At Home with Jason Belaire, Incoming President of The Industrial Designers Society of America
For our series Closet Confidential, we interview interesting and uber-cool people in their homes wearing outfits from their closet. Culture & Style Editor ANNIE BLOJ interviews Jason Belaire, Incoming President of the Industrial Designers Society of America.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ESTHER LEE LEACH
Annie Bloj: Jason, as I read through all your accomplishments while researching this article, I was struck by the variation in your career and the different roles you have taken on within your industry. I’m so excited to get to know you better, find out what inspires you and how you leverage your wealth of experience through the different aspects of your professional life. You have roots in Colorado, having graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado with a B.A. in Industrial Design. How did experiences throughout your life steer you towards a career in Industrial Design?
Jason Belaire: As a 1980’s punk rocker, I was rebellious. In high school, the only real class that gave me a sense of purpose was Art. So I focused on all aspects of it which drove me to be less interested in other subjects. The Art Institute came and gave a presentation and I was hooked. I liked the concept of having real-life professors that were required to be actively working in their field of expertise while teaching, bringing real-time knowledge of their craft to us. So, I jumped right in and started in 1990 and basically finished up my Associate’s Degree there, went out to conquer the world with some great success and ended up going back to fulfill the obligations to get my Bachelor’s Degree. So, yeah, that’s what got me in to design and I think it's just the opportunity to really use something that is innately inside of me as an expression to create something out of nothing. I think also, the fact that I’m a fairly introspective and empathetic person has helped me build and understand the processes of design at the human-centered level.
AB: What about Industrial Design was interesting to you, as opposed to other Design Principles?
JB: Great question, I think that to some degree, the fact that it’s more hands-on. We literally have to build prototypes and we have to create something that you are physically touching during the design process. It’s a manifestation of what starts in your mind and then becomes a 3-dimensional output. I think that really drove and interested me more than anything compared to other disciplines that were more digital or 2 dimensional, because remember, in the early ’90s, the standard for building presentations was using analog-style approaches like press-type. I’m an old man!
AB: So how did you get into the outdoor industry after getting your BA in Industrial Design?
JB: We are here in Colorado and I practically grew up skiing, camping, mountain climbing, trekking; all those activities were second nature. After much success in Medical design and Architectural design, I found myself teaching at an international school in Argentina. As a result of being connected to the international community, a few of us put together a climbing expedition between the US Embassy and the Argentine Military. We climbed Aconcagua (due to severe snowstorms, we didn’t summit it, but we climbed it) and it really put me out of my comfort zone in terms of planning and just the mere scope of such an expedition. Somehow it clicked for me that designing outdoor products would be something that would fulfill a deep inward desire that I was passionate about anyway.
When my wife and I came back to the states, I contacted Mountainsmith, a brand based here in Golden. I approached them as I had used some of their products in South America and I really felt their products were top notch. After literally knocking on the door and introducing myself (so old school) they were like “Oh wow, OK.” and by the end of the week they had offered me a job. I haven’t left the outdoor industry since.
AB: So it compliments your lifestyle and what you are interested in as well.
JB: It is important to state that it’s really different to be in the outdoor industry than other design genres because it really is passion-driven. You know, I’ll review kid's portfolios that want to get into the outdoor industry because they think it’s “cool”. I’m always asking “why?” And “what kind of camping experiences have you had, what are you into?” So I’ve learned that to be successful in this particular industry, designing and testing the products in an authentic way means we are just immersed in all aspects, including the lifestyle. I don’t think that the level of commitment and connection to playing outdoors exists anywhere else.
AB: Did your experience at the International school in Argentina lead you to become interested in teaching?
JB: The honest truth is that the caliber of students in high school (in Argentina) almost surpasses college students here in the US. Fast forward to the recent history when I was invited to teach the most important senior class at a local university, I was astounded at the lack of missing pieces and components of their work. From my perspective, I felt like I was failing the kids because I had such high expectations of them. At the international school, the kids had a higher level of problem-solving skills, a stronger work ethic, they were more motivated, and they also seemed to be pushed to work harder.
I was on the professional advisory board for two of the schools that offered Industrial Design here in Denver. As a result, I was influential at looking and understanding school dynamics, classes and policies. Life is too short, these kids' futures depend on us and if we don’t create an environment where they are being pushed to learn the skills they need to succeed, then I don’t want to be a part of it. With one school, I was on the advisory board, I was the one being provocative and showing them that “Hey, you guys are a private institution, you can do whatever you want. So create new processes and define what the educational process should be and or look like for the future.” This went on for years. Every year I would see the school declining in student numbers and so I would share my learnings with other advisory boards and say “Hey guys, look at what they are doing over there, you don’t want to repeat that.” But often, there is so much red tape to go through to make those necessary changes, you end up being in the same situation. The leadership really defines the ability of the school to create the kind of experience that’s necessary for the students to succeed. If there is no change to the culture of the schools, it just becomes the status quo that can fall prey to being more interested in self-preservation, then what is best for the students.
