Phnam Bagley | How Knowing Nothing Can Make You a More Creative Engineer
Who is Phnam Bagley?
Phnam Bagley grew up in France, became an industrial designer, and eventually moved to the United States to pursue her career. She is a designer in the truest sense, having mastery over topics such as color, material, form, & texture. What makes her so valuable to product & engineering teams, though, is not simply her mastery over these subjects, but her ability to understand the technical side (DFM, packaging, etc) of design as well as the artistic side. Phnam also produces her own podcast called Future Future, and is co-founder of the design consultancy Nonfiction.
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people, designers, design, products, materials, color, engineers, industrial design, creative, straws, work, designing, nonfiction, company, education, humans, important, extremely, engineer, sustainability
Presenter, Phnam Bagley, Aaron Moncur
Aaron Moncur 00:00
Hello dear listener, we are looking to add a new member to our engineering team again. Ideally, we’re looking for a Senior Level Mechanical Design Engineer in the Phoenix area who has experienced designing custom automated machines, equipment and test fixtures. Also, having working experience with controls and system integration would be a big plus. If you’d like to apply or suggest someone, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Being an Engineer Podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people resources and opportunities. Enjoy the show.
Phnam Bagley 00:48
I always walk in a room with no assumptions. I might have some experience of you know how to design for the head or you know what astronauts might need and all that and now we’ll bring that on later when I entered the room I knew nothing.
Aaron Moncur 01:16
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Being an Engineer Podcast. Our guest today is Phnam Bagley, who is an ndustrial designer and aerospace architect based in Los Angeles. She has spent 20 years designing the future of many industries including consumer electronics, biotech, education, wearables, luxury goods and safety. And she is also the co-founder of the design consultancy Nonfiction, where they turn science fiction into reality. Phnam, thank you so much for joining us today.
Phnam Bagley 01:50
Thanks, Aaron. Thanks for for inviting me. Just gents, one note about what you just said. I’m actually based in San Francisco.
Aaron Moncur 01:56
Oh, San Francisco. Thank you for correcting that, I appreciate it.
Phnam Bagley 02:01
No problem. Lesson here, but it’s still pretty.
Aaron Moncur 02:04
Yeah, I love San Francisco. I’ve been there just a handful of times. But every time I go, I love it, so much delicious food. Right. And the whole city is so walkable.
Phnam Bagley 02:13
Yes, very much so, no brainer.
Aaron Moncur 02:15
It’ll be on the hills. But but still
Phnam Bagley 02:17
Well, it’s a good for the thighs, you know.
Aaron Moncur 02:19
There you go. Yes. Have you ever heard of the Onewheel?
Phnam Bagley 02:24
Aaron Moncur 02:26
I got one of those recently. And I’ve often thought to myself, if I were in San Francisco, I would get so much more use out of this one wheel. I think that’s a perfect like that.
Phnam Bagley 02:36
Yeah, so what when I was a contracting at IDEO actually work with one inventor, or co he’s definitely co-founder of Onewheel.
Aaron Moncur 02:48
Phnam Bagley 02:49
Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty cool. I actually have a very funny story. I’m not entirely sure I can tell it but I will anyway. So Onewheel went to a very famous design studio here in San Francisco, I believe to design their next iteration of the product. And and the CEO of the company is very enthusiastic, you know, action sport candidate guy. He jumps on it, runs with it, and then breaks his arm.
Aaron Moncur 03:18
Phnam Bagley 03:22
But I think it’s to work together.
Aaron Moncur 03:23
Oh my gosh, ouch. Yeah, yeah, there. There are a lot of fun, but they can be a little bit dangerous if you’re not really careful on them.
Phnam Bagley 03:30
Yeah, I tried once I’m absolutely terrible.
Aaron Moncur 03:34
Getting off was the hardest part for me, like dismounting the Onewheel anyway. Well, for now, tell me what made you decide to become a designer,
Phnam Bagley 03:45
it was very random. I did not grow up you know, dreaming about being a designer, because to be honest, I didn’t know what it was. It was it was very serendipitous, in a sense that I was in my later years in high school, you know, trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the next few years in college. And I went to a jobs and career fair in Paris, I was living near Paris, and in that time, and one of the first booths that I see there is, you know, has a lot of drawings of cars and, and products and I’m like, Oh, this is interesting. And then someone starts talking to me about industrial design, which I had never heard of before. And and I realized very quickly that it’s it was kind of perfect for me because I’m always interested in always been interested in in the technical side of things as much as the artistic side of things right. Growing up. I wanted to be an astrophysicist and an artist at the same time, and I felt like industrial design was a good compromise. And that’s what I started studying and I I started thriving while in school and doing very well and have been practicing since
Aaron Moncur 05:01
Fantastic I love that you wanted to be an astrophysicist and an artist at the same time, that is not a combination that I hear very often. Very cool.
Phnam Bagley 05:11
Yeah, well, the thing is, does it kind of like a mixed misconception that, you know, what you call left brain people, and right brain, people are very separated. But I think a lot of people are actually both, you know, I mean, we have knowledge of, from a neuroscience standpoint, that everybody is a spectrum of something. And if you ask a lot of very high level, physicist or mathematician, a lot of them actually practice an instrument or play in a band. So, so I think having both both sides, the artistic side, and the the, you know, analytical side is fairly common.
