James McNab: communicating the value of New Zealand design

On completing his degree in industrial design, Auckland-based designer James McNab wasn’t prepared to compromise his creative aspirations by working for someone else. Instead he braved the vagaries of self-employment … armed with minimal business acumen and a healthy dose of optimism. He spoke to Michael Smith about striving for simplicity to clearly communicate his design intent.
James McNab-sml

James McNab: founder of Think + Shift, “a multidisciplinary creative studio that designs product, furniture and spaces”.

James McNab describes himself as inherently inquisitive, mixed with an undertone of practicality … “which seemed like the right fit once I actually found out about design”.

Growing up he always had an interest in clothing and furniture, but never thought about the creative process that led to the production of such items. “For some reason work and the things I was interested in seemed to be worlds apart. It wasn’t until a year off after high school that I really found out about industrial design while spending some time abroad.”

Formative stage

McNab studied at Victoria University in the first year of the newly formed Design and Innovation course, majoring in industrial design. “That course was great … there was, and hopefully still is, a section on culture and context, which, looking back, was one of the more influential studies I took at university that shaped my approach to design.

“It also set me up well to see the world somewhat differently, from a sensory and a big-picture perspective with questions like – how does this thing fit into the world around us, what’s its purpose, how should it feel, smell, taste, etc. I think those kinds of questions [based on feelings and behaviour] are fundamentally important to design.

“As a young student I was pretty much open to anything new or interesting at the time. My design interests were always being shaped by what I was learning and they still are today. The more work I do, the better my understanding of materials and form.”

Diverse influences

McNab talks of being influenced by an eclectic mix of designers and styles – “mostly those that play in the arts, furniture and interior worlds. Take, for example, Faye Toogood and the Bouroullec Brothers. Both influence me, but in completely different areas of design. Faye arguably from a more sensory, art-based approach, and the brothers in a more specific detail-orientated manner … rethinking everyday products around us. I guess where my approach is heading is not necessarily based on an era or style as such – more an understanding of what I think is relevant in today’s culture.

“I am also increasingly blown away by the Scandinavian furniture movement of the fifties and sixties, and how this evolved with such a wide influence. In today’s economy, there’s a lot to learn from their innovation, distribution and marketing approaches, and how they exported their designs and products worldwide.”

Creative aspirations

On completing his degree, McNab initially saw his only job prospect as working for someone else in a position that would inevitably compromise his creative aspirations. “I couldn’t seem to find many opportunities that completely satisfied me from a design perspective. We were at the tail end of the recession and there weren’t many jobs going in New Zealand. So I decided to give self-employment a shot, probably in the most naive way possible … without any business acumen other than a three-year design degree.”

His decision eventually led to the establishment of Think + Shift, “a multidisciplinary creative studio that designs product, furniture and spaces” – and where the emphasis is on critical thinking and value-based design, partnering with local manufacturers, and online sales.

McNab has nothing against wholesalers or retailers. “Right now I don’t believe the price points are quite right for a retailer’s margin. For me, a competitive sale price is the key. Once the margins allow, I look forward to building a relationship with retailers down the line.”

Shop Fitouts Think + Shift retail fitouts: Michael Holmes Eyeware (left): Newmarket retail space accentuated by European maple timber and natural oils. Photo: © Michelle Weir. AS Colour, High Street (right): a subtle palette that brings the stock to the fore. Photo: © Fraser Chatham.

Local input

When choosing local manufacturers to realise his designs, McNab emphasises relationship building, understanding his vision and a willingness to work alongside him on a project. “Often I find that I challenge makers who have been experts in their profession for 20-plus years, and have never done anything like what is being asked. But the good guys are always keen to sit down and figure it out. Often there’s a way, even if it involves compromise because, ultimately, it needs to be viable for both parties. The ones we don’t choose again are the guys who say a straight ‘it can’t be done’ without exploring the possibilities. That frustrates me beyond belief.”

