About the Design Leaders series:

In Design Meets… Design Leaders, Pivot reaches out to individuals and companies who live and breathe design. This series explores the genesis of design and its practical applications in business. We hope that it inspires you to think expansively and create meaningfully, both at work and at play.

Check out the previous article in the Design Leaders series: Del Terrelonge

About Paul Rowan:

Over 30 years ago, graphic designer Paul Rowan couldn’t find a nice window shade to hang in his new apartment. So, he made one. And others liked it! He soon teamed up with friend Les Mandelbaum and Umbra was born.


Paul-Rowan Thumbnail Image
Paul Rowan

Paul Rowan didn’t always want to be a graphic designer. In fact, he’d didn’t even know what graphic design was until friend described it as a way to “get paid for doing art”. After a few months in George Brown’s design program, he was hooked.

One of his first jobs was in the marketing/communications department of a digital typesetting company run by former IBM executives. Outside of work, he teamed up with some of colleagues and created one of the first typesetting wheels in Canada.

“When you have a group of young people together that have an entrepreneurial bent and are working in a corporate environment, it’s inevitable they will want to start their own business,” he said.

While these businesses never panned out, Paul realized he had the drive and talent necessary to start his own company — he just needed an idea; an idea that came in the form of a window shade.

Today, Paul considers himself a design hunter. He has set a personal mission to stay connected to the design community and mentors students from many colleges and universities and is connecting constantly with burgeoning young designers.


Paul thinks it’s a great time for designers. Businesses are finally recognizing the competitive advantages that can come with good design. A perfect example is Apple, a company where design is paramount.

“There are some great things happening in the world today in terms of design yet it’s only a fraction of what could be done,” he explained.

Iffat and Ian caught up with Paul to pick his brain about what drives him around design. Below is an abridged interview in which Paul shares his unique insight gleaned from over three decades entrenched in design.

Pivot: We know that your career began in graphic design and then it went to kind of DIY invention. Now, a lot of people call you the design pioneer in the housewares industry. Is this a trajectory that you knew your career would take?

Paul: When we first started the company, I did everything in terms of the marketing communications; trade shows, product development, and graphics. When we first took the Umbra concept to the US people thought we were a lot bigger company than we were because I was able to execute at a pretty high level for a two man show.

In the 80s there was a drought of good design in homeware products. Of course there was an abundance of household products but design rarely was a component. Not to disparage engineers but these products for the home were highly functional but ugly. And there was the opportunity.

Our products were selected on the basis of necessity. But it didn’t stop there. Our idea was to bring beautiful design to every day utilitarian objects. And interestingly, our motivation wasn’t exactly to create great design but our aesthetic was intuitive resulting in great design, if you know what I mean.

And then, as design started becoming a popular word to use to describe the movement of creating a better world through design, we adopted it.

On Design Democratization

Paul: People were looking for more beautiful things and they couldn’t find them.

At Umbra, we had the point of view that beautiful design should be available to everyone. We called this idea ‘the democratization of design.‘



The first trashcans with Karim (Rashid), were added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. That was a real validation for us. We were there right beside a Lamborghini and a Bell helicopter. The museum agreed with us that good design does not have to be expensive.

Building a Legacy

Paul: We realized we needed our own original design. I was doing everything myself and the demand for new product was more than I could do alone. Instead of going to an outside studio, we started one in-house. We hired young, talented and enthusiastic designers and built a wonderful team of brilliant designers.

Over time, we have reached out to the design community and sponsored design events and competitions. We stay connected and we create internships to grow the department. We have been doing that for more than 20-years.

Now I spend more time coaching and mentoring young designers than I do administrating. We realize that our future lies in hiring the best and the brightest. I big part of my job is to find those young people and to inspire and bring them along.

Pivot: So, is there throughout all of this, I mean, working with young people and with all of your experiences; is there a common thread you can think of that is kind of underlying it all in terms of the process by which a design comes to fruition?