Aaron Moncur 05:54
That’s a good point, several of the engineers on our team are also musicians. So I think there is some kind of link there between the technical and the creative. Well, speaking of technical and creative, you have worked with a lot of creative professionals a skill that requires deep creativity, obviously, in your experience, have engineers been good at conceptual design, and what roadblocks might engineers encounter that can be removed to increase their abilities to be effective conceptual designers?
Phnam Bagley 06:29
Well, the, the kind of like two types of engineers, I’ve worked with the ones that were two types of good engineers that work with, there’s also the bad engineers, but they’re either very good at articulating, or organizing thoughts and moving a project forward. Or they were extremely creative, and very good at coming up with, you know, smart ways of solving a problem, that that was outside the box. So. So that’s, that’s a little bit of the nature of the people that that I encounter. Now, how can we make them a little bit more creative, I guess, is, is just exposing them to different types of people. If you have engineers who only talk to engineers, speaking engineering language, it’s very, it’s going to be very difficult for them to empathize with creatives, with artists, with business people with all these, you know, soft, kind of like discipline, type of people. And to me, the best people to work with are the people who are open minded, you know, can be very focused when they need to be but can also, you know, open themselves up to what other people have to say about their subject.
Aaron Moncur 07:46
Sure, that that leads me right into another question I wanted to ask you, which is, can you tell us a little bit about your idea of, yes, engineers, know, engineers? And, yes, but engineers?
Phnam Bagley 08:01
Did you find that on one of our videos?
Aaron Moncur 08:03
Phnam Bagley 08:04
Aaron Moncur 08:05
Phnam Bagley 08:06
So. So for those who don’t know, Nonfiction, my company, produces videos called Future Feature, you can find them on YouTube. If you type in nonfiction design, and basically we talk about design and the future of everything, and one of the episodes, I can’t remember which one maybe Prague development, it talks about what you said, Yes, engineers, no engineers, and yes, most engineers, so yes, engineers are engineers, I say yes to everything, regardless of whether they can do it or not. We encounter a lot of these in, you know, in, in house factory engineers, most of the time is they are Yes, engineers, because they’re pressured by their bosses to win the job, you know, so it fills the pipeline. And the problem with these is that when things get a little bit more complicated, you know, they have to outsource talent, or do a bad job at it, or extend timelines. And most of the time, we’ll work we’re very, very narrow, you know, standards to begin with, if on top of that we don’t have control over the timeline and budget that can can get pretty crazy. So that’s the yes engineers, the no engineers, are the people who say no, regardless of what you tell them, you know, I have an idea what what about exploring is and there would be like, No, you know, they, they might be very good at what they do, but they’re not really interested in evolving what they do or how they think about solving solutions. And, and that’s extremely frustrating when you are a designer for one and two, if you’re working with companies trying to create products that that have a richness and intellectual property. You know, new concepts that can end up in utility or design patents, you can’t, you know, solve everything the same way or the the way the competition is doing it. So So yeah, no engineers not not that productive. Now, my favorite types of engineers that yes, but they will say yes to most everything. But there’s always an asterisk attached to it. Well, we can do this, but it will extend the timeline by three months, we can do this. But, you know, we have to make sure that this sensor is aligned with that to other components, and that they communicate together and that, you know, might increase the cost by 25 cents. So, so being very transparent with the rest of the team, whether we win business, whether we’re design and CMF, or whatever, in order to make the right decisions together, is for me the best way to move forward. So yeah, more Yes. But engineers, please.
Aaron Moncur 10:57
Moral of the story via Yes, but engineer, that reminds me of an experience I had as a very young engineer. In fact, I was still in school, I had an internship, I guess it was my first real engineering job as an intern. And I had an opportunity to meet with the president of the company, the CEO of the company wasn’t a huge company. And I remember him telling me about no engineers, he didn’t use that exact phrase, but he was telling me about an experience he had recently had where he approached an engineer about designing a particular feature. And the engineer just said, Nope, can’t do it. That’s impossible. You know, the laws of physics won’t allow it or whatever the reason, the engineer just said, Nope, nope, can’t do it. And the CEO is telling me how frustrated that made him. And I remember thinking to myself, but what if it really is impossible? Like, shouldn’t the engineers say that? And over the years, I’ve thought back on that experience, and I, at this point, I very much understand and appreciate where the CEO was coming from. Of course, not everything is going to be possible. But let’s start the process with a positive attitude. And instead of saying, No, we can’t do it, let’s say, I’ve never seen anyone else do this. But let’s take a look and you know, see what we might be able to do. So anyway, I really appreciate that way of thinking. How important is collaboration with others, when it comes to creativity, I mean, can can a designer be creative by him or herself or does break through creativity require other people?
