Above the Fold: Thomas Mitchell, Designer
In Above the Fold, we spotlight individual members of Coroflot's vibrant creative community. The idea is to take you behind the scenes and inside the minds of talented Coroflot members who we think are doing exceptional work. Coroflot was created by designers, for designers, and Above the Fold is the place where we can talk to creatives about work that we not only love, but think you'll love too!
If you look at the Coroflot portfolio of Thomas Mitchell, it's best to start with his student projects. Those early conceptual designs show someone with a natural talent for both sketching and designing functional products. Fast forward to the present day and Thomas is now an accomplished industrial designer with a handful of awards under his belt. What stands out about his work is the sheer precision of each project, from form exploration to concept to completion. Given his experience as a whole, not to mention a style that is consistently sleek, we figured it was a perfect time to catch up with Thomas.
Was there a specific moment in life where you realized you wanted to pursue a creative path?
I've always enjoyed making things. When I was a kid my parents wouldn't buy me violent toys, so I started making my own swords, guns and fighter jets out of paper and masking tape. When I learned that industrial design was a career you could have, I knew that was where I wanted to be.
Walk us through some of your process for creating.
As far as I can tell, my creative process is pretty standard. What I'll describe instead is my method for dealing with situations where a design has critical attributes that seem to be in a zero-sum conflict with each other. I might want a casing to be slim and sleek, but it has to fit a big, fat pump inside. Instead of choosing between the lesser of two evils, I follow a little recipe to come up with alternatives. The reason I am stuck is because I am unconsciously trying to satisfy more requirements than I actually need to. For example, saying "The case has to be slim" implies that the WHOLE case has to be slim, but that is actually just an assumption I am making.
The more precisely I can define what I TRULY need, the more options I give myself. To do this, I start listing as many assumptions as I can think of and then I try to figure out if anything unacceptable happens if I discard a particular assumption. Is it a deal-breaker if the case is large but tapers to a slim edge? How about if it's slim everywhere except a local bulge around the pump? Any time I identify an unneeded assumption, I open up a lot more possibilities for myself. The set of [all forms with slim edges] contains far more possibilities than the set of [all forms that are slim everywhere]. In fact, the former completely encompasses the latter. The more specific definition gives me far more ways to find a positive-sum compromise.
Most of my work has been on projects with a significant technical element so my process is a reflection of that. Technical knowledge is the key that unlocks great design because it maximizes the amount of unnecessary assumptions you can identify. It also allows you to optimize the entire experience, not just the form.
Are there any projects (professional or personal) that you are especially proud of?
I'm really proud of the Gehl Foods cheese dispenser.
My team and I correctly identified a bunch of needs from the product's users, operators, and owners that weren't currently being met. We came up with ways of addressing those needs in ways that didn't cause new problems. We thought out the optimal user experience and then worked backwards to realize it, tailoring every aspect of the form and function to keep that experience pure. We built a bunch of low-fi models of the different systems to verify that all the systems were working and that our assumptions about user behavior was correct, and we were so thorough that, when we went into field testing, there was only one real surprise we hadn't anticipated. I'm proud of it because we didn't just design a pretty shell; we came up with a holistic product that was far better than the competition on every metric we targeted. It was the kind of project you dream of doing as a student.
What tools (physical or digital) do you find yourself using repeatedly?
Solidworks, Fusion 360, Rhino, Keyshot, Photoshop.
Do you have a ritual for getting in work mode (music you listen to, certain exercise, food you eat) aka a productivity tip?
Definitely. For me, it's all about momentum. If I have a really productive first hour, I've found it's much easier to keep steamrolling tasks for the rest of the day. Here's my ideal schedule:
First 30-60 minutes: Something easy and straightforward to get me into the groove.
Until lunch: Tackle the day's most complex problems once I've got momentum and my resolve is still high. I try to avoid meetings in this window.
Lunch Hour: Work out at the gym and rest my brain without losing that productive momentum. Drink a couple bottles of Soylent for my meal.
After lunch: Do all my relatively straightforward tasks like CAD, shading, and rendering. This is when I try to have my meetings.
I like being around other people, but not when I'm trying to figure out something really hard. I need quiet and solitude. I've got a few hideouts around the building where I can pace around, draw messy sketches and talk to myself while I try to piece together a solution that does everything I want.
Outside of your professional life, do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
Pool, running, and lifting weights. I'm more interested in pushing my own limits than competing against others. I also love video games that let you build things. Often times I don't even finish them, because it's the iterative improvement that I enjoy most. I come up with a new concept, play until it's clear my concept is working (or not) and then re-start the game to try and find an even more effective build.
Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your Coroflot portfolio?
I try to show a lot of sketching in my work. I think you get more of a sense of someone's capabilities by looking at their sketches than through other images.