Interview with Joe Doucet: An Innovator in American Design

posted under  Interviews on Oct 22nd, 2010 with 4 Comments

22 Oct

Joe Doucet is the true definition of ‘design thinker’, and possesses the atypical ability to transform the most basic object into something more functional and engaging, that leaves you wondering, “Why didn’t someone think of this before?”

Today, we have the pleasure of sharing our interview with innovative designer, artist, inventor and author Joe Doucet.  

Joe has worked for companies such as BMW, Armani, Target, Braun and Disney and received countless prestigious awards and honors for his impressive portfolio.  Forward-thinking and avant-garde, his work displays great attention to detail and consciousness for green design.

What makes Joe stand out is that he lends his creative talents not just to one medium of design: his portfolio includes furniture design, corporate identity, architecture, photography and consumer electronics.     

Joe Doucet lives and works in New York City with his wife Sveta, a successful branding strategist. Head on over to his full DC portfolio here.

What instigated the transition from graphic designer to architect and furniture designer?

I think less of furniture, architecture, and product as different disciplines of design, and more of different expressions of an idea. As a result, I make little distinction between a logo or a building, so why not do them all. 

From an environmental standpoint, the benefits of shipping an object with as small a footprint as possible are numerous. Unfortunately, flat pack furniture has long been associated with cheap.

WL01 "ScrewTop", proudly displaying its construction as a design feature, takes the idea of self assembly and elevates it to a fetish. WL01 is the first product in the new line WhyteLabel by Joe Doucet, which produces intellectually and emotionally interesting furnishings of the highest possible quality.

Level is a stackable storage system whose individual units can be placed together in any configuration. The simplicity of the system allows for one to easily add or divide units as their needs change.

In your experience, what would you say defines and distinguishes American design? 

Individualism and a pioneering spirit. Most other countries in some ways subsidize emerging design talent. An unintentional but natural curation results, as there is a selection process involved in determining which designers get funding and which do not. This is why it is often easier to define "Dutch Design" or "Italian Design". In America, you are on your own. You must be a rare combination of talent, drive and business acumen to succeed; the same qualities that built this country.


In your work we see consistency in colour, shape and form, all of which obviously take a minimalist approach. Just how much do you think minimalism is important?

I believe that objects inherently communicate. Every decision you make, whether color, shape, materials or obviousness of function, adds to the message the object gives forth. A bright pink sphere might be seen as a plaything for a little girl, while a matte black one of the same size might be seen as an exercise ball. Every choice matters. 

Although I don't subscribe to the tenants of Minimalism, I do believe that if something isn't adding to the communication, it has no place in the design. Ornamentation can be wonderful and I use it when it is a part of the message i want the object to communicate. However, I tend not to add it unnecessarily.


In 2004 you were featured in a Fast Company: Fast Talk interview where you said, "My version of creativity is more like a quest for understanding." Can you elaborate more to show the relationship between understanding, creativity and how it helps you?

When beginning a project, my first step is to "question the question". This means that I ask myself if the problem I'm being asked to solve is the right problem. Understanding the motivations behind the request can often lead to new ways of tackling old issues. 


Most designers try to specialize in one media, whether it be print, identity, industrial design or interactive. Your portfolio shows you've mastered the majority of these disciplines. Why not specialize?

It is natural for people to want to understand things in a simple way. Labels are great for this. Unfortunately, there is no handy label which says "I try to create things which marry functionality with beauty, regardless of their expression." I have lost many commissions because clients are confused by the different disciplines I work within and assume the old Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none must apply. They want a specialist to solve their specialized problem.

Like all of us, I have many different roles in life. Father, Husband, lover, son, friend, employer, designer... I love all of these aspects of my life. Its the same with design. Asking me to only be an Industrial Designer is like asking me to be only an employer without the joys of the rest. 

The above is project commissioned for BMW to develop a printed documentation of their beliefs as a brand, or a Brand Book as it is referred to in the industry.

The solution; a highly emotional and visceral journey, where you feel the road, sense every curve and your heart races in anticipation of being behind the wheel.

Bound in white perforated leather to capture the luxury of speed and precision., the oversized volume expands into an extreme landscape format to ensure the feeling of an open road.


