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 DesignMeets… Design Leaders series: Dr. Joseph Cafazzo
About Del Terrelonge:
Del Terrelonge is Principle, Founder, and Director of rhed design firm in Toronto. rhed brings trend-setting style and environmental awareness to architecture, planning, graphic, interior, product, and new media design. www.rhed-22.com
Pivot Design Group: Your career in design features such breadth from graphic design to interiors, architecture, products, and more. Is there a theme or process that is common in the way that you approach design across all those disciplines?
Del Terrelonge: Yes, I think so. When I think back to my early years as a graphic designer or even as a student, the one constant has been creating my own projects. At rhed, we talk about having a “clientless office”, which means that we create our own projects and bring them to fruition in the way we envision them. We are both the client and the end-user, and we feed our projects with all of the design we do, from graphic to interior and furniture, architecture—whatever elements are needed to complete the project.
Pivot: That’s a bit revolutionary in our industry, isn’t it?
Del: Designers today have the opportunity to function in many different disciplines, and that’s where the change is really happening. The principles of design can be applied to other disciplines, as we do at rhed. When I was a graphic designer, we did a lot of experimentation with media and techniques, and then we would bring that learning into the work that we did. We also considered the social viewpoint: what would it mean to the viewer, how could we get the viewer to connect with the design? These are basic principles that translate into all of our design work.
We’ve been able to develop a few projects, like the Templar Hotel, where we’ve designed absolutely everything, and part of the process of that is how the design functions and how it works. That’s part of the process of our design thinking—looking at how people move through the space, how they experience it.
Pivot: In what other ways is the design space evolving?
Del: Design is very affected by changes in technology. Technology has lowered the barrier to entry for many types of projects, like construction. It’s easier to create a building now, and that changes what you produce and how and who produces it. It’s not just large developers controlling what happens in a city anymore—individual designers have more control over the outcomes.
Another example is a boat that we designed last year. We had a concept to design a sustainable boat and we used a 3D Max file and 3D printed a 2.5-foot long model of it and sent that to our collaborators at Poliform and they manufactured a life-sized model in Italy from that Max file. That’s how we were able to understand how the boat would work, how it would function. Today you can cut out all the traditional steps of making a life-sized model because you can go right from drawings to a 3D computer file to a live model.
We’re taking these same elements and carrying them through a resort project that we’re working on now—Templar Lake on the Mountain in Prince Edward County.
Pivot: It’s like you are creating your own design ecosystem, but you’re being smart about it, because you have a business to run, too. I’m sure many designers will find your path appealing but it seems like a big leap between starting out as a graphic designer to becoming a designer, developer, and owner of anything—like a hotel. How did that path work for you?
Del: When I look back, it’s always been there, from my days in college. I was always creating my own projects because those were the only ones that really challenged me. I’d create ad programs, design programs, etcetera around my own fictional subjects. I think it has something to do with culture and my desire to identify myself in the Canadian landscape. I’m black, my parents immigrated here when I was a young child and there was a lot of change happening when I came here. I had to create my own identity, my own space—so that seems normal for me.
Working for the Continental Bank of Canada was also formative. I had a job as design director there and a lot of that environment rubbed off on me. If you’re around finance, you’ll become able to understand the process of finance. That’s always the challenge for designers. Often we can sell people on an idea but how to get people to back the idea financially is harder. That experience helped me learn to plug those two ends together.
There’s a perception that designers don’t understand money or economics, but that’s changing. If you’re a designer and you’re trying to address things in society today, then finance and economics are going to become part of your repertoire. You have to understand the marketplace.
Pivot: How do you generate new ideas?
Del: It’s very organic! For me, once something is in my thought process, it just becomes part of everything I do, to the point that I dream about it in detail. The Templar Hotel is an example—I have mentally dreamed every component of that building.
Three-dimensional projects are more real and long-lasting for me. Graphic design was very instant, which is also nice, but it was never in the forefront of my psyche like these 3D, long-lasting projects are.
Pivot: How do you build your design teams?
Del: I have a trusted core group of people who’ve been together with me for a long time—10-15 years. Over that time we’ve developed a shared understanding of what design is all about, how it functions, how it relates, how to achieve it. It takes time to work that through with people, and that’s an advantage that we have now.
We also bring on different people depending on what we’re doing and where we’re doing it—consultants, engineers, etcetera who change with each project.
But I think what’s even more interesting than that is how the team expands as people come to use and experience the design. The Templar Hotel is a great example of how the design process can build that loyalty and expand the concept of a design team. The hotel’s General Manager and Executive Chef have very different roles, but through osmosis they have become so entrenched in our design philosophy, and what it means to the building, to the environment, and so on. You can see how they have changed, how they think differently now. So now they can live and breathe it and that makes the environment even better than it was.
Pivot: So the design process continues after “launch”?
Del: It keeps living. They staff translate the experience to hotel guests every day and through that experience the process changes and affects what happens next.
This is probably one of the toughest things to explain because people like to put you into a box—they want to know if you’re a graphic designer or an architect or an interior designer. But if you understand the design process, you realize that the design process extends to every person who occupies that building. How they relate to the design, how they make a guest feel, how they function and act within the environment.
The design extends to the food that’s served, how you’re being served, how the air smells. Everything that comes into contact with your sensory being is part of the design process. Then the building becomes a living and breathing entity that you have created and can really deliver and understand as The Experience.
And that expands to living in general: you come to interact with people differently, talk differently, think differently. Design opens the door for many different layers in who we are.
Pivot: If you are your own client and end-user, how do you get feedback and the confidence that you’re on the right track?
Del: Sometimes we wonder, Are we doing the right thing? Getting feedback from the people living and working in and using the building helps. We’re all living through the experiment, getting real-world, real-time feedback.
We had six or eight reviews lately from people who had stayed at the hotel, and what they said about what they felt about being there was incredible.
Design is a risky business and many people are afraid of it. In the hotel example, people are expecting a certain set of “normal” experiences to happen, but it’s not like that at Templar. People who have stayed often use the phrase “home away from home” to describe it. It’s like the chef is your personal chef—he’s there talking to you about food. It takes people a while to realize that they can go anywhere they want in the building, especially based on the typical criteria which an individual is taught to expect from the hospitality industry in general. People don’t know what to expect when they walk into the hotel but the experience is going to be very different. That’s the living experiment.
Through their responses, we can see that we’re going in the right direction and made the right choices. It would be difficult to get that if we were working removed from the living project, as you do in a more typical or traditional design setting.
Pivot: What would you encourage any business owner, or someone with an idea for a product or service, to do to help their idea come to fruition?
Del: Believe in it! Don’t go into business for the sake of business—do it because you really believe in something—you think something is important. Then explore your initial idea and stay pure to the original intent, developing your train of thought and the idea itself during the process.
Pivot: What keeps you inspired and motivated?
Del: Life in general! Two years ago, I never thought I’d be designing a boat. I was in Italy and friends took us on a nautical experience and that made me think about whether you could create a responsible boat. We came up with the idea of a co-generation boat that runs off propane but is also a generator, so that when you bring it back to the boat house (which we also designed), it provides power to the house.
Those are things I find interesting. Every day I wonder where curiosity will take me next. I like the ability to start new things that are unpredictable. I want to open up my world through design.
Stay tuned for our next post in the Design Meets… Design Leaders blog series, coming soon!