Phnam Bagley 12:44
It depends on the designer. So some designers work exceptionally well by themselves in the dark in the middle of the night. And some other ones do require a wide range of specialties in the room. And that also depends on what stage of creation you’re in. Right? If you’re brainstorming new ideas, for a system designed, for example, you will most likely find more creative ideas if you’re multiple people in the room working together. And collaboration is not just like, you know, everybody has a stack of paper and start sketching in their corner. It’s dialogue, it’s sketching together on a whiteboard is debating, it’s fighting each other about what is true and what is not about being philosophical about things and, and, you know, having having conversation about what it means coming from different cultures, right, it can go any direction, and and the messiness of it is, is is very important. But what is more important is how do you take that messiness, and organize in a way that gives you a direction, right? If at the end of a brainstorm session with a bunch of people, you still don’t know what you’re doing, or it’s just the same boring ideas, then that session was not successful. Some people can do it alone, you know, be very creative by themselves. But typically, they lack something, you know, they’re either extremely good designer, but like a terrible salesperson, or, or, or vice versa. And I’ve rarely rarely seen someone who was able to do both, especially by themselves. How do you do your best creative work? I always start with an empty brain. Regardless of what project we’ll work on, whether it’s designing an educational system for country or a habitat on the moon, or you know, brain stimulator, whatever, I always walk in a room with no assumptions. I might have some experience of you know how to design for the head or, you know, what astronauts might need and all that and now we’ll bring that on later when I entered the room. I knew nothing. And it’s a lot of the absorbing first about, you know, the the clients has probably been working on that subject for the last 20 years, and they have a lot of insight that I will never be able to attain, unless I talk directly to them. And all of these nuggets are what interests me is what I’m going to connect for the first time, right? As scientists, they connect insights from their research in a scientific way. And that makes complete sense. My job is to take that science connected with design connected with technology connected with business connected with culture, and everything that makes a products rich, and and to demonstrate that to the clients, regardless of who they are, regardless of how much they believe in design or not. And make them believe that the solution will work for all of us.
Aaron Moncur 15:49
Can you tell me a little bit about how does the the creative professional communicate the design language and creative intent to technical and manufacturing teams in a way that maintains the integrity of the designers original vision.
Phnam Bagley 16:10
So one thing that absolutely needs to happen is overlapping of disciplines. So there are two main types of ways you can work with designers. One is the handoff system, which is, oh, I take care of the branding, I take care of the industrial design of colors and materials and all that, and then I have a package, I will hand you the package and wish for the best. As you can imagine, that’s a recipe for disaster, because inevitably, you will run into technical problems. While this doesn’t fit. And for some reason, the package for the battery grew and this magnet doesn’t fit here, blah, blah, blah, right. And if you don’t have a dialogue between different teams, during that time, you will end up with something that looks nothing like the design intent. So the way we work at nonfiction, and I believe most people should work is collaborating using a lean product development process. Where you know, before industrial design ends, you need to engage with the mechanical engineer and you to engage with electrical firmware, user experience branding, all these disciplines working together and making decisions together. Right. And another thing about industrial design that I find fascinating for some people is, is how can how can people design without knowing what goes into the product, right? If I can’t design something, if I don’t know how big the PCB is, or how big the battery is, or you know how heavy the thing is, or it’s kind of hard for me, some people seem to be able to design random shapes and random, you know, volumes. Sure, awesome. But but the scale of it, the reality of it, to me is a great starting point. It’s, it makes it difficult, I guess for for some creative, to separate and reconnect the reality and the creativity to me, you can use a reality to innovate and to make your product even more creative. But but it’s a it’s a muscle you have to to work on for years.
Aaron Moncur 18:21
Well, that’s one of the criticisms that industrial designers sometimes get is that they design pretty things that can’t be manufactured. And mechanical engineers have plenty of their own criticisms. So I don’t mean to minimize industrial designers. But is that a problem that that you have seen often in the industrial design community?
Phnam Bagley 18:41
Yeah. And, you know, I will blame education. Just, you know, a lot of the times people go through four years of studying industrial design, project after project and still have no understanding of what it takes to put something together, right? How many design students have never heard of DFM. That blows my mind. Right. You know, the fact that they have no idea of, you know, what it takes to fabricate something, what a factory looks like, what kind of machinery you have to be comfortable with. I actually went to a very good design school in the sense that we were forced to do so many internships and be exposed to the real world, you know, back when we were still teenagers. That’s, that’s I still I still benefit a lot from that. For example, a first internship requirements was to work in a factory. I was a welder and you know, as simple parts car parts in a factory for two months you know, also it made me give me a tape taste of what it what it is to, to, to to work in a factory and never want to do that again. But but yeah, that wasn’t France, you know, worked at Renault, the car company and, and, you know, waking up at 4am and smelling burnt steel at 5am. Every morning for two months, that was brutal, but fantastic. Right? Right. Yeah. But now I know that there are humans behind the fabrication of things, I mean, less and less because of robots and automation and all that, but, but they’re, when we design something, we have to think about, obviously, the end user, but we’ll also have to think about all the stakeholders involved in the process. And that can be the client that can be the manufacturer, it can be the person, you know, putting the two parts together by hand, you know, in a very cramped space that’s, you know, never gets cleaned. It’s, it’s, we have to be aware of this, especially when we start talking about, you know, big themes like sustainability, what does it take for, for designers, engineers, business people, etc? To put something together? Is it worth it? Is it serving someone? Is it serving the planet?
Aaron Moncur 21:07
Well, I’ll echo what you said about education. Because the same is true for mechanical designers. You know, coming out of university, most newly graduated mechanical engineers don’t really know how to design anything. It’s on the job training, where you learn how to do that. So internships and finding experiences and opportunities to get real world experience that’s so important for for any young designer. What what are some of the physical tools that you recommend design or engineering teams have in their workspaces to foster creativity?
