The Road to Industrial Design for Rotimi Solola

Won J. You

August 29, 2021

Where do you work and what is your current title?

This is a tricky one because I think I have a lot of titles and roles. For a while I've been an independent industrial designer, but recently I founded So Design, a design consulting practice. I also teach Industrial Design foundation-level courses as well as advanced sketching and drawing courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I'll soon be teaching at Northwestern with their grad program. I'm also an entrepreneur. I launched a product on Kickstarter back in 2017 called Alt pen. It's a multifunctional ballpoint pen. That was a great experience – I took some of my background from Motorola to bring that product to market.

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What does an industrial designer do?

I think industrial design is kind of a broad industry now, but I'll answer that question from the lens of what I do or what I teach. Our job as an industrial designer is to design solutions for everyday problems through the design of physical products that people can use. And I want to say physical products, so as not to confuse it with UX or UI design. There is an overlap with UX/UI where those courses are also being taught at universities like UIC and other other universities, where you're not only looking at the physical product but you're looking at the way people interact with digital interfaces. I think part of industrial design is looking at the way people interact with products both physically and digitally and trying to accommodate that through the products you create. And these are just everyday things – it's called industrial design, but you're not always designing robots or things like that. A lot of times I work on shaving products, or desktop mice and computer keyboards and all types of everyday objects. So, yeah, you could say it's the design of everyday things.

There's a lot of people who will say that industrial design is problem solving and I have a terrible problem with that. That definition is very broad. Being a human being is being a problem solver. I think doctors solve problems, lawyers solve problems, so do engineers. It's too broad of a definition. We, as designers, give form to solutions that are physical products that enable people to interact with them in a certain way that hopefully improves their lives in one way or another.

What does typical day look like for you as an industrial designer?

My typical day might vary depending on the time of year. For instance, this summer we just wrapped up a three month summer internship. I had an intern, Andrew, who was with me remote about half the time, half the time onsite. And when he's onsite, in the morning brief, we'd take a look at what our week is looking like, what projects we have to clear off our plates. Then we'd kind of go off on our own projects. Typically what it might look like, at least from my side, is making sure I respond to emails and follow up with the clients. One of the things I've discovered as an independent designer and now running my studio is customer service is so important. Not just designing the thing, but making sure your clients can reach you, making sure they feel heard, making sure that you're there. They're paying for your services, so making sure they feel like they're they're getting what they're paying for.

So I try to keep track of the emails, keep on top of those types of things. Then reading, feedback, responding, understanding schedules and putting things on the calendar, I'll basically move into trying to tackle one project at a time. I typically have like three or four deadlines in a week, but you can only do one thing at a time, right? I'm not fantastic at multitasking, so I like to just focus, put the headphones on, and I might start with some sketching, that might be part of the process. Very rough sketching on paper. Once I have an idea of where it's going to be, I might get into some digital sketching on the tablet, get things presentation ready so that the clients can easily understand the ideas. Sometimes I'll coordinate with whoever is interning at that time. Sometimes I'll do it myself. We'll create some mock ups with foam board, just things that we can cut out of paper roll up and just crude mock ups, glue it to it to make it look decent. And that is just to give a sense of validation to some of the concepts that we're looking at scale, size, proportion. And then from that we can go back to the drawing board. It's kind of a zig-zaggy process.

A lot of this stuff might happen over the course of a couple of days to a week, but at a certain point, once we've reviewed and typically gotten the sketches or mockups approved, we'll go into building things. I don't always go into CAD right away, just because I think a lot of the best design work happens during the sketch phase. And once we get the CAD going, then we'll take the time to actually produce renderings on 3D rendering software to give it a sense of materiality. And there's probably one less step for myself or an intern. Both of us will collaborate, coordinate on pulling together a presentation for the client review.

What does the creative process look like with your intern? Is it a partnership or more creative direction?

It's a bit of both. Because the company is so small right now, I'm basically an employee of my own company and the intern is an employee as well. So we sit next to each other and work as colleagues. But at the same time, I have to give the creative direction. Understanding what the client is saying and filtering that to give the relevant information to an intern so that they can design, because sometimes clients don't always articulate themselves properly. And I have to figure out what it is they're trying to say. What does this mean when they say this? Sometimes I'm spot on and sometimes I'm a little bit off, but they'll let you know when you present the concept that you have to go back to the drawing board. So that's usually what it looks like, basically taking the client brief, trying to synthesize it.

