Jonah Becker, Fitbit’s VP of Industrial Design, is nothing short of a design veteran. Shortly after graduating from the industrial design program at California College of the Arts, Becker co-founded the industrial design agency One & Company. During his time at One & Company, he worked on numerous projects with major companies, including Burton, HTC and Under Armour. After over a decade of working as an independent design agency, Becker and his team sold One & Company to HTC and were acquired by the mobile phone manufacturer.
Becker’s transition to Fitbit’s VP of Industrial Design yielded an even wider range of design wisdom for the industry native. For Becker, the career move was an opportunity to “build a design team from scratch and help make design an integral part of the culture and future of a business”—a challenge he was ready to face.
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We sat down with Becker to talk about his diverse work experience, what we can expect to see from the world of wearable technology in the near future and his advice for young designers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Core77: You used to work at One & Company/HTC, which involved working with a wide variety of brands and products, but at Fitbit, you’re instead honing in on one product line. What was it like for you transitioning from working on a diverse number of projects to one line of very specific products?
JB: There are pros and cons to every type of creative design situation. Something I’ve always enjoyed is gaining category expertise. As a designer, you’re expected to go in and identify and understand the issues your team is trying to solve. How can we apply a design process to come up with the best solution? I also think—often as a consultancy—your relationship and role with the client can vary with how you are involved in central decision making and things of that nature.
At Fitbit, I report directly to James Park, the CEO. I get to work intimately with all the engineering teams and our advanced process development team, which puts me in tune with all the different manufacturing processes. I’m able to build those relationships and understand how we can work best together and learn over time, as opposed to in a consulting model, sometimes you’ll do one project and then you’re off to a different industry.
I also think it’s important for designers to feel uncomfortable and continually challenged. Sometimes that can come from integrating new technology, finding new materials or developing a new process working within a different type of organization. But it’s also being exposed to different types of products. For example, I don’t think of Fitbit as a wearables company. We started with wearables, but I think at the core is, “How can we get information from humans, real people, about their physiology and their behaviors, and provide real health guidance, so they can hit their goals and achieve the health outcomes they want?” So that does not, in my mind, restrict us to wearables.
Can you talk about your design aesthetic for Fitbit and how you’ve developed it over time?
In some ways, I see a couple distinct generations of products to date. There’s the original designs—Flex, and Charge, and Charge HR and Surge. In many ways, their design language symbolizes the early days of what it meant to have a connectivity tracker—very simple from a form standpoint. There was this period of time when people started doing the, “Hey, I got one, I’m part of this movement” thing.
The next generation is where we are today, which is products like Blaze, Charge 2, Alta and the Alta HR. I think these are inspired a little bit more by geometric forms as opposed to the early generation. If you look for example at Charge 2 and Alta, they’re built on a hexagonal form that’s extruded and wrapped around the wrist. It thins where it becomes the band, but it’s continuous form breaks where the body or brain of the product is.
What’s interesting about this geometric form language is that it’s something people are very familiar with. When you take those forms and apply them in three dimensions, you also infer a little bit of a jewelry aesthetic. There’s a balance of these strong, structural elements, but it also looks a little bit like an emerald cut stone with faceted edges. The design weaves in an out of functional and fashionable aesthetics to fulfill multiple needs. When you’re going out to dinner it doesn’t feel out of place, but when you’re going to the gym, it feels like it takes on a slightly different character.
What do you see being the most important design features to take into account when designing wearables for the future?
I think we’re wrapping up this early adopter phase in wearables, where people were sort of that loud and proud, “Hey, I got one.” Part of it is moving beyond advertising the technology or advertising that you have the technology. How do we more seamlessly integrate it into a person’s everyday life? The answer is through material selection and color palettes but also through the overall ecosystem supporting the product. We’ve been focused on building accessories for our products as well—so you can change their character implementation.
In terms of designing for the future, I think taking inspiration from things people are already comfortable wearing all day every day, sleeping in, and spending all their time in is important—things like eyewear, which you can change over time and can change by getting a new product or with accessories. These pieces add a little bit of character, personality, and elegance to what you’re wearing but at the same time are not these huge statement pieces.
At times, there’s a tendency for industrial designers to think about the museum—the white pedestal, displaying your product and all its intricacies and beauty. But thinking about your product in the context of the entire body and what people are wearing across different occasions is critical.
When I went to HTC, I thought of the mobile phone as this unbelievably personal thing. Certainly it is—they’re in your pocket, you put them up to your face, and phone calls are very personal interactions. But they’re still disconnected, right? I could take my phone out of my pocket and leave it on my desk. Whereas a wearables are more attached. The next big step is ingesting or embedding technology, which some people are starting to do. Investigating how personal technology can become and that boundary between the person and the technology is important—it’s getting closer and closer together. For example, [one of] my favorite Fitbit features is the heart rate monitor. The more I use it, the more I learn about myself. Heart rate is something that used to just be measured at the doctor’s office, so I think it’s also interesting to see the healthcare space and consumer space start to move in different ways.
What do you think young designers should focus on now to prepare for the their futures?
A few things. I would say thinking beyond the borders of your expertise is important. Look for the right solution for the problem you’re trying to solve—it may not always lie within your area of expertise, or it may require collaboration with other disciplines that may not even be design related.
Following a passion and thinking of it as continual learning is also important. There are a lot of opportunities to pay off student loans quickly, and I think they are not always in the best service of your growth as a designer. I would encourage designers to consider those first five years or so out of school like graduate school. There’s just so much to learn and explore. Find opportunities that are best for your long-term career and for your passion.
When you become too comfortable with something, it’s good time to think about shifting your role, career or focus. If too much of your day is spent with, “yep, I’ve done this. I know how to do this, I know how to do that…” then you’re not growing and learning.
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