Q&A with industrial design innovators

Posted by Courtney Clancy on Mar 31, 2017 11:28:10 AM

Photo Source: Studio 431 | Landscape Forms.jpg


Industrial design is about building products and systems. But even more so, industrial design is about people. After all, this discipline is rooted in understanding the way people live and interact with their surroundings in order to create solutions that improve and enhance the human experience.

Given design's emphasis on people, we decided to explore the field by focusing on people too.

Enter Robb Smalldon and Paul Martus. Robb is the Vice President of Studio 431, Landscape Forms' custom product division. Meanwhile, Paul is a Principal Industrial Designer at Newell BrandsThese two industrial innovators work at southwest Michigan companies that are leaders in the world of design, pushing the envelope in advancing the form and function of processes and objects ranging from park benches to small appliances. As local corporate partners of Western Michigan University's Product Design and Innovation Program, both Landscape Forms and Newell brands are also contributing to the future of design by stimulating the development of students delving into the design discipline.

Let's get to know Robb and Paul, along with their motivations, processes and perspectives, through their Q&A below:


Robb-Smalldon-285x336-876487-edited.jpg IMG_28344rr.jpg

Robb Smalldon

Vice President, Studio 431 (Custom Product Division) – Landscape Forms

Paul Martus

Principal Industrial Designer, Newell Brands



What does your job entail?

Robb: Partnering with design industry leaders around the world and bringing their ideas to life with design, engineering, development and manufacturing. 

Paul: New product development. Exposing and aligning groups to new ideas and delivering on big promises. Guiding people through the “unknown” stages of a project and seeing the potential in the future.


What first sparked your interest in the product design field? How did you get your start?

Robb: I was exposed to racing dirt bikes at an early age and loved seeing how intricately all of the functional components came together to create a very cool looking product. I also have 2 older siblings that are engineers. With this exposure, I knew around the age of 15-16 that I wanted to design and engineer products. While attending WMU, I was able to intern my first two years at a tool and die machine shop in Detroit and then an automotive/industrial coatings company. These [experiences] confirmed that I was in the right field, but didn’t provide enough of the design opportunities that I craved. I was able to start an internship with Landscape Forms during my junior year at WMU. I was exposed to product design, engineering and manufacturing processes…and I was hooked! 

Paul: I think I have always been a designer. I just did not know what to call myself. I always made and invented my own toys and re-imagined the ones I had. [I knew I wanted to work in this industry] in college. I started making things for people, and then people started asking me to make things for them.


What did it take to get to this point in your career?

Robb: I feel extremely fortunate to have found a great company at the beginning of my career that has allowed me to grow personally as well as contribute to the success of the company at many levels. I studied engineering graphics and design at WMU. At Landscape Forms, my journey unfolds as: intern, manufacturing engineer, manufacturing engineering leader, product engineer, lead project engineer, sales engineer, manager of customs division, director of customs division and now VP of our custom product division (Studio 431).

Paul: Education, diligence and tenacity. [I learned] everything I could. It is important to have diverse experiences and empathy as a designer. My career journey is smooth now, but it took time to connect the dots.


What is the most interesting project you've ever worked on? What project are you proudest of?

Robb: There are many great projects. One of the first custom projects that I was completely responsible for was for the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village in Vancouver, BC. There was a wide range of site furniture that we developed for the project including built-in seating, freestanding benches, swivel chairs, recycling stations and family lounge chairs (very large scale seating focal pieces). The most interesting project that I am currently involved with is water-cooled seating for a very high-end shopping district in Dubai. We are developing a design that cools the human contact points on metal/concrete surfaces.

Paul: The current project is always the most interesting. It’s amazing how your attention shifts. You find meaning and you become consumed by your latest project. Depending on what industry you work in, you find yourself flipping over furniture in airports (public furniture), watching your family use a toaster (small appliances) and studying how people assemble and empty recycle containers at the local university (refuse project).


What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Robb: Design. Culture. Craft. Our brand power drives us to continue leading our industry with creative products that have great design. I work with amazing people and have the opportunity to solve new opportunities every day. We experience napkin sketch concepts to sparks flying in the manufacturing facility within a few yards.

Paul: The service I provide, the problems I solve and the creativity that I use. The fact that this is not done alone but always with a talented group.


Innovation is about constantly finding new, more efficient solutions. Talk about your creative process, where you find inspiration and how you stay ahead of the curve.

Robb: We partner with design leading firms that help us push the limits with materials, technology and manufacturing processes. We develop new products at a fast rate in order to stay ahead and keep our customers excited. Industry research and customer feedback allows us to manage new product success forecasting. We partner with a wide range of design firms and design individuals in order to gain different perspectives on what the next big thing is. 

Paul: Inspiration comes from actively paying attention to the world around us. [My creative process is] messy then clear. Don’t be afraid to fail often and early and include people in the process. Don’t design things for you. Find experts and heroes. Question why.


What qualities do you need to succeed in product design?

Robb: Manufacturing experience that allows you to understand difference between “cool” and “realistic.” Having the patience to develop well thought-out products.

Paul: High level of craft, mastery of design skills, a positive attitude and strong character.


Where do you see design headed?

Robb: Design in my mind is not only about shiny cool objects. Design is a creative mindset that can apply to product development, process improvement, training sales teams, etc. Design-trained professionals have the ability to bring a solution based approach to a wide range of industries.

Paul: Design will continue to shape the world. [The future of design will see] tension and balance between digital and analog.


What advice or words of wisdom would you give to the incoming Product Design & Innovation students as they begin their journeys in this dynamic field?

Robb: Believe in the power of design. Visit local design-driven companies (graphics, products, services, restaurants, etc.) as much as possible. Take a passion of yours and design something that enhances that passion.

Paul: Continually refine your craft and skills. Take advice. Champion your ideas.


Photo source: Studio 431



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Topics: Careers in the Arts, Kalamazoo, Frostic School of Art

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