Roger Wood wants to turn wearable technology into a fashion statement. Wood is the founder of (ART+DATA) Design, and he recently joined OnBeep, a stealthy, secretive startup developing a new wearable device that will combine serious technology with fashion sensibility. Wood recently shared with me on LinkedIn how he and OnBeep plan to transform notoriously ugly wearable technologies into something as aesthetically pleasing as a Rolex. The device, under wraps at OnBeep, promises to change the way people collaborate in groups. According to Wood, the spirit of the founders moved him to join the team: “Jesse Robbins and Greg Albrecht are passionate about software, and how it can transform the way we think about collaboration. Ideas are plentiful in Silicon Valley, but I knew within a short time that I’d want to work closely with them on something transformative and groundbreaking.”
The San Francisco resident has his work cut out for him: Forbes recently declared that even the most appealing of wearables are too geeky and lacking in style. There’s hope Roger might bring a fresh perspective to the process. He is the first senior executive to move from mobile to fashion, and back to mobile. He led design and brand ID work on the fifth-best-selling phone in history (Motorola iDEN), the successful luxury activewear collection (the Ralph Lauren RLX), then back to mobile with Hearst Corporation, where he worked on iPad and iPhone platforms in an aesthetically demanding digital media environment.
An Immediate Impact
Roger is a user experience designer, trained in computer science, and possessing a strategic mind sharpened at Harvard Business School by famed Israeli game theory professor Elon Kohlberg.
In 1993, Wood jumped into the mobile industry with a splash at Motorola’s startup hit Nextel, where he led the design of the iDEN phone as product manager. The masculine design of the iDEN phones set a new standard, and the product became a global icon from Tokyo to Tel Aviv. The phones was a fixture in the country music and hip-hop scenes, and some of the biggest names in music used iDEN phones to stay in touch as they moved from one city to another. The iDEN phones appeared in more than 100 music videos and motion pictures, and became a cult product with 12-24 years olds.
Demonstrating stylistic versatility, he was the first mobile tech executive to lead a marketing department for a clothing company. With Ralph Lauren RLX, his brand ID and style work had a decidedly more feminine appeal. The RLX brand allowed him to work with more supple materials and varied textures, and a richer color palette than the grey scale favored by most mobile phone designers. He led the graphic design of the iconic The Question and The Answer footwear brand for Reebok, with its bold explorations in color. Recently, he was vice president of digital media in a division of Hearst Corporation, and deeply immersed in mobile media on tablets and smartphones.
And now, he’s merging the worlds of style and technology at OnBeep.
“I design products as if they were supporting actors in a movie,” he says in the following interview. “The consumer is the protagonist living out their storyline, and my product is supporting, aiding or enhancing the main character’s actions.”
The Next Big Thing at OnBeep
At OnBeep, he is working with a team of artist engineers to create a product that will transform the way people collaborate, and challenge traditional notions of what wearable technology should look like. He is careful to point out that every member of the founding team is an engineer of some kind, and an artist on some level. Roger thinks that this will give OnBeep a more balanced perspective how people should experience wearables. And, he promises that you’ll want to wear it, instead of feeling you have to wear it.
“Something a woman wears on her body shouldn’t make her look like a cyborg,” he says. “OnBeep wants to prove it can engineer the most powerful communications cloud ever, and give people a desirable way to access it so beautiful that people will forget it’s technology.”
Wood believes that technology and fashion are converging to bring about a new aesthetic for the digital generation. He believes the next Steve Jobs will emerge from a design school with an innate savvy for art, style, and technology. His thinking is that the next generation of consumers will be driven by a thirst for beauty and style, with technology as the enabler, not the centerpiece.
Check out our conversation to get a glimpse of how entertainment, technology, and style are converging in ways never seen before.
How did you get into design?
I started at Motorola in 1993. Back then, if you were a product manager with a sense of style, the engineers would turn to you and ask, “What should it look like?” We had plenty of mechanical engineers, but few pure designers, and I was the user experience (UX) design mind in my division. I got the task of leading the product strategy and overall design of the iDEN product line for Nextel, the world’s first true smartphone. From Chris Cox at Facebook, going all the way back to Edwin Land at Polaroid, many people in consumer technology got into design by engineering the products that needed to be designed.
Which of your accomplishments made an impact?
The work for Hearst Corporation’s in-house creative agency on iPhone and iPad platforms is one block of work that comes to mind. The interface design on these apps and ads epitomized my philosophy that design is the language of intent, which means asking, “What is your intention with the product or experience? Decide, then design, refine and measure.” We experimented with all kinds of intentions, and then used analytics to measure whether the intention was fulfilled by a given design.
I hope my work in product placement made an impact. Products that I’ve played a role in developing have been embedded in well over 250 movies, television programs, and music videos. Motorola iDEN was deeply embedded in the country music scene. Reebok was the first product placement deal in reality television with Survivor: Season One, changing the way the genre was financed. The Omnipoint prepaid phone (predecessor to T-Mobile) played a role and served as deus ex machina in the thriller A Perfect Murder starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The placement introduced the prepaid phone, a.k.a. burner phone, as a critical plot device now seen in hundreds of movies and TV shows.
