The Behind-the-Scenes Design Story of Soma

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

-Steve Jobs

 

Forever embedded in my mind, one of my favorite design-related memories has to do with cigarettes. Seeing as I don’t smoke, and never have, this speaks to me about the power design holds in its ability to capture our attention.

Ages ago, I was flipping through a design magazine when my eye caught hold of a product name on one of the glossy pages that has stuck with me ever since — The Rational Ashtray. In the many years that have gone by since I first saw an image of this dark wooden, square-shaped ashtray for the rational, I’ve tried to find more information on it, to no avail. I can’t recall the artist, or any other details on it. But still, I remember the image quite clearly: the sculpture-esque ashtray had a circular shape cut out in the middle for discarded ash; and about five small, cylindrical holes carved along one of its four sides for unlit cigarettes to be stored, or for finished butts to be somewhat elegantly relegated.

This piece intrigued me because of its witty simplicity and ability to capture the essence of an era through the juxtaposition of the irrational, detrimental act of smoking, and the highly rational, pragmatic act of design — unproductive frivolity meets functional form.

Like so many other destructive activities that we humans seem to relish engaging in, the allure of smoking was born from the world of advertisement, media, and movies, while our reliance on them was propagated by the genuinely addictive ingredients that lay hidden inside.

Of course, we also seem to enjoy making fashionable products to support our unhealthy habits, even as a way to rationalize them to ourselves. As much as I admire the slick form-meets-function design of my elusive Rational Ashtray, the design doesn’t exactly inspire my faith in humanity, nor in the change-making possibilities that exist in a holistic marriage between concept, aesthetics, and intent.

But not all design promotes unenlightened products — in fact, good design is actually one of our bests assets when it comes to combating the negative, materialistic, consumerist aspects of our society. When a product that is founded in strong values and positive intention meets conscious, thoughtful design, the possibilities for meaningful results are myriad. Two people who know this all too well are the design duo of Moreless: Markus Diebel and Joe Tan have dedicated their lives, talents, and time to creating conscientious design that makes a difference.

Moreless: Markus Diebel and Joe Tan

Soma’s beautiful, hourglass carafe is the result of the design-oriented minds of Moreless. Drawn together by their similar sense of aesthetic minimalism, and their mutual desire to marry function and form, Markus and Joe produce innovative designs with unique sensibilities. Evidence of this can be found in Soma’s sleek carafe or in the colorful line of audiophile-caliber headphones for one of their longtime clients, Incase. These two busy designers were kind enough to give me some of their time to reflect on their design process and share some thoughtful industry insights.

Joe and Markus of Moreless understand the importance of integrating form and function to produce mindful designs. Photo courtesy of Gundolf Pfotenhauer.

K: What made you want to get into design in the first place?

M & J: “Both of us had always enjoyed drawing and painting during our childhood and then developed an affinity for three-dimensional objects and how to shape and express them in 3-D. First with our hands and then with the tools we learned using. It was at Art Center (Europe) where we went from honing our sketching, form, and thinking skills to applying what we call ‘design’ as a powerful tool to shape products, experiences, businesses but also as an opportunity to possibly affect meaningful change.”

Design can absolutely be a catalyst for change, since our interaction with objects directly influences how we relate to our surrounding environment. By creating relationships between people and products, conscious design is one of our best defenses against the harmful realities of materialism, as I previously mentioned. When mindfulness is applied to design, our engagement with the material world naturally becomes more organic and purposeful.

The Soma carafe’s iconic hourglass shape is timeless. Photo courtesy of www.drinksoma.com.

K: You designed Soma’s beautiful glass carafe. What was the inspiration behind its hourglass shape?

M & J: “We started to first ask ourselves what water filtering really is. It’s about water and its filtration, so we decided on a form solution that embodies what water filtration really is and does. It reduces water to its essence and what is a better and more natural shape to use than a funnel or cone shaped form factor? If you translate the filtering process into a shape that describes a reducing function and its direction of movement, you will arrive at the funnel. It was the shape that made the most sense for a filter, aesthetically but also functionally.

For the glass carafe that houses the purified, freshly filtered drinking water we’ve inverted the filter shape to communicate and emphasize the opposing nature of the unpurified and purified water. The hourglass shape happened as a logical result and the intersection at the thinnest point provided a great spot to hold the carafe, while eliminating the need for an additional handle.”

