In the hands of the UW’s influential industrial designers, form and function combine to make art.
Stop and look around you. If you’re sitting in an Aeron chair, in the kitchen using a garlic peeler made by OXO or listening to a podcast on your Apple AirPods, thank (or blame) an industrial designer.
Almost every object made today has been defined by a designer making careful decisions on your behalf, balanced with both business and engineering forces that push and pull at them.
Industrial design is simply the profession that performs the role of an architect. But instead of designing a building, they create products that are mass-produced in the hundreds of thousands or multiple millions. Like artists who express the zeitgeists of the day, designers act as corporate storytellers and composers of solutions that distill thousands of decisions into singular objects that solve a human need, hopefully elegantly.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a collection of wide-eyed students roamed the halls of the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design, wondering if their futures could be different than the careers of lawyers, doctors, accountants or engineers their parents dreamed for them. Their renderings of cigarette lighters, MG cars and aircraft interiors destined for future Boeing airplanes, were an exhilarating mix of colored pencils, gouache and pastels that looked like they were inspired by Michelangelo. Mechanical drawings done with graphite pencils looked like Da Vinci’s. Up close, they noticed the odd errant line or smudge, and drew in the unmistakable perfume of inks and paints that gave them permission to share the air with the fine-art students in the classrooms next door.
They were hooked, unable to resist the allure and romance of creating wonderful things that would find their place in the world for others to experience. Twenty-plus years later in the early ’80s, those same hallways hooked me. Although then there were stereos, lamps, Xerox machines and recreational gear that were pinned up on the walls with the new Flo Master inks and lighter-fluid-and-pastel washes on acetate. Some rudimentary computer-generated mechanical drawings were just starting to make their way up there.
Walk the halls today, and it’s photo-realistic digital renderings that don’t smell like Prismacolor markers or Flo Master inks—something that the “old guy” in me laments. Having spent almost three decades at Microsoft from the early days of the PC to the internet to holograms, I feel a bit guilty about being a part of the explosion of digital tools now made accessible to these students designing the future.
My daughter Maya is one of those designers. She’s pursuing a master’s in design in those same UW hallways, at a time when technological change is accelerating exponentially, making the world we live in so unpredictable. This new generation of designers will have to grapple with problems spanning from climate change to AI, while having to discern between new realities—ones that are mixed—with physical people, places and things coexisting and interacting with digital things.
At such a pivotal time in history, I think about the past and what helped designers and engineers adapt, survive and even flourish amid so much change. Reflecting on these hallways and pinups today, I think about what is the same, what is (very) different and what should give us hope that today’s students will be prepared to take on the challenging problems of tomorrow.
For the past three years, I’ve been having lunch with four of some of the region’s pioneering industrial designers at Cactus in Madison Park. The men, once my mentors and now friends, were the ones walking those halls at the UW between 1956 and 1972 in the industrial design program started by Frank Del Giudice in 1952. A few years earlier, Del Guidice moved here from Back East to establish the Walter Dorwin Teague studio in the Northwest, which figured out how to design a converted Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber into the civilian-friendly 1946 Stratocruiser, which later became the iconic 707. Over chips and salsa, Harold Kawaguchi, ’61, ’65, Dell King, ’60, ’69, George McCain, ’69, David Smith, ’70, ’72, and I catch up on life and discuss our shared interest on the state of industrial design as well as design education. We try (and usually fail) to dial down our healthy concern for the material design world that is quickly losing its emphasis on three-dimensional craft due to an expanded notion of “experience design” or “design thinking” that has muddied the once clear delineation between design disciplines and their curriculums.
My lunchmates, who all grew up around the Seattle area and studied or later taught at the UW, played an instrumental role in making the Pacific Northwest a progressive product-design center of excellence for both hardware and software products ranging from consumer goods to medical diagnostic equipment, computer technology and recreational gear.
Selfishly, their stories give me context for my own story a full generation later, and provide insights about the design education we received in the UW School of Art + Art History + Design that I believe can endure in the future for my daughter and her classmates.
King is the central, pioneering figure in industrial design on the upper left coast. Any electrician worldwide will know Fluke Digital Handheld Multimeters as the premium tool for measuring voltage, resistance and current. They are designed, engineered and mostly fabricated at the Fluke Corp. in Everett. King was hired by its founder and fellow UW alum, John Fluke Sr., ’35, and went on to design the world’s first handheld digital multimeter, the Fluke 8020, that set the industry standard.
At Fluke, King insisted on an extraordinary attention to detail, something he both uncovered and developed through his passion for model-train building he’d harbored since being a young boy growing up in Seattle more than 60 years ago. As kind of the “godfather” of Pacific Northwest industrial design, he established Fluke as a premium international product-design house that was not just known for its standard-setting products, but also for its world-class corporate design-management program.
Later, as the CEO of Teague and as a beloved professor of industrial design at Western Washington University for 37 years, King singularly influenced more industrial designers here than anyone else. Back at Fluke, one of his most inspired decisions was to hire his complement, George McCain, who mastered the art of influence with a smile and created a disciplined team that would educate more product-design leaders in the Northwest in those years than any other company. Because of them, working there became known as getting the “Fluke Master’s in design.”
In 1968, George McCain wondered why Dell King was watching his class presentations from the back row with such interest. McCain had just returned after serving in the military and working at Boeing for a couple of years to make ends meet as a newly married man. The answer was that King was looking for designer No. 2 at Fluke, someone who could help him extend and scale his design vision for years to come. McCain, who dreamed of being a car designer, embodied and created a culture that reinforced King’s mantra of “Evolution, not revolution.”
McCain was a corporate design manager who saw design as a disciplined act that would be guided by a set of rules, whether they be universal design principles or the corporate guidelines he helped create. Like a familiar piece of music, it consisted of familiar notes that you feel without having to think, and McCain was the orchestrator of this culture of collaboration and accountability.
This leadership would take him to Almelo, in the Netherlands, to lead the design group for three years at Fluke Europe B.V., where he would spread his design wings before returning to the Northwest to finish his 38-year career at Fluke.
My cohorts and I have always considered McCain to be the father figure in Northwest industrial design. His commitment to giving back to the profession is evident through his teaching at the UW for a decade and holding multiple positions in the Industrial Designers Society of America, where he is chair emeritus and an IDSA Fellow.
For anyone who has suffered an acute heart incident and survived, it’s likely because of a heart defibrillator designed in Redmond, made by Physio-Control. Harold became employee No. 3 there after a short stint working for Frank Del Guidice at Walter Dorwin Teague. Just 23 years earlier, Kawaguchi was 5 years old and had just witnessed the destruction of his family’s Seattle farm before they were sent to a Japanese American incarceration camp in Northern California. As a young man, he thought he might become a doctor, not a designer. But, one day he walked into the UW art building, went down the hall, and he never looked back.
A key moment in Northwest business history is when Kawaguchi designed the LifePak 33 defibrillator out of a series of existing components on a piece of plywood (called a breadboard), in a miraculous 90 days, and proved its commercial safety to the FDA. For someone whose family lost everything, he had everything to gain by doing this as a volunteer, banking on the idea that this startup would pay dividends. That model kicked off critical funding to keep alive the vision of its founder, Seattle cardiologist Dr. Bill Edmark. And Physio-Control became a worldwide reference standard for direct-current, heart defibrillation. As the area’s first vice president of industrial design, he fought to make Physio a place where design mattered top to bottom, and a place that would lure the best design talent.
Kawaguchi credits Dell King as his inspiration. As an investor in design, and always comfortable starting from scratch, Kawaguchi co-created Manifesto (now Resolute Lighting) with UW graduate Doug Varey, ’82, and engaged with a startup called Stratos Product Development group, which helped design and engineer some of the earliest Microsoft hardware products. He then taught for years at the UW. A humble man from humble beginnings, he played the role of the “statesman” to the idea that design means serious business. His wisdom was knowing that he could make a larger impact by surrounding himself with world-class talent and designing the path for them to succeed. His first key hire, David Smith, went on to design the industry-changing LifePak 5. Smith could build anything he put his mind to, and his trajectory was powered by individual drive and the love for speed.
There’s no question that if you belong to a fitness center or have a state-of-the-art treadmill, you will be running on a Precor machine, designed and fabricated in Redmond. An alum of Physio-Control, and Quinton Medical, and the designer of many of the street-lighting fixtures on Seattle’s Broadway, Smith started Precor in 1980 with an uncompromising vision that designing wasn’t just for products, it was for whole businesses—a philosophy that he learned from Kawaguchi.
Smith put everything he had on the line several times to see it succeed and became a bit of a folk hero for my generation, who saw him as a designer who made it big-time as a self-made entrepreneur. The design award-winning Precor line of exercise equipment became such a successful business that Smith would go on to sell Precor to Dart and Craft, Inc. in 1984, making his risk the story of legend. It’s now owned by Peloton Interactive.
He put himself through UW design school by crewing racing boats, being called upon to be a model maker for the CIA during Vietnam, and always proving that he could carry out his vision because he could just make the thing himself. His stories are littered with moments where he has been doubted by engineering or business types, where he proved them wrong by being able to see things 30 steps ahead, the skill of a fabricator. Never afraid of getting his hands dirty, he rode along with paramedics on MedicOne while at Physio to better understand how to design the LifePak 5, which went on to change the defibrillator industry worldwide. Today, the fancy term for this is “contextual design or inquiry.” Back then it was just the practical sensibility of an exceptionally good designer. Today, you’ll find him still in the shop, with his passion for restoring Concours de Elegance-winning Ferraris, and Alfa Romeos, for clients worldwide.
Having spent considerable time both researching Northwest corporate-design histories and the human stories behind them, I realized that although technological and business landscapes keep changing, the education to learn how to think critically and creatively in times of ambiguity has always been bedrock.
The fact that these pioneers studied design in the UW School of Art + Art History + Design, where exploration and experimentation reign, is a key point. They were trained to create things that make others think, feel, or simply admire for their ingenuity. Could it be that art, and the exposure to the humanities, remain central to what makes us human? I emphatically say, “Yes.”
Outside of the long debate about the role of creaft in design education, I’m betting on Maya’s generation and the next to ensure that the future is imbued with compassion, craft, and beauty that elevates us—and one that these midcentury pioneers of product design have shown us is worth fighting for.
About the Author: Steve Kaneko, FIDSA, holds a BFA in industrial design from the UW, where he completed his studies in 1985. He has been a Fellow in the Industrial Designers Society of America since 2005. During his 28 years at Microsoft Corp., he has been credited for pioneering and leading the company’s design disciplines across both hardware and software. His 1991 Mouse 2.0 has been inducted into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 2019, he was recognized with the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award for his contributions to the arts in the Northwest. He has just started a passion project to document PNW product design history through the eyes of its designers at nwidarchive.com.
Pictured at top: Icons of innovation, these industrial designers who trained at the UW enjoy a reunion in an Art Building workroom. From left: Steve Kaneko, Dell King, David Smith, George McCain and Harold Kawaguchi.