Made by Hayes Urban: Industrial designer, aspiring jewel thief, and dead serious about design.
an argomade series
Among the things you’ll learn talking to industrial designer and creative director Hayes Urban are: the secret to baking a perfectly flakey croissant, how he draws sartorial inspiration from Captain Haddock and Alistair Hennessey, and what compelled him to create the Serpent Light, the Anvil Lamp, and the Babbler, a device that puts the power of Siri and Alexa in a fashionable button (pictured below).
Over a more than 15-year career in design, Hayes has seamlessly bridged the gap between conceptual and commercial for companies like Dell and Walt Disney Imagineering, where he designed a series of attractions blending traditional rides with emerging digital technologies like AR and VR.
Now, he’s our featured argonaut — the first profile in a series of design journeys and perspectives from within the argodesign studio. Each week, we’ll introduce you to a member of our team to share some of the fresh ideas and unique voices of the design community in Austin, Texas.
Tell us the basics.
Talking about myself is not my strong suit, but the introduction to my unofficial autobiography might start something like this: Hayes Urban is a retired actor, raconteur and pastry aficionado, currently leading ID efforts at argo. Born in a small fishing village near the Mexican border, Hayes endured 12 years of lower education before escaping to Pasadena, California to study industrial design. He immediately felt better.
Did you have an influential mentor or someone who set an example you’ve tried to follow?
No Industrial Design mentors per se, but my upbringing prepared me well for my eventual career. My family has always been involved in designing and making things. My father is a civil engineer with a small practice, so ever since I could crawl I was surrounding by drafting tables, ellipse guides and markers. My mother was a Martha Stewart-league homemaker and also an art historian. She was absolutely terrific with making art, costumes, snacks and all the stuff kids love.
That union of engineering and art produced one architect, one civil engineer and a very handsome industrial designer.
Why are you a designer? What is the intention that drives your work?
That question doesn’t register for me. Everything is design. It’s inherent to the human experience. When you plan a meal, you’re designing an experience for your family. When you set an alarm to wake you in the morning, you are designing the beginning of your next day. When you choose what to share on Facebook, you are designing how you want to be viewed by others. When you participate in a protest, you are designing the world you want to live in. Even a teenager’s acts of rebellion are just the byproduct of the child designing the future adult.
Design is the act of modifying, combining or inventing new objects and behaviors to enhance our circumstances. We are all doing it all day. We couldn’t stop designing any more than we could stop dreaming.
What’s the unique element you add to the argodesign team?
One: Keepin’ it real. (Like 100% real. Like ‘those shoes make your feet look fat’ real.) And two: A deadpan-serious-face commitment to super tight design.
In my view, it’s impossible to be 100% satisfied with any design. If you’re a designer, your mind is constantly analyzing everything for what can be tweaked or improved — searching for where you could have pushed it just a little bit further. Where you could have restrained yourself. It’s a curse. It can make it painful to look at old work. Every missed opportunity leaps out at you. That’s why I’m committed to investing the time needed to produce a design I can look back on a year or two later and still be pleased. That means spending a lot of hours in the studio and at home sketching details and gazing into renders, reworking a design for as long as it takes to find a happy place. Hopefully, that’s evident in the final product.
If you hadn’t become a designer, what would you be?
A jewel thief. Designing a perfect heist is just as challenging, and perhaps more rewarding, than designing the perfect pair of headphones.
What factors make a project really exciting or satisfying for you?
The most satisfying projects are always those where we can get involved early enough to dig into not just the product design, but also the bigger picture. It’s a huge opportunity and a win-win for all to talk with a client about their ideas and potentially reframe that thinking with some design context to achieve unexpected and ultimately more effective results.
We had a client determined to pursue a “sell the razors” style business based on the idea that a key component wore out quickly with use. However, once the engineering team solved the wear issues, that strategic model no longer worked. We worked closely with the client to identify a new model that focused on giving away the device, metering use and charging by time used, like a utility meter. It was an entirely new direction for the client that never would have surfaced if we had we not joined the project at such an early stage.
What is your favorite design tool?
First and foremost, Google search. I research habitually. After two decades of exposure to the internet I now know just enough about nearly everything to be dangerous. And enough about a few key things to be helpful.
Secondly, Keyshot, my render package. It keeps getting better all the time. I frequently find myself gazing into the screen as the image slowly rezes up. It’s a feeling of anticipation, like watching a polaroid picture develop. Incidentally, that’s one of my favorite memories of childhood.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
My insights come from role playing. Like actors, designers have to understand and ultimately embody the motivations and interests of the key stakeholders in every project: the user, the manufacturer, sales, even the environment. Most actors only have to play one role at a time; as designers, we often have to be all the characters at once. Doing it well takes a lot of research and a talented cast that can draw from a wide array of perspectives and experiences.
If we looked at your search history, would we be shocked, amused or intrigued?
Yesterday I was researching the mechanisms of carbonation, finding an extra-large cat flap for my back door, curious if Mars already has a flag (It does!), and I looked for a curry chicken recipe. So the results would be confusing at best.
Describe your most epic professional fail and how you recovered.
I started a new business a year before September 11, 2001. We did not recover, but I learned a valuable lesson.
After an encouragingly successful first year, our studio had to be shuttered, as our clients were as shocked by the events of 9/11 as anyone. Everyone was paralyzed with uncertainty. They stopped all external projects. With no projects and no income, we were forced to close our doors and release our staff back to the wild. It was sad. Not in a wistful romantic kind of way, just the usual, painful, difficult kind.
It was our Kobayashi Maru. Sometimes events are out of our control. Sometimes there is no win. How we respond to those events isn’t always perfect, but you learn a lot about about yourself and others. The people I worked with during that time are to this day some of my closest friends.
What are the most useful and least useful things you learned in school?
That was a long time ago, but I’ll give it a try. As far as most useful: Competition is good, but cooperation is great. The pressure of competition will sharpen your skills to the best they can be, but through cooperation you’re able to accomplish far more than you ever could alone.
Failing well is better than succeeding poorly. I’ve seen several classmates succeed right out of the gate with little struggle along the way, but it’s the ones who dare to fail (and do, occasionally) that are more inspiring — and more enjoyable to spend time with.
The least useful: Plinth. It’s a fancy word for a display stand, and I haven’t heard it once since school.
Next week, we talk to Ian MacDowell, creative technologist, motorcycle junkie, and creator of this meme.