Jamie Wolfond, the founder and creative spark behind Good Thing, is the type of person who seems to find the world so relentlessly inspiring that one can’t help but want to tap into the flow of creative juices.
Take the story behind his backwards design philosophy. It’s one marked by clear design thinking and a striking ability to trust in the excitement and uncertainty of the creative process. Check it out:
Unison: Your process is fascinating. Can you describe it for us?
Jamie: The premise of this way of working is to design backwards. So, rather than starting with an idea of what a product is going to be, making a sketch, making a model, and then finding a person who’s going to manufacture that thing, I start with the person who’s going to manufacture the thing and work in reverse.
I look at what manufacturers are already doing and think about what else could be created using processes they have in place. Whether creating something large or small in scale, I begin with the same premise—the same questions: What does the process look like? What are the strengths and limitations of this person? This process? This machine? How can those strengths be useful?
From there, we get to what the product is going to be. With this approach, we not only end up with something that’s inherently more efficient to produce, but also something that’s inherently of higher quality.
At the same time, it’s a process that’s inherently risky, because you’re approaching people who don’t know how to do a particular thing, and you’re going down a new road with them. In many ways, you’re both equally inexperienced, working together to make a product that’s never been made before. It’s an uncertain process, and failure is actually a really important part of it.
Unison: But Good Thing isn’t just you and some manufacturers. Tell us a bit about how the business has evolved and grown.
Jamie: Once I began taking these products to market, I started to recognize a great opportunity. I had developed relationships with brands like Unison, who appreciated this thoughtful design perspective and wanted to sell these products. And I was located in a country where self-production has become a truly great opportunity. Since manufacturing goes so deep into my process, it just made sense to shift and become the manufacturer.
From there, it wasn’t long before I found other designers who I wanted to have in on this effort. Today, we don’t solicit designers who adopt my design process. Rather, we work with designers who share our love of materials and process.
In essence, the backwards design approach led to Good Thing, and Good Thing led to relationships with other designers, and that’s leading us onward.
We also still work with outside manufacturers. And it’s become more interesting as we’ve gotten big enough to make an impact on some of those partners. We love finding a designer with a great idea, but we also love finding a manufacturer whose business we can breathe new life into by updating their product.
At the same time, working with other designers has also led to working with other producers. All this has made the company into a more sort of social entity. We’re pairing designers and producers, facilitating and creating opportunities.
Unison: With all these designers and producers, how do you create a cohesive design perspective?
Jamie: We still have this love and appreciation for process. That defines our taste and how I decide what products to license.
But of course, there’s not a rule to what the concept or meaning is behind a piece that anyone designs for us. It’s a quality, a certain something that aligns with who Good Thing is. It’s hard to describe what that certain something is, but the one thing all our products have in common is an almost uncanny level of simplicity.
The process of designing an object into a product is a process of taking something that would otherwise seem a little undercooked, and turning it into an item that’s perfectly cooked to rare. Never overdone.
Look at the Easy Mirror for example – still one of my favorite products. It’s almost not even a product. It’s so simple and stripped down that it’s almost just a piece of shiny metal.
In general, I’m interested in figuring out how little you can do to make something. I don’t like to make things that are complex, and that’s certainly reflected in the company’s products as a whole.
Unison: Speaking of mirrors, can you reflect (wink wink) on what motivated the design of the Utility Mirror?
Jamie: The Utility Mirror was designed by Joey Guerra of Visbility. I’ve admired that product since Joey designed it in school close to 6 years ago, and it’s a pretty impeccable example of somebody thinking like Good Thing.
There’s an industrial rubber tool grip produced in a factory that makes tire, rubber, and car parts. So we say, okay, this tool grip is made for one thing. But we actually think it’s extra beautiful. How can we take advantage of this to make something entirely different?
So we took this grip – something that’s relatively inexpensive in reality and connotation – and figured out how to combine it with something as precious as stainless steel. We married industrial rubber and polished metal to create a thing that never existed before.
Unison: And what about the General Bucket? It seems to embody everything Good Thing is: simple, interesting, and open to interpretation. What motivated that?
That one was very much a collaborative effort between myself and [co-founder] Samantha Anderson. I had been visiting a metal spinning facility in Greenpoint, to watch their process and better understand what metal spinning really is. (It’s basically a process of rotating a piece of sheet metal on a lave, and it’s all about being concentric.) They have this ability to find the center point of an object, no matter how it’s made.
To come up with the idea of the General Tray, we fused this inspiration with some bowls that Sam had been working on. It’s a handled vessel that has a basic, intuitive instruction to it. But what you get, when you experience the product, is only basic suggestions for how it might be useful, and nothing more. So those inherent suggestions end up acting like a framework around which users invent the meaning of the product. How it’s used is determined entirely by how a user receives the intuitive symbols and how it dovetails into his or her routine.
Unison: So clearly, you’re a treasure trove of inspiration. Any final words of wisdom?
Jamie: The parting word: do it backwards. That’s my suggestion. It’s a process that I’m interested in understanding more about, but not one that I own. I think it’s how a lot of designers understand manufacturing and communication, so it’s something that I like to see other people doing. And something that I find eye-opening and intrinsically important to explore.