Phnam Bagley 21:48
Definitely 3D printer is funny, because I was a little bit resistance with 3D printing at first, because I don’t think people were using them the right way. I found a lot of benefit using 3D printers, specifically for ergonomic products. So when you design something that’s touches, the body touches different parts of the body, or different people who have different proportions on the body. The process of making a new prototype every day, and changing a millimeter here or there, just to make sure that one, it’s it conforms to the body, but to you know, the weight or center of gravity is in the right place, you know, all those things, getting answers quickly, kind of the idea of failing quickly in order to get to your answer quicker. That’s, that’s been fairly magical. And, but also, you know, the problem with 3D printing is that people think is a lot better than than what it is most of the time people, people still come to us and say, Hey, I have a 3D printed model. Can you manufacture this? And we’re like, No, that is not. So a lot of education, I would say I spend 15% of my time telling people how things work in hardware, whether it’s from an engineering standpoint, or a design standpoint, because I don’t know if it’s, if it’s the Kickstarter or Indiegogo or a shark tanks of the world. But a lot of people think that it costs a lot less and takes a lot less time to develop hardware.
Aaron Moncur 23:26
Hear, hear! Amen to that. Well, let me take a very short break and share with the listeners that teampipeline.us is where you can learn more about how we help medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams, develop turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines to characterize inspect, assemble, manufacturer and perform verification testing on your devices. We’re speaking with Phnam Bagley today co founder at Nonfiction. And I have a question for you that my son actually came up with I was telling him about this interview earlier. And he said, I told him that you’re really creative person. And he says, ask her what’s her favorite part of her job? And I thought, Oh, that’s a great question. So what what is your favorite part of your job?
Phnam Bagley 24:17
Oh, god, there’s so many. So I’m one of those people who works a lot, obviously, because I want a company but I love every minute of it. So I guess that’s what happens when you tailor your own job and start your own thing. But oh, gosh, it’s, um, I love telling the stories that we build together with with our internal team or with clients, right? I could I could show up to a client and say, Oh, we did this thing. It works good luck. Or I can be like, well, we looked into this culture and got inspired by this and then we connected with this other thing. And then we we start innovating on how to put this together we did a prototype and then oh, this has never been done before. and blah, blah, blah. You know, that whole storytelling is incredibly fascinating because I can, I can take something very complex and make it very attainable. I want to speak to teenagers to children to people who are not technically savvy, I want to talk to all of these people and and let them believe that design engineering can actually change their lives for the better.
Aaron Moncur 25:24
Awesome. I love that. I don’t want to spend too much time on this textbook. But I’m curious, what are a few of the most interesting products that that you’ve worked on at Nonfiction and, and maybe one of them could be the the earphones that you’re wearing right now?
Phnam Bagley 25:41
Yeah, so I’m wearing the human headphones. What was very interesting about that project is that it was kind of a first like the first audio headphone without a band, and pretty easy to define. And then you get into the ergonomics. And you realize, oh, yours human ears are very different. And they’re very weird, and a very sensitive, and they come in all shapes and sizes. And, and, and it’s very difficult to work to design something like this. Because not only the ergonomics were difficult, but also the user experience, how do you put them on and make sure that they’re secure enough that you can do a handstand, and they wouldn’t move? And that’s actually the case? I can do a handstand with these.
Aaron Moncur 26:24
Really? That’s impressive.
Phnam Bagley 26:26
Yeah, it took 700 prototypes, or probably more to get the 100. So it was a, it was actually one of the most beautiful processes I’ve ever seen, where industrial design was building the surfaces that would touch different parts of the year and the head. And we would negotiate with, you know, the people in charge of the components, you know, where do I want magnets? Where does do the PCBs go? What kind of shape and size and volume of battery do I want and was like going back and forth like this, kind of like between mechanical, electrical, acoustic and, and an industrial design anyone on for months. But every day, we’re refining closer and closer. And between each of the prototypes, we’re also testing on humans, right? And then sometimes we’d have a design that works great on someone and not work at all on someone else, or, and we had to, yeah, we had to make certain hard decisions of you know, do we want to sell headphones with six different inserts, and have people try to six, seven inserts to make sure that’s the one works. So from a user experience perspective, that’s pretty, pretty crappy. So how do we bring it down to two? And how do we have one pair of headphones that needs to be touching? Very specific part of your head in order to be stable? How do we make that fit on the vast majority of adult human heads? For example, if you if you go into 3d file, and you look at the smallest one percentile, female heads and the 99th percentile, male head, I mean, they basically look like they belong to two different species. That’s, it’s so different. And so you have to work with that. Right? Obviously, we, you know, most people who design ergonomic products, like headphones or any other common product, they base them off of 50th percentile male. And, and I mean, it was great for them, but that is not, you know, the vast majority of the earth’s population. And, and so yeah, it’s, that was very, very difficult, very rewarding once we’re able to get to the end of it. But to come back to your question, so many projects we’re working on are crazy. So if you go on our websites, three w nonfiction dot design, you will see a lot of the projects that we’ve worked on in the past that have launched some of them sound like complete science fiction, like we have a a brain stimulator in the form of a headphones that can help you learn movement faster, just by stimulating your motor cortex will work a lot of neurosciences is pretty cool. We also have the first FDA approved wrist wearable that helps people with hand tremors, calm down their hands so they can drink coffee right to the letter again. So everything that is very life changing, for the better, whether it’s life changing for the planet, or for humans, is what we’re focused on. And you’ve probably seen the 17 Sustainable, Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations. It’s it’s goals that have to do with inequality with health, education, conservation, etc. So it has become one of our one of them fiction’s requirements to only work with companies that satisfy at least one of the 17 goals.
