September 8, 2008

Sherwood Forlee – fluid dynamics, break-dancing and other great tips for designing around laziness

Believe it or not, this introduction is not the set-up for the next Nevada (wink wink) Jones film: Sherwood Forlee was born in Hong Kong before moving about a year later with the rest of his family to Zimbabwe, Africa. It was here in Africa with his wildlife artist father (who, by the way, escaped from Communist China to Hong Kong by means of swimming the shark-infested waters that separate the two) that Sherwood cultivated his passion for adventure, the arts, and travel. Some of his fondest memories include throwing stones at bull elephants to make them charge so that his father could get a few good photos to work with before puttering away on a decrepit and not always reliable motorbike.

These days our intrepid adventurer tries to avoid being chased around by too many scary animals and instead protects his body, mind and soul as best he can – but hold that thought until you read about his hobbies! Interestingly enough – especially as he’s pretty darn good at it – Sherwood is by his own admission a designer with no design or art education. Instead, he studied Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. Still, when asked directly, Sherwood will tell you that he calls himself a designer because it sounds hip and no one likes hanging around a nerd at a party.

Well, we’re not sure if this interview can top all that, but here goes:

Sherwood, first my compliments on your
website. It's really interesting in the way that you "navigate" to the different sections, and also that the lovely photographs morph and change so often. A Gold Star for your forehead or at least for your site designer for sure.
Thanks for the compliment. But the truth is the site was designed around my laziness.

Updating websites is not my cup of tea, and the way its set up now makes it a breeze to add material and delete stuff when threatened with lawsuits.

Can you just quickly detail how your "daily life" is set up in terms of your current(?) job at the Arnell Group and what you provide to the hungry masses as "Sherwood Forlee – Designer Dude Extraordinaire"? I just want to make sure that this interview doesn't get you fired from your "day job". (BTW: what's the boss like? Is his office really full of Star Wars stuff?)
Ha ha! I take it you've heard of the (in)famous Peter Arnell. I'm no longer there, but in case you're wondering, there is a large Darth Vader statue in the reception area. I've heard there's much more Star Wars paraphernalia inside his office, but thankfully, I was spared any visits there.

Right now, I'm freelancing . . . and playing the lotto whenever I get paid.

But as I'm sure you've heard, freelancing does have its perks. I get to wake up whenever I like, wear whatever I like, and do whatever I like. Plus, like a regular job, I also get to always wait until the last minute to start projects.

As for my day, I'll spend a few hours at the beginning working on my own projects, move onto my clients' projects, and then get back to my work later in the day. Of course, there's a lot of “wasted” but enjoyable time watching YouTube and reading blogs like Ziggy Nixon!

Looking beyond then your current “freelancing”, is there a "skforlee studios" planned? Or is that privileged information?
While I enjoy design, I have to confess that I don't think I'll be doing it forever. Even with all my different interests and experiences, I'm still trying to discover my true passion.

Right now, I think I may end up doing something around food. But you'll just have to wait till “Mom's Kitchen”, “The Bread Machine Shoppe”, and “Nussgarten” open to see just what that something is. These are all projects still in the works by the way.

You obviously make having fun a top priority, particularly taking a look at your independent offers. One article even described it as "(you have) a sense of humor for stating the obvious." How do you keep track of the "fun" aspect of your work, that is, without losing yourself in the design or even engineering of an object or concept?
I'm making a generalization here, but I think it's fair to say that a designer's independent work is a reflection of who that person is (professional work is a reflection of the client's browbeating of course). I'd like to consider myself light-hearted and happy-go-lucky. This being the case, it doesn't even cross my mind to intentionally insert “fun” or “playfulness” into a design.

There are serious designers out there like Phillipe Starck, Marc Newson, or Naoto Fukusawa – but to be honest, I don't like their work … and neither do many of the engineers who have developed their products.

Then there are the less-serious designers whose designs make lips smile in delight instead of eyebrows furrow in contemplation – these are the designs I like. And when you're designing something you like, the project as a whole turns out to be fun.

