August 15, 2009

Helping Make Your Blue Sky Tangible

An Interview with Experimental Design Consultant Michael Kangas

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

Since I began talking with Michael Kangas of
Dry Ice Design, I’ve been trying to think of a good word to describe both he and his work focus as a so-called ‘experimental design consultant’. As my vocabulary is typically limited to words of 3 syllables at most, or even 4 in rare occasions (O-cay-zhi-ons; hm, call that one 3-and-a-half), this was – as you can imagine – not easy for me. All kidding aside, it was also not easy as Michael’s work can not be described so succinctly.

I think, however, that if I did have to choose, the best word to use in order to bring across the main message of his work would have to be ‘dichotomy’. Yes, I know: dichotomy is certainly a famous word in the English-speaking (or –learning) world over and has probably found it’s way into 99.5% of all standardised testing everywhere. But in this case, it works. Just take a look at Michael’s pedigree:
> He is the son of Finnish immigrants who made their way to the equatorial Outback of Australia (think: VERY cold and dark to VERY sunny and EXTREMELY HOT!);
> His studies have focused on bio-chemistry, noting though that after starting work he felt more like a monkey pushing buttons than someone on the cutting edge of the industry!
> Now, of course, his latest work is in design, although he admittedly does not want anything to do with a ‘formal’ education in same;
> He is constantly striving to have his clients examine things in new and uniquely inspiring ways. It seems the more alien of a way of looking at a material he can come up with, the better!
> Also, even though he is working with incredibly creative and talented people, he believes very strongly that, quote, ‘creativity can only take you so far’!
> And finally, he speaks several languages. Not those just defined by the outlines of different countries on a map, but instead those that are needed to understand – and be understood by – designers, corporate budget makers and R&D scientists of all kinds.

When you meet Michael, he exudes energy and a keen interest in learning, as well as a strong ability to communicate and get his ideas across. He readily admits that he is in many ways just setting out on the first steps of what he believes is going to be an amazing journey. As such, we were excited to recently catch up with Michael under the stormy skies of Basel, Switzerland, to find out more about his unique approach to supporting designers and their struggles to make not only ends meet, but make sure their creations turn out doing what they want them to do!

Michael, just jumping right in: can you first explain to the novice what it is an ‘Experimental Design Consultant’ does?
Experimental design is a new way of thinking about design materials. Product designers spend a lot of time researching, identifying and sourcing new materials for their projects. The chosen material is then shaped and formed according to their chosen design. What I do then is look at materials from a different angle. Experimental design takes elements of scientific research to examine - and even modify - materials in an innovative way.

For instance, if you look at wood under a simple light microscope, you can see how the cells inter-connect to build the grain of the wood. Of course, wood is a commonly used design material; but when it’s seen in a different way, you can start to imagine the possibilities of creating new designs for wooden furniture. It’s about taking the material, looking deep, using the images to guide your inspiration for new products that are familiar, yet unfamiliar.

So how are you then looking at wood differently and finding ways to even use it differently or perhaps even modify it?
That’s basically just my way of providing a familiar example to explain my field. And I like this example because I’m very interested in microscopic design. But what I see is that many people typically don’t examine materials down to this level.

Let me put it another way: I take a look at things like this (picks up a candle holder from the table). This is a pretty ordinary, basic object made of a plastic material of some kind. Now let’s look deeper: we scratch a bit of the outside paint away and can see that there’s something underneath the surface that’s white. Do we know what that is, or possibly what it’s purpose could be? Not yet. So let’s look at the overall chemistry and ask ourselves if we could do something to change it’s use or uniqueness.

There may be various analyses we can conduct to learn about this. As part of my consultancy, I look to see what kind of various tests we can conduct in order to learn more about materials, including
HPLC or different types of microscopy. And it’s then at this point – either through a photograph of something that you obviously can’t see with your naked eye or via an analysis that shows what kind of use-able materials might also be present in a material – that you are perhaps encouraged to see things in different ways. My target is that this inspires your creativity and that you perhaps think of then new ways and new chances for using this material. The same is then true as well with wood, that is, whether it’s used for lighting or furniture materials, I love to explore these chances and ask if there may be some way that we can use it differently than in any ‘traditional’ sense.

And like you said, I am also looking at ways of modifying different materials with my clients. For example, I’m working right now with
Beat Karrer, where we’re teaming up together for one project with a company in Germany that specialises in bio-polymers. They’ve been using interesting materials to make different parts for automobiles (sorry, but I can’t get into too much detail owing to secrecy agreements). We’re able then to apply their approach to other areas of design and look at making things in a totally different way. Sure this may be something where the manufacturer says ‘we don’t recommend you doing it or using it this way – but if you insist on trying it, this is how you would or could do it.’

What do you mean by bio-polymers?
These are essentially what are considered to be bio-degradable plastics. They are typically made from by-products of different vegetables or other foodstuffs; for example, we are looking at how you can convert sunflower oil or starch into something that makes current materials unique in terms of their life-cycle (i.e. ability to be recycled, etc.).

What I do then is co-ordinate with such companies’ R&D groups to work out what’s the best way we can get what we want out of a material or process. And in my case, because I’m a bio-chemist, I’m able to understand and view things in a certain way - even though I’m not an expert in everything by any means. But I do know enough about science and methodology to ask the right questions, and to look and explore in the right directions in order to do something different with these materials.

That’s how I contribute. You see, designers are most often using very conventional materials that are affordable and readily available. So the question becomes: can we find the inspiration to use these same building blocks in a completely different way or find a way to modify them? I’m looking with my clients to find ways of designing something that’s really, really fresh. And that’s about differentiating yourself from the market and other designers.

What kind of specific know-how are you bringing to the table – or perhaps better said, the studio – and how does a designer incorporate that?
My training is in biomedical science – not design. I haven’t gone to design school and actually have no interest in going to study design in a ‘formal’ setting. I’m a hands-on person who would rather learn about design by working alongside designers rather than listening to them in a classroom.

I started my career in 1999 in Australia working in medical laboratories analysing blood samples for markers of disease. I continued this work in the UK and then moved to Finland where I worked for a biotechnology company doing gene therapy studies in pigs. After I got sick of the darkness and inhumanly cold temperatures, I moved back to Australia in 2002 and entered the pharmaceutical industry running clinical trials of new drugs used to treat things ranging from facial wrinkles through to bone-marrow cancer.

In 2005, I moved to Basel, Switzerland to work at a large pharmaceutical company where I brought anti-cancer drugs from animal testing through to the first stage of testing in humans. This brings up another key aspect of my ‘tool-box’ if you will: I am used to working with large global, even hulking corporations. For example, I understand the in’s and out’s of the contract process and budgeting cycles and more. As such, I bring a unique skill set to the creative table.

How are you then co-ordinating projects with the designers that hire you as a consultant and these large corporations?
First, if a designer comes to me and tells me what’s he or she is looking for or aiming to achieve, I then conduct research. Owing to my experience and background, I know all about looking into databases, as well as visiting companies, including going to talk to their R&D chemists and more. So I’ll do lots of background and detective work and also a great deal of leg-work as well.

When I visit afterwards various corporations that I think might be able to contribute something, I’ll ask about what kind of materials they have and what they might be able to offer that meets the designer’s wishes. And I’ll arrange as well all the needed agreements, secrecy clauses and more that a designer typically isn’t interested in or experienced at. It’s really this technical liaison side of the business that is so critical, where if you’re not comfortable talking to these kind of people, if you have trouble with their ‘language’ (or vice versa), you can quickly find yourself out of your depth.

Plus, as I said, having big company experience as I do, that really helps (for better or for worse!). A designer might just see the huge Headquarters building with the big front gate and a couple of security guards out front. But I have been in these situations and I know that at the end of the day it’s about the people inside and the needs they have to fulfil as well. You really have to understand how big companies operate – you have to know that if you want to engage them, you have to think about what they are doing and what their goals might be. You have to ask yourself, for example, ‘can I get a budget from them, can we prepare a ‘Business Case’ together to be able to convince those that control the money or design as the case may be to do this’, etc. Both of these aspects of my experience are therefore very useful, including the technical project management side of business as well as the big company experience.

And that’s how I manage my side of the business, that is, what I contribute to my clients’ projects. I mean, looking at working in Zurich with Beat, we do some p
retty crazy stuff in his studio. But a lot of this involves concepts we come up with – and here I’m just being honest – which are probably unachievable as we initially define them. But we work as hard as we can on them anyway, because we know that we can take elements from different projects and combine them into something that is still very new and exciting. None of what we work on is wasted and we do learn so much by simply ‘doing’ things. It’s just simple fact that if you don’t do something, if you don’t try something, you will never get to play with really different ideas.

How did you get interested in design? Or did ‘design’ somehow get interested in you?
I grew up on an isolated sugar cane farm in
northern Australia. We are located at the same latitude as Rio De Janiero – so this gives you an idea about how hot and tropical it is! And my family’s farm is so remote that the nearest shop is a 50 km drive away and even up to today we don’t have mobile phone reception out there!

My parents are actually from Finland and I have always been surrounded and fascinated by all things Scandinavian. When I was 14 and all of my friends were wanting motorbikes and fishing gear for their Christmas presents, the only thing I wanted was an Alvar Aalto vase from the
Finnish glass company Iittala. This sort of shows how different I was even at that young age! It’s my first and most treasured design item. Since I went to an agricultural high school and never had the opportunity to study art, I pursued my studies in science. Before I knew it, I had graduated from the University with a Biomedical Science degree and left my design interests behind as I focused my career on medical research.

Fast forward to 2007: I was living in Basel and heard about the local
Vitra Design Museum. I found out that they ran design workshops during the summer months at a place called Boisbuchet in France. I jumped at the chance to do something creative so I enrolled in my first workshop with Humberto and Fernando Campana. This was an amazing experience! I spent a week with the Campana brothers using plastic bottles, rubber tubing and bamboo to create lamps and chairs. And so I was bitten by the design bug!

In 2008, I returned again to Boisbuchet and attended a
bio-polymer workshop with Beat Karrer. Using simple materials and cooking them over a stove, we created stunning design objects. As you’ve mentioned, I now work part-time as scientific consultant to Beat’s studio, literally running his ‘R&D’ department. I look at conventional materials and apply different scientific techniques to them in order to create new design opportunities and take the Studio in a fresh creative direction. While I’m not permitted to talk about specifics, we are working on a range of projects for international clients. At the moment, these projects range from interior lighting through to architectural facades.

And later this year I’ll return to Boisbuchet to do a 2-week glass blowing workshop lead by the
Corning Museum of Glass from New York. So, my interest in design has always been there. It’s just been dormant for a few years until we rediscovered each other.

It sounds like you’ve already been on quite an adventure!
My overall journey has been very interesting, even if I found along the way that learning about science was a lot more interesting than doing it in terms of a career. On one hand, I think science requires a lot of creativity. You have to imagine very complex things and they’re actually not that much different. However, once I worked in science, I felt a bit like a monkey pushing buttons.
For example, working with analytical chemistry, everything is just so automated these days. You just prepare the samples, put them in and the machine spits out the results. Or when I’m preparing clinical studies, it often involves just going through reams and reams of data, which can be really mind-numbing. So in the end, I really wanted to do something more interesting, and that’s what led me to take these courses in France.

continued in Part 2

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