’t go to work for anybody else is that it’s hard to find consultancy work in New York. It’s mostly specializing. I did go to a couple of interviews right after I graduated from Pratt Institute with a Masters of Industrial Design. I interviewed at a home goods place, and a beauty supply place. I have very little interest in home goods and beauty supply,and while I’m happy to do it from time to time, the idea of doing just one thing makes my hair stand on end.
So that was not going to happen. If I wanted to work somewhere and specialize in something I am passionate about, like transportation or green energy, I would have to move somewhere other than New York. And I like it here.
Is it very competitive to get a position working for the MTA or NYCx as a designer?
It’s super competitive, and you have to work your way up in the ranks. They want either loads of experience, or they want an intern.
Which is frustrating because they want loads of experience and you still don’t get paid that well.
Exactly. The original plan when I graduated Pratt as a dewy-eyed 28-year-old was to work for a company. I think I said, “ I’m going to work for three years, and then I’m going to start my own outfit when I’m 31, which is pretty much what everyone in my family does.
I wound up getting a bit of a jump start on that for reasons I already mentioned, but it was never not in the cards to open my own business. It was just a matter of when.
Do you think being an entrepreneur is a little bit like you were born that way?
It’s partly born, partly raised, partly just a matter of your temperament. I think if you’re a really sociable, people person and you love group projects and working in teams, but you can’t do what I do because you’re just going to be miserable and bored and lonely. But I’m not like that. I could probably stand to learn a little bit of team working and humility, but as Saint Augustine said, “Not yet.”
For young designers just starting out, what software and equipment do you believe are must -have assets to being a freelance industrial designer, and what tasks and services do you recommend outsourcing?
If you’re going to be running your own outfit, you need to have a working knowledge of everything that you hire out. You have to know what you don’t know. You have to be able to talk intelligently enough to explain to whoever’s working for you how to do the work you’re outsourcing.
When we started offering UI/UX as a service, I spent a week taking UI/UX courses on lynda.com and getting a rudimentary knowledge of the software just so I could have a vague notion of what I was asking other people to do. It helps me understand the service, and it helps me talk to clients. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t do websites, we don’t do coding, and we don’t do any kind of computer engineering stuff; I don’t have the bandwidth to learn it, and I have yet to find somebody amazing whom I can afford, who is willing to work for me, and also is really good at explaining what they are doing. But if that person comes along, I’d be happy to expand.
For the industrial design side, obviously the prevalent software that people use in the US are Solidworks and Rhino. In Asia, there’s more Pro/E use, very similar to Solidworks. I use Solidworks all day because it’s easy, it’s straightforward and it translates into manufacturing files very easily.
Everybody should know Photoshop, Illustrator, and a little bit of Premier. That should just be something that you know how to do. It’s really useful. If you can slap something together quickly rather than outsourcing it, those skills will save your life.
In regards to equipment, I got a 3D printer a little under a year ago, and it paid for itself in a month. So get a 3D printer; it is great. It also keeps my cat entertained because it’s at my apartment.
I use Shapeways. It’s cheap, it’s fast and it’s in NYC. So the shipping time is no big deal. 3D Hubs is great. And if you need something specialty, it’s easier to find suppliers now than it’s ever been.
One thing that I always have trouble getting done quickly is laser cutting. So that is the next Spitfire purchase - a desktop laser cutter. I like to protype in paper. I like to prototype with my hands. I’m not great at visualizing stuff in 2D, so I just start cutting up paper and building things up. I usually won’t show it to anybody - especially not clients, but it helps me understand how everything is going to work. I prefer to do very mechanically-focused designs. So if I can make a mockup and get it to show me how it works, then I can move it into CAD. So having something to cut me nice, round holes and nice, straight lines is very dreamy. I can’t cut straight to save my life.
What new technology are you most excited to play with and design for?
I’m kind of a luddite about tech. I want it to be applied towards actual, important stuff.
