Q&A: Matt Hall of the Crowd-Funded Design Firm Obstructures

Obstructures is a (more or less) Knoxville-based design/gadget firm that has run several successful Kickstarter campaigns: the Bandboard, Pry, and an Aluminum Plate Wallet System. All feature sleek, industrial design that has won over supporters. Obstructures was formed by three friends: Knoxvillian Brian Johnson, who runs day to day operations (and has a background in landscape architecture); Matt Hall, who teaches at the Auburn College of Architecture, Design, and Construction; and Nate Matteson, who teaches web design and typography at DePaul University in Chicago. How has crowd-funding made this virtual firm a success? Hall shares some of their experiences.

What led to the creation of Obstructures?

We are a group of old friends that have worked together informally over the years. Obstructures was created as a collaboration vehicle for our design work that was originally based in architecture, graphic design, and aluminum electric guitars and drum kits. As we have expanded into product design, we decided to form a company where the profits for our design endeavors often support conceptual and speculative projects.

Obstructures acts as a front for our design work, be it landscape, architecture, graphic design, programming, etc. Perhaps more importantly right now, Obstructures acts as a forum where we all collaborate on product design, which lies just at the edge of our individual training and backgrounds.

How do you develop the ideas for your products?

It generally starts with something we need/want; or a critique of an existing product, context, or spatial condition that could be made better; or sometimes purely client-driven constraints. No matter what initially drives a project, we always begin with a critical discussion of which criteria are important to the success of the design. We believe that design is problem-creating (as opposed to problem-solving). That all objects of design are eventual obstructions. Despite even the best of intentions, design ends up in our way.

This leads to a very critical process that allows us to make an attempt to do the least amount of harm with our work, and feel comfortable that we are contributing something useful to the designed environment.

Yes, a design must be profitable, but we try to balance that with our ethical concerns, critiques and issues with our material culture.

Why did you decide to utilize crowd-funding to start your product design business, as opposed to more traditional means?

For us, it was mainly to see whether people would be interested in the designs, and to get our ideas in front of a much wider audience than our friends and existing, small customer base. It's a way to gauge the worth of producing large runs of our products.

The benefit of crowdfunding is that it allows a designer to throw an idea into the world without the tremendous risk and cost of manufacturing and marketing.

The danger is that you have many inexperienced designers, and sometimes "inventors", that present ideas that work well in prototype, but not production. There is a difference between design and innovation (the initial idea), and the development and refinement of it. Crowdfunding blurs the distinction between the two and one often sees great ideas that are designed poorly. This is probably due to a lack of value for design, and today's tools allow for almost anyone to realize an idea. For better or for worse. One can simply send a digital model to a fabricator in China and get a fully-realized product back. Virtually no understanding of the process of manufacturing is required, often resulting in poorly made and thought out designs.

Potential problems aside, crowdfunding also allows for the production of some very unique ideas that certainly would never materialize if they were left to 'old school' funding models.

You've had several projects listed on Kickstarter—all of them quite successful at raising funds. Were you surprised at this response?

Yes—crazy surprised. We had had moderate success selling our products, but the exposure one gains from Kickstarter is incredible. There's a huge potential for exposure elsewhere on the internet, on the many design blogs that pick up projects for review during the campaign. Though you're at the mercy of the bloggers. While our sales have been good, and we have countless repeat customers, we have invested little or nothing in advertising and marketing. That just shows the power of it.

How much do you know about your supporters? What sort of interactions have you had with them?

We pride ourselves on being in constant dialog with our supporters and customers. Our Facebook page has been a great venue for this, and we have made countless friends over the past year. While we have done no demographic research on who buys our designs, we repeatedly hear from them that they are interested in no-frills, performance-driven design.

Where are you at in the production process with each product? Have you delivered any products yet?

We have completed three successful Kickstarter campaigns in 2013 : aluminum wallets, steel pocket tools, and aluminum clipbpoards. We've shipped two, and are in the process of shipping the most recent one. For both the wallets and tools we have had sustained sales after the end of the campaigns.

What are your next steps for the company?

We have been concentrating on small designs that use processes and materials that are familiar to us, creating a family of related projects both in terms of performance and aesthetics. We plan to continue that approach and hope to have a full catalog of useful items. We also intend to branch out into larger and more complicated projects to include larger runs of our machined aluminum guitars.

Other than that, we want to continue to collaborate and sharpen our criticism of both ourselves and the designed world. We should also learn a bit more about being businessmen! The domestic tax and legal structure is not kind to small businesses. We have always heard that, but now after starting and running one for a year it is easy to see why many of them fail. We hope we don't become one of them!