wyborcza.pl: From bottle of shampoo to aircrafts
Author: Piotr Fijałkowski, wyborcza.pl
I hear in my telephone receiver: “Hi. I need to have a helicopter designed.” Me: “OK… A pink one or a black one?” I thought one of my friends was messing with me. We’re not used to such projects in Poland.
I meet Michał Bonikowski in a restaurant in the Poznań Concordia Design Centre. One floor above us there’s the Mindsailors design studio, which he runs with Rafał Piłat, his associate.
Piotr Fijałkowski: “I hear you’ve got an Oscar.”
Michał Bonikowski: “You may say so. We’ve got the IF Gold Product Design Award for DICE+ cube. It’s the most important prize in this industry, referred to as an Oscar for design. The gala itself is also similar to the Oscar gala. There’s a red carpet, prominent people, press, TV, banquet. I had managed to get the IF Product Design Award three times before, but never the golden one. It had always been my dream. Besides, it was the first time that a Pole had received this award. It’s an amazing feeling, standing on the stage next to Apple, Lenovo or Sony people.”
What is difficult about designing a cube?
“In spite of appearances, everything! It’s an amazing device stuffed with electronics. An advanced controller which gives hundreds of possibilities, and its usage is only limited by the imagination of computer game creators. The Team of Game Technologies created a brilliant project of electronics in terms of both hardware and software, and my task was to make a casing which would communicate with the electronics. In DICE+ there are probably more innovations than you have in your mobile which you’re using to record our conversation. The project required manufacturing with accuracy of 0.05 mm, and this is rare with this type of devices. For the purpose of DICE+, a totally new conductive material was created. The whole thing is assembled in the factory without a drop of glue. Another challenge was hiding a USB port, which is indispensable to charge the battery, and we managed to place it under one of the walls. The mechanism permitting to open it fitted into a 1.5-milimetre space. It was also quite a challenge to balance it because of the battery, which is only on one of the walls. So you can see that it’s not just a dice.”
Before that, had you made a product which would go to millions of users?
“I have completed nearly 150 projects which are sold all over the world. Very often it’s the case that, when I enter a shop, I come across one of them.”
“At present, we are designing six devices for a company in the United Arab Emirates. It’s the first order where a client told us there were no material and price limitations. In short, when a project includes metal elements, then it’s metal. We don’t have to wonder whether to insert plastic there and how to paint it to make a good impression. But such projects do not occur too often.”
I saw your projects of Nokia phones in the Internet.
“It was a joke. When the gossips appeared that Microsoft was starting cooperation with Nokia, it took me just a few moments to make some concept projects enabling to picture potential effects of these dialogues and I released them on Yankodesign.com. They quickly spread from there to all technological portals in the world, made a full circle and came to Poland. It was really funny because the first customer who came to us after this act congratulated us on the cooperation with Nokia. In fact, I had never worked for Nokia, but thanks to these concept projects two new companies contacted us and wanted us to prepare something for them. It turned out to be a great way of promoting the office and I repeated it many times with other products.”
But you also design bigger devices.
(showing a model on the screen) “It’s a full-size machine. It looks like a helicopter, but it’s called a gyroplane or rotaplane. A helicopter changes the angle of the upper rotor to fly forward. On the sides of the machine you have additional propellers which push it. Due to such a construction it needs about 30 metres of inrun for taking off and the same for landing. What’s interesting, it is the simplest flying machine to navigate. It is said that piloting it is as easy as riding a bike. And it’s enough to have the simplest license for ultralight constructions to be allowed to pilot it. It’s quite a cool machine, inside more like a 4-person limousine rather than a flying thing. The project is currently in the middle of implementation and in 2015 it is going to appear on the market. There’s also another model. A simpler, 2-person one, easy and cheap to produce. There’s a chance it will be released at the end of this year. I’m so excited and can’t wait to boast about it. In Poland, such things happen very rarely. For the first five conversations I was wondering which of my friends was messing with me, as I heard in the receiver: ‘Hi. I need to have a helicopter designed.’ Me: ‘OK… A pink one or a black one?’ We’re not used to such projects in Poland.”
More and more often we’re contacted by companies from such market segments you would not expect. Recently we happened to make ventilation pipes, which you mount on roofs. Theoretically no one notices them, but it turns out that the competition on the market is so huge that even these must stand out and have prettier forms. The projects implemented so far with home methods by handymen ceased to work. The Polish producers recognize their limits more and more often, no offence to handymen of course, and contact the offices like ours.
Due to this diversity in projects, we often manage to smuggle solutions from other branches, thanks to which we can obtain interesting effects. It’s hard to imagine that this job might become boring some day. Each project is a new challenge, both of a bottle teat and of a gyroplane, through all the projects which are between them.”
