The New-Age Industrial Designer: Interview with Featured Tutor Adam Fairless
Adam Fairless, Director of Product Development at WowWee Toys, with experience from concept design and CAD modeling to final production, shares what it's like to work in the world of toys, skills every industrial designer needs, an ironic source of inspiration for new toy designs and more.
Digital-Tutors: Thank you for talking with us! Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and some of the work you are currently working on?
Adam Fairless: I always say I haven’t worked a day in my professional career as I consider what I do a passion and a recreational experience. I currently work in the toy industry for WowWee Toys as Director of Product Development. I’m lucky enough to work directly with the owners and convey our collective ideas for toy lines to our great team of designers and engineers. I’m currently working on our product line for 2015 which has some very exciting and unique items from fun robots to consumer electronics.
Digital-Tutors: How did you get started in the industrial design industry?
Adam Fairless: I always had a strong interest in cars from a young age. This interest progressed to getting both undergrad and post graduate degrees in transport and automotive design from Coventry University in England. After a brief stint in Italy designing shoes, I worked for seven years in the car industry in the UK. I then had an opportunity to move to California which led away from cars to the toy industry, where I now work for WowWee on all kinds of cool stuff from robots to laser guns!
Digital-Tutors: What’s your favorite toy you’ve had a hand in designing?
Adam Fairless: Aside from our current top secret projects one of the designs I hold dear is Tribot. I helped create him as one of my very first jobs for WowWee. He was a fun, quirky, robot buddy for kids. Once in a while he would go a little nuts as part of the fun and spin around in circles blurting out crazy sounds. I think he captured what’s fun in toys and didn’t take himself too seriously. He also sold nearly half a million units worldwide bringing a crazy robot to lots of homes.
Digital-Tutors: Just briefly, what is the day in the life for you as Director of Product Development at WowWee?
Adam Fairless: My time can be spent coming up with new ideas with the owners and other senior guys and then writing play specs for these products. I’ll add some sketch ideas and mood boards to most of these and then direct our design team to further develop. I also like to pick a project or two to take to completion myself which means the initial sketches through Photoshop rendering and then onto CAD and factory follow up. A trip or two to Hong Kong and Shen Zhen China generally comes into play at some point in the year.
Digital-Tutors: What is the most challenging part of what you do and how do you overcome that challenge?
The most difficult thing in Toys is keeping things fresh and fun whilst hitting the boring numbers! Unfortunately as the world develops things become more expensive to make and consumers don’t particularly want to spend more to buy them. We often come up with a ‘Rolls Royce’ list for a product which gets watered down to a family suburban by the time we have really applied proper costing. However, a really good toy is about play and interaction not bells and whistles, a lot like a good video game, so if you have a really good idea and keep its core values you generally have a winning formula.
Digital-Tutors: Your design experience goes beyond just CAD design. What other skills do you think a successful industrial designer needs that you’ve been able to capitalize on?
Adam Fairless: There was a time in industrial design, particularly car design, where you had to be labeled as one thing or another: a clay modeler, a CAD guy, a concept designer, etc. With access to better learning, people have much broader ranges of skills in their arsenal now. Employers have really started to understand this fact and seek out the new-age designer. Why employ four or five guys when you can have two multi-disciplinary designers take on all manner of tasks? A strong understanding of the design process from concept to product on shelf with sketching, Photoshop, CAD and manufacturing follow up is now starting to be the norm. I certainly look for this in anyone I employ.
Digital-Tutors: How do you continue to grow as a designer?
Adam Fairless: Stay fresh and change up your ideas and style once in a while. Seek out new ways of ‘concepting’ or learn a new program. I spend a lot of time looking at websites such as Coroflot, Digital-Tutors or CGTalk to see how other people are doing things. I’m not suggesting copy other peoples work but just see how and why they are thinking the way they are and gain a new perspective. I also have a huge library of books from cars, comic art and Star Wars to animal anatomy and photographer of the year awards.
Digital-Tutors: What are some trends you see happening in the industrial design industry, for toys or beyond? Is there any specific technology that you are excited about that will change the way you create?
Adam Fairless: Ironically a million miles away from toys there are starting to be huge innovations in the military world in robotics and human augmentation with technology. As with most kinds of this development, there is likely to be a trickle-down effect of ideas. There are all kinds of cool walking, climbing, jumping and flying robots around now, that we may well have in our homes, sooner than we think, with various applications.
As far as trends go without stating the obvious, Apple and its product have pretty much changed the consumer landscape as we once knew it. Adult and child expectation alike have reached a new level of sophistication. With toy robots, in particular, it seems the only way to deal with this new consumer and his technological needs is to integrate and embrace smart device technology as part of your play pattern or stay as far away from it as possible.
Digital-Tutors: Technology is always changing. How do you keep up?
Adam Fairless: Technology in all of its multifarious forms is really a tool to complete a job. If the workman, or designer in this case, has a strong understanding of design and a diverse way of using his skills, then technology only serves to enhance and augment his final output. The one thing that will never change for the designer or artist is being able to convey your ideas effectively and efficiently whether it be a scribble with a pencil, pen or tablet or an immersive haptic interface-driven 3D reality suite. Of course keeping up with all the latest programs and ideas helps too!
Digital-Tutors: When you’re not helping to design toys, what do you do for fun away from the office?
Adam Fairless: I really am a toy geek and like to collect all manner of toys such as Hot Toys Predators, Gundams, even table top miniatures. I also have a book addiction. I can’t resist anything sci-fi or design related. I’ve recently started a family so reality (and finances) must kick in. Some of my fanaticism for collecting has been curtailed. Outside in the fresh air of the real world, I also love cars and martial arts, although I often spend time rubbing my aching bones after training.
Digital-Tutors: Thanks for your time! Any last things you’d like to share with up-and-coming designers before we go?
Adam Fairless: Like Tribot, don’t take yourself too seriously!
I once worked for a gentleman in England who taught me a very important rule: “Do one design for the boss and one for yourself.” This basically means if you are doing a design for a job then don’t get emotionally attached to it. Create what is needed in a professional manner, take criticism and change on the chin and if someone else takes over your design and finishes it off for you – let go and enjoy what that other person brings out in your idea. Go home and then noodle your own stuff to your heart’s content, but make sure to finish some of it and get it in your portfolio!
See more from Adam now by visiting his Digital-Tutors Tutor Profile, LinkedIn profile and Coroflot portfolio, and watching his Rhino tutorials: Getting Started with Modeling in Rhino and Creating a Toy Model for Rapid Prototyping in Rhino.