For years on behalf of IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America), I put on high-level content based conferences called District Design Conferences all around the US. They had a very heavy educational component to them. The thing that I would learn and still maintain as important is the fact that we, as a culture, don’t have the ability to “unlearn” what we’ve been taught. Academia is really guilty of not upsetting the system or making the changes necessary to move forward, and the kids are the ones that suffer the most. As a result, my rebellious self wants to get in there and shake up the thinking and make them understand that there are other ways to do things. So, in the past, I’ve tangentially connected with groups like the Cube School here in Denver to take that pyramid-style educational model of mentorship and build up high school students through apprentice programs. I’m proud to be a supporter of this movement of “alternative thinking” because we have to find ways to do things differently.
AB: Speaking of the conferences that you put on, was taking on the role of leadership in your industry something that came as a surprise or something you would always have in mind for yourself?
JB: I gave a talk at Denver Start-Up Week on emotional intelligence and how it pertains to the creative process. I’m proud to say that there were 780 people who RSVP’d for this talk. It’s amazing, but not surprising because each and every one of us are constantly searching and looking for something that fulfills what is missing inside of us. Even if it is under the guise of professional development. A lot of us that have had to overcome something traumatic in our lives have developed a greater level of emotional intelligence. It’s a natural output. Good designers are very empathetic. But, the empathy, if you dig down deep, it’s rooted inside of us and we have to figure out how to tap into it and make it more prominent in our life and how we function within ourselves and others. The conferences have been a catalyst for me to promote what the design community wants to learn but also balanced with what they need to know. Curating much of the conferences that I consider successful, has lead me to develop a network of top thinkers. As an example, I’m able to have conversations with the heads of Design for many large companies like IBM & Samsung. During our conversations, I get confirmation from them that what I’m thinking and saying is important and worth pursuing. That enables me to put myself out there in bigger and more profound ways. Some of this was strategic, but some of it was just luck. Coming across as being inquisitive and wanting to learn as much as possible always opens doors. Naturally, it pushes you in front of the crowd and you consequently stand out. Securing yourself as a leader.
So you're one of the first people to learn about this, but as of today, it is being announced to the public that I'm going to be the next Chair (President) for the Industrial Designers Society of America. (editor’s note: this interview was conducted in early September). Normally what happens in this kind of situation for design-related organizations is that Presidents are the, VP of design for Samsung, Whirlpool, IBM or other larger Fortune 500 companies. For some reason, the culture up until this recent history has perceived that the bigger the company, the more valuable and capable of a leader you are. I’ve been on the board of directors for seven or eight years for IDSA and I go to our meetings and often I will sit there and say “Guys, you know, you and your way of thinking are not really boots on the ground kind of thinking, we need to be talking to people and understanding what they really want.” The more that I’ve said that and the more that I’ve been demonstrating it within the conferences that I put on, the more it resonates. What I’ve learned is that a lot of the things that I say are things that people don't initially want to think about. They'd rather get on their phone and be distracted than to think. But when they actually hear the message, generally, they walk away saying “That makes sense! I need to think about this more.” That comes from the fact that I’m almost 50, I’ve been around the block, I’ve traveled the world multiple times over, I’ve lived overseas and all of this adds up. It has molded me intentionally and somewhat unintentionally to be who I am today. As the new President, I want to try to change the culture and I might fail, but at least I tried.
AB: From my personal experience as a Fashion Designer, I’ve noticed that as I was promoted and moved up the ranks, the less actual design I was doing. How do you stay connected to the product and have those boots on the ground experience?
JB: One of the things that I have learned to do over the last five years, is that I've learned to question everything, including myself. I question culture, I question politics and all that stuff. I know we all say we do, but not a lot of us actually push back and get uncomfortable and have to apologize because you know, maybe I stepped over a boundary or not. Maybe I said something that I shouldn't have. That leads me to think about your question and say “But why is that the [right] question to ask? What if I don’t miss any of that?” I want to ensure that I'm thinking about things in a new way that's good for me. With something that is going to really create positive change in the world, for our environment. So consequently, when I take clients on now, I don't take them on because I want to design products for them. I take them on because I want to change their culture and I want to do it through the design process.
Eight years ago, I created the Trend and Design center within the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show as a means of building a platform or a safe place, so to speak, for designers to come to share some of the stories and some of the hardships but also to bring in designers that aren't in the industry to talk about different kinds of processes. I've been very successful in that. It's been growing a lot and they keep asking me every year to curate that space and experience, and it keeps growing. They are putting more money into the space and increasing our footprint to account for larger crowds. The curation process leads me to learn more and more from those who are what I consider boots on the ground. It helps me to stay close to the real people who have real problems. You’ll see that a lot of what I do there is a common denominator which is the bottom-up approach. It’s always to give a voice to those who get overlooked by the top-down. It really is where to start to build a meaningful and sustainable culture.
AB: Jason, I could talk to you forever about all kinds of stuff. I am so interested in what you do and how you are going to use your new role as President of the Industrial Society of America to change the culture and move the industry forward. Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations!