FOUNDER, NEW DEAL DESIGN
The open-plan office of San Francisco–based New Deal Design is a hub of controlled clutter and creative play. An extensive materials library contains everything from large wood sheets to tiny plastic googly eyes; Eames rockers and beanbag chairs share space with a requisite ping-pong table; and a row of private conference rooms—dubbed “war rooms”—accommodate top-secret projects in every stage of completion. This is where founder Gadi Amit and his team of industrial designers, graphic designers, and engineers thrive. Though they will occasionally work on some more conceptual “provocations,” his studio specializes in feasible, consumer-facing devices. From Fitbit fitness trackers to Google’s completely modular Project Ara mobile phone, Amit makes inventive tech products accessible for the masses.
“The main problem we have now,” he says, “is that technology has been operating with this grandfathered-in, PC-based approach—that there’s a desktop with all these different applications running, and the user is always in control.”
An influx of so-called smart gadgets and programs competing for attention has led to what Amit refers to as “alert fatigue.” He believes that imagining more subtle interfaces that require different levels of engagement will usher in a more seamless integration between product and person. “It’s our job to ensure that these products have a sense of humanity,” he says. “We always want to balance IQ [intelligence quotient] with EQ [emotional quotient].”
Maintaining relevancy in this complex industry overrun with cultural soothsayers clambering to predict the next big thing requires a sensibility that’s both present and prescient—to a point. “There’s always a tension between being evolutionary and revolutionary,” Amit says. He’s found the middle ground for New Deal means operating within a pragmatic schedule that extends, at most, about 18 months into the future.
In that time, the studio works closely with clients to refine—and sometimes completely overhaul—the original creative brief into something bold but achievable. This initial “design vision” step of the process is followed by a period of “design intent”: turning that concept into a full-fledged reality, complete with functional prototypes, branding, engineering, and manufacturing plans. Amit made an intentional choice to divide New Deal’s partnerships—generally about a dozen at a time—with both big name companies and small, ambitious start-ups, to leverage the former’s inherent power and resources with the latter’s make-or-break perspective that “keeps us on our toes.”
It also means drawing attention to issues that might not have the sleek sex appeal that plays such a large part in tech marketing. “Whole swathes of the population are often forgotten,” he says, while hinting at upcoming commissions tackling interaction design aimed at the elderly, or improving means for diabetics to better manage their condition.
The tools they use to achieve proof of concept have evolved in the 15 years since New Deal’s inception; the team now makes regular use of an on-site 3-D printer and laser-cutter, amongst a whole host of other ultra-modern, industrial-strength supplies. But those are always secondary to Amit’s dedication to more traditional techniques, where brainstorms sketched out on whiteboard walls lead to carving “chunky” objects like computers from blocks of foam, and smaller items like wearables are fashioned from fabrics. It’s those initial hands-on moments that allow for unexpected creative revelations. “The hand doesn’t always do what you want it to do, and there is often serendipity in those ‘mistakes.’” This idea of serendipity is one that Amit returns to again and again. His appreciation for discovery and chance is both refreshing and—in the face of an ever-changing world that all but demands it—imperative.