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Interview with Qor360

Home > Designer Interviews > Qor360

Editor Frank Scott (FS) from DesignPRWire has interviewed designer Qor360 (Q) for A’ Design Award and Competition. You can access the full profile of Qor360 by clicking here.

Interview with Qor360 at Wednesday 6th of May 2020

FS: Could you please tell us more about your art and design background? What made you become an artist/designer? Have you always wanted to be a designer?
Q: I really have no background in art or design. I’m a former academic trauma surgeon on a mission to solve a problem: Because passive sitting is responsible for a good deal of disability, disease, and even death, we set out to create a chair that would encourage active sitting. It turned out that solving this problem required a good bit of design, but I dove in anyway. Fortunately, I found a community of designers that kept me from drowning.

FS: Can you tell us more about your company / design studio?
Q: QOR360 was founded in 2016 by Dr. Turner Osler. We started out sharing space in the Generator, a maker space here in Burlington, Vermont where we found a congenial group of fellow designers and makers. We soon outgrew our Generator space, however, and moved into an old cavernous, windowless warehouse on Pine Street with a small group of fellow entrepreneurial designers. We used this space to design, prototype, manufacture and ship our chairs for a couple of years, but ultimately our boxing and shipping operation grew too large, and is now done in Morristown, Vermont, where the rent is a lot cheaper. R&D continues in our hometown of Burlington, however.

FS: What is "design" for you?
Q: Design is just problem solving, but with the additional constraint that one avoids the ugly. It’s always a balance, of course, to make something that works but also speaks to people, all the while controlling the cost so people can actually afford the solution you’re proposing. Design is also about picking important problems to solve, however. If you pick an important problem, well good design becomes an exercise in helping people. Sometimes it’s about fixing problems that people don’t even know they have.

FS: What kinds of works do you like designing most?
Q: We’re constantly iterating on our designs, trying to improve and capture different needs in the market. We are confident that we’ve found a sweet spot for office workers with our Ariel chair. We are putting that same labor of love into our kids' ButtOn chairs hoping to get the whole family sitting actively. We're especially enthusiastic about getting kids on board: if we can get kids to think of active sitting as "normal,” well, we will have won our battle with "Big Chair". Sometimes you just have to wait patiently for bad ideas to die, of course, but it helps to have coopted the upcoming generation. As Max Planck (Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist) observed: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Just so with chair design, I feel.

FS: What is your most favorite design, could you please tell more about it?
Q: I’m particularly proud of our eccentric bicylinder AKA "Red Rocker". It’s unlike any other active sitting or ergonomic experience, and because it’s all done with a single novel geometric shape, it’s exquisitely affordable, meeting our self-imposed mandate that our chairs be so inexpensive that everyone can have on.

FS: What was the first thing you designed for a company?
Q: The first thing I received a patent for was a slide rule. I was 12 years old, and sort of a math geek. I’ve helped birth other devices throughout my medical career (e.g. a powered clysis device to help harvest skin in the operating room), but the first thing I designed for a company was a new geometric shape which eventually became the basis for our Ariel chair. The problem at hand was to create a shape that tipped in all directions smoothly but could still be tethered to one place. When I hit on this shape (“eccentric bicylinder”), I instantly knew that it was the solution to the problem, because it was beautiful to look at. Every mathematician applies this standard to proofs, and I think it holds true for designs as well.

FS: What is your favorite material / platform / technology?
Q: I’m agnostic as to materials to use in prototyping. Really, the problem at hand dictates the best material: a bent tubing design? Use pipe cleaners. A stamped metal design? Cardboard it very quick to fashion and allows one to try out ideas rapidly. A 3-D solid? Styrofoam is fast to carve and if necessary can be hardened with fiberglass resin. Something out of wood? Well, wood is a pretty good way to simulate wood. The point is to rapidly get to an object that you can physically interact with while you are creating it. By physically interacting with a design one can focus all the proprioceptive intuition developed over a lifetime on the problem to hand. Your eyes are only one of your senses, and often not the best sense to deal with a problem. Yes, eventually it all comes down to CAD diagrams and 3D prints, but in the moment, one is best advised to touch, and viscerally feel, the design as it evolves.

