Behind the designs: Robert Brunner
From high-tech grills to Gaga camera glasses
Cinde W. Ingram -- Casual Living, 8/12/2011 2:55:36 AM
IN AN AGE WHEN DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY CONVERGE, Casual Living continues its series of profiles of talented, cutting-edge designers. Whether they're making furnishings to take indoor style and comfort outdoors or tweaking the social hub of barbecuing with friends via clever gadgetry and innovative design, today's outdoor gurus serve as guides to the modern, outdoor oasis.
Master designer Robert Brunner's fresh perspectives and willingness to find solutions outside the norm shape products that not only solve problems but help companies to survive.
Last month, Businessweek praised Brunner and his Ammunition Group design team for the All-New Nook, the latest e-reader by Barnes & Noble. The new device has a 6-inch screen and weighs less than 7.5 ounces, making it the lightest e-reading tablet in the market. "We refer to it as the digital paperback," Brunner said. The original idea "was that it should be very simple, light, as small as possible, easy-to-use and as low cost as possible. A very simple touch interface all came to bear and literally it saved the company. Borders is finally liquidating everything, just completely getting out of the book-selling business, and Barnes & Noble would have been literally right behind them if it weren't for getting their digital strategy going and getting Nook going. It's been quite a satisfying journey."
Brunner also feels satisfied with the Fuego grill, his entry into the leisure industry. The idea was born after a television production company wanted to do a pilot show about the design process for the Discovery channel. When Brunner explained following a project would likely take a year plus three to four months of filming, they said they only had six weeks to film and wanted to get the show on the air in four months. When they asked for a topic, Brunner suggested a barbecue grill because "it's different for us, it's something people tend to be passionate about here in the U.S., and, in my opinion, it's something that really hadn't been touched by modern thinking."
His design team observed people gathering around brick grills on Memorial Day at a large public park and saw meal preparation was at the center of social interaction. "At its best, barbecuing is a collective experience when everyone is around the cook and is drinking and sharing and talking," Brunner said.
Besides rectangular brick grills, Brunner thought "everything had its DNA back to the oil drum sawed in half or the Weber kettle." Taking a fresh look at barbecuing, his team developed what they refer to as the ultimate grill over the course of five or six weeks. After the TV show aired on the Discovery channel, Brunner owned the rights to the Fuego grill design and tried to find someone to manufacture it. He was told it was too different, too expensive or too modern.
"That's when I had met Alex Siow and I said this was in a way like what he had done with Zephyr in re-thinking the [stovetop] hood; this was a modern re-think of the grill," Brunner said. "So we pulled together capital and intellectual property and got some partners going and the next thing you know we were manufacturing a grill."
Soon after their high-end outdoor kitchen hit the market, the economy tanked. In response, Brunner designed the Element Portable Gas Grill in the course of a flight returning from Asia.
Being successful in the design world is often about relationships and communication, Brunner said. "You have to have the talent and experience to do something, but to do really good things you can't do it alone," Brunner said. "The other thing that took me years to figure out is being able to convince people that you're doing the right thing and push them to do more. You can do a really amazing design, but if you're not able to articulate it to people and get them excited about it and spending the money, time and resources to do it, it won't happen."
When asked how he got started on his design journey, Brunner noted a combination of things. "My father is a very talented engineer and he had developed most of the mechanical technology in the original disc drives at IBM, so I grew up with him always tinkering and building things," he said. "My mom was a fine artist and, before I was born, she was a fashion model. Also, she was an entrepreneur who had started her own clothing business. Add that all up and what else would I do?"
Design was not the obvious choice. Guidance counselors steered him toward engineering when he finished high school because his grades were high in math and science. After a couple of years, he was faring all right but feeling bored until he visited the art department and walked by a display case full of models and renderings that made him change direction. "That's what I want to do," he said. His father wasn't encouraging. "He always thought designers were the guys who specified the paint and it usually peeled off. I think that was the quote he gave me."
As Brunner veered into studying design at San Jose State University, "Silicon Valley was just really taking off so there was a lot of influence from the technology business," he said. After earning a bachelor's degree in industrial design, he worked as a designer and project manager for high-tech companies before founding his first company, Lunar Design, with a couple of other designers in 1984.
Five years later, Brunner joined Apple as director of industrial design. While there, he developed the original Macintosh PowerBook, which established the ergonomic layout of the laptop and remains a point of pride when he looks at portable computers today. "We created the idea of pushing the keyboard back, creating the palm rest on the front and putting the pointing device right in the middle," he said. "That was a completely new thing back in 1992. Here we are 20 years later and still every notebook copies the same design."
When working on a design, Brunner talks with clients about their needs and finds inspiration by observing things and other people's behavior. "I have the ability to put myself in other people's shoes pretty easily, which can be a liability at times," he said. "More times than not, once you start diving into something you go in a different direction. Still, it's the point of starting down that journey where you see a problem or an opportunity or some thing there that needs to be made."
After Apple, Brunner became a partner at Pentagram in San Francisco, working on everything from Nike to Nokia. Now Brunner is with Ammunition Group, located near Pentagram in San Francisco, and his company works not only to design products, but to set up companies and bring in partners to supply capital and expertise in manufacturing and marketing.
In addition to the Nook, other designs Brunner helped create that tend to draw widespread attention are headphones called Beats by Dr. Dre. "It is currently the No. 1 headphone brand in North America, if not the world," he said. "It is going to be this year probably a half-a-billion-dollar enterprise. Almost every time I go out, I see somebody wearing a pair of them. It is really pretty amazing."
Another amazing feat involves his recent collaboration with pop star Lady Gaga to recharge Polaroid with tricked-out gadgets, including sunglasses with an embedded camera. "Originally, this all started with working with Dr. Dre and the headphones, and then we did some work with Gaga and P. Diddy," Brunner said. "I have this ability to work with these people and get some decent design out of it, which is challenging. The good ones, like Gaga and Dre, take it seriously. Their name is on it and they have their own ideas and they want it to be good."
An experienced and reasonably good designer can create a competent design almost with eyes closed, Brunner said. "If you are any good, that's not enough. You always want to push for something that's great," he said.
"If you're doing anything innovative, it's risky," Brunner said. "You can't do something new that's not risky. Most people in business tend to want to avoid or mitigate risk so you have to get people behind the idea of taking these risks."
As we've shown with the grills, you can take that approach in thinking and apply it to a lot of other areas," he said. "I think there still is a lot of opportunity in outdoor living to continue to do new and interesting designs."
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