Aaron Moncur 30:02
Phnam Bagley 30:03
Yeah. So sustainability and social impact are absolutely important to us. And we are, you know, after five years of running this company we are at as a place where we can actually say no to people who just wants, you know, to copy someone else, or you know, to just do enclosure design, I, you know, I don’t really see the point of skinning yet another same product architecture of a project, because you’re working with a different brand, unless you making it higher quality, unless you’re changing the material, the process or the assembly, work into something a lot more easy, a lot easier to, to recycle or to a lot less toxic to the planet unless you are benefiting communities that don’t have access to the type of technology we have here. I don’t really see the point of doing hardware, because otherwise we’re just filling landfills. Right.
Aaron Moncur 31:02
Right. This this is a perfect segue. I have three kids. And whenever I asked them to do something they don’t want to do. And I asked them why they don’t want to do it. Their most common response is can you guess what it is? I’m curious. It’s boring, that’s what they say
Phnam Bagley 31:17
No, go for it?
Aaron Moncur 31:17
Phnam Bagley 31:18
Oh, it’s boring?
Aaron Moncur 31:19
It’s boring. Yeah, that’s the most common. Hey, will you do this? Please? I don’t want to do that. Why not? It’s boring. Yes. I think that that is something that’s important to you. I mean, based on some of the research I did is that you don’t like working on boring things. I mean, I can even see it. Not everyone who’s listening this or no one who’s listening to this will see it because we see the the video but they are only going to hear the audio, but you have this fun colored hair. And like you have, I’ve seen all these pictures of you in this dynamic, cool clothing. I just get the sense that you you rebel against boringness in your work on things that are exciting and fun and new.
Phnam Bagley 32:01
Absolutely. And yes, and more of that. Yeah, it’s, I mean, I am lucky that I’m a designer, you know, it’s not like I’m an attorney, or although some attorneys very fun to look at. But, you know, I am not pressured to fit visually into a very expected way of thinking or looking like, but but I take that two to two level self expression that makes me happy. Because to me, if I’m creative, if I’m productive, if I attract people who want to change the world, that’s, that makes me happy that that brings joy. And who wants to work with someone who doesn’t have fun, right? Or with someone who doesn’t have fun, you know, culture. Someone was, was putting out a survey on LinkedIn recently, and they asked you what is the most important thing, working in a company for you? I think the number one thing that came back was culture. You know, it’s not it’s not creativity, it’s not coming up with the latest and greatest is not being extremely productive or climbing the ladder, it was culture, you know, do I feel safe? Do I feel like I can contribute? Do I feel like I can grow do I feel like, like, like, I can speak freely about, about certain subjects. That’s extremely important. And to me, fun, is very much part of the culture, right? We can be talking about extremely serious subjects. And we do because we work a lot in healthcare, for example, we talking about people with very serious conditions. But if you don’t do it with a little humor, the lightness and and it will, it will actually influence the products that we design, right? Instead of design things are very invasive, and, you know, making assumptions about the people we’re working with. They’re like, Oh, you know, this products gonna change your life. Of course, they don’t like it. Humans, the work like this humans care about if if something is going to be not changing the lives too much or benefiting the life greatly, but not requiring a lot of effort on their part, right? It’s a whole behavior science type of background, how, as designers and engineers, can we make the transition from one state to another easier for everybody involved?
Aaron Moncur 34:30
I read a book years ago, I can’t even remember exactly what it was about. But part of it talked about, oh, it was about neuroscience, generally speaking. And part of the book was about depression. And I remember reading this definition of depression in the book that I thought was so interesting, and I’ve always remembered it, the way they defined depression was the inability to perceive novelty. And I thought that was such a great definition. I know that in my own life, even if things are going well, you know, like work is good families good, all that stuff. If there isn’t something new, I start to feel stale, and I start to get bored and I start to look for, okay, what’s the next thing? You know, I think humans just have that innate need to look for novelty in their environments. And without that, it becomes boring.
Phnam Bagley 35:26
Well, people like us do. But there are also a lot of people in the world that are extremely unaware of who they are, where they are, are their place in the world and have absolutely no interest in the future or greater things. Right, you probably know people like this, they just want the same thing every day, they want everything to be predictable. And they’re completely content. It’s very hard for me to understand them. But, and I’m sure for you as well. But you know, we have a thirst for new things. Because we are creators, we are creatives, we are the people who build the future, by definition, right? So, so I hope that people like us are not like that, or not, you know, the people who don’t want new things. But there are I mean, if I come back to the no engineers were talking about earlier, there’s a big chance that these people are like that they learn a craft that they are probably very good at, and they have no intention of moving on to the next phase of their field.
Aaron Moncur 36:32
Yeah, that’s a good point, it is very easy for a person I think, to become steeped in their own ideologies and not realize that not everyone else thinks that way. I do this.
Phnam Bagley 36:45
And actually, that brings up a very good point, having to do with engineers and designers, particularly because I hang out with them a lot, is that they tend to stay in a bubble. Right? I have. I’m an engineer, I have my engineer friends. And we talk about engineering style, like super nerdy stuff. And, and I’m very happy, well, good for you. But do you ever talk to, you know, people who are into meditation or people who love cooking, or, you know, people who do things that have nothing to do with your work or your worth? In this world, and just learn to listen? Right? I think I think that’s one of the biggest, greatest skills to develop as, as, as engineers, and and I believe that the best engineers I’ve ever worked with are the people who are able to step away from their job title or their definition or their, you know, major in college, and then be open to what someone else has to say.
