Interview with Brennan Letkeman

17 mins // 14 ENDEK 17

Here's another interview, this week, with industrial designer Brennan Letkeman.


Who are you? Where are you based? What do you do?

My name is Brennan Letkeman out of Calgary, Canada. I'm sort of an everything-doer but when pressed I usually just say 'industrial design' or make up something like 'diamond heist planner' every time.

You initially studied graphic design, correct?

Yeah, informally. My first non-retail job was in web design in the summers between high school years so it wasn't any sort of formal studying but I taught myself enough Photoshop by then to be dangerous and managed to talk my way into a job which gave me plenty of hours to learn while doing. 

What lead you to transition into industrial design?

I just try to structure myself for resilience.

There's a certain physicality I think I've always liked - I grew up on LEGO and building dumpy things out of wood, or drawing 'plans' for hover bikes in school notebook margins, so perhaps it was inevitable. That's my formal schooling, mechanical design, and I went a little more consumer-centric with it into industrial and product design in the years since.

I think there's also a problem solving I like; nothing against graphic art but there's simply more to contend with in physical design, when you're dealing with 3D physics and engineering and material choices (balancing aesthetics with mechanical properties) and manufacturability and cost (always cost). There's just a lot of really good intersecting problems there trying to suss out a design and make sure it actually works / fulfills increasingly outrageous and specific specs. I like that; at heart I'm a problem solving puzzle lover, and this just allows me to also invent the pieces.

How has your foundation in graphic design help with industrial design? What have you carried over? What's been abandoned?

The basics are always there: design is about communication and industrial design was just bits of all of that at once: buttons and levers that both work as physical things but also, you know, are colored and arranged and labeled to make comprehensive sense to users. There's always differences in the specific implementation of these mediums but the overarching psychology is all very similar. Humans are humans, and we're building stuff for humans to use.

at heart I’m a problem solving puzzle lover, and this just allows me to also invent the pieces.

And then like, color theory and materials and typography and working with vague clients is all pretty much the same. A lot of the other odd jobs I do are still straight up graphic art roles: making a product's box, or doing a little branding package to get a Kickstarter something to brand themselves with. I'll make logos and choose type and build cohesive moods to tie the product to the graphic elements. It's nice being a sole (or small team) voice in these projects and wear many hats because I can build that cohesion and not be throwing stuff blindly over a wall for other teams to try and figure out later.

Abandoned is an interesting word. I think at a job or a career level, I purposefully try to keep myself away from the graphic artist trap of having arbitrary decisions and subjectivity. A lot of industrial design is having data and reasons for each of a million decisions, whereas I found in web there was a fair bit of "could you make that purple more purple?" or "my cousin's friend is an artist and she says that the fonts without the little thingies are better" whereas in mechanical design we're building your thing out of copper because that's literally the only metal with X thermal conductivity we need to make it work. That's not a subjective decision, it's math. I like that data driven approach myself, and I like it at a client level. Work, in the end, has to be livable psychologically.

What is your day to day like?

These days it's pretty varied. A few years ago I was working as the designer for a manufacturing company and worked on developing new products, making blueprints and CAD drawings for parts, implementing inventory systems for moving parts through the stages of the factory: that sort of thing.

I write daily and publish almost none of it.

Two-ish years ago I struck out freelance and it's been great overall. A lot more rendering actually, a lot of people already have working ideas for products (or buildings, as of late) but just need sexy concept shots to use for promotional materials or whatever. This used to be bigger in Kickstarter type projects, but they've flip-flopped their terms and services over the years to allow/disallow concept renders as valid marketing because of scammers / over-promising projects. I've been doing architecture renders for about a year too, so that's growing in my portfolio.

The truth is, at a more existential level, I'm not really sure what to do with my days: now that I don't commute my natural workday is effectively from 6:00 to noon and then I'll cook a nice lunch and maybe poke through a few hours of less brain-powered work in the afternoon and then nap or read or whatever. So, I'm looking for hobbies (that aren't just more work) and searching for that bigger 'why' to follow right now. For the most part the stuff I do for fun is just the same stuff I do for money which is a blessing and a sort of monotony.

What sort of projects do you do?

