Decoding Design

New Sundance Channel show demystifies product design

Posting in Design

Quirky.com is a product-design social network where aspiring inventors create and market new gadgets with the help of an online community. A new Sundance Channel show goes behind the scenes.

This month, Quirky, the two-year-old Manhattan start-up that uses crowdsourcing and social-networking to design and develop products quickly, has been gaining new momentum as a fresh model for efficient and open innovation. Recently, Quirky received $16 million in venture-capital funding, bringing its total V.C. support to $29 million, as TechCrunch reported in early August. And on August 30, Quirky will be the subject of a new, eponymous reality TV show on the Sundance Channel.

Here's an advance clip from the show summarizing what Quirky does. The clip features an invention by Jake Zien, a current Rhode Island School of Design student, and how Quirky began developing the product:

Beyond the fact that Quirky is both the subject of a TV show and the recipient of significant venture capital support,  Quirky is worth paying attention to for another reason: both the company and the six-week TV series offer lessons in successfully navigating the process of invention from idea to marketplace, as well as how to market a new idea rapidly. One of the prime examples is the innovation of Quirky.com itself. The business charges aspiring inventors $10 to submit ideas online to be judged and developed by other Quirky.com community members.

The online community then votes on the most viable ideas, and those concepts then get designed and marketed by Quirky's "influencers," as the site's active users are called. If finished products sell on Quirky.com and other retail outlets--which have included Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Shopping Network--the inventors, influencers, and Quirky all get portions of the profits. Each week, Quirky develops two new products, across a variety of fields, from home electronics to personal care items. Some Quirky "influencers" have earned tens of thousands of dollars, like Michael McCoy, a mechanical engineer who's seen nearly $40,000 in earnings from participating in Quirky projects.

Here's another sneak-peek clip from the show, in which Pivot Power's designer discusses (with Ben Kaufman, Quirky's energetic 24-year-old founder and chief executive) the unforeseen pressures of dealing with safety regulators when designing a new product:

The clip is compelling not because of its reality show production values, or because it focuses on a startup that's a fresh venture-capital success story. It's valuable to designers and entrepreneurs because it features the humbling realities of innovation, with a real example of a product that made it past the proverbial drawing board. Pivot Power is now sold on Amazon, and via other retailers such as J & R Music World and Tekserve, beyond Quirky.com.

Ben Kaufman, Quirky's founder, is the real star of the show and the business. If you're not familiar with his backstory, here it is--along with why he's worth watching onscreen and in real life. While still in high school, he started an iPod accessory company called Morphie, and has been praised by numerous business and design experts and journalists. Inc. magazine, for instance, in 2007 listed him as a top innovator under 30.  More recently, Kaufman was listed one of "the world's seven most powerful designers" by Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda, no less--along with the likes of Steve Jobs of Apple.

With the new Sundance Channel show on the horizon, Quirky is becoming more than a product-design platform for the open-source generation. With its soon-to-be mainstream visibility and potential educational value, it can be seen as a source for demystifying and democratizing the product design process as well.

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Maeda: to stroke American innovation, turn 'STEM' into 'STEAM' by Andrew Nusca

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure