Close to Silicon Valley, the team works with a cross-section of disruptive entrepreneurs, breakthrough technologies and high-performance design, and is in the middle of a unique time and place in the evolution of design.

“Silicon Valley is a place full of high expectations, demand and attention to the big idea,” says Brett Lovelady, president of Astro Studios. “We must deliver on great products and execution while managing the socially experimental and media-saturated fashion-forward streets of San Francisco.”

As such, the studio spans lifestyle, design and technology to create a fresh point of view, adapting behaviours and models in order to adjust to the new expectations. It does this by bringing out the best in its talents for its clients.

“There is massive interest from business leaders around creativity, macro-economic pressure to be creative, solve problems and find new value. They want competitive results across automotive, mobile and computing, new technology in lifestyle products and contract manufacturing, and are looking for new partnerships,” says Lovelady.

‘Disruptive entrepreneurs’, as Lovelady puts it, are also on the rise. New breakthrough technologies such as the miniaturisation of computers, micro-sensors, increased optical capabilities and high-speed interfaces are feeding directly into high-performance design.

Perfect examples of this are Astro’s work with Nike, Nixon and their own Astro Gaming. In order to stay ahead of the game in this fast-paced industry, therefore, Lovelady and Astro Studios use some interesting strategies.

“Design studios are facing new and evolving issues in business and engagement models, all while trying to advance and anticipate new markets and new clients’ needs. These involve creating ideas for our future, solving social and personal issues, manufacturing and engineering feasibility, and lots of cross-branding and partnership arrangements,” he says.

Astro likes to run what it calls proactive incubation programs and is building a culture of ‘intuition of instinct’, as it is important to be able to take risks and chances and plan for serendipity, explains Lovelady.

“We must adjust our approach to the new economy – small markets, kickstarters, micro-markets, sub-categories, the infamous ‘long-tail’ – so we work to build in anticipation of new opportunities and project what can happen in markets worldwide,” he explains.

“This gives us a flexible model for doing business, incubation programs, and encouraging designers to follow their instinct and imagination, often on self-generated programs.”

Astro Studios operates on various levels – with clients, in partnerships, self-initiated projects and promotional projects. When working with clients, Lovelady says that they like to focus their imagination for their clients. “The beauty of the way we do this is without process. In a strong culture of inquiry – trend scanning, asking the right questions – we see design as a problem-solving craft, and we have to make sure our team builds risk and invention in our result: constructive/managed chaos,” says Lovelady.

“There are new demands on business leaders. We see the real capital of the future as Creativity and Craft. Craft requires a new level of experience and empathy with business leaders. By asking questions, we can filter great ideas with realistic business plans and match market opportunity.”

Creativity and Craft, he explains, is the process of ‘doing’, coupled with tangible output, that sets up business success. Leaders are paid to find new ideas and are measured on making visions reality.

“Design can be the difference and designers can guide and lead, but genuine empathy requires you to participate – as manufacturers, as business dealers and, of course, as consumers,” says Lovelady.

This attitude is what Astro is built on. Lovelady explains that these days people are able to take a dream to market faster than ever before.

Manufacturers can be found in Ireland, engineers in Russia, materials in China, and products can be launched via a variety of online retailers.

Wares can be distributed locally through pop-up carts, craft gatherings or new boutiques.

“New consumers appreciate and often require a product with a clear story, soulful relevance, sense of permanence and craftsmanship. This is where we like to step in and support this broader valuable deliverable,” says Lovelady.

“Craft is really about making things ‘real’ – about design as a tangible product, that is carefully crafted, built and prototyped, exploring materials, mediums and communications – with a strong focus on details, reality, experience, tools and manufacturing. This can be for both digital/interaction and product design.”

To keep their appetite for design fresh and relevant, Astro encourages self-initiated projects. “It’s also an outlet for people whose wheels for improvement are often fuelled by discontent or pure inspiration. So many big ideas are left on the sketchpad.

We find this painful and a bit masochistic, as most designers sketch, rinse and repeat ideation on a daily basis, often leaving ‘the one’ concept we know is right, and have begun to love, on the client table for ‘next year’ or a future roadmap or in the dust drawer,” he says.