I have a rotating list of clients, it's again pretty varied: renders for products or buildings, mechanical design for products, we started a tiny company last year making laser-cut walnut and acrylic MTG deck boxes, my friend and I run a youtube channel for DIY builds and general shenanigans so we try to get to the shop once a week and get out hands dirty. I bought a 3D printer recently so it's nice to have one in the house I can play very directly with, we want to make props for cosplay and then local indie films.

The truth is, at a more existential level, I’m not really sure what to do with my days.

I'm learning to cook better both as a skill and as a health thing. Building furniture, just playing around and learning 3D. We do an hour long podcast every week talking about the future of work. Made some SVG avatars recently for a community project called Rotonde. I write daily and publish almost none of it. Sometimes I make videos.

Calling personal things projects almost feels weird, I guess I just sort of do whatever is interesting at the time and my work / life "balance" is more of a weave. I don't really distinguish it as time "here" vs "there" as much as it's all... life.

What are you favorite things to design?

Ooh. Hmm. I like mechanical things that are just complex enough to be a good puzzle but not so complex that they're tedious. It's a fine line, but if we're talking dream jobs here, I really just don't care about the more boring engineering bits. Doing math long-form reminds me of school, but sometimes it's really satisfying to whip out just a tiny bit of it to solve for something. I'm a bit irrational I guess with this. Likewise I like the soft stuff but not so soft it gets subjective and sloppy, as mentioned before.

I’m trying my best to make things that people pause and consider.

I think in the end I always want to be doing new work. There's a shocking lot of projects now in my history that are like "I created this to solve your problem and I think we're the first people in the world to have done it like this." that's satisfying. Not new for newness sake, but genuine solving of new problems as they come up. Any time I can create a process and have the workflow down, then it gets boring. I don't want to repeat projects.

What designers inspire you?

Am I a bad person to admit I just... don't really have any heroes? Like, there's definitely a lot of cool work out there but nothing in me feels super compelled to switch lives with your Draplin’s or Jony Ive’s or whoever. Too limiting. A lot of my inspiration is cross-seeded maybe, like as designers I think we just collect these catalogues of shapes and forms.

You look at a tropical plant leaf drip water and years later you use that for a faucet spout. Or maybe this building reminds you of the curve of your ex-girlfriend's fingernail for some reason. There's this dot-connecting engine perpetually running back there that is looking for contexts. I'm not really a designer with a set style - I'm not a "MUJI is always best" or "I want to make twee Wes Anderson universe objects" as much as, you know, there's a place for all these different things.

This gets a bit into the weeds of design philosophy woo-woo but you might describe the process and trying to do right by the object and what it wants to be. Something honest, something contextual, something right for the users and its environment. A lot of cheap design is like "we made a water cooler that looks like an iPod" and it has a scroll wheel on the front. Like, great, whatever. That's just not a considered approach to that object's existence. The same with any hero-worship in design. It's fine to have that collection of references, but they should service the goals first and wholly.

What sort of spaces do you expect design to venture into in the next few years?

Manufacturing has changed a ton in the past decades with both CNC and 3D printing. There's shapes we can make now that we simply couldn't before (or not well / quickly), and so that library of what's possible (and practical, and good) expands ever bigger as new methods do. I'm a very pragmatic futurist as far as we probably won't all have our own replicators that can make anything: the raw materials you'd have to stock in every house is just bonkers, and centralized manufacturing is fast and cheap for a reason.

as designers I think we just collect these catalogues of shapes and forms.

But! You know, incorporating metal sintering into a car factory for making panels hollow with a strength lattice so that they're lighter and get better fuel economy with added rigidity (and with perfect stress gradients) is really cool and exciting.Organic shapes come out with this sort of design because, shockingly, bones and trees have been solving these same physics problems for millions of years. Whether that's an aesthetic people will like or not, who knows, but the engineering side is getting cooler.

Likewise, newer manufacturing allows smaller runs of things, so combined with internet sales we can make a product for 1000 people as a niche market and have that be financially feasible. Design, traditionally, has been generic because you've got to make millions of something to commit to the upfront cost of tooling a factory to make that identical thing. So we're seeing this slow shift in phones, say, where there's that RED phone for camera nerds and a rugged CAT phone with a FLIR camera for construction workers and the whole market solves problems for individual needs better than just one iPhone for everyone as this lowest common denominator object. We'll still have those common objects, of course, but having options existing unbinds our hands a lot as small companies making cool little experimental things and as consumers to buy things we genuinely like and work for our lives best.