Do you think your designs ever either cross the "taste" line or even if not tastefulness per se, is there in your mind a "kitsch-iness" limit you like to keep in sight? Take for example such fun items as

  • your "Zagat Rated" stickers (which may be more "political statements" than anything to do with taste... well, excluding that they have to do with the food industry),
  • reusable shopping bags (“Now available for the low price of $0.00. Hurry up and get yours today!”),
  • "sleep safe tape", perfect for the office or that less-than-thrilling blind date conversation (ZN: dammit, and I just got my eyelids tattooed),

  • or even tee-shirts that say in Japanese "In case of an emergency, cut along the dotted line."
I don't have any hesitation with pushing the envelope. At first there's a slight fear that I might be treading on someone's toes, but as a good friend once told me, it's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

For example, the Zagat stickers and reusable shopping bags are what I like to call “think pieces”. It disheartens me that people often lack individuality and independence, and instead opt to rely on faulty and/or untruthful information from greedy corporations. So I really hope that my work makes them finally stop and think.

With the case of the shopping bags, no one realizes or perhaps better said is willing to listen to the fact that if you add up the entire environmental impact that reusing the plastic bags that American grocery stores give away for free is less destructive than buying one reusable shopping bag.

Your on-line biographical, uh, stuff indicates that you “studied fluid dynamics and partial differential equations, and then barely managed to graduate." At the risk of having you tear this set of questions up and thereafter ignoring me profusely, I'm going out on a limb here and say bluntly: I don't believe you (the bit about "barely managing to graduate" I mean).

But goodness gracious Sherwood, why did you ever get into "Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering"? Weren't you aware that the "chance-to-meet-girls-AND-get-their-phone-numbers-factor" is at the bottom of the scale with this major? And as an Organic Chemistry graduate, I should know (in 2nd to last place on the same scale)!!

Ha! Yes, that factor was definitely a
consideration. But like many pre-college high-schoolers, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I didn't even know that the field of product design existed.

What I did like to do, though, was make things with my hands. After accepting the offer to attend Princeton, I thought the only subject that would allow me to “make” things was Mechanical Engineering. And while that was true to a certain extent, boy! was I surprised when I opened up those textbooks on thermodynamics and linear algebra!

With your engineering background in mind then, how do you bring into your design process the needed "operational" details, for example, making sure that the plastic of your
"aroma dry" hairdryer doesn't melt or that any such object doesn't just lose its color in the first washing or kitchen wipe-down, etc.?
Of course there is a need for engineering know-how when it comes to design. Thanks to my background in mechanical engineering, I can rely on some experience working with materials and manufacturing techniques. And if I don't have the know-how I need for a given project, I know how to obtain that information.

I think it's quite sad that most industrial designers don't have even an iota of engineering training, leading them to design products that look nice but simply don't work.

You seem as well to have a keen sense of the environment and the responsibility we small and insignificant creatures have in terms of protecting this planet. For example, I find that your "
just mail it" design has just the right balance of logic and irreverence. How does your sense of "greenness" affect your design approach?

I grew up in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe where there were more wild animals than humans. I've seen natural beauty and I miss it and think about it a lot, especially now that I live in NYC. Hence, my interest in green design.

However, when it comes to designing something green, I'm not interested in materials. A big mistake “green” designers make is to take an existing product and green the materials. Problem is, if the product isn't processed correctly, the green materials act the same as “ungreen” materials.

Case in point : biodegradable plastic. It's only biodegradable if you compost it at high temperatures. If you throw it in a landfill, it lasts just as long as non-biodegradable plastics.

This said, when I design, I try to design around people's laziness. The information on how to minimize the impact to the environment is out there, but it's cumbersome and time consuming to search it out. By providing that information with the product, it makes it that much easier for the consumer to do the “right” thing.

In addition to your worldly travels, you also speak several languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin and English. But how did you come to learn German? I was forced to learn at gun-point, yes, but why would anyone willingly learn "Deutsch"?
I worked for a while at IDEO Munich. Despite some rumors to the contrary, I didn’t spend all my time in the beer halls but also took time to learn the language.

You see, as is often the case when you start off in a new country, I had no friends in Munich and didn’t know anyone outside of the office. So I filled my days with lots of self-study and even more television.

And despite what I’m sure many people think, “Beavis and Butthead” is in fact quite educational, especially when dubbed in German. (ZN recommends watching sports or any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in terms of keeping the dialogue easy-to-follow)

(Additional: if you want proof of SF’s expertise with all things German, then visit what ZN has already nominated for “
Design of the Millennium”, including the video at the bottom of the page. You and your loved ones will be glad you did... or in my case, even potentially the neighbors down the street...)

