An interview with Pete Ducato, CEO of STEL, written by Julian Wise.
Since their founding in 2015, industrial design consultancy STEL has completed hundreds of successful products for Fortune 500 companies while prioritizing environmental consciousness. We spoke with Pete Ducato, STEL’s CEO, to hear how they remain mission-driven while achieving their impressive success. Let’s hear what Pete has to say:
What traits do you prize in making IoT products?
The best products have simplicity, honesty, and cleverness. They’re competing forces, but can be beautiful when cleverly combined, especially each element wraps around a well-told story.
Simple, yet bold is the overarching goal of all product design. STEL’s aesthetic is simple, with a foundation of movement. By combining expertise in multiple industries such as consumