Evan Clabots understands that people tend to use boxes with assigned labels, because it’s human nature to compartmentalize others. As a creative, Clabots fits into many boxes: he’s a designer, design director, creative director, university professor and entrepreneur. And although on the surface they are discrete disciplines, for Clabots they are in fact connected and overlapping. Depending on the project in question, he can draw on a range of learned skills and gathered resources.
Driven, methodical and precise are three descriptors that can be attributed to Evan Clabots. Through his work, Clabots is concerned with fulfilling both the functional and emotional needs of the end user. He continually questions why and how in order to arrive at what (a design or service needs to be). In his mind, design is not a vanity project or something that serves no useful purpose—you might say Clabots does not believe in design for design’s sake. He believes designers can find opportunities in new and emerging markets, where untapped potential is yet to be explored.
Evan Clabots does present something of a paradox. He is a man whose design ethos strives only for perfection, and yet he welcomes imperfection, looking for details that imbue design with a unique style and personality. Clabots embraces design as a complete story: one with a flowing, interconnected narrative, where the parts relate and the whole is meaningful to people.
Gessato gets behind the design with Evan Clabots.
What are five words that best describe you?
Focused, inquisitive, builder, problem-solver, collaborator.
You have a clear-cut and methodical way of thinking about design as a tool for business. Central to your thought process, you want to know ‘Why? How? and What?’. But I’m curious, is there room for emotion, passion or intrigue?
This is a question I am often asked—some people interpret my approach as being too pragmatic or lacking the emotional connection that we see in the creation of successful brands and products. I believe that emotion, passion and intrigue are things you want your work to elicit; things you want others to feel as a result. My audience is often very different from me. If I simply do what I am emotional or passionate about, the project will miss the mark for almost everyone except me. I want to think about the emotional connection that my audience or target market will feel and then figure out how to create this for them.
For me, it is always important to know why we’re creating a new product, brand or campaign. In some cases, the answer might be to create a product that connects with people on an emotional level or incites passion. In other cases, it could be to make something easier to understand or cheaper to produce. Depending on the answer to the question ‘why?’, you will embark on very different design solutions.
As for ‘how’ you do this, I suggest looking for a new approach, perspective or technological advancement that you can apply in order to help your project succeed where others have not. Rather than following what has been done before, if you clearly identify why you are doing something, then you can look for ways to achieve this. Framing the objective in new ways can help to unlock new possibilities.
I always say that once you know why you are doing something and can identify the tools you will use for how to do it, then the ‘what’ almost defines itself.
It seems you have an ability to compartmentalize the areas of your work: designer, design director, creative director, university professor and entrepreneur. Are they truly discrete disciplines or do you often find connections and overlap?
They are not discrete disciplines at all. In fact, I started to discuss my work in this compartmentalized way because I’ve found that we all put other people in boxes—it helps to remember them. In the past, people have put me in the product designer box for example. It has been difficult for others to understand that I can do multiple things with creative problem-solving, and so I’ve simply started saying that I can work within any of these particular boxes.
Yet for me, designing a product and art-directing a video are very similar endeavors. I approach everything I do with the same mentality: I identify what I want to do, figure out how to get there and pull it all together to create what I want to achieve. The process is the same when creating a business or a product; the difference is only in the tools you use.
I understand you look for details in a design that give personality, something unexpected. Can you give an example of this?
For me the unexpected details are the things that create emotional connections. Nobody is perfect and balanced. The imperfections are what make us unique; the imbalances are what make us exceptional. A great example is the Papa Bear Chair designed by Hans J. Wegner. It has this big back with these big wings and cantilevered arms, but has a very thin, light seat. There is something wonderfully out of balance with this piece that makes it feel like a family member rather than a piece of furniture. I say ‘imbalanced’ with the utmost reverence, as I think Wegener is one of the greats. I think he was a master at creating new proportions that defied what we expected and created real emotional connections. I actually had the pleasure of touring the PP Møbler factory in Copenhagen where the Papa Bear Chair is made. The craft involved in its manufacturing is impressive and it is super comfortable.
Are there any design clichés that you find especially irritating or redundant or conversely, that you live by?
I think Yves Behar was the first designer I remember talking about creating ‘narrative’ in design. It was around a decade ago and has now become a major buzzword everywhere in the industry. It may be a cliché, but I always look to create a ‘complete narrative’ in anything I do. I love when there is a complete story, where everything is interconnected.
The best comparison I have is with movies. We have all seen movies that are amazing in many ways, but then come up short in a way that causes them to fall flat. They might have a great cast, with great visual effects and a good narrative, but there is a hole in the plot where you are asked to believe in a weird coincidence or ignore a major element in order to believe in the world that is created. This ruins everything for me. Instead, I love thorough, well-developed movies like Inception, where everything in the movie depends on every other piece in the story. Together, they stand strong and support each other. There is nothing extra that doesn’t belong and if you removed any scene, the whole thing would fall apart.