FS: When do you feel the most creative?
Q: Any new problem worth solving grips me in the same way, whether it’s a statistical modeling problem or a design problem. First I load the problem into my thoughts, and then I forget it, secure in the knowledge that my brain will continue to play with the problem unbidden. Later the problem reemerges for me, perhaps in the shower, or while falling asleep, or while walking in the orchard near our house. Eventually a way to begin suggests itself, and then it’s only a matter of prototyping it to death. Sometimes a problem will lie fallow for weeks or months, only to be revived by a conversation or suggestion from one of my many collaborators.

FS: Which aspects of a design do you focus more during designing?
Q: The primary focus is to solve the problem; elegance is a plus, because it suggests that the solution is a good one. More than that, a solution won’t succeed unless it’s beautiful. An ugly solution that no one enjoys looking at is unlikely to be adopted. So, while “form follows function” the form must succeed as well, or the function will never get a trial.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when you design?
Q: The psychologists talk about a state of flow when one is engaged in a project and loses track of time. I can get quite a lot of work done without perceived effort when making progress on a design. It’s a kind of “work” one doesn’t mind doing, because it doesn’t feel remotely like work. Sort of the opposite of work, actually.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when your designs are realized?
Q: Mostly, relief. The whole process takes a lot out of me. And, as an entrepreneur, well, the design is just the beginning. There follows a whole raft of problems to be solved, including making it, making it affordably, and finally finding people who will love it.

FS: What makes a design successful?
Q: To be successful, a design must solve a problem. But to be really successful a design has to solve a problem worth solving. I’m in the world of chair design, and there are thousands of chairs that have a lot of eye pop, and in their time perhaps were “successful”. But now they’re just pictures on the page of books about the history of chair design. I’m hoping to play a bigger game: I want to change what people think of as a “chair”. More than that, I want to replace the chairs that have caused so much mischief in terms of back pain and sitting disease with chairs that are actually good for people. But, because this requires people to love our chairs, well, our chairs will have to have eye pop as well as a physiological reason to exist. So, how to measure success? Well it seems to me that the first inkling of success is simply words of encouragement from people who’ve lived with and love our chairs. Whether their back is no longer in pain after decades of misery, or they lost weight following their shift from passive to active sitting, or they just think it’s a fun new way to sit; hearing the feedback feels like success.

FS: When judging a design as good or bad, which aspects do you consider first?
Q: I want to be sure it achieves what the designer set out to do. I also appreciate when it’s something unique enough to make you stop and think “How did they ever come up with that?”

FS: From your point of view, what are the responsibilities of a designer for society and environment?
Q: The best designers I know set out every day to make the world a better place; either more comfortable or more efficient or more beautiful. It’s important to add value to the conversation with what you’re creating. And, if you’re creating something that affects people’s health, the bar is set even higher. The medical world has long followed the injunction “primum non nocere” (“first do no harm”) and I think this standard applies to design as well. We are, after all, tampering with people’s lives.

FS: How do you think the "design field" is evolving? What is the future of design?
Q: I think with advances in technology, design iteration will continue happen faster: CAD and 3D printing have accelerated prototyping, and the internet has also reduced the friction of bringing new ideas before new audiences. All this will accelerate design cycles. Will this improve designs? That’s less clear. I think it’s the discrimination of audiences that either accept or reject designs that determine how well the process works. Evolution applies to designs as well as species, and weeding out bad designs is a big part of how excellence is achieved.

FS: When was your last exhibition and where was it? And when do you want to hold your next exhibition?
Q: We attended ICFF and it was about as intense a design experience as one could hope for. We've also attended academic ergonomic conferences (e.g. Ergo Expo in Las Vegas) more science but less innovation, as well as more trade focused meetings (NEOCON in Chicago). Unfortunately, this kind of fun will be off the table until COVID-19 is back in the box.

