Austin firm is branching out by introducing its own products. - Sunday, August 14, 2005
By Helen Chernikoff
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Austin-based industrial design firm d:e has taken direction from inventors for almost 20 years. The firm opened its doors in 1986 and has designed and engineered keyboards, computers, cell phones and other tech products for clients such as Dell, Toshiba, Compaq and Apple.
But recently, d:e decided to take a turn at the drawing board for a different kind of product. The result was a green rubber dog toy that fetched top honors from the Industrial Design Society of America. It's part of a line of pet accessories called Wetnoz sold at more than 350 retailers worldwide, including Austin's Bark 'n Purr Pet Center on Burnet Road.
"We have the only cool litter box on the planet," said Pearce Jones, a principal in the firm. "I've had people say, '(To heck with) the dog. I want to eat my cereal out of that water bowl.' "
d:e's roots are in Houston, where in the late 1980s its founders, who have since left the company, received a contract to design computers for Michael Dell. By 1991, Dell had convinced d:e that Austin would better nurture its creativity, so they moved, still doing most of their business for Dell but determined to diversify. They snagged new clients, mostly computer companies, and started winning design awards.
"They're a hot company in a hot city with a lot of stuff that's going on that's very cool," said Michelle Berryman, an executive vice president of the Industrial Design Society and a principal at Echo Visualization, an Atlanta design firm.
The 11 awards Wetnoz has won are only the most recent; d:e has won multiple golds from the Industrial Design Society, the industry's highest honor. The firm's connection to its industry's preeminent organization is so firm that next year, Austin will host its annual convention and Mark Kimbrough, the other principal, will chair it.
The firm generates $4 million in revenue a year and employs 30. That's healthy sales and a big staff for an industrial design firm.
Moving into inventing is only the latest in a series of moves by which d:e has adapted to globalization, cultivating services such as brand development and marketing to compensate for engineering work lost abroad.
"Engineering used to be a kind of bread and butter staple of an industrial design firm, and then manufacturers overseas started throwing it in for free," Berryman said.
That forced industrial design firms across the country to reposition themselves as gurus of strategic thinking, a transition d:e has negotiated successfully while some firms closed shop under the pressure, Berryman said.
"It's grow or die. But growth isn't size, it's change," Jones said. "This is one big sandbox that's churning businesses, and as far as I'm concerned, we can't churn them fast enough. We just want to play."
Serving tech titans
When the firm opened in 1990, 90 percent of its business was industrial design for tech giants. Now it's half, Kimbrough said. d:e's Web site bears this out, featuring a diverse portfolio, including two projects for Dell.
"Through vision and coherent design, d:e was able to take six different looking printers and draw them together to form one strong statement," said Pedro Alfonso, a project manager at Dell, on the site.
But the site also touts the firm's work for small, specialized companies such as Maternus, which brought d:e an idea for an umbilical cord cutter and saw it recast in the shape of a kangaroo and christened the Joey Clamp.
Expanding d:e's menu of services and mix of products was a defensive move that nonetheless enabled the firm to go on the offensive by launching its own companies. Wetnoz was the first one, and two others are on the way.
Globalization "has been a hot topic for the past year, and we take solace that our strategy is coinciding with what we're hearing," Kimbrough said. "And then on top of that, we can spin off auxiliary companies that can feed off the mothership."
The branding and marketing treatment that d:e used to launch Wetnoz is available to anyone who wants to hire them. d:e bills itself as one-stop shopping for anyone with an idea.
"Instead of just having the idea, and the look of the idea, we can provide all of the mechanics and the tools around the idea to take it to market and to reach the end user," said Kit Morris, director of design. "The reason people come to us is we can support it from the napkin-sketch stage to a product on the shelves."
Richard Trocino knocked on d:e's door with little more than a scrawl and a dream of creating a travel toothbrush fit not for a queen, but for 007 of Her Majesty's Secret Service. "I called it 'Spybrush,' " he said.
In his vision, a travel-size tube of toothpaste sat in the handle; twisting it pushed toothpaste through a rubber nozzle and onto the brush. The top doubled as a rinsing cup.
But as a software company owner who got the idea after having his wisdom teeth removed, Trocino had no idea what to do next. He'd read about d:e and thought they might be able to help.
"It was a new area, out of my comfort zone," he said. Even the firm's industrial-chic Penn Field office suite, filled with youngsters hip to the latest in denim and eyewear, intimidated him.
d:e "is like Willy Wonka for consumer products. I walked in and thought: These guys are way out of my league."
Jones and Kimbrough thought otherwise. They asked to get in on the brushing action, so instead of charging for the firm's services, Trocino and the firm became partners.
"What is significant about d:e is that they're not just a bunch of people who do drawings, although that's a very significant part of their business. They're a kind of left brain, right brain company. And right from the beginning they said, 'This thing has got to . . . work mechanically, but it's got to really look cool,' " Trocino said.
The firm's engineers got to work on the mechanics, producing sketches and prototypes. Director of engineering Brad Collins arranged via the Internet for a factory in China to manufacture Trocino's toothbrush while designers and marketers huddled on how to sell it.
They settled on an image that conveyed not cloak and dagger, but the more accessible glamour of the busy traveler. "It's convenience and cool design on the go," design director Morris said.
After considering and rejecting more than 50 names — Spybrush wasn't among them — they named it OHSO because someone wandered in, wondered what it was and said, "Oh, so it's a toothbrush," Trocino said.
And they set about building the brand in the image of the ideal OHSO user as featured on the Web site, a strong-jawed fellow in a slim suit and French cuffs dodging traffic.
"Are you an adventurer — a connoisseur? Is your lifestyle about motion and change?" the Web site asks.
"When I first saw the Web site, it brought tears to my eyes," Trocino said. "I thought, these guys are good."
And the Web site won the product the right kind of attention, right away.
Trocino rejoiced at the appearance of OHSO on cool-hunting Web sites.
"Sure there are other toothpaste-dispensing toothbrushes out there, but none with such robo-phallic style," Engadget.com said.
Trocino attributes international interest in OHSO to such endorsements. The product hits shelves in mid-September and the site already has fielded requests from wholesalers, retailers and dentists worldwide.
Meanwhile, Jones and Kimbrough were realizing that if they could transform a toothbrush from dream to reality, they should take advantage of their company's growing skills.
"We came close to launching our own ideas, but we always knew we had big pieces missing," Kimbrough said. "We suddenly realized we did everything to go to market, so we should go to market."
But they wanted to do it in a way that would further strengthen them against offshoring. Kimbrough worries that design might go the way of engineering. Brand development is the West's next safe harbor, Kimbrough and Jones decided, so that's where d:e is heading.
"You know, (Asia) can't really develop brands. That's deeply cultural in a way that design isn't," Kimbrough said.
This instinct for survival turned the principals' minds toward man's best friend. Sentiment was irrelevant in their decision to focus on toys and water bowls for their first product launch, although employee pets always have had the run of d:e's offices.
Instead, they surveyed the consumer goods landscape and settled on a patch of territory — pet accessories — that hadn't already been colonized by a brand, Kimbrough said.
"The more research we did, we realized this is not about the products," he said. "It's about the fact that there are really no brands in that market. We set out to create the Nike of that industry."
But d:e must be careful to balance its history and future without alienating its big-name corporate clients. The firm is trying to find investors for two new products it has under way, yet not raise their profile too high.
"The guy who brings all those printers down from Dell doesn't want to hear about dog toys," Jones said.