You admire Robert Brunner, who designs most of the products released by Beats. How has he influenced you?
I design products as if they were supporting actors in a movie. The consumer is the protagonist living out their storyline, and my product is supporting, aiding or enhancing the main character’s actions.
I determine how I intend for the product to impact the protagonist, design for that, and then measure relentlessly to determine whether the intention was fulfilled. Whether Brunner follows this philosophy or not, I developed it from studying his work. Brunner’s products often feel like supporting cast members in the lives of their users. His most recent work for Polaroid is a great example.
What trends do you see in the way style and music influence each other?
Music is audible style. It is our most primal and visceral expression of ourselves. Children make noise, imitate sound, and react to music well before they can express themselves in any other way. Music, or audible style, is the primary driver of visual style. We associate types of music with types of clothing, shoes, accessories, cars, houses, furniture, etc. It is inevitable that once technology became just another form of personal expression, music would profoundly impact that expression.
Which musicians best embody the intersection of style, technology, and music in your opinion?
Music and fashion have always looked upon technology with justifiable suspicion, so there are a lot of crashes at this intersection. Danger Mouse is my favorite. Avant-garde in every way, he is the source material for the biggest names in music. If you scratch the paint off most fashion-forward, technology-savvy music artists, you’ll find a bit of Danger Mouse underneath.
I’ve got my eyes on Pretty Lights as a potential “evergreen” style leader, in the same vein as Fatboy Slim. Same with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and Alabama Shakes, both female-led groups bringing music and fashion together through digital media, delivering retro “heartland” fashion style with a cool effortless use of technology. They never look like they’re trying too hard to be “tech.” Lady Gaga, in her Troy Carter era, remains the gold standard for execution. Pharrell is a socio-technology genius, and basically a Harajuku software developer’s ideal pop star brought to life. Daft Punk has always been fearless and are the natural heirs to the Kraftwerk legacy of co-mingling music, technology and fashion.
You are immersed in wearable devices right now. What are you working on these days?
I’m working on the most exciting product in my career. I’ve been obsessed with mobile and wearable technology for 20 years, and OnBeep is an opportunity to go beyond anything we have ever experienced. Something a woman wears on her body shouldn’t make her look like a cyborg. OnBeep wants to prove it can engineer the most powerful communications cloud ever, and give people a desirable way to access it so beautiful that people will forget it’s technology. That’s what Lindberg eyewear does. It’s what Patek Philippe watches do. It’s what Bentley does. A Ferrari is like a piece of art sitting on top of a gas combustion engine, and I feel that’s the direction in which consumer wearables should be headed.
Google Glass continues to experience criticism for lacking aesthetic appeal. The term “Glasshole” has come to represent not only improper Google Glass usage, but any person with any kind of wearable technology that is ugly. What needs to happen for wearable technology to be cool?
Technology needs to fulfill the same hierarchy of needs as apparel, footwear, and accessories do: functional, social and psychological. A functional need must be addressed — the shoes protect your feet from innumerable dangers. A social need is satisfied – as a purse you choose signals your belonging and place in the world to others around you. The last, and most important need, is psychological. The clothing, footwear and accessories we choose to wear reinforce our self-image, telling us a story about ourselves, in a conversation only we can hear. “Because I am refined, I wear Hermes. Because I wear Hermes, I must be refined.” Repeat as necessary for Nike and athleticism; Dolce & Gabbana and sensuality; or Leatherman knives and readiness. I discovered this brand through Jesse and Greg, and fell in love with its meticulous design, authentic connection to action, and its dialog with the owner about resourcefulness and tenacity.
You’ve said that the next Steve Jobs will likely emerge from a place like Parsons or the Fashion Institute of Technology. Why?
Technology designers have gotten a little comfortable with the aesthetic. Think Apple, Bang & Olufsen, and Bose — plastics and smooth metals articulated with clean, minimalist lines that say, “I’m a piece of technology.” The first era of technology was “form follows function,” the tired mantra of many a technologist. The second era, started by Akito Morita at Sony, was “disguise the technology with elegance.” The third era will feel more like, “I possess this beautiful object, which also performs a function.” That’s how fashion minds think.
In closing — what kind of music is rocking your world right now? Who is inspiring you?
For me it’s “work, rest or play” themes. When I’m working, it’s more Scandinavian pop artists with haunting vocal styles, like The Green Children, Lykke Li, Sophie Hunger, Bat for Lashes, or old-school downtempo like Lamb or Portishead.
The Green Children
When I’m relaxing, I like modern singers with 1970’s R&B and soul vocal styles that take me back to early childhood: think Jason Mraz, Jill Scott, or Jamiroquai. For play, I’m listening to southern rock music that feels like the soundtrack to a Bulleit whisky ad — emerging acts like Alabama Shakes and early 90’s rock like Black Crowes. I also like retro rock, such as the Faces. Music is the audible extension of my fashion style of the moment: Billy Reid and Ralph Lauren RRL apparel; Wolverine footwear; and Shinola watches.