The innovative products that we use in our daily life come from a design centric trans-disciplinary approach that combines art, business and engineering.
Sonal Singh, our next pathbreaker, Industrial Designer at Kohler Co., a global leader in kitchen and bath design, manages complex design projects in the Faucet Category and Artist Edition range, from concept through implementation.
Sonal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being creatively inclined and deciding to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering followed by specialization in industrial design to develop a good understanding of the interplay between design, manufacturing and production.
For students, industrial design is the ultimate convergence of art and engineering which creates emotional engagement with people through design, craftsmanship and innovation.
Sonal, can you tell us about your background?
I am an industrial designer with an engineering and design degree. I dabbled in graphic design and explored advertising before starting out as a product designer. I have worked In appliances, luminaire, lifestyle, interior industries. Looking back, these diverse experiences helped me broaden my perspective.
I was fortunate enough to grow in a house where my mother encouraged me to try everything and introduced me to multiple hobbies at a young age. Creative expression was a natural progression for me. Very early in life I knew I wanted a career in the creative field as I found immense joy and a sense of purpose in creating things, and hence decided to pursue a career in (product) design.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation
I have an undergrad degree in Mechanical Engineering and Design from Delhi Technological University and a masters degree in Industrial Design from IIT Delhi.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Without having enough role models in the field, especially women to look upto, I wasn’t sure what a career for me in design could look like. So I carved out my own path and learned along the way.
Also, having an elder brother in art school gave me an early exposure to the various design disciplines and courses available. So, that was definitely helpful in being aware of the possibilities out there.
I got to know after doing some research and talking to a few people in the field that having a good knowledge of manufacturing processes and engineering tools is essential for product designers, along with having an excellent understanding of form and aesthetics. I was naturally creatively inclined and wanted to develop a good understanding of design and production. So i decided to pursue an undergrad degree in mechanical engineering with design as core and later a masters in industrial design.
Design Colleges these days lay a good emphasis on all aspects of design for the well rounded development of young designers.
Can you tell us about the career path that led you to where you are today?
Designers apply design thinking which is a problem solving approach to Innovate or improve manufactured products (in case of Industrial designer). It’s a trans-disciplinary profession that combines art, business and engineering to create products to improve and add value to our daily life. Basically, designers can work in a variety of industries from consumer appliances to furniture to electronic products. Every manufactured product has been designed by an industrial designer.
I was very sure that I wanted an internship at a studio/firm that encourages hands-on work and collaboration . I also wanted to work on a variety of product categories to hone my design skills. My plan was to identify studios or firms with established design departments and wide product categories and keep them in my radar.
I was fortunate enough to intern and later work at Legero Lighting which is an India based luminaire manufacturer. That gave me enough opportunities to work on multiple live projects. I saw a lot of projects through from conception to market launch. I also worked on a few products which were the first LED luminaries, which wasn’t the norm during the time. I worked on lighting solutions for retail, commercial, hospitality applications, which needed to meet strict photometric standards. This gave me confidence and a good learning of the design process early on, including planning, organising, and cohesively working with cross functional teams.
At Whirlpool, I was leading the DC refrigeration category and later the air and water categories. Here too, I worked on products focusing on consumer needs like intuitive integration of technology to offer seamless user interaction, or product features to improve user experience ,like the product usability with ergonomic handles and grips, easy to clean surfaces etc while having a consistent design expression unique to Whirlpool.
My early experiences also cultivated more respect for the design process and designers, and solidified my passion for the craft.
I always reached out to seniors and professionals in the industry to learn more and build my network. It’s very important to stay on top of industry trends and best practices regardless of your work profile, even more so for designers, because having a good network pays off. Web portals like LinkedIn, Coroflot, Behance and design fairs and exhibitions, are a few examples of platforms where designers can build networks.
How did you get your first break?
My networking led to a campus invitation.
Networking helped me be informed about the best studios with global teams and also job opportunities available. Eventually I ended up in Kohler as design manager and later industrial design lead looking after the faucet category.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
It is quite challenging for female designers to be working in a male dominated field. You have to constantly battle gender stereotypes and Implicit biases that can come in the way of work and even career growth. I have worked quite hard to be recognised as an equal player and let my work speak for itself.
I made sure I portrayed myself as a designer and not a “ female designer”.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do at Kohler Co.
At Kohler, I am an industrial design lead looking after the Faucet category and Artist edition range. Kohler is a global leader in kitchen and bath design. The design studio works on small or large, and sometimes complex design projects from concept through implementation that lead the way in design, craftsmanship and innovation. We look at bathrooms as an environment with endless possibilities to make people feel a certain way when they enter that space- place of relaxation, grooming etc.
We design bathrooms for the future with elegant and refined products that offer functionality, and explore intuitive and graceful ways of user interaction to enrich people’s lives. It involves understanding the consumer and working on solutions to offer their unmet needs. Like the new range of elegant touchless faucets with kinesis technology that deliver quick and accurate sensing offering a mindful experience for efficient water and energy management or the Vive Faucet (series) that embodies the art of motion through careful balance of modernity and fluidity in design, offering a playful experience to consumers.
Kohler believes in celebration of individual expression and empowers that via materials, patterns, and colours and carefully curated, inspired artisanal products. We want people to be able to express who they are and help them tell their story.
A typical day can be anything between concept development activities like sketching, ideating, experimenting, to collaborating with multifunctional teams- marketing, manufacturing, engineering on ideas, technology, material, manufacturing processes, to conducting consumer research, ux studies, testing prototypes, trend research, market study etc.
Skills like planning and project management can be learned on the job, but strong imagination and empathy is the foundation of a good designer. Ultimately the goal is to add meaning to people’s lives.
How does your work benefit society?
I strongly believe that design shapes culture and values. We as visual beings have relationships with products and our environment which indirectly shapes us and our outlook. It is profound and powerful to have that ability to create products that surpass their function and create emotional connection with people.
We at Kohler studio, design products to create this emotional engagement with people with material, form or sensory interaction and evoke a sense of joy and wonder.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Every project is special and like birthing a child. The last project I worked on is a faucet range inspired by architecture that is an ultimate convergence of art and engineering. We were super excited to have a sophisticated design expression in an affordable price range.
I am thrilled about this project and a few more coming out very soon.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I have often had younger women tell me that they are unsure if they would be good at product design and often disqualify themselves from potentially having a career in it when they are told that it’s for men, or that it requires skills that women aren’t good at. My advice to those girls would be to go for it. By being more empathetic by nature, they bring a fresh perspective to the table by just being uniquely themselves.
To have my own practice and work with the marginalised folk artists and craftsmen.