What do you have to know to design on such a large scale? One could think that you have to know a lot about e.g. aerodynamics to design a gyroplane. On the other hand, a bottle teat or a ventilation pipe is a completely different story.
” I also thought it would be complicated. Meanwhile, designing this gyroplane was easier than making the DICE cube. I swear. And it took four times less time. When I started working on the project, I received a basic skeleton with marked construction points I had to embed in the block. The skeleton determined the dimensions, geometry, places of fitting a rotor and motors as well as suggested places of fitting retractable landing gear. So, actually, I just had to design the shell. The determinant was creating a construction based on airfoils, so that the whole thing would be aerodynamic, not forgetting the space for four adults and their luggage. That’s what the drawing started with.
Having prepared an initial block with a computer programme, I created a virtual aerodynamic tunnel where I checked the model’s behaviour. I introduced some corrections and then the model flew to a real aerodynamics specialist who knows all the tricks of the trade. After the tests executed there, it turned out that the project required just a slight modification of the wing’s profile. It’s even cooler that with the engines to be used it’s going to be the fastest flying machine of this type and the assumption is it’s going to exceed 300 km per hour. But before I started working on the project, I had read many articles and books about aerodynamics, because you cannot design such a thing just like that. Each project requires preparations and understanding what we are working on, and this is one of the best aspects of this job. There’s no room for being the world champion and it’s necessary to discuss things with people better than you, to learn from them, especially when it comes to the projects connected with someone’s safety. ”
You design objects for big companies. You were standing on the stage in Munich next to the Apple and Lenovo giants as equals. Don’t you have a feeling that if such awards were given in Poland, then a small company would never be appreciated so much? That there’s a different way of thinking here?
“I have a feeling that we, Poles, have a genetic defect. It makes us feel always dissatisfied, makes us get those who are better off than we are, and discredit all achievements which are not ours. I’ll give you an example. OldBooth, a great mobile application where you can embed your photo into an old one, e.g. from 1940s. Beautifully designed by Paweł Jońca, who, in my opinion, is the best Polish illustrator. The application has really been perfected in every detail. Yesterday, Paweł posted reviews from all over the world: that it’s super cool, beautifully crafted, works perfectly. And suddenly, among all these awes, one Polish comment: “a shitty icon”. The situation was similar with my concept projects. When I released some of them on the net, instantly some people from international magazines and portals contacted me, e.g. from “Wire”, a cult geek magazine. One of my projects once hung on the first page of CNN portal for one day. The opinions: awesome, cool, genial. However, when it appeared in Poland, there were so many hate-filled comments that you just don’t want to look at them. It strikes me and pisses me off. We cannot appreciate cool things from Poland and enjoy success other than in sports. It was similar with this award: we got the most important recognition in the world, as the first product from Poland, and the Polish media completely ignored this news. But there was a lot of information about the fact that Asus or another big company, had received an honourable mention. That sucks.”
„Forbes” wrote about you.
“Fortunately, they were present at the ceremony, so right after it there was the interview. It’s very nice that they got interested as the only ones. After all, it was another gold medal for Poland following our Olympic achievements.”
Why didn’t anyone before you come up with the idea how to make such a fast gyroplane? Or how to design an electronic cube?
“The solution in most problems is simplicity, and unfortunately the simplest solutions are the most difficult to come up with. At the moment, DICE+ seems to be an obvious product, but it was Patryk Strzelewicz who had to appear and reveal this obviousness. More or less half of the works we do in our office comes from the world, and more and more often the coolest ones actually come from Poland. Recently, a company from Wrocław, Cloud Your Car, has been on fire. They invented a device managing car fleets. Companies want to monitor what is happening with their cars. In Wrocław, they invented a transmitter which is inserted to the cigarette lighter socket. It connects with an application which the owner has on his tablet or mobile. You can check where your car is. It seems trite. You have a feeling that there has already been something like that on the market for at least five years. It turned out that it was not true. And the market is so big that they’re entering the USA with this. The device is manufactured in Wrocław. We’ve designed casings for them. We ran it from the project to the casing delivery. Now we’re preparing a project with Mateusz Kusznierewicz, which will hopefully be a big hit soon. I cannot say any more about that yet.”
How many companies like yours are there in Poland?
“With such a wide range of services, running projects from the first draft to the first produced item, through production documentation, mechanics – I think three. In Poland, thousands of students are being educated though they do not have practical training. They can design beautiful shapes, but mostly they have no idea about manufacturing technology. That’s why these are mostly projects which cannot be mass produced. Very often we are contacted by companies soon after it turns out that their newly-designed product cannot be copied because of technological or mechanical limitations.