A lot of new technology gets loads of hype and then vanishes without a trace. I tend to approach new tech with a certain amount of skepticism. I go to trade shows, and everything’s really shiny and flashy, but not a lot of it sticks with me.
I believe that it’s very hard to improve upon functional, simple stuff. Of course, it can be done, and it’s a very noble goal, but it’s always going to be easier to do flash over substance.
My great love has always been transportation whether it be bicycles, or scooters, or trains or boats. I love boats. There’s a lot of really cool, alternative fuel and self-driving vehicle technology coming out that has a lot of potential. I don’t drive, so I’d be absolutely okay with self -driving cars. They’re way less likely to crash than I am.
Finally, I think that it’s important to consider a product’s entire life cycle from factory to obsolescence before labeling it “eco” or “green.” Electric vehicles may not have emissions, but the process that creates batteries isn’t doing the planet much good.
Also, I think that IOT devices are overrated. We don’t need our houses to talk to themselves, and they just make us lazy.
I just got a Roomba because I hate vacuuming. First of all, that thing does not work. Second of all, I sit there watching my Roomba bash itself against the sofa or get confused by a chair, and I’m like, this was really expensive. I could have finished vacuuming by now. And that’s kind IOT in a nutshell for me.
What innovations in transportation inspire you most? Please share some of your design heroes with our readers.
There are a few studios that I would still consider working for. Number one: Priestman Goode, which is in London. It’s a transportation firm, and they design boats, rocket ships, hot air balloons, and trains. They literally work on all the things that make me happy. I would close Spitfire and move to London if they offered me a job. Maybe. Possibly. Maybe. I don’t know. So that’s my dream studio.
I don’t think you can do crazy, speculative transportation in the US unless you’re Elon Muskor have a large crew of clever, slightly crazy, engineers. So I don’t necessarily see Spitfire going that way, but if anyone wants me to design a hot air balloon, I am so there.
What qualities does an ideal design assistant possess?
Ideal qualities are...competence, which is much rarer than you would expect, and that means knowing your Solidworks, knowing your Illustrator, and being able to write a coherent sentence.
If I say, “Can you redo that because it doesn’t make sense?” don’t get upset; argue if I’m wrong, or fix it if I’m right. Common sense, straightforward people and I work together really well. Also, you have to have a sense of humor and be a nice person.
What question do you wish I had asked you?
Yesterday, I was talking to this lady creating a razor for women. She called and said, “I couldn’t find a female industrial designer. It took me a really, really long time to dig one out.” That broke my heart a little bit. Pratt’s Industrial Design department is about 50/50, as it should be, but if I go to a conference, most attendees are dudes. It’s a little unnerving to see: dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, woman, dude, dude, dude. It’s like, what the hell, ladies?! This is a fun, interesting, reasonably remunerative field. What is your problem? Work in Industrial Design! Of course, blaming people for not getting jobs in the field they studied is not the answer.
Here’s the other thing. All but one of the people who work for me are guys, and that isn’t because I’m not hiring women. It’s because nobody who is coming to me to interview is a woman.
It makes me sad. That is the change I want to see in Industrial Design. It’s a very guy-centric, sort of egotistical boys’ club. I can be egotistical with the best of them, but I think the state of design would be a bit more diverse and interesting if it wasn’t being largely run by white dudes, which it is.) Old, white dudes.
There is an attitude in design, in architecture, and in a lot of the other, older professions in which you have to pay your dues; you have to pay them for a long time, and that paying your dues has to suck. I don’t believe that. I think that’s a great way to stamp the creativity out of somebody. I think that it is a culture that is really quite destructive to creative people, and it drives them straight out of the industry. I think a more open and egalitarian approach to running design would help a lot for the gender gap, for the age gap, and for everything.
I’m an idealist. That’s one of the reasons I refused to do an unpaid internship when I was in school. It probably would’ve been a good career move, but I said no. That’s why I don’t take interns. I take people who may still be in school, but I will pay them, and I will pay them as well as I can afford.