Aaron Moncur 37:49
That’s a very good point, the ability to try something new and very different, is not something that I do, I I’ll be honest about that. It’s hard for me to go into an environment where like, I don’t know, people, and it’s, you know, just very different than what I’m used to. That’s, that’s a difficult thing. But I can see, I can understand the value in what you’re saying. And it kind of makes me want to go out and explore a little bit. So thank you for that motivation there.
Phnam Bagley 38:15
Oh, it’s terrifying, even for people who are used to it, right, unless you’re like this extra extrovert, which you know, very few of us are, it’s, it’s going to be exhausting. And sometimes you have to do in small doses, sometimes you have to not do it for a couple months. But but actually here, talking about the subject, one of my friends has just published a book about this is called confident introvert. And she gives a lot of tips on how to network as an introvert, and there are a lot of very, very great things about it. She’s very compassionate, about, you know, about understanding that not everybody wants to put themselves out there and wants to be the first person to break the ice. And the vast majority of us are like that, even people who like to talk, you know, where do I start? I don’t know this person. Are they going to judge me? Do I, you know, you know, all these questions are normal. The more you do it, the more you know who you are and what you’re comfortable with putting out there, the easier it gets.
Aaron Moncur 39:21
I’m going to switch gears a little bit here, you have spent considerable time thinking about materials, and specifically the toxicity of different materials. Can you share a few of the most toxic mesh materials that we should stay away from as designers and conversely, what are some of the least toxic materials that we should try to use you know where the application allows for it? For example, I heard you talk about seaweed plastic that I had I had never before heard of seaweed plastic and I thought…
Phnam Bagley 39:57
Aaron Moncur 39:58
Learn more about this but anyway
Phnam Bagley 39:59
Seaweed plastic, yeah, there’sso many plastics and new leathers. And you know, this, this whole revolution happening with new plant-based everything that is, is pretty great because is biodegradable, that seaweed plastic is made from seaweed, as the name suggests, and it’s really trying to find the perfect balance between performance and eco friendliness, because people are not willing to have products that perform less, right, when everybody was, you know, pointing fingers at at straws, for example, what would that kid went on the campaign of making straws, you know, the worst thing that could happen in our culture. And now, you know, a lot of states have, have forbidden them, I don’t take a lot of space, but a few states. And what happened is that people started replacing those with paper based straws, and you would see everybody and their mothers, you know, complaining about how the experience was terrible. So the performance was not the same. And the solution that there was there to replace it was was, you know, kind of, like, quickly put there. And that’s why solutions like straws made out of seaweeds that still have that, that that strength, you know, flexibility and fitness, that, you know, other classic types of straws used back in the day. But but also, you know, if you throw them in a composter, or if you throw them in the ocean, what they eventually end up, they will not harm the ecosystem it falls in. So, so but but when we talk about materials, you kind of have to be honest about what’s going on. Because there’s a lot of greenwashing that’s happening to right, a lot of company that say, Oh, I’m using bamboo, therefore, it’s great for the environment. And then you look at how the bamboo is manufactured, and where it comes from, and what kind of chemical you know, crazy processes it went through and how it’s been bonded to other materials, and you realize it’s actually worse than making it entirely from PT or something. So, um, it’s, it’s, it’s the transparency behind eco friendliness, that’s, that that is important to educate people on educate all those companies on because a lot of times sustainability happens as an afterthought, right? The first thing is like, what do we need to? What do we need to put out there to, to help our bottom line? Wait, that’s, that’s the priorities of most, most companies that that produce hardware and sustainability unless is part of the first conversation and held on to for the rest of the process very much like the design intent that were talking earlier. Right? If you had design intent, beginning you give up on it, you will never see it, by the end, you have to hold on to it, you have to fight with everybody who is going to have an argument against that same thing for sustainability. So so yeah, when it comes back to non-toxicity, right, so many materials that have been we’ve been using, very commonly, like PVC is like everywhere, in all tubes, and in the way we grow hydroponics. And, you know, and all that. It’s, it’s, it’s really bad, you know, why do we inject dead people with formaldehyde and put them in like, ultra laminated boxes that take forever, if ever to, to deteriorate? Like, I don’t understand that, you know, and you’ll see the thing for like, three days, it’s, um, it’s a lot of those bad habits, that, you know, typically our decision made on performance versus cost, right value engineering, all of this and making sure that you’re still making a profit at the end of the day. That’s, that’s, that’s one way of thinking about it. And also, when it comes to how we bury our dead, is 100% you know, playing on the emotional value of something, right? If I had the choice between very basic and a very ornate How do you call those boxes? You could people like that urn. No, like the body boxes. Also, the coffin Yes. If you have a coffin that’s very ornate with a bunch of like metal and like, flowers everywhere, whatever, like, emotionally, it makes people feel like they have respected their dead better because you’re at a moment of weakness in your life. Right. It’s the whole business of funeral homes, basically. But what if, you know like, like a lot of companies not like I think a few companies are developing Right now how do we make the human body compostable? You know, by wrapping it in mushrooms, by burying it, in places near trees by not injecting them with formaldehyde or anything that can conserve them more than their natural state? That’s, I mean, look at the history of humans, we’ve been burying people without formaldehyde without without boxes for a very long time. Why do we feel obligated today, to use all of these artifacts that were put in our heads by by good advertising, right. So all of these bad habits, we have so many bad habits from the straws we just talked about to the coffin. It’s, it’s pretty crazy. And there’s a there’s a division of product that’s is at the forefront, I guess, of non toxic materials is baby products. When when people become parents, they are they become very worried about the toxicity of the product they surround themselves with, you know, they routinely change all of the Windex in the house by like, you know, natural essential oil, whatever, whatever. And then they they change all of their toxic products in the kitchen with BPA free, you know, vegan, whatever products, and we need to do that with the rest of our lives, we need to do that with, you know, our electronics, we need to do that with what’s all the products that are in the hospital, which is very difficult, because in a hospital, everything needs to pass FDA regulations. And a lot of the times, you know, people don’t have time or or budget to develop that. But I think there needs to be a lot of change in many industries about that. I can talk forever about the subject.