He adds that the manufacturing expertise is certainly available, as is the machinery. “There are obviously some things we don’t quite have access to and this is potentially due to the size of our local market. But I find that when working closely with a local manufacturer the quality output becomes much higher. I’m finding more guys who, instead of investing in a 5-axis CNC machine for example, figure out ways to do similar things with a 3-axis.”

McNab says Think + Shift is geared up well for commercial and long production runs. “Everything comes with a five-year manufacturer’s warranty and is made to order, so custom materiality, finishes and sizes are no big deal for us.

“I think capital is a big requirement for most designers starting out – and a good chunk of the New Zealand furniture industry for that matter. And with that comes the opportunity to really hone in on low-cost, New Zealand-made furniture, which has been a goal of mine for some time.”

2017 NZmade Range Think + Shift’s 2017 New Zealand-made range of furniture: emphasising sustainability and reliability … Adult Hideaway Chair (top left), Low Pocket Shelf (top right), Children’s Hideaway Chair (bottom left) and Wrap Table (bottom right). Photos: © Think + Shift.

Essence of design

According to McNab, communication should be an important focus for a designer. “How often do we see objects that someone has laboured over for days, months or, potentially, years and we as users miss the point of them completely. Designers talk of intuitive design, and I agree, but simply put … if you can focus on one message in your design intent, and have that clearly communicated, then that’s a huge success. It’s hard to make things simple and when you can, this often translates into a better understanding of materiality, form and context – not to mention how it often relates to cost savings in manufacturing.”

McNab’s design innovation background has enabled Think + Shift to design spaces for clients in the office, retail and hospitality fields. “I find it is important to understand the feel and vision for a space, and the elements often fall into place around that. The elements might come in the form of flooring, wall treatments, furniture, cabinetry, textiles or, potentially, a teaspoon … all things that can be designed by Think + Shift and aid the intent. As an industrial designer by trade, I have the option and ability to design a wide array of elements, so it’s crucial to realise what brings value and importance to a space before getting caught up in the detail.”

And talking of ‘space’, McNab is keen on exploring small-space furniture design as urban intensification continues apace. “I have no doubt the situation requires really smart design to rethink the everyday in small spaces. There has to be design without compromise, and there needs to be clever ways to save on space that can be found in the most unexpected places. I noticed how successful apartment furniture and object design had been in Copenhagen and Berlin recently and it got me all inspired.

“I’m also optimistic in thinking that the restrictions which come with smaller spaces might help instill a national ‘higher’ appreciation of buying fewer things that really matter, rather than buying more things that don’t.”

Recent Releases Recent releases from Think + Shift (left to right): Disk Side Table; Cap Stool; So Far, Modular Seating Units; and Alloy Dining Table. Photos: © Think + Shift.

Realistic expectations

McNab’s optimism about the future of local design is tempered with realism. “Generally speaking, the low to mid furniture import market seems to be profiting well where large furniture companies are catching on to international designs and selling them in the New Zealand market. I see this as a double-edged sword because, on one hand, we can have really great design being introduced into our spaces … and on the other, it frustrates me that these companies are rarely investing in the New Zealand furniture industry to develop their own unique pieces.

“And I get it from the larger-company perspective … why would you take the risk of developing something ‘new’ and untested if you can introduce an overseas product and know what you’re getting. To me that says something about the local appetite for international design aesthetics, but also the little faith that some of our industry leaders have in local design, which is disappointing.

“As we are now in a digital age and have the ability to be accessible worldwide, I think we need to be smarter about the business propositions we set up and the products we create so we can access the opportunities that international markets present to us.”

Looking ahead, McNab would love to see a cohesive summary of our aesthetic language, “but this may come with time as it needs to be a natural fit. From the outside looking in, this could make our design more understandable for an international audience. Take Scandinavian or Japanese design – both well-rounded and understood design aesthetics. Every time we see something that looks remotely like their style, they instantly get the acclaim … even if it’s not the case. That has to be the smartest marketing tool ever!”

Michael Smith


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