A lot of times I'll create a new presentation that's more internal for myself as well as the designer. I've worked with other freelancers occasionally, so I just have to make sure that the brief is crystal clear to them. Whatever language my client is using I try to interpret it into the desired intent to share with the designers. That's usually the most challenging part, to be honest, because it takes a little bit of time. It's almost easier to just do things yourself. But the whole purpose of hiring people and working with other people is so they can help with the burden. It's most effective when I can clearly articulate what it is that this project is about, not specifically what the client said, but what the client meant. I feel like I've developed a really good method for understanding the chemistry with the clients that I've been working with, that I'm able to understand that. That's probably a good chunk of my responsibility – really making sure the intern or the freelancer clearly understands what it is we're trying to do here. And it's not always that clear. But people do their best work when they understand.

What would you say are the most important skills, whether it's a hard skill or soft skill that you look for when you're hiring someone to work with?

For me there are a few things I look for. One of the things I'm looking for is work ethic. The intern I'm working with, that's actually a former student of mine from UIC, and I just knew from from day one that he's got a strong work ethic, as a lot of my students do. But that's really important because especially if you're working remotely, especially during COVID, like you want to have confidence that when they're working from home and from the safety and comfort of their own home, that things are getting done. So I want to work with people who are very self-motivated, especially because sometimes I'm not available on the phone right away and might be at a client's office. So that's the first thing I look for.

The next thing I would say is hard skills, specifically drawing and the ability to sketch. Because when I create a presentation, I want it to look like it's all coming from one designer. And because I have 10 years of experience sketching and designing, it's not always the case that someone I'm hiring or working with has the same level of experience. But it's really important that they have a good skill set because it needs to look like one person did it, even though it's two of us. We both have our style, things like that. I try to remove that out of the equation and we try to share assets, share the layers. There are certain files that just make sure that things look a certain way. If I can't rely on you to sketch, or things get slowed down because of that process, I can't work with that because that is a big part of my business.

The other thing that this has come more recently, from being more of a design director for the people that I'm working with, is communication. I think that this skill is vital in any field, anywhere. Just the ability to say, "I'm having trouble with this" or, "I've got to be honest, I haven't gotten much done in the last hour. I don't know why." Once you are having that dialogue, then we can say, "OK, let me help you try this." We can give a suggestion as opposed to maybe I'm thinking, 'Oh, you're not very productive. Are you lazy?' You never want your boss to make an assumption about you because you could have fallen down and broken your foot, like anything could happen. So just communicate with your team. That's something that's so important. I think it's a hard thing, and often it's not our focus. As a student, you're focused on learning the hard skills, getting to the class on time, learning a specific technique. Oftentimes the communication aspect gets pushed to the background. I don't blame anyone for struggling with the communication, but I think to get ahead in this country, in this world, it really requires being able to speak out for what it is that you want or what you're doing, what you're working on.

How did you get started in industrial design?

I guess we're taking it back then! So for me, it would have been high school. Industrial design is not something you typically learn about in high school, but in my high school, [Thornwood High School in the suburbs of South Holland, Illinois] we had to do a senior project as a graduation requirement. It started your sophomore year, and it was a research assignment where you had to research what career path you wanted to take.

You started sophomore year, and in your junior and senior year you had these milestones to check off. Everything from an informational paper you had to write all the way through an interview process, all the way through potentially getting an internship and interviewing people in that field.

My experience led me into sort of an internship along with one my friends, so that's where I started. I chose to research automotive engineering because I was torn between engineering and my love of cars. So I was like, OK, automotive engineering. That's going to be cool. And throughout the process, I discovered automotive design, so I started looking into automotive design. I saw a lot of people sketching. I saw really amazing work. And I started just practicing on my own, trying to draw cars and things like that to get into design. I was not great at it, but eventually I learned about industrial design. I ended up still giving my presentation on automotive engineering, ended up calling it automotive engineering and design. But yeah, that's kind of how it started for me.

What led you to shift gears into industrial design and not automotive design?

It was a number of things. After a while of just doing my homework, researching and practicing, trying to learn software on my own (whatever I could get my hands on that was free and just practicing with our dinosaur of a computer), I discovered product design, specifically industrial design. And then it became very clear to me that though I was better than probably the average person at drawing and designing cars and figuring things out, I wasn't good by automotive design standards. And when I would take those same skills into designing like a cell phone, like I redesigned my TI-83 calculator, I would just be designing things that I use. It came so much more natural for me.

Although I originally gravitated towards automotive design, the statistics don't make you likely to be successful unless you're top notch. You're like the celebrity of the physical product design world as an automotive designer. And a lot of these guys are studying and practicing at the age of 12 to get into some of these industries. So I figured maybe I don't have much of an advantage there. Industrial design, the product side, just came much more naturally to me. So I decided to focus on that.

I also saw a lot more schools available to apply to for industrial design. But I was still torn. My parents are Nigerian, and I was also born in Nigeria, and my immigrant parents wanted me to be pursue something stable like being a doctor or a lawyer. When they thought I was into engineering, they were super proud. And so I figured I had a better chance statistically of getting into industrial design than automotive design. So there were a lot of factors that really sort of strategically allowed me to pick that path. And I'm glad I did, actually.

Which school did you go into for that program for industrial design?

I spent a year at community college, which I would actually recommend to anybody. I did a year at the community college because I was still torn between engineering and design. And that's when I figured, you know what, I don't want to be an engineer. I don't want to do this for four years, which is a long time. And so after that year, I just pulled out and started UIC basically the next year. And I'm really glad I did. I'm also glad I studied it at community college to just get all my general education credits out of the way so I could focus on design and just eat, sleep and drink design, 24-7. So yeah, I went to UIC where I'm currently teaching University of Illinois at Chicago.

So how did you land your first design job coming out of school?

It was internships for me. I was very fortunate to have basically three internships by the time I graduated. One of them was for my drawing instructor, who worked with some individuals at a company called Design Integrity. She reached out to me and a couple of other students – "OK, you know, you're pretty strong in my class. Are you interested? One of my buddies is hiring an intern. A summer internship could be great." I was a sophomore at the time and she gave me the contact information. I sent my portfolio, and I had her review my portfolio just before I sent it in. You know, as a sophomore, typically you're not necessarily looking for internships. You're just trying to build your skill. But because I had started in high school, building stuff in CAD and sketching and learning the software through that research project, I was already familiar with very similar software. I think I had a strong enough skill set and I just I interviewed well I guess, for my first interview, so it worked out pretty well. They took a chance on me. And after that, I just made it a point to make sure that, at every opportunity, I would try to get an internship as often as I could.

The next internship I got was with Motorola, which was one of the reasons I actually chose to go to UIC during the research process. I was looking at potential careers and schools and UIC kept popping up, and it was local right here in Chicago. One of the things I saw there were job prospects – it listed companies and brands that students that graduate go into, and Motorola was one of those. I was really interested in tech and cell phones and things like that, so I figured that if I could get an internship at Motorola, that would be a dream. So I applied for it. I applied for a couple other places, but really just spent my entire junior year focusing on 'what kind of work do I need to be doing to get hired at a company like this?'

As a third internship, back in school I was in contact with Michael Seum, who was I think one of the business developers at Minimal, and he was also UIC alum. He was interested in working with me or pulling me on to Minimal as an intern at the time. So we had a long conversation, and eventually I was able to do a part-time internship during the semester. That was a lot of fun. So one internship led to the other, because the skills I acquired from one kind of boosted me on the on the next one.

When did you realize that you had a gift for design?

Yeah, it's a good question. There were a few nuggets along the way, with each one helping to build my confidence. So, like I said, I redesigned my TI83 calculator in high school, I think I was a senior at the time. My trigonometry teacher was a great advocate for me. I was pretty decent at math and we got along. So all my teachers would encourage my creativity because I would always try to figure out a way to introduce some drawings or animations and things like that. When I started designing this calculator, I went into Google Sketch Up (at the time it was owned by Google) and I started building 3D models, sketching, all the process, but in a very watered down way. And I was so thrilled with this design. I went to my mom and I said, "Hey, can we get this patented?" I'd done the research and everything. And she was like, you know, that doesn't sound like something that we can afford, but OK, let's let's look into it. So I called one of those places you see on TV, and we drove downtown and brought all my drawings and my process and showed it to the guy. He was like, "Oh, wow, you're in high school?" you know, that type of thing. It was great.