Aaron Moncur 46:45
Nine, nine out of 10 people or 99 out of 100 people are going to agree wholeheartedly with you on that, as a designer, are there some low toxicity, eco-friendly, sustainable plastics or just materials in general that you’d like to use?
Phnam Bagley 47:06
Well, so in terms of the consumer electronics that we use, you know, it’s, we’ve kind of used the same 15 materials to be completely honest, it’s always you know, PT, ABS, PC, you know, glass, sometimes wood, aluminum steel, I mean, outside of that is honestly not much. Right, when you get into architecture, or interior designs or anything like this, you get a little bit more creative. And that’s when we can start integrating very interesting materials. That’s because we need a lot less quantity of it, right, if if you’re doing a home for example, or designing the inside of a spacecraft, you’re going to use a wall of it. Whereas if I’m mass manufacturing something, I need something that is very low cost, and is accessible in mass quantity. And so so one thing that happens with material and nonfiction recently is that we’re partnered up with material connection, which is a company that has this physical material library as well as digital one and actually our office hosts one of the largest physical material library is on the West Coast you can come here you know to make an appointment come here and then come touch and smell all these materials. And what’s great about this is that Yeah, you can what’s great about this is that you can you know learn about materials that sound completely crazy like we have a leather made from you know, apple shadings. We have, you know, there’s many types of polymers that sound really crazy, like we have this we have ceramics, that that look like anything but ceramics, you know, like based on the properties based on you know, how much fire retardant properties you want the cost availability, levels sustainability, is it carbon neutral or not, whereas it manufacturer, you can get all of that information for each of the materials and make your material decisions from there. You know, the number one question we always get asked is that, how available is that material, right? If I’m going to make 500,000 of an object at Mass manufacturing, like, Can this vendor this manufacturer of that material, can they provide that for me, but what happens if I need four times that, right? That’s because a lot of the people who develop you know, interesting, eco friendly materials, a lot of them are working from their garage, just you know, experimenting with very small it’s, yeah, it’s a lot of them is that I mean, the scaling is has always been the big problem with with hardware evolve and material development, right. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing, you know, How do I attract big companies in order to change the standards and status quo or the way things are being built? If I don’t have the money to roll to the scale they need me to?
Aaron Moncur 50:11
Yeah. Well, I want to learn more about the seaweed plastic that one grabbed my attention. How interesting. Let’s talk about color real quickly. This is a pretty broad question. But what are a few gold nuggets that you can tell us about color? Like what are some ways in which color influences society, maybe that that most of us maybe don’t even realize have no clue about?
Phnam Bagley 50:36
Yeah, so there are different types of colors, you have natural colors, you know, colors that are directly inspired by nature, or come from natural materials, you can see that in, in guitars, for example, a lot of them use natural wood can see the grain you can see the color of the wood, or it’s like, very slightly modified by a stain or varnish but but you know, there’s warms to it, right, certain colors have warmth in certain colors, are very cold. So, so natural is one. And an artificial, you can make something very artificial, like anything that came from the 90s, basically, you know, neon colors, and all that things, you know, causes that change based on like what angle of light hits it. So, so in between those two extremes, I would say they’re doing multiple considerations, when you think about colors in, in the products that we surrounded ourselves with. One is how it ages. So certain colors are, depending on how they’re put on a product are very sensitive to ultraviolet light, for example, and they will start white, and then within six months to turn turning yellow. And that might be fine for certain products, right? That you don’t really care about, like tubing or whatever. But if it’s a high quality, consumer electronics or something, you really don’t want that product to look that different between year one and year three, right. Also is, you know, not only ultraviolet, but you know, the oils that come from our fingers can deteriorate the color quality of certain products. And in terms of my color psychology, you can think of you know, certain colors, making you feel warm, and in a welcoming environment, some other ones are very cool, then you’re professional and all that. So, so for example, I love the color red, right? It’s a it’s a color that gives me energy, my living room is read the entire things right, the couch, the walls, everything. And and I remember when I painted that a lot of people were like, I can’t believe you’re doing this, this gonna make the room so small. And and it didn’t realize that’s what I want it. I don’t want, you know, a sterile white room, I want a room where I feel like I’m being hugged by the room. And you can do that with color. Right. And when you when we you know, we work on the space industry. And when you look at places like the ISS, where everything is surround yourself with is one busy, I mean, every single wall on and on the inside of your eyes is just covered with something. And most of it is white, gray or blue, black. Pretty much the opposite of where I want to be at all times, right? I’d rather be in a forest walking around, you know, around with moss than surrounded by a bunch of ugly things. But by necessity by necessity. That’s what they need that right now. But when we design a future of you know, what is in spacecraft, what is in your lunar and Martian habitats, I think is extremely important to start thinking about how to integrate nature and natural finishes and in natural colors into all of this because our lizard brain is saying this is safe. This is why I want to be this is what reduces my anxiety and depression and stress. Right? So so color is extremely powerful. And CMF designers who are colors, materials and finished designers are extremely knowledgeable on what color has what’s impression on people. But no, I think they’re really good at is how to perfectly manufacturer, the color that you want, which is a science in and of itself.