80 per cent of clients do not want to trigger revolutions on the market, they just want to launch a new product quickly and efficiently. The environment of the designers is quite puffy and there’s this conviction that the more extravagant designs are, the better. Working in this branch as a professional, not a hobbyist, you have to remember to design objects for clients, not other designers. They won’t pay bills for us. And the trick is not to be able to design a designer product, a product which will be appreciated only by a bunch of people with a sophisticated taste, but a mass product which will be appreciated by millions. That’s what our clients expect. ”
Do you hire students?
“I have a defect, too. I feel that if something is to be done well, I must do it myself. And there are deadlines all the time, we are always in a hurry. And I divide my time between two companies, so taking someone who you have to watch, explain everything to, do your part of the job and correct this person – this is too much for me for now. I’d like to have such a 5-6-person student team, but first I must work on my attitude and realise that I can give a part of my work to someone else.”
Recently 3d printers have become popular. Do they facilitate your work?
“I remember the times when there were no such printers. Creating prototypes was time-consuming and expensive. And now I make a project, send it to a printing house and I have a finished model in my hands the same day. Such a model allows us to test ergonomics and mechanics and verify all the assumptions. We don’t have to wait until trial production any more, which was always stressful and made us impatient. It’s a perfect tool facilitating our work. I think that soon 3D print will crowd out other manufacturing technologies because it gives us unfinished creation possibilities. There is already an opportunity to print in plastic, metal or rubber. Soon a designer’s job may include only posting a 3D model of a product in the Internet and a client will be able to print it by himself.”
How much of a vision is there in designing, and how much of a craft?
“If a scale was created, then about 10 per cent would be a concept, so the time in which we determine what a given object should look like, how it should work, etc. It takes a few or a dozen or so minutes to invent a project for someone who has been dealing with it for years and has a good imagination. It is often that when a client describes the assumptions of a new product, I have a complete project in mind. The remaining 90 per cent is everything the final product recipient will never see – working on production methods and its optimisation, assembly methods, mechanics project. This is rather similar to architecture, where everything is measured, examined, and calculated.”
Do you know that you have just ruined my vision of designing? I imagined myself that it is hours of inventing a concept, changing a line into amazing pictures, hundreds of drawings where every subsequent one is a new version of the previous one.
“I’m sorry, but most people forget that projects must be later implemented in production. We can produce projects with Rafał all day and not feel tired at all. It is the most pleasant and creative stage in the project. Referring to the previous question about not hiring students, my answer is: also because we don’t want to share the coolest part of our work. But we’re eager to share the other 90 per cent. Unfortunately, here we have another problem with technical preparation and implementation among students. They are just off the boat. Although there are a lot of engineers with such expertise on the market, they do not have this artistic element, thanks to which they can understand a designer’s vision. And this introduces too many misunderstandings and tensions. Design students are not even prepared for designing and working in CAD technology on which whole industrial production in the world is based. They learn various modelling programmes which are completely useless in this work.”
You’re not the first person to say that the competence of young people varies from what the market needs. I hear the same in the IT industry. There are a lot of people on the market who completed IT courses but only few have the necessary knowledge.
“Some of my friends run the Poznań branch of a big IT company from Silicon Valley. They need someone with Python [programming language – editor’s note]. They’ve been looking for such a person for 6 months. There are millions in the world, while in Poland there are only 3 such people. All of them are already hired. Theoretically, you should learn this during studies. In practice, however, you have to learn it on your own.”
But universities explain that they do not teach the trade but thinking.
“Since the first grade of primary school we have learnt everything by heart, and this system prevails in Poland. It was my grandpa who taught me how to think. When I was little, he would put me on his lap, grab a pencil and draw a story which he would tell me at the same time. When I grew up a bit, he would tell a story and I would draw it. And when I was big enough to hold different types of tools, we would go to the garage and construct strange devices and objects. This was learning how to think, and – which was even more important – learning how to imagine things, thanks to which a man has 10 times more opportunities when choosing the life path.”
What did your grandpa do?
“He was a carpenter. A very skilled manual worker. And a very smart man, when I look back now.”
Have you completed studies associated with design?
“Instead of going to university, my wife and I left for England. After coming back, I started to enter competitions for designers. This way I got my first orders.”
Do you remember your first commercial project?
What was it?
“A shampoo bottle. It wasn’t too spectacular. It was 14 years ago.”
You’ve just made me aware of something. People pass the shelves full of shampoos where there are no two identical bottles from different producers.
“The whole world is designed. Someone’s invented the chair you’re sitting on, someone’s created these lamps hanging over the table, which has also been designed by someone. Once it used to be craftsmen, now these are designers. I prefer being a craftsman because it makes me think of a well-done job.”
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