FS: Where does the design inspiration for your works come from? How do you feed your creativity? What are your sources of inspirations?
Q: I’ve done academic medical research throughout my entire career, so anatomy and physiology and statistical analysis were the comfortable part for me. And reading every chair design book ever written was a kick; so many crazy ideas, so much energy and so much elegance. But when I embarked on the mission to bring active sitting to everyone it meant trying to understand how people sit, a problem that was surprisingly hard to make objective. It turned out that simply buying and trying dozens of other active and ergonomic chairs was an important step, because only by experiencing what’s gone before can one hope to avoid the errors of the past and possibly add to the conversation. And of course, going to academic ergonomic conferences to listen to research papers and talk to people who've lived and breathed sitting for their entire careers was an inspiration, but also a cautionary tale: sometimes being too familiar with a problem can dull one’s ability to see new solutions.

FS: How would you describe your design style? What made you explore more this style and what are the main characteristics of your style? What's your approach to design?
Q: In a word, minimalist. We wanted a chair that had everything that was necessary but nothing that was not. This was our controlling philosophy for at least two reasons. First, by controlling the amount of stuff we could control manufacturing costs. As an epidemiologist, I know that a solution that isn’t affordable isn’t a solution at all, so creating a different way of sitting that folks could afford to buy was essential. Also, by reducing the amount of stuff we thought we could create a chair would stand out in a world in which office chair designers had made simply having more adjustments available, no matter how unnecessary or ugly (or unused) they were, a selling point. “Pointless” is to me the worst possible criticism of a design feature.

FS: Where do you live? Do you feel the cultural heritage of your country affects your designs? What are the pros and cons during designing as a result of living in your country?
Q: QOR360 is based in Burlington, VT. Burlington is famous for accepting folks a little out of the mainstream (think Bernie Sanders), and this is true of the community of inventors and designers as well. Despite my lack of design experience and credentials (I’d spent my career as a surgeon in academic trauma centers) I was lucky enough to become a member of a network of talented people who were excited by our project and happy to contribute their ideas, time, and expertise. We are also fortunate to find a number of people with manufacturing expertise (3D printing, injection molding, CNC routing,…) who could make our designs into a reality that could be put into a box and mailed around the world. And once we were in conversation with chair designers and companies around the world, well, we were really on our way, because there is such depth of experience in this community.

FS: How do you work with companies?
Q: We try to partner with companies who are also committed to "doing well by doing good,” and take pride in their craft. Some companies are natural partners for helping with R&D, while other companies are narrowly focused on getting a particular part perfect. It’s a delicate process to give all collaborators room to contribute while staying true to the original vision.

FS: What are your suggestions to companies for working with a designer? How can companies select a good designer?
Q: Make sure it’s someone you know you can communicate with and understands your vision. Equally important, a good partner must be willing to push back when your vision starts to lose focus or is simply getting too crazy.

FS: Can you talk a little about your design process?
Q: Ours is a collaborative process. Often, I’m the instigator, but our group of MDs, designers and body work experts from the worlds of Feldenkrais, yoga, Tai Chi, AT, and Rolfing are crucial to the process of winnowing out bad ideas and enhancing good ones.

FS: What are 5 of your favorite design items at home?
Q: I have a Japanese tatami bed that I love. I the firmness of tatami mats and I also love smelling the rice straw that they are made from. It feels like sleeping in an open field, but without the bugs. I have some household implements that give me pleasure each day: we have a bread knife that was expensive but is beautifully made and really gets the job done. But I also have a grapefruit knife that was really cheap, but, once I bent it straight in a vise, well, it too is perfect, but a different sort of perfect. And our house if filled with Japanese pottery made by my old college roommate, in the style of his mentor, Toshiko Takaezu. We have a woodstove made by Avalon about 30 years ago that has a very simple ducting system that allows it to reburn the smoke it produces so that almost nothing comes out of our chimney during our long Vermont winters; it’s also beautiful, because the front door is almost entirely glass, framed in brass.