Tim Brown at IDEO embraces the term 'design thinking' as more than visual, but rather as using design in ways to bring about real change. What are your thoughts on this?

Tim Brown is a visionary and we should all embrace his rallying cry greatly needed in a business culture where 'Growth" outweighs all else.


The product designs for Braun are undoubtedly some of the most forward-thinking designs seen in awhile. How did projects like that help you mature as a designer?

The project for Braun was actually my first foray into consumer electronics. Needless to say there was a lot to learn in terms of process and feasibility in a short time. After immersing myself in the history of the brand, I then made a decision to forget what had occurred after their "golden era". I imagined what Braun would look like ten years in the future if the intervening 30 years had never happened.

What would a toaster look like if you had never seen one before. Although there are as many answers to that as there are designers, I wrapped it into the context of Braun. Any novelty came from the marrying of these factors.

This project for the venerable German brand Braun was in scope to reinject a  design ethos to help guide the company into the new millennium.

The project consisted of strategy, culminating in six principles which must be applied to each and every item produced. The following is a brief example of products developed to illustrate the principles.

GAP recently re-designed their logo and saw a huge outcry of negative comments towards it. We've seen failed attempts at re-branding before with brands like Tropicana. How do you think companies should go about re-branding without compromising the integrity of their brand?

I recently gave a keynote address together with Russ Meyer, the Chief Strategic Officer of Landor, where this very question came up. He said it best. "A new logo should be a symbol of change, not just changing the symbol". 

Do you really think GAP were serious about the re-design, or could it have all been a marketing ploy to create buzz around their brand?

I can only hope so. 


In addition to developing a Visual Identity program for Moët & Chandon, Joe Doucet & Co. completed a “Brand World” project to demonstrate how the principles set forth in the Visual Identity could come to life across all consumer touch-points, from in-store to in-bar.

One of the main components to the new branding program was the leveraging of the foil pattern around the neck of the bottle. An asset of the brand for centuries, but until our work, one which had never been utilized. Note the use of the pattern across many different media. The following is a brief visual synopsis of the work.


Pablo Picasso said, "Bad Artists copy. Great artists steal." This quote carries great weight since it's coming from such an iconic figure in creativity but it often confuses many of us. How do you interpret it?

It is hard to argue that Picasso was not original and revolutionary. His work, however, was influenced by those he idolized and the work of his close friends and collaborators. He took those influences and synthesized them into something new.

The real irony is that he stole the quote from his friend Igor Stravinsky, who said "Lesser artists borrow, Great artists steal."


How has working with your wife elevated your productivity? In what ways do you complement each other?

My wife is a brilliant Strategic Planner working on developing strategies for brands such as Pepsi and Lufthansa. Having a life partner who is fluent in the business realities of some of the world's largest and most complex brands makes for an amazing sounding board. As part of her job, she creates briefs for creatives to work from, where i often act as her sounding board. Let's just say our pillow talk bounces between Insight Analysis and Pantone colors.


What's the one thing you think young designers should keep in mind when trying to find their way in this field?

Work for the best people you can. Show initiative at every opportunity. Take assignments others don't want; you will find opportunity there. Make each project an opportunity to learn everything about your client and how their business is run. And always keep your integrity intact. Great work will not overcome a bad reputation.

The glamorous Austrian crystal brand Swarovski has provided us with numerous projects and challenges over the years, including the following examples.

When Hugo Boss asked us to reinvent their body wear packaging system, we knew the challenge ahead. The category is a “sea of sameness,” restricted by the cost implications of showing a model’s face across the volume inherent in body wear.

The solution was to conceive the packaging as a three-dimensional space showing the model in three overlapping poses covering all surfaces. This approach also allowed potential buyers to see the product from all angles, minimizing confusion and returns for a product that cannot be tried on before purchase.

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4 CommentsThoughts from the Community

  • Mister Eternity said Nov 15th, 2010
  • loved the reply to "Why not specialize?"... Design is such field in which you diversify instead of specialization...its discipline and not job.
  • Mark C. said Oct 28th, 2010
  • Great interview.  Great to have you here Joe.
  • Amy R. said Oct 22nd, 2010
  • love the response to "Why not specialize?". Very well stated.

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