Paul: I have a formula for design success that I call the Whole Brain Designer. I try to teach designers that it is not just form and function that they should be concerned with but that there are other things to consider; manufacturability, sustainability, packaging and gross profit to name a few. The business side is also important. They have to learn to speak about their design with investors and stakeholders in the project. They have to know how to sell their design in order to bring it to production.

Whole Brain Designer


I’m not only talking to design school students — I am working with high school students as well. And what I find really interesting about these students is that they don’t get the guidance they need in terms of personal development. I mean, why shouldn’t high school students have an idea of where they want to go professionally?

I try to help them find their passion and their direction.

Pivot: Yeah, it’s almost like it’s all about the drive for success without actually spending the time to figure out how you’re going to get there and figure yourself out.

Paul: Absolutely. I make it personal when I’m coaching these people. I try to figure out who they are and get them to ask themselves who they are.


Pivot: Is there a piece of advice, something that has worked well for you in terms of process or in terms of what happened with Umbra or what you’ve come across? Is there something that you could pose to other business, and not necessarily design businesses?

Paul: You have to have an agent inside an organization that’s going to accept risk and innovation. I think the world runs on a very derivative model with low risk. Most things are just ‘do it like the competitor, but cheaper.’

And so in our particular case you had the highly creative person (that’s me) and a very well organized manager like Les who is willing to take on risk. So, that was the formula for success.

Pivot: How does crowd sourcing play a role?

Paul: We don’t really use crowd sourcing; we’re very focused on what we are looking for. We’re mining design talent in specific areas. We’re focusing where we think we can reach the kind of person that’s going to be able to deliver for us rather than reaching out to the general population of inventors out there.

Pivot: So what do you think that does to the value of design or to innovation?

Paul: I don’t feel that design is diluted because of digital technology. I think it’s pretty exciting.

I just wonder when the evil will start taking over some of these digital great leaps and bounds that we’ve made. You need to wonder.

Yeah, there’s almost nothing to keep it in check.

Paul: I think overall the changes that I’ve seen since we started designing products has been very positive.

I think industrial designers were always handcuffed because they were quite siloed because of the technology.

Designers continuously complained that their designs were ruined by engineers who adapted their designs to the machines for manufacturing. But now industrial designers, because they are actually working CAD programs themselves, have actually been transformed from just designers to engineers.

On that note, do you have any other final notes in terms of future of design or future of design process?

Paul: You can talk about design in terms of digital technology, but you can also talk about it generationally.

Every generation has specific needs. They create objects that they need for the way they live. And today people’s lifestyles are different that mine was. So, I rely on young people to create the new objects for today.

You know working in this new rapid world that had a whole other tool set, it’s really remarkable. I mean, the whole 3D printing; does that become Umbra? You just go to Umbra and download files and you print it out yourself. I’m not sure if that’s really going to be a reality, but that’s a potential future market, I’m sure.

Paul: Everyone asks me about that. It’s such a hot topic these days. 3D printing is a great way to be able to see your product in advance without spending the time it used to take to make prototypes. You can get better product to market in a shorter period of time because you can take a lot of the guesswork out. The more testing and prototyping you do, the better results you get.

I’m sure you’ve heard 3D printers are already available for home use. Some day you will be able to design and build your own shoes, housewares, and more at home.

Who knows where that horizon will go, I mean we’re basing that model on previous models that we’re comfortable with, such as having an inkjet printer at home, so we assume that is the way it will go based on the past, but it may not, right?

Paul: I agree with that. It’s very interesting how so many ideas, even though we consider them quite innovative — they’re really built on old paradigms. But the real innovative ideas are those we haven’t thought of yet. So, who knows what’s coming?

In some ways, tough times drive great design. This is something we talk about a lot in the studio: do the designers need stress to create great design? If we are too comfortable, what drives us? Isn’t creativity driven by stress and pressure?


Stay tuned for our next post in the Design Leaders blog series, coming soon!

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