I think it’s beautiful when the same narrative arc is applied in design, where something is made this way because it will be sold this way, manufactured this way, warehoused this way, shipped, branded, messaged, unboxed, used and shared this way. If any of these pieces of the puzzle are out of place, the whole thing falls apart because it will not resonate with people. This kind of ‘narrative’ is something I strive for in everything I do.
You teach industrial design at the Pratt Institute. As part of your approach, you ask students to look beyond themselves when designing a product and think about today’s real-world needs. Do you feel that these days, a great many design solutions fail to adequately consider real-world needs?
I structured the course this way for two reasons. The first is that I want students to learn to think about what it is other people want and need. Designing for what you want and like is very one-dimensional. I consider this approach to be more like art, a form of self-expression. I think this is where all students start when they begin their education and that’s OK. But as seniors, I want them to expand their toolbox and understand that what they want and need is based on who they are and the lives they live. The objective is for them to understand this connection and then extrapolate it, looking at the lives of others and figuring out what those people want and need. I think this is an important skill for students to learn as they are moving toward their professional careers, where most of them will be designing for consumer groups that they are not a part of.
The second reason is because I feel that design students mainly read about luxury goods. We see so many new chairs, home trinkets and consumer electronics. These markets are all saturated, whereas there are lots of problems in the world that need design thinking and solutions. Part of this is about humanitarianism and recognizing there are people in the world with real problems that we can solve. The other part, from a business standpoint, is that there are great opportunities in unidentified markets. Rather than competing in the saturated chair market, why not find a market where there is no product and design that.
As Chief Design Officer at OTHR, you oversaw the development of many—arguably niche—3D printed products. What is the future of 3D printing and will it ever reach ‘the masses’?
At OTHR, I was focused on exploring the advantages of 3D printing for the production of end-use products. I think we’ve heard for quite some time that 3D printing is the future. At OTHR, we were aiming to produce everything on demand with no inventory, which typically resulted in single material goods with no secondary manufacturing techniques. Because of this model and the limitation of only producing single material goods, the product categories available to us were home decor items—one would not be wrong in describing them as ‘niche’.
In the end, 3D printing is just another production technique. It has advantages and limitations, as with any manufacturing technique. Year-on-year, the technologies get better, faster and become available for a wider range of materials. I truly believe that 3D printed parts will be as common as CNCed parts or injection-molded parts. For the right applications, the advantages are major. However, I believe that the real success will involve 3D printed parts in assembled products.
You’ve now said ‘goodbye’ to OTHR (although you’re remaining an advisor and supporter). Can I ask what’s on the horizon for you—what are you thinking about?
It’s true, I left my day-to-day role as Chief Design Officer at OTHR last fall. Building the company into an award-winning, recognizable brand has been a great experience. We created new ways of working with designers internationally, built a product development system from the ground up and developed a strong brand, through our product collection and how we present this visually online. But 3D printing has never been my passion; rather, I was very attracted to the problem-solving and brand-building aspects of building OTHR. This is what I have continued to do over the last few months. I’m currently a consultant for start-ups and early-stage companies, working to develop strategies to grow their brands. I love the new challenges and the opportunity to employ skills from product design to creative direction, and to build complete narratives for the brands of tomorrow.
I’m definitely a city boy and Belfast’s growth in recent years has been creatively inspiring for me. Tell me about Brooklyn—how does it inspire you creatively?
I have been blessed to have lived in Brooklyn for the last fourteen years. The area has been inventing culture that has influenced the entire world. I’ve seen neighborhoods transformed by working class creatives, ranging from artists and designers to chefs and film-makers. It’s really a place where the sky is the limit and there’s a mentality that anything is possible. New York is such a fast-paced place, where with talent and hustle (and a little bit of luck) you can do anything you put your mind to.
Which one of your designs epitomizes Evan Clabots and why?
This is a tough one, so I’m going to cheat a little bit. My answer is two-fold: one product that epitomizes my personal taste as an artist/designer and a collection that epitomizes me as a problem solver. The Slip Watch is a product near and dear to my heart and comes from the artist side of me, creating something that I love. It’s also the first product I took from concept to market by myself and built a business around. The square face is askew on the band, appearing as though it’s slipping off the band in a moment caught in time. The rotated face also makes the watch more ergonomic to read, and the way the band pierces the case references the hour of twelve o’clock on an otherwise unmarked face. This is where my love for things that are ‘slightly off’ comes through. The watch was wildly successful for me, and I think it has to do with the tension between minimalism and personality.
From the problem-solving side, a great example is the collection of sofas I designed with my team at Fab.com. We sought to create a limited range of sofas that would offer something for everyone. I chose three different typologies, designed with a specific eye towards SKU [Stock Keeping Unit] management. We designed the Cup Sofa (a stylish occasional two-seater sofa and a club chair), the Flip Sofa (a good everyday, mid-century and minimal style sofa), and the Clip Sofa (a modular sectional sofa for which we developed a patented back-support system that could also double as a serving tray). I have the Clip Sofa in my apartment. The project was a great example of defining a very specific business proposition and letting this drive the design.