FS: Can you describe a day in your life?
Q: Well, I’m 70 years old and we’re in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, so my days seem pretty easy to describe: I get up at 5:30, have some rosehips tea and see my wife off to her rheumatology clinic at the University, and then I get to work. Work is sometimes design, but just as often it’s a problem in epidemiology (I’m an emeritus professor at the University), or some business-related issue (well sell our chairs, after all). I also write a blog about the science of sitting and try to keep up with the fast-evolving issues of COVID-19, because I host online sessions about the details (virology, epidemiology, microbiology, etc.) for people who are interested or concerned or both. I take frequent breaks, simply because I can, for walks along the lake, a little Tai Chi, and Feldenkrais sessions that have gone online pretty successfully. And sometimes a little juggling or a bit of practice with my bokan (wooden Japanese sword) is just the distraction required. Then it’s dinner with my wife and son, some more reading and emailing and then it’s off to bed. From the outside it all seems pretty regimented. But I confess my mental life is actually pretty unruly: I fret over politics, and ways to mathematically prove Fox News’ disinformation campaign is responsible for untold COVID-19 deaths, and whether the emerald ash borer will reach Vermont this year. Stuff like that.

FS: Could you please share some pearls of wisdom for young designers? What are your suggestions to young, up and coming designers?
Q: Ruthlessly try new things. Perhaps you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea. Make a note, and in the morning, if it isn’t ridiculous (or maybe even if it is), think on it a bit more. Maybe it leads somewhere, probably it doesn’t, but that hardly matters; as the engineers say “You learn more from a bridge that falls down than you do from one that stays up”. One route to success is to just have a lot of ideas. Even a frank failure may have one feature that can be iterated into an idea that does work. Also, it's extremely unlikely that your first idea will be your best idea, unless it’s your only idea. And, if you only have one idea, well, it better be a great one. Finally, don't get too attached to an idea too quickly; save yourself some wiggle room, because most ideas need to evolve.

FS: From your perspective, what would you say are some positives and negatives of being a designer?
Q: Positives: You get to work collaboratively, and you can’t get away with anything that isn’t true. Bad ideas have a way of failing, and no amount of spin can save them. Negatives: Sometimes it’s hard to convince my wife that I’ve done anything at all all day long. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if I’ve accomplished much. It really is an act of faith to follow your instincts.

FS: What is your "golden rule" in design?
Q: Just because it’s been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done better. And some risk is almost always required, "if it's obvious, well, it's too late".

FS: What skills are most important for a designer?
Q: The hard part for me is to hold true to a vision while being open to collaboration. It’s this delicate balance on which everything hangs. It’s especially difficult when one comes to the world of design late in life with no formal training. Being taken seriously, even by myself, took some effort. It helped that I’d had some experience with making decisions, sometimes life and death decisions, over a long career in the operating room. I’d become comfortable with making decisions and living with the results.

FS: Which tools do you use during design? What is inside your toolbox? Such as software, application, hardware, books, sources of inspiration etc.?
Q: Ruthlessly prototyping with whatever comes to hand has been a great help to me. And being able to collaborate with a group has been an essential asset for me as well. Someone has to make decisions, but the process has to be welcoming enough to encourage good ideas and then flexible enough to let the best bubble to the top. It’s occasionally helpful that I can write computer code and understand statistical modeling, but mostly it about collaborating with people and whatever medium I’m prototyping in.

FS: Designing can sometimes be a really time consuming task, how do you manage your time?
Q: It’s helpful to have more than one project going on at once. That way if some roadblock appears, well, it’s quick to switch to another project while working through the roadblock. Also, if one has more than one project in play, one doesn’t become too wedded to an idea that may actually be headed for failure. And it’s important not to think of what you’re doing as work; that way you don’t feel aggrieved if you stay up all night working on a prototype that doesn’t succeed. It was all just good fun.

