Anyone interested in seeing what I discovered when I cleaned out my garage and discovered photographs of everything I’ve ever created?” Tony Fadell sent out a tweet in mid-April. The question was posed in a rhetorical manner. Anyone with even a passing interest in consumer electronics from the previous two decades would leap at the chance to discover what the guy behind the iPod, iPhone, and Nest Thermostat has hidden in those massive Home Depot crates. With the publishing of “Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things worth Making” this week, the real garage cleaning was preceded by the metaphorical variety. Fadell’s journey to some of the most famous hardware designs in consumer electronics is chronicled in this book. It is primarily concerned with the “why” of product design. It’s a term he says at least 50 times during our 30-minute talk.
Following the tweet, we contacted Fadell’s staff to see if we could participate in the garage sale. They gladly obliged, sending over a dozen photos that give a general overview of the product designer’s career, from his early days until his tenure at Nest. The narrative begins in the early 1990s, when he was fresh out of the University of Michigan and joined General Magic. The Apple spinoff’s ups and downs were chronicled in a 2018 documentary of the same name, which had Fadell as one of the speakers. “The reason you should care about the narrative of General Magic is because it includes something essential, and that is: Failure isn’t the end, failure is the beginning,” the company’s spokesman says at the end of the trailer and at the opening of the video.
The Walkabout, one of General Magic’s stunning and inspirational failures, is seen above as a prototype. Fadell adds, “All we had was enormous boards and a giant LCD.” “When I was there, that was something I got to work on.” When you consider the technology of the time, we were essentially solving issues for ourselves. We weren’t helping people with their difficulties. In 1991 and 1992, only a small percentage of the population had access to email. Nobody was installing apps because it was too slow to think about. Even wireless and mobile communications. There was a system of ticketing. You might make travel arrangements. There was no such thing as a web back then. Wi-Fi, cell phones, and data networks were all unavailable.”
As they say, timing is everything. The Walkabout launched fifteen years before the iPhone, so it’s safe to say it was a little late to the party. The business, which operated primarily in the shadows, aimed to fix internet problems a decade before they were widely recognized. “I believe a lot of people concocted this stuff,” Fadell says. “We were one of the first to really put this stuff together way before the technology — or, more crucially, society — was ready for it.” They had no idea they’d have these issues because they didn’t have them till they appeared 15 years later. This is what happens when you create in that type of environment. It was incredible. “This is great, but why do I need it?” says everyone.
This leads us to the question of “why.” Or, as Fadell enthusiastically puts it, the “why, why, why.” It’s the three-word question that every product designer must answer before moving on to the “how, how, how” — no matter how tempting it is to start there. When you’re surrounded by a group of clever people who want to build interesting things, it’s one of those notions that seems clear in hindsight but is tough to grasp in the heat of the moment. During a round of the word game Scramble, Fadell says the seemingly simple concept came into striking focus.
“Everyone was utilizing it for that,” he claims. “Day in and day out, there was practically nothing else people were using it for.” Then you scratch your brain and wonder, ‘How much does this cost?’ Who’s going to be the first to buy it? ‘What is it used for?’ That’s when you realize you’ve spent three or four years of your life on it, and what could you possibly do with it? This is a general capacity that we have. “What might it be used for?” says the narrator.