You seem to have moved about rather frequently in the past years and worked with several different design groups. Is that by happenstance or do you consider this "normal" for someone in your field? Did you particularly want to move about as much as possible?

Throughout my life, I've been moving around rather frequently. First, it was from Hong Kong to Africa. Then Africa to California. And then California to the East Coast.

After college, I found it hard to stay in any one place for more than a year. Anything longer and I would become irritable, and frankly, a lousy worker. It wasn't that I wanted to experience as many design firms as possible – it was really just my internal clock saying, “it's time to move.”

I must confess that I really admire those designers – most of the ones I know are like this – that can tough it out year after year after year wherever they settle down and set up their shops.

Okay, this may be painful, but I have to ask: how does it make you as part of the design team feel when a project such as the "aroma dry" hairdryer that ultimately does NOT take off? Do you find yourself becoming in any way "attached" personally to objects you design for clients?
Honestly? I don't give it a second thought. I'm not at all attached to the products I design for clients, and even with my stuff, if it bombs in the end, I'm not all that concerned.

You see, I have a very short attention span. Any project that I work on for over a month, I'm usually tired of by the end. I constantly have new ideas that I want to work on that – while at the beginning I might have been emotionally attached to – by the end it's ready to be archived in the file cabinets of my mind.

Your dad sounds like a fascinating person, both in terms of his interests and life experiences. How did he or anyone in your family or even your own life experiences influence your interest in design?
My parents actually tried to dissuade me from design. That wasn’t too surprising really, because as an artist, my father's cash flow was never constant, and there were years I remember where we on the edge of losing the roof above our heads. My parents wanted me to do something more practical, like become an engineer at a big aeronautical firm.

However, I threw caution to the wind after graduating and haven't looked back or complained since. My parents, though, are still waiting for me to get my head screwed on right and get a real job.

So what influenced me? I can't say really. There was a really cool bow and arrow my dad built me when I was about 4 years old using tree branches and string. I couldn't stop making variations after that.

Your interests include, and I quote, "break dancing, acrobatics, bread and pie baking, piano, entrepreneurship, travel, free parties, (and) knitting." Well, all I can say is: the floor is yours; I'm dying to hear how you can combine all these together. (I'm guessing it has something to do with your time in NYC... or perhaps a really bizarre self-help group...)
I don't combine these hobbies all at the same time of course. That would be quite impressive!

I used to dance and do acrobatics more frequently when I was younger. Nowadays, the joints just don't work as well anymore. But for sure, whenever I have free time, which is more often than not, I do enjoy learning new skills. It just so happens that those skills are sometimes not related.

One interesting aspect about you as a "designer" is that you're listed on a number of patents for again aesthetically pleasing objects but yet very functional ones as well. How does your design process differ when you're working on, for example, an
oil filter or even a fire extinguisher or an “(mumble mumble)“ simulator vs. say, your "speak-er" design?
The process is very different. For the work showcased in the professional section, I was strictly on the engineering side of things, so all the product styling was done by an industrial designer.

My styling skills are sub par, I'm afraid to admit. So when I do design objects like the speaker or
bento triangle, I try to go with the simplest form possible that compliments the functionality. For me, functionality always comes first.

Your "speak-er" design seems to have brought you lots of recognition (case in point, I've found dozens of hits about same in at least Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian [I think], French, etc.). What does it mean for a "young" designer when a product manages to generate so much "talk" on the e-waves?
It certainly was exciting at first and admittedly, it feels good to be recognized. But there is a negative side to it and that is the self-imposed pressure you feel to constantly produce “good” work.

And then self-doubt also creeps in and you end up with a so-called vicious cycle. That's at the beginning though. I've found that the publicity dies down just as fast as it begins. In which case, pretty soon, you're back to square one.

Has the "speak-er" been your big break-through so far? If not, which project do you think has had the biggest impact on your career so far? I also notice, for example, that the "
easy PB&J jar" is cross-referenced a number of times (mostly it seems by folks who've recently had the misfortune, I mean, amazing good fortune of living with a pregnant woman and her unique midnight cravings...).
I wouldn't say the “speak-er” was a break-through at least in terms of money. In terms of exposure, it’s certainly been one of the biggest.

