Donald Strum is an industrial designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design whose work includes an exploration of human-centered design and finding the essence of everyday products. He attended the Parsons School of Design, and received a B.F.A. in Industrial and Product Design. His first project was the “Whistling Bird Teakettle” for Alessi, which conveys a sense of timelessness and esteem that is ubiquitous throughout his work. In his current role as Principal of Product Design at MGA&D, Strum applies his extensive understanding of product design to the “wicked problems” of healthcare, showcased in redesigned durable medical equipment.
For most, it would be a painstaking task to ignore the saturation of beauty interspersed throughout a Target. Everything is purposefully designed, from the cozy knit throws to their considered flagship brands (like Good & Gather), to the gleaming red aisle signs. Consumers even go so far as to call the store “Tar-jay”, to denote the elevated status they feel the store embodies — however, Target wasn’t always a delightful shopping experience.
In 1998, Target competed with stores like Kmart and Walmart and struggled to find ways to meaningfully differentiate from the other market giants. They turned to an external design group, Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D), which is when the “democratization of design” took place (Previously, design was an expensive method, reserved for boutiques and art museums — with MGA&D’s collaboration with Target, design was disseminated into everyday objects, at a rational price, for the first time in history). At the helm of MGA&D’s industrial design team was Donald Strum, a Parsons graduate with the optimism of changing the world through accessible design.
Before he joined MGA&D, the firm was predominantly architects, and Strum noted that their lineup of products was firmly set in the language of architecture.
“It was always architects doing product design, so everything always ended up looking like a microcosm of architecture. It was like applying buildings to products.”
Products based on the language of architecture were the antonym of human-centered. They were based in efficiency, not emotion or invitation. It wasn’t Strum’s first time observing the inconsistency between the task at hand and how the design method was approached. During the period between his graduation from Parsons and his first job at the architecture and design firm, there was a shift taking place in design practices.
The idea of postmodernism was making its way into the mainstream, taking over the space that modernism occupied in the decades before. Strum’s Parsons education reflected the earlier mode of thinking. “[We] were taught that modernism was a reflection of the future, which at that time was called the machine age. It was about what the machine could do, and how it could even build cities [on its own].” However, the theories and machinations of modernism soon became passé, in part due to the passage of time, but mostly because “it was cold and uninviting, and people couldn’t even find the front door.” Modernism often neglected humanism, and at MGA&D, Strum looked to history to find the antidote. Research into Roman, Greek, and Renaissance ages when people were explicitly at the forefront of creation led to design teams “taking motifs, expressions, ways of navigating a building, that were conducive to human behavior and interaction.” Humanism, according to Strum, provided the compelling clarity that was so miserably lacking from architecture and design.
Strum’s work leans into the confluence of form and function, and he is particularly motivated by the quest to make products warm and inviting. At MGA&D, his pioneering effort was in making a product stand out on its own. Rather than creating product-sized microcosms of architecture, Strum strives to commission designed pieces with elements of what architecture stands for.
He cites his first work, Alessi’s Whistling Bird Teakettle, as the object that galvanized his design methods and priorities. In the 80s, the market called for a “race to the bottom”, rather than any emphasis on good design. There was a clear distinction between countries that valued beautifully designed objects, and the countries that preferred the lowest possible price for products. Strum pointed out that,
“Artifacts were showcased in MoMA, and they were viewed as high design, but they were really a niche, they were boutique. The Europeans valued good design at an earlier level, and you could even buy fancy kettles at Italian hardware stores. Here, we were still just boiling water in pots.”
He observed most current innovation lies in being able to fit the maximum into a container load exported from overseas. “Everything is filled up, stacked, and you’re condensing everything to the tiniest point. But it doesn’t have to be like that — that’s the power of design.” Strum’s view of brand reputation lies in how you feel when you interact with a product — “it’s like owning that one great Italian suit. That’s how we find brands we align with and trust because they offer an experience, and their product carries a story.” The consideration poured into an artifact is exactly what inspired the teakettle design, and explains how the kettle came to fruition in 1985 and remains a bestselling and iconic piece of human-centered design today.
“Our priority was that it exemplifies exactly what it takes to boil water.” Strum’s key conceptual model of design is that a product needs to convey exactly what it does — the essence of the object. In the teakettle, this shines through in metaphor: little dots that line the base represent both the manufacturing of rivets and the bubbles that ride up from the bottom of the kettle when water is boiled. There’s an iconic bird that sits at the end of the spout and has remained there for the past 36 years. The bird is a more obvious representation of the whistling that emits during boiling and is the epitome of Strum’s love for iconography and timelessness. Even the colors used for the handle and spout cover respectively denote coolness and heat, making the Whistling Bird Teakettle one of the first designer kettles, made through as human-centered of a process as possible.
