A new generation of creatives are using digital connectivity to bring their work to the market without the need of traditional development processes or retail channels. In this interview Joey Roth, designer-retailer of the Sorapot, argues that creative skills are not enough to be a successful industrial designer and that you also need to be a great hustler to get your work noticed (and a good dose of luck that the blogosphere will spread your ideas helps too).
Joey, We’re fascinated with your tenacity. We must have met at Likemind over a year ago and it was there you told me about your new kettle and there still seems to be much buzz about it. How did it all start?
It’s actually been about two years since I started sketching ideas for Sorapot in college, and I had originally intended it only as a portfolio piece to snag an internship after graduation. Somehow a blogger for CoolHunting found my site and posted Sorapot. You can still see the original post (and original design) here.
Other blogs, including Gizmodo, picked up Sorapot on the same day, and I started getting emails from individuals and retail buyers asking about price and minimum order size. This was my first encounter with the power of blogs as a marketing tool, and with the idea of producing and selling my products on my own.
Since we first met, you seem to have been perfecting the Sorapot. What happened in the design process over the last 12 months, why?
I mainly spent the last year finalizing the design to make it more manufacturable, and also searching for the right manufacturer. I had originally planned to produce Sorapot domestically, but found that metal foundries in the States are either geared towards sculptors or the military, and totally unfordable. So I started searching for the right manufacturer in India and China. The culture among manufacturers is to say that they can produce anything for you upon your initial inquiry, no matter what you want to make. It took me some time to catch on, and I sometimes spent months emailing back and forth with places, just to finally find that their primary product was wicker baskets or windows. I finally found my current manufacturer through a referral, and after visiting their workshop in Shenzhen and ironing out some misunderstandings, I’ve been very happy with their work. I’m still catching up on backorders, but I’m spending much of my time now finding remarkable retailers, cafes, and hotels that would be a good fit for Sorapot.
You appear to be a great networker. We seem to see you at every NYC party that matters. Is it important for a product/industrial designer to know how to hustle?
Really? I still feel like I miss so many events I want to attend. I think hustling is absolutely critical for a designer who wants to start a business and maintain responsibility for product from the factory floor to the customer’s hands. The typical industrial designer wants to design new products within a company or consultancy, leaving the rest to marketers and engineers, and I think a killer portfolio is often more important than networking for these folks. Luckily I enjoy meeting new interesting people, learning about what they do, and getting them excited about my work almost as much as I love design itself. Networking is part of the design process for me, since I’m basically designing the product anew each time I describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it before.
First your product design then your packaging did the ‘viral’ rounds on the blogosphere. Do you understand how this ‘buzz’ works?
I’m still a little perplexed by it, but I basically owe my career to blogosphere buzz. Almost all of my customers find Sorapot through blog posts, and I still see blogs as my strongest advocates and best bridge to new customers, as well as insights on new product concepts.
Which bloggers and publishers help drive new product idea and designs faster and further than others?
Finally – is stainless steel going to save the world?
I love stainless because it becomes more beautiful and more personalized over time- it acquires a patina based on the individual’s patterns of use. On Sorapot, the uncoated stainless steel will develop a sheen where it meets the user’s hand, and gradually become more matter in other areas. Over time, this will create a beautiful gradient of surface shine that progresses over Sorapot’s body. My dream is to find a well-used and well-loved Sorapot in an antique shop in 50 years. Because I’ve designed Sorapot to become more valuable to the user as it ages, its chances of being thrown out and replaced are lower than for products that look best when they’re brand-new, and become progressively worn out. Steel’s embodied energy is amortized over its long lifetime, making it a very sustainable material. As much as I love it, I don’t think any one material can save the world. However, stainless, concrete, teak, and cardboard have a lot going for them.