We ended up not doing anything with that because the idea was not developed enough, and I don't think we had anywhere near the funds needed to patent something like that. But it was such a great experience because I got positive feedback from the guy there, and that was one of the nuggets that was like, 'OK, you can do this.' Then in community college, I would always apply to competitions. I was doing a lot of automotive design competitions as well, sketching and things like that. I lost every single one of them. In one competition in particular, a professional designer gave me feedback. He was like, "You're not there yet, but you have potential." And that just meant so much to me. That was another nugget. Then for another competition, a watch design competition, I ended up placing top hundred out of three thousand entries or something like that. And this was before I started college, before I started my design program. That was the last big nugget that said, 'OK, you know what, I could make it doing this kind of thing.'

How do you teach your students what good design looks like?

Early in my teaching career, I was mainly focused on drawing and design sketching fundamentals. So what I tend to do is separate good design from the technical skill. I focus on building the technical skills. And I tell all my students that trying to do both, trying to come up with a really good drawing and a really good design is really difficult. So we separate the terrible drawings to get the idea. Once you have the idea crafted, then you can focus on making a nice drawing so people can understand it.

When I started teaching studio industrial design for sophomores, this question about good design and having model examples of it became a critical one, especially in a class like that. One of the things that the previous instructors have done with that class is introduce students to some of the biggest names in design, some of the famous players in industrial design. There are about 20 to 30 names on this list that we allow our students to research, and they basically give a presentation on these designers, kind of walk a day in their shoes for a week or so to really understand who they are, what their process is. That list of designers was very much from a Eurocentric white male view, and I figured, let me take that list and inject some diversity into it. So I started looking at Black designers as well as Hispanic designers to try to pull them into the list so that we can have a mixture. I think that's one of the first things that really sparks from seeing who your predecessors are, what they did. Not in the sense that you have to do what they did, the way they did it, but from a sense of understanding how they were relevant in their time, and understanding their thought process. Understanding how they think, and trying to model that instead of modeling the designs themselves.

As I'm doing demonstrations, talking about sketching or the industry or my personal experience, it's always really going back to the fact that design is one of those things where there is no right answer. Even if you had it in your hands, you know? So trying to get the students to see that you have to develop your criteria for success. You have to understand what you need to solve the problem for it to be a good solution, and how you how you support and back up the decisions that you're making. I think that's probably one of the most important things in design: being able to voice what you're doing and why you're doing it, even if it's not the best thing in the world. Being able to support that earns you some respect in the room. Sometimes a great designer is not very confident with expressing their designs, and they kind of get walked over or missed. And I've seen not so great designers do a really amazing job at selling their ideas, and everyone in the room is listening. So I'm just trying to show them that design is probably more about communication, even verbally, than before you even put something to the paper.

How do you teach your students those communication and presentation skills?

Once they're past a certain point, like their freshman year, I always try to model what good critiques are and give people a positive critique, "You've done a great job communicating what you're trying to do." I don't usually factor that into their grading until later when they're a bit more advanced in their education. It isn't until their sophomore year that I start to put a grade next to their presentation ability.

One of the things I started doing recently in an industrial design studio course was playing this game called Design Semantics. I create a PDF with a few inspirational images of products, maybe buildings, architecture, different stuff, and the students had to describe it in one word. What are we looking at? I was trying to really get away from the same words that everyone always uses, like, "it's seamless" or "it's flowy" or things like that. They would be attributed points for the words they used to describe it, and you couldn't use a word that someone else had already used.

This is getting them to broaden their horizons. How do you describe this thing that you're looking at? One of the reasons I think that's so important is because you're not designing based on an image. If you're designing only from an image, you can only produce what that image represents. But if you can look at that image and tell me what you like about it, why is it striking? Why is it unique? Now, forget that image and design based on the words you just used, and you essentially have the beginning of a brief. Then you take that brief and you design. Because the business world works with briefs. They don't always give you images, and everything is not perfectly laid out. Sometimes it's the client on the phone and they're just rattling off everything that they want, and you have five minutes to jot it down and then take it back and impress them a week later. So I really try to get them involved in the words they're using to not only critique their fellow classmates' work, but to describe their classmates' work and their own work.