Strum took this language of essence and memorability to Target in the late 90s, to develop a strategy that suited the popular store, and pushed Target ahead of its competitors. Rather than the celebration of parts that Strum prioritized while working on the teakettle with Alessi, Target’s essence laid in the surprising form of an egg. “It was about flow. It was about sculpture. It was about the most beautiful form that was naturally decided, in the purity of an egg.” Strum’s body of work with Target was vectored to be an abstraction of the subtle grace and gentleness of the egg. The idea of the form was in being accessible and digestible for consumers. Alessi’s iconic kettle could be purchased for $225, but “[at Target], we had to design and develop a kettle that was $24.99.”
Armed with his collective work with different brands, Strum and MGA&D hawked the idea that design standards were the secret to brand differentiation. Today, Target has one of the largest in-house design teams across the globe, and “so they fully embraced this idea that design can truly change the world.”
In 2003, Michael Graves (of MGA&D) contracted meningitis and became paralyzed overnight from the sternum down, and his experience with hospitals and rehabilitation centers brought to light a glaring discrepancy between the facilities available to patients, and exactly how useful they were for the patients. “He was at some of the best rehab centers in the world, and he couldn’t plug in his electric shaver, he couldn’t reach a mirror properly, and the room was designed for the standard of being on two legs.” Strum’s team pivoted their focus, and they started thinking of how architecture and design could leave an impression on health.
“We realized that between architecture and health design, they were always focusing on the main atriums of buildings, where people enter. That’s just leaving an impression of the establishment, it’s not at all where the healing is being done. Patients spend all their time in their rooms, and from Michael’s experience in all those patient rooms, we thought we could make a difference in the bed, the furniture surrounding the bed, the recliner, and the visitor chairs.” Strum found countless ways to reimagine the health care process in human-centered processes, and MGA&D found themselves entrenched in a journey to bring design accessibility to health.
“We wanted to see if we could take what we learned at Target, and apply it to the patient room. The idea of design accessibility, of making [you] smile when you use a product that’s delightful to you, but also comes through with all the levels of functionality. Our journey was in taking those rules and applying them to the hardcore aspect of healthcare where people just don’t feel well. It’s where they’re feeling their worst, and we could potentially bring them some joy.”
The firm’s pivot with Strum leading in industrial design is the epitome of design in health, and the potential that thoughtful design holds in systems that first seem so resolute and unchangeable. However, Strum holds a distaste for labeling actions as innovative and considers the word to be overused. He instead prefers to say, “all we’re going to do is make some improvements here because it’s not good enough.”
Today, Strum has found his role in design, through applying purposeful, emotional, behavioral knowledge to the empathy of healthcare. The line between function and purpose in design is a meaningful distinction and one that Strum was glad to draw. “Purpose is more humane than functionality. A function is more object, and cold and device-like, opposed to purpose, which personifies the experience.” The subtle divide becomes obvious in health care when a patient’s experience is the defining characteristic of any design. If a person is told that they’ve reached an age when using a cane is no longer avoidable, or that they now need assistance dressing in the morning, Strum finds his purpose in addressing these typically put-off design challenges. He asks, “How can we change the story? How can we change the need for a cane, to a desire that makes you feel better about the whole experience?”
Strum looks at stigmatized health challenges, and hopes to subsume the experiences creating iconic designs at brands and channel them into solving these “wicked problems”. He points at Warby Parker as one of the recent cases of brands redefining categories, in taking a medical assistant like eyewear, and putting forth glasses as accessories that anyone would be proud to wear. It was a query that MGA&D strove to address with their design, and Strum cites a designed wheelchair that “people wouldn’t even mind being photographed in.” The world isn’t designed for the people who need it, and without tailored and considerate design, patients will feel hopeless.
MGA&D’s latest work began with Kimberly-Clark to design a collection of durable medical equipment (DME). DMEs are the devices you find in the lowest-producing aisle of the drugstore, with canes, rollators, bedpans, and raised toilet seats. According to Strum, the DME section of the drugstore is nicknamed “the aisle of death”. “MGA&D decided to take on this ‘aisle of death’, and these are the first products where you come to a crossroads in your mortality. Specifically, this lies in the portal of the cane.” Navigability is a hapless task during aging, and the design firm prioritized taking one health product at a time, and making them the best that they have the potential of being. MGA&D is currently developing the world’s smallest compact folding cane, and Strum’s iconography goals stand out brilliantly. “Not only does it allow you to get up and down, but there are stories for days of how this will accentuate lives, and enable you to carry on with your day, and it can even be a conversation piece.”
Strum is especially compelled by “afterthoughts”. The remnants of design, or the lack of design thinking whatsoever — in the aisle of the death, in a patient’s ill-fitting rehabilitation room, in the ugliness that arises from a long-ignored problem. His solutions rest in taking everyday (yet monumental) dilemmas and reimagining them to be things of beauty. At the end of our interview, Strum referenced his inspiration in the world.
“I saw a woman today, she must have been 90 years old, and she had a super bright red rollator — all four wheels. She was just wheeling down the boardwalk, and all she could do was smile. It was sunny out, and she just kept smiling. She was truly happy to be ambulatory and doing her thing. She looked great in there, her super red rollator.”