Are there other fields you see in a similar light?

I think we'll generate more and more design at an algorithmic level: we're seeing this in architecture with relatively rigid building codes demanding certain amount of HVAC airflow in each room, say, you can push a button and it'll build out all the air pipe paths and how they reduce (HVAC vents, if you've ever noticed, get progressively smaller to maintain airflow pressure along the whole length and traditionally (still today) this has been calculated by hand). Same with window size and placement. Same with rooms and hallways themselves. Electrical wiring, light switches, lights. You know? They're all known quantities and bound to be automated. Enter a few parameters and it'll generate fully realized options including all the part list BOMs, construction plans etc etc. Even if it's not perfect first try, we're getting these results so much faster and, frankly, better than humans can design them.

Likewise, the dress maker has photos of nice cars, right?

The maker space has little tools to generate gear tooth profiles where you enter a handful of dimensions you need a gear to solve and it'll build that instantly. That's awesome! It's an augmentation to designers. We have to solve the macro problems of an object still, but saving time and energy doing fiddly maths for gear teeth is just, done for us. There's a cool generator for box joints and laser cutting too, so you can put together stronger boxes that fit perfectly. These kinds of tools are awesome and free and just part of the design paradigm now. And I do see them as tools: some get panicked that the robots are coming for our jobs (they are) but at the same time, air nailers didn't come for construction workers' jobs. They just build houses faster now with better tools and less hammer swinging. We still, for now, need humans to be consideration engines.

You’ve mentioned a desire to be as “wholesome” as possible. What does this mean to you? How does it influence your interactions, and your work?

Part of me comes by it naturally, but it's also sometimes something to work hard on being and living. There's a few facets to it all: at a life level it's about contentment and appreciation for the things around us being generally awesome (and certainly better than almost all of previous human history). At a creative level there's a childlike wonder and curiosity to things, you might bring it back to that 'beginners mind' concept of learning and approaching problems.

At a work level I think I'm trying my best to make things that people pause and consider, but this is an increasingly difficult and sometimes auxiliary goal. Sometimes the best you can do is just make something good enough that people will never notice it. Just something that isn't frustrating, that is invisibly useful. That's a worthy goal by itself.

But I think it's hard in a world where somehow cynicism has come to imply intelligence? Like, positivity is seen as naïveté is seen as dumb and uncultured compared to the world-weary tiredness of these "experienced" pessimists who are really mostly just lazily internalizing all the garbage news cycle fear mongering nonsense. So, there's a certain braveness and counterculture to being wholesome, as funny as that is. It's almost punk to be happy and excited about things? I don't know. I don't really care to categorize or judge people, I just know I don't really jive well with the people resigned to their dismal impotence. We are, anyone who is reading this, comparatively some of the richest, most autonomous people in the world and can learn basically anything on demand. What do you do with that power? Because sitting around and moaning on Reddit seems like a waste.

You’ve said you see yourself more as a technician than a creative, how so? Does this affect the way you view design? 

This is an arguable semantic distinction, but it’s sort of the one I default to: design is unemotional problem solving, art is emotional question asking. Certainly, I don’t hold either in higher regard, I just think my brain is wired to do the former rather than the latter. I see problems and I’m good at fixing them and my opinions or feelings or internal screaming doesn’t really factor in or work its way into the work. Whereas, I might write or make little films and those things are emotional expressions of something inside me yearning to get out and be recognized. That’s art.

Sometimes the best you can do is just make something good enough that people will never notice it.

I just happen to be paid more for design, and art is more for myself. I don’t even publish most of it, it’s enough to merely get it from my brain onto a page and sort of… release it from being on my mind.

And, of course, most works involve bits of both. There are flourishes in design that are certainly artistic; you’re trying to express something internal via the being of an object (or why you feel like that object should exist in the first place) and there are bits in art that are problem solving for communication or making a medium work (someone engineered the boxes to hold Damian Hirst’s ton of blue fluid, that was a problem). So, they’re hand in hand.

Deep down though, I look at my artist friends and I have no idea how they just come up with the stuff they do. It seems so spontaneous and unattached to references. I need my brain library to cheat and constraints to get me started. Problem solving is creative work, but it’s not… creative work?