The Minus8 Watch project was a self-initiated project designed and crafted by creative director Dana Krieger. “This was more on his own time and passion than anything plotted and planned – then shared with the world,” says Lovelady.

“All design studios need to feed their hunger for diversity, often starting with a designer who has a craving for a certain industry or a type of problem.”

Astro also sets aside time for its designers each quarter for promotional projects. “We start with a conversation and a vision and get the studio excited about the dialogue and narrative in a new idea or promotional opportunity,” he says.

Astro recently completed an innovative kitchen program called KitchenScape and a new packaging vision called Re-Up.

“We define an end-state – a concept, renderings, and detailed features – rotate the design team and have them work towards the end-state for six to eight weeks at a time. We generally release these to the public or press. And our clients can then see our interest and passion in a new area,” explains Lovelady.

“It’s also good to run free in an area we’ve rarely worked on. Like all firms, sometimes you see a lot of the same thing – in our case, technology and consumer products, which we love, but you get a craving for something new to devour, as the feeding of disciplines is key,” he says.

As consumer expectations rise, they become captivated by a concept or image and will even go so far as to track down the firm, designer or manufacturer in order to be the first in line for what’s next. Astro has seen this recently with KitchenScape, as well as the Minus8 watch.

“Sometimes we work for ourselves to give new ideas a life or to just stay relevant and smart as a rich focal point of new ideas and business. This is how Astro Gaming came about.”

Astro Gaming is a case of taking an idea all the way to the market. After 10 years of Astro Studios being a design consultancy, they felt it was time to take a risk.

“We had spent years working in consumer electronics, lifestyle brands and the video gaming market and recognised a great opportunity to commercialise the Astro name and launch our own product-producing company,” says Lovelady.

“Astro Gaming was created, funded and fuelled to improve the ‘sport’ of professional video gaming. Much like Nike was created to improve running or basketball or Burton for snowboarding, Astro Gaming was created to provide gamers with professional-grade product and a brand identity they could rally around.”

The goal was for no compromises or trade-offs, simply great products for consumers who shared their vision.

“In five short years, we worked through defining, funding, engineering, manufacturing, hiring, growing, and ultimately an acquisition by Skullcandy Inc earlier this year. Our teams had to jump through issue hoops well beyond design consulting, ranging from manufacturing, fulfilment, packaging, customer services, supply chain, etc – just like most of our clients,” says Lovelady.

They sold their products directly to their customers, online only, communicating with them on a daily basis whenever things went wrong or right in order to learn the way. The empathy and insight they gained by playing so many roles was amazing.

They were able to learn what it was like to be a client, responsible and accountable to the consumer, and by playing both roles the team was able to discover a great deal.

It was very enlightening, he explains, to be accountable to both the bottom line as well as on the front lines; to own and measure the work in the way that matters most to the consumers.

“They love what we produce and the brand that we’ve created, and it’s a ride that just began as we help expand the Astro brand into retailers around the world,” says Lovelady.

“The lessons spread from our gaming business to the design studio (currently in the same building) and the experience made us all better designers, better developers and smarter business people. We can walk the talk with our clients now and this is enhancing our partnerships and opportunities across a range of industries.”

Along with all of this, Astro stays open to partnerships and is able to thrive because of its proximity to the entrepreneurial breeding ground of Silicon Valley as well as the venture capital community of the Bay Area, which caters to start-ups, entrepreneurs and brilliant engineers.

“San Francisco has an attitude of big ideas, new business – local and now. Our clients come to the studio with a simple appreciation for design – and sometimes with little money for consulting. When you see so many amazing ideas, and if we believe, we often feel obligated to construct a model that works for these kindred spirits,” explains Lovelady.

“We have a hard time turning them away – it’s too great an opportunity to miss out on and curiosity to satisfy.”

Astro is usually able to define a mutual business arrangement where the teams get involved across all design touch points – brand, packaging, product and execution.

“We can often help them find strong manufacturing partners, expose their teams to design and, where possible, help them connect to complementary companies. It’s fluid, fast and exciting,” says Lovelady. 

“Yes, we take some risks – but those experienced bets are important for the whole studio psyche and culture. It gives us an opportunity to be the ‘first’ to a product, to a brand, to a new vision. That’s rare, so we try to make it easy to do by keeping our business model flexible and creative.”   

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