FS: How long does it take to design an object from beginning to end?
Q: The Ariel has been through countless iterations. From the inception to the current version, has been almost four years, and we are always tweaking the design - maybe it’s a new color of performance leather on the seat or a softer cushion. Or, maybe we can switch an entire component from, say, plywood to, say, stamped steel. If we can make our chair stronger and less expensive to manufacture, we can provide a better chair at a more affordable price to the world. We’re always looking to improve on what we accomplished, so, in this sense, there isn’t an “end” to a design.

FS: What is the most frequently asked question to you, as a designer?
Q: “What do you think of this?” I love being just one more voice in the room, but a voice that’s trusted to be interested and possibly helpful.

FS: What was your most important job experience?
Q: I turned to design later in my career, and the defining experience was the shift from my active role as a trauma surgeon to a desk bound, researcher role. I experienced firsthand the misery that people experience when they sit all day at desks, and I thought: Now here’s a problem worth solving. But to solve the problem of terrible chairs I had to jump from my comfortable role as an emeritus professor into a room full of 20-somethings all working at breakneck speed and listening to rap music. I felt privileged to be in a room that was filled with talent and willing to bring me along.

FS: Who are some of your clients?
Q: Our client list includes large businesses such as Burton Snow Boards, Seventh Generation, Morgan Stanley, Vermont Public Radio, the University of Vermont, and Dealer.com, but also thousands of ordinary folks working from home.

FS: What type of design work do you enjoy the most and why?
Q: I'm most interested in first steps, when we're figuring out what exactly we are trying to accomplish. If we can just figure out why we are doing something, well, most of the pieces will then fall into place. But really, simply not knowing where we are going, or if we'll actually get there, makes the journey seem real and exciting.

FS: What are your future plans? What is next for you?
Q: We always have some new designs in the works, and a couple of these designs seem headed for success. We’re looking forward to getting these out into the world, because while we know that one design can't possibly please everyone, we know that everyone can profit from trading in their sedentary conventional chair for a chair that allows them to sit actively. So, we've got quite a lot more to do.

FS: Do you work as a team, or do you develop your designs yourself?
Q: Ours is a collaborative process. Often, I’m the instigator, but our group of MDs, designers and body work experts from the worlds of Feldenkrais, yoga, Tai Chi, AT, and Rolfing are crucial to the process of winnowing out bad ideas and enhancing good ones.

FS: Do you have any works-in-progress being designed that you would like to talk about?
Q: We’re constantly looking for ways to get active sitting out into the world. So, one project we’re working on is making active chairs free to schools. We’ve created a digital version of an active chair (The ButtOn Chair) that can be cut from plywood with a CNC router the pieces of which snaps together using self locking joints that we invented (no screws; no glues). Using this distribution model we can bring active sitting to every corner of the world over the internet. We give away the design on a website (buttonchairs.org), and I gave a TEDx Talk to get the idea out into the world; the TEDx Talk has been viewed over 4,000 times, and the ButtOn Chair file has been downloaded over 1,000 times. We’re also working to create an active chair from 1” tubular steel that can be inexpensively created using a CNC bending robot, hoping to capitalize on the cheapness of stock steel tubing and robotic labor.

FS: How can people contact you?
Q: You can reach me (tosler@uvm.edu), or anyone on our team at info@qor360.com

FS: Any other things you would like to cover that have not been covered in these questions?
Q: We're always looking for partners, particularly partners in the world of academic research. The benefits of active sitting are apparent, but the evidence to this point is largely circumstantial and anecdotal. We want to put active sitting on a firm experimental footing. So, what we most need are academics interested in evaluating the effects of active sitting, both in the acute setting and over time.


FS: Thank you for providing us with this opportunity to interview you.

A’ Design Award and Competitions grants rights to press members and bloggers to use parts of this interview. This interview is provided as it is; DesignPRWire and A' Design Award and Competitions cannot be held responsible for the answers given by participating designers.


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