There are many things that make a team successful. Some might guess the most obvious; that the team works well together. Others may list the impressive resumes of their employees, but what is written on paper doesn’t represent ability in practice. In the ever adapting world of user centered design, there is something even more important and, dare I say it human, when you look at what motivates and makes each team member unique.
John Duval, Principal Engineer at Nectar Product Development (NectarPD), was raised to solve his own problems. The youngest of five children, his parents instilled the idea that “if you wanted something done, you do it. All toys we had, very rarely did we get them pre-made. You were supposed to use your imagination and build it.” It was both a philosophy based on self-reliance as well as financial necessity. The son of a machinist, he realized he wanted to be an engineer early on. Having to make his own things as a kid, he wanted to make things that would last. As he looked around at all the products being made, he understood something that many of the general public rarely think of even today. “Everything in our world that you could buy, somebody has to design.”
Fast-forward several years and John is working in San Pedro for Nagy Designs, where Darren Saravis, founder of NectarPD, later gained employment. After getting to know each other, the two started NectarPD out of their homes until a warehouse located behind a quirky bar and club became the new and permanent home for their business. Over twenty-five years have passed and the team and the business has grown, changed and adapted. People have come and gone, but when I asked John why he stays, he said, “I feel emotionally invested in it, like it’s something I helped build.”
At the start, there was more of a focus on personal computer (PC) accessories, but as that died down, the company has focused on industrial and medical device design, the latter of which John prefers. Consumer products are just “landfill”, he says. “It’s on the market for a few months and then it just ends up in the landfill. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything good for the world.” He continued to state the irony of everyone wanting ‘green products’, but it required them to throw away all of their old products. “If you want to be green, just keep what you got and make it last.”
John doesn’t feed much into fear, and doesn’t believe in worrying. Instead, he assesses the situation and makes decisions on how he will react. “Then I let go of the worry.” His concerns lay more in the environmental and human factors, such as the infrastructure of living that has made it nearly impossible to live close to where you work.
“For seventy-five years you could not get funding for a mixed-use building: retail underneath and living above, the traditional pattern that’s been used for thousands of years. So, all these types of buildings went into disrepair.” He watched as more and more land was used for suburban neighborhoods and freeways that went between work and home. The necessity of driving a car was built in to our culture and infrastructure. “Automobiles are eating our finances in the public and private sector; they’re the largest source of CO2. You think it’s free to drive because you’re not paying tolls, but that’s not true. You’re paying taxes.”
Even with this global concern, John spends more of his time working on finding solutions to problems that are in front of him, and says that being given a good problem to solve fuels his creativity. “You’re a bit of a perfectionist if you’re an engineer” he says, laughing as we discuss philosophy. “I’ve always been inspired by the Taoist teachings, but there’s always a little bit of discontent.” He’s poised between the zen of accepting the way things are now, but as a problem solver, he’s always trying to improve upon them. He mentioned several times that he will obsess over the hundreds of ways to solve a problem or improve on a design.
“You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Could it be cheaper, could it be lighter, could it be better or is it good enough for this iteration?’” However, when asked what advice he could offer to future engineers and designers, he answered eloquently and very much in the style of Tao.
“Not to seek happiness, but to be still, and when you’re still you find it.”
He believes the same can be applied to engineering.
“A good design designs itself. I’ve seen people just keep adding features and adding features until it’s insanely complex for what it does. For example, it has four times as many bends as is required for something that does the same job. You have to take a step back and ask, What are all these features really doing? What is this design really trying to be? What is it’s true nature, and whittling away to just that.”
His philosophy extends to people, as well. When it comes to people, these social creatures, John believes that we have to understand their nature and accept them as they are. Trust that they will behave according to their nature and you won’t be disappointed. They may not always be what you want them to be, but it may not be their nature to be anything else.
It’s this acceptance of human nature that is one of the many rare qualities contributing to John’s ability to assess a product’s efficacy. Instead of wanting to change the person or their nature, accept their human behavior and build a product that serves them best. However, he still insists that his perfectionism is his gift and his curse. “I never feel like I’ve looked at a problem enough different ways.” he laments. I think of him, eyes focused and body upright and still at his computer station; he barely made a motion as people passed by. In stillness, working through hundreds of problems, he tells me what he continues to seek.
“I’m looking for some clarity… some perspective I’ve never had before.”