What advice do you have for people who are interested in becoming an industrial designer?

By now, you've probably discovered that it seems like I had a pretty straight path to design, and I think that's just because I started so early. I'm very passionate about being in this career because it's not every day you get to do exactly what you love doing. I mean, there's stress that's involved. Some days you're tired, you're stressed out. But there isn't a day that goes by where I'm not grateful to be in this field, and a lot of that comes from the work that I did years ago, sacrificing, not going out, hanging out all the time. Just really just saying, "Hey, this is what I want to do in 10 years. So here's what I got to do now to get there." And I'm not saying you have to give up on a life or a social life or anything like that, but I'm saying you make a plan. I've always been a planner. Not everyone is a planner, I understand this, but I've always been a planner. So it's been a little bit more natural for me to do things like that.

If there's advice I could give someone, I would say, "Write it down." I've accomplished a lot of things just by writing it down and making it real. Right when it's floating around in your head, when it's just an idea, when it's just a thought, nothing happens of it. Not until you can visualize yourself doing it, touching it, or tasting it almost. So I always start to write it down to point things out. What do you need to get to the next step? And I think that's before you start sketching, or drawing. Take a little bit of time to visualize yourself where you want to be in the next 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 years, however long it takes to do that and be creative about it, too, like it could be anything. You can look like anything. So have fun with it. And once it's there, put it on paper and then go after it. Just make mistakes. Don't be too afraid to to do things and then don't be afraid to to share your work.

Even before I was in design school, I was designing like I said, I lost so many competitions like that. But the fact that I was at least confident enough (and I wasn't that confident, to be honest), but I was at least confident enough to put my work out there for someone to critique it, to judge me by it and to tell me that I didn't win. I've always been that kind of person. Every time I create something, I want to share it and I'm going to show it to someone. Maybe I think it's good, but reality will always tell me how you can improve. You could improve. I think just developing that sense to to share your work. I can't tell you how many clients have come to me just from me sharing work, just because it's out there on the Internet and people can see it, stumble upon it and find. "Oh, here's the guy to contact for that. This is the person that did that five years ago, six years ago," or whatever. And so I think building up that thick skin and building up that that willingness to share is a really important thing. Even when the work is that good, everybody goes through the same process. It's going to be bad in the beginning and it's going to get better over time, so long as you're doing the things. And I don't think there's anything wrong with sharing bad work, especially if you're able to show improvement year after year.

How do you stay on top of trends in the industry or just stay inspired and motivated?

I think my answer is maybe the opposite of what it is for some people. What motivates me might not motivate other people. I've heard this conversation a lot when it comes to social media. But I like to specifically follow designers and their work. I want to be doing work that really inspires me, so even when I'm on vacation and I'm flipping through social media, I can see something that's like, oh wow, that's really cool. I want to do something like that. So I try to surround myself with designs that inspire me. I like to look at that work because it really gets me to like, 'OK, I should do something today.' Even for myself, not for my client. Let me do a drawing. Let me do a sketch. And when I do that, I feel better.

So I would say, I follow people and I just try to stay on top of trends that way. I know for some people it can feel like, 'Oh, man, this guy is so good. I don't even want to want to try.' That never made any sense to me. I see someone that's ten times better than me. I want to be like them. I don't give up. That's always been a motivating factor for me. And then my students motivate me. I spend a lot of time mentoring and teaching, and teaching is another source of inspiration. I've always really enjoyed seeing a variety of skill sets displayed from students in their projects. In a classroom of 15 or 20 students, you're going to see 15 or 20 projects. And there's just something really interesting about understanding each student's thought process and just getting energized off of that, seeing how they work and how they think and see how it how it's similar to yours and or different from yours. There's just something beautiful about the variety of ways people learn and accomplish their projects that that I always find motivating.

Follow Rotimi Solola

You can hire Rotimi through his consulting firm, So Design. You can follow him on his Instagram account, @rotimi_solola.

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