Aaron Moncur 54:31
Yeah. We are just about a time here. Do you have a couple more minutes or do we need to end right there?
Phnam Bagley 54:36
Yeah, yeah, we can.
Aaron Moncur 54:36
Okay, I want there’s one more thing I really want to ask you about. And that’s education. You have spoken about the future of education. What are some of the limitations of our current educational system and how do you think that future educational systems and environments can improve upon the status quo?
Phnam Bagley 54:57
Yeah, so when we call traditional educational system Is the vast majority of how kids are still educated today all over the world is, is basic was basically invented during, you know, the Industrial Revolution and was created to put out workers, you know, you put up people with a resume, or a college degree and they will be able to function as a worker. Now, if you look at people’s ambitions and jobs, even job descriptions today, being a worker is not really what they’re interested in being they want to have personal and professional development, they want to be leaders, and they want to be, you know, innovators and, and sometimes want to build their own field, you know, out of nothing, and, and education has not served the vast majority of people because if you look at people around you, your own family, your friends, even people you don’t like, you realize that we all neurodiverse we learn differently, we absorb things differently, we express ourselves differently, we connect with others differently. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. That’s just the nature of humans. But the traditional educational system has put standards on what is good, and what is bad, what is acceptable and what is not. And unless you fit into that standard, you will fall behind, right, or you will rebel against it. And one way people rebel is by, you know, not finishing their studies and moving on to something else. And some of them are extremely successful at doing that right? Out of all the, you know, famous billionaires that we know, like, what percentage of them don’t even have a college degree. Right? It’s not because you have more letters behind your name, or more degrees in your resume that you’re smarter. I was having a conversation recently about a Turkish boy from a 17 year old boy. And he was very worried about appearing, you know, to be the most the smartest person in the room. And I’m like, Why? What does smart mean anyway, like, he was very worried about IQ. And IQ is just, it’s just an invention that’s based on not much, and is extremely random, and is not even applicable to all cultures at once. So, so let’s just forget about that. Now, intellectual quotient is, you know, important at some point, right? If, you know, you need to understand a certain set of logic, but how about emotional intelligence, social intelligence, you know, all those skills are actually going to be more helpful for you to find the path that works for you. So anyway, we’re currently redesigning the educational system of Singapore in Japan. And in doing that, we’re completely flipping the system on its head and taking inspiration from other smaller groups that that are a little bit more recent, for example, the Montessori, the Waldorf type system. So the more you know, project-based, instead of discipline-based education are more of useful. But on top of that, we are integrating technologies and experiences that can help children and teenagers find the way that works for them. Right? It’s not because some, some one somewhere said that your gaming was bad for you that it’s going to be bad for every child. No, some people, some some children learn very well from playing. Right. And even the idea of playing like integrating unstructured play in the schedule of a child seems crazy right now. I mean, I see children like going from appointment to appointment that was before COVID, obviously, and, and just being dropped off at different activities all the time. Like what kind of childhood is that? You know, when I was a kid, it was like we’re outside cutting with a stick, right? That unstructured play that I don’t have to play. I just play because I’m a child, you know, is extremely important in developments of of children. And that’s what I love about the world we live in right now. We’re starting to personalize everything, thanks to AI and machine learning, thanks to the fact that we manufacture things that much lower quantity, and no personalization of color or texture and all that. And that’s a wonderful time to be in because that’s when we’re starting to stop generalizing about generations stop generalizing about Oh, all the people with disabilities want that? Well now, you know, within the group of people disabilities, you have people with certain tastes people with certain goals for people with certain ambitions and we have to respect that right? And and now with with all the technology we have today we’re finally you’re starting to crack the door and and really making our designs our engineering work serve people for the long term.
Aaron Moncur 1:00:17
Excellent. Well thank you for sharing that. Phnam, how can people get a hold of you?
Phnam Bagley 1:00:23
I’m pretty active on you can find me on LinkedIn type in Phnam Bagley and it has only one. You can find me on Twitter @PhnamBagley. I don’t have a personal Instagram, but we have a company Instagram. It’s at, I think @nonfiction.design. And earlier during this, this talk, we’re talking about YouTube channel. So if you go on YouTube and type in nonfiction design, you will find all of our videos so we come up with a new video every week where we talk about design, the mystifying it and the future of everything. You can also find me a lot on clubhouse these days. I am talking a lot about space robots and in the future of everything.
Aaron Moncur 1:01:12
Terrific. Okay, well for them. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Phnam Bagley 1:01:17
Well, thank you so much for inviting me and for asking such sensible questions.
Aaron Moncur 1:01:26
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of Pipeline Design and Engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at teampipeline.us. Thanks for listening.
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