Form follows function: this tried and true adage remains inherent in all good design. Visual language has the ability to communicate complex ideas, such as those that Joe and Markus describe above, without our brains even noticing. While a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, good design is perhaps worth even more.

K: Can you tell me a little bit about the development of the design and what the overall process was?

M & J: “Through many sessions with Mike [del Ponte, CEO and co-founder of Soma], we first developed an understanding and alignment of the company and product goals; to design the best water filter in the world that is simply iconic, intuitive to use, and as sustainable as possible. We explored many opportunity areas related to usability, form, sustainability and manufacturing. The many findings informed our decisions and we were able to hone in on making the product come to life in its final form, realizing the initial goals we had set.”

When products work intuitively, they seamlessly integrate into our lives without us giving much thought to the process. For example, if we get a new computer program that has an intuitive user-interface, we will simply begin to use it; the ease of the product’s function goes relatively unnoticed as it naturally becomes a part of our lives. On the other hand, if we start to use a computer program with a poor user-interface that is difficult to understand, we are aware of the problem straight away, and feel frustrated.

Intuitive design means that more of our energy is spent living, and less is spent fighting inefficiency. When design incorporates both our needs and those of the environment, the product will have integrity, enabling us to achieve a holistic and integrated experience with the product, rather than one of isolation and disconnection.

K: While you were working on one aspect of the product, other talented designers were working on their parts: David Beeman designed the filter, and Tom Crabtree made the packaging. How do you manage this collaborative aspect of the design process?

M & J: “Moreless believes in a holistic design vision and collaborating with talented individuals from various fields with specific knowledge and experience to help inform our design process as well as help execute our design vision to provide excellence and attention to detail from all angles.”

Unsurprisingly, Joe and Markus are very much on the ball with regards to the importance of holism in design!

The Soma carafe integrates intent with aesthetics to create a classic design. Photo courtesy of www.kickstarter.com.

K: Form before function or function before form?

M & J: “For us the function and the overall user experience is what is in the foreground and what serves us as our foundation for a product. The form is what naturally and effortlessly follows. With the Soma Carafe we ended up with a form that responded intuitively to its function but it also met Soma’s desire to be highly iconic.”

The use of the word ‘iconic’ is apt when referencing the Soma carafe, and I don’t say this lightly. The hourglass design takes a classic shape with multiple inherent conceptual references — including the passage of time, ancient tradition, and filtration of negative to positive, among others — and uses this physical form to perform a revolutionary function: cleaning our water at home with an all natural, eco-friendly filter.

K: Out of everything you’ve designed so far during your career, do you have a favorite piece or one that stands out to you in some special way?

M & J: “The Soma water filter is definitely one of our favorite designs we have created as there was this amazing synergy between us and Soma, as well as the underlying premise to design the best water filter while helping to solve the global water problem. Other products we are proud of having designed are the entire line of Incase products for 15 years that helped shape the brand and its success. Some of the product highlights for Incase were designing innovative products for new categories such as Audio and Travel.”

It seems to me that a successful merging of a company’s values with those of the designers is fundamentally integral to creating a fulfilling design experience. When a company cares as much as Soma does about the intention behind its product, it is imperative that the designers are able to shape the product in such a way that executes the intentions both aesthetically and functionally.

Similarly, Moreless’s designs for Incase are equally victorious in this sense. Their minimalist design and high quality audio capabilities allow for honoring the importance of music and sound in our daily lives. By subtracting any and all unnecessary details, both the Soma carafe and the Incase headphones demonstrate the power of simplicity.

The simple aesthetic of these headphones designed by Moreless for their longtime client Incase encourages us to focus more on our listening experience. Photo courtesy of www.core77.com.

K: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming designers?

M & J: “We’d like to share some of our favorite quotes from Steve Jobs who clearly understood how to bring forward the immense power of design:

Stay hungry, stay foolish.

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.

Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.”

 

Since I happened to quote this part of Steve Job’s indelible speech when I spoke about finding our purpose, I absolutely agree with its inspirational sentiment! The positive effects of mindful design extend far beyond mere visual pleasure and conceptual wit. Good design can change our relationship with everyday products, and help us to undo the negative effects of materialism and consumerism by creating a more holistic integration of products that serve to enhance our lives.

Thank you so much to Markus and Joe for your thoughtful words and brilliant design work. We look forward to seeing more triumphs of design from Moreless in the future!

 

 Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.

-Leonardo da Vinci