You have a very disparate set of interests, as far as design and your personal interests go. How do you see these different fields overlap, if at all? Do they inform one another?

I guess I see everything as genres. There’s this sort of synaesthesia where you could listen to a certain song and it reminds you of a scene, right? And maybe it’s a tropical sounding song, so you imagine the palm trees and the sand and there’s a bamboo hut smoothie shack. 

Now, you can imagine what sort of blenders they’re using, and you can imagine the typography on the signage, or the chalkboard deal of the day writing. You can see the clothes people are wearing both as beach-goers and employees. You can see the kind of cars and motorcycles and the wooden pergola. So if you dive in you can really build a whole world of architecture and graphic arts and industrial design and fashion and this overarching style emerges.

And everything is like that? There’s a mahogany paneled hunting lodge in the mountains with tweed jackets and intricately carved shotgun stocks and those library looking lamps with the green glass and books on fishing and hunting. You know the typography on the spines. You know the sort of slightly archaic British words you’d find in them. You can imagine the music they’d like. You know the food they eat, you have an image of their haircut and internet habits and all of these things fall into cohesive place as you’re considering them.

So the different disciplines might work in different mediums, but they’re all building a world together. A car designer might not be designing a dress, but you can bet on their mood board for the 2018 Lamborrari Martinsegg there’s a photo of a man in a fine suit with a woman in a slinky black dress, the dress they might design if they were responsible for that part of the scene. Likewise, the dress maker has photos of nice cars, right? And the handbag people, and the Ibiza DJs spinning luxury deep house, and the yacht makers. Everyone.

What disciplines are you interested in that you’d like to work more at?

Humans are humans, and we’re building stuff for humans to use.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything because I simply wanted to do it. Like, I learned Arduino stuff because I wanted to build a little controller to do something and Arduino happened to be a good solution. I learned to sew because I needed to sew something. Last week we learned about SVGs because that happened to be the format Rotonde went with. So the real question is more like “what problems might come up that you need to solve in a new way?” and then I’m not sure I could ever predict that.

That said, I’ve been teaching myself to cook more, I think I mentioned that, with flavor as an interesting element to the scene. There’s hearty meaty things and delicate light sour things and they’re all part of that cohesive style library too. Finding the flavor = color intersections to be really interesting, especially where the taste’s color and the physical color are different.

You have said you favor your own independence and mobility heavily, even applying it to picking leases and contracts. How else does that manifest? How do you apply it?

This is a huge can of worms unto itself, but as someone financially minded I spend a lot of time thinking about optimization of money and time and the various other resources. Designing your life against those constraints is essentially identical to designing objects against those same resources.

Housing, naturally, is a big topic because regardless if you rent or mortgage, it’s likely the biggest monthly expense most people have. As such, it’d have the biggest impact to solve. There’s a lot of chatter about Universal Basic Income schemes and whatever, and that’s a good conversation of course but for someone in manufacturing my interest would be like “instead of paying people more money, what if we could reduce expenses to effectively zero?” and the tax implications with that, if you spend less you could earn less which means you work less which frees up more time which could be used for better things anyway and so on.
But, that’s a huge topic.

At a more local level, at a Brennan level, I just try to structure myself for resilience. It’s way easier to spend less than it is to earn more (plus time) so there’s a healthy inclination to minimalism and frugality I come by naturally.

If I suddenly made way less income, I could simply move out of this place within a month; so I’m never afraid of ‘what if I can’t make rent?’ because the answer is always ‘find somewhere cheaper for a while.’ and as a stress thing, if you do that for every aspect of your life, you start to feel pretty invincible and that allows you to make good work without fear.

So that’s sort of my jam: earn as much as possible, spend as little as possible, save up a huge hoard and take on whatever weirdness the world throws at you. Quit bad jobs when you feel like it, buy whatever you want (and come to learn that you don’t want much), save as much as you can when you’re young and it’s the most potent for long term gains. Spend less time working, spend that extra time becoming better at everything. I’m not a paranoid apocalypse prepper type, but, you know, learn to camp and fish and fix your own stuff and at some point you’ll be slightly more confident with whatever happens.

How should people find your work?

You can find me on twitter @letkma, or online at BrennanLetkeman.com, and Brennan.Pizza.


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