I think in fact that the double lidded jar got far more publicity because it wasn't strictly relegated to the design world. And although the site may get a lot of hits, no one has come banging on my door asking for autographs or licensing deals. I'm still twiddling my thumbs waiting for that to happen!

You also describe having worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as other museums (the Whitney, MoMA, New Museum, Guggenheim, etc.). What's it like working with a "design" or "art" museum on a project (vs. say, working with clients or on your own)?
I seem to have pulled the wool over your eyes. Actually, I haven't been commissioned by any museum to design anything. The
MET tee-shirts were simply a sly idea that I came up with on how to get into the museum for free.

This came about as I noticed that a lot of museums gave you something to place on your body as a proof of purchase. So I thought why not make that proof of purchase inherent to the clothing. I did pitch the idea to the museum, and it was met with enthusiasm. No deals have been inked though.

In terms of your "career" so far, can you describe how your design process has evolved over time?
After graduating, I was willing to work on all sorts of projects. Since then, I've definitely developed my own "discerning" tastes. Now, I'm willing to turn down projects that don't jive with my tastes (actually, it's the same if I REALLY need the money). And I think my tastes will continue to run along the track of simplicity and fun.

First of all, I don't foresee myself becoming any less lazy (hence the simplicity). And second, this world is already full of too much seriousness. I want fun!

Looking ahead for the next years, do you see any particular design trends in your field(s)?
There's definitely the green trend. Everyone is trying to tout the environmentally friendliness of their products – whether it’s really true or not.

Otherwise, I see product design diversifying in the coming future as more and more people are exposed to the field.

How about trends for design in general?
I think there's a lot of discontent among the younger designers with having to work for older, more conservative, designers. Most of the great work I see comes from kids fresh out of school. I think there's going to be a lot of more “artsy” design coming from these kids no matter what their field of study was.

How do you see your own business or interests evolving?
The older I get, the more I can't keep pace with the younger generations . . . kind of like break-dancing – I used to be fearless and would bust out the wildest moves. Now, I'm a bit more tame and only do the tricks that have the lowest chance of injury.

As I said before, I'll probably move into food – I think that's a subject where being older is better.

What's up next for you and your design work?
Be on the lookout for my “
anti-theft lunch bags(ZN update: these are out now and just too funny, as you can see below!!), “The Walls Notebook” (you can take a sneak peek at, but I really shouldn't be divulging this quite yet as it's slated for an April 2009 release and the publishers want a big push right before), and the aforementioned Mom's Kitchen, Nussgarten, and Bread Machine Shoppe.

And my very final question: who is this adorable person in the photo (not the one with the hooded sweater, the one in pink with the gorgeous little smile?). I have a 4+ year old daughter at home that once she see's this on the printer, she'll have to know... That "hood"-lum is my younger brother and she is his daughter. I am her biggest fan. (ZN: This photo is featured in SF’s “Instant Photo Frame” section, check it out!)


Following graduation, Sherwood Forlee went to work as a product design engineer. After cutting his teeth at a few firms, Sherwood decided to see more of the world and set out on adventures that would lead him to such exotic locations as:

  • Tokyo (where he was accosted by the yakuza for trying to sell homemade T-shirts on their territory),
  • the Azores (where inclement weather stranded him for a few days without food in the wild),
  • Zurich, Switzerland (where he was forced to climb a perilous mountain with two massive rental bikes atop his shoulders... no further explanation given),
  • Munich as mentioned (where the beer was indeed delicious and quite plentiful),
  • and many other places.
Among the diverse group of his past clients and the brands he has done work for or with includes Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi, Unilever, Castrol, Playtex, Revlon and more. Among his skills are listed "useful" bits like 3-D modeling, Industrial Design, tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator , Indesign, Minesweeper, and FreeCell. Oh, and we had to ask if the latter two involved he or his family’s past experiences in strife-filled areas ... but he confirms that these are in fact games where he usually likes to get in a game or two everyday because these, quote, “help ease me back into work after a nice lunch.”

Today, Sherwood enjoys a more peaceful life in New York City working once again as a product designer, even though some would argue that he faces just as much dangerous wildlife in his current location as ever before.

All pictures and images full copyright of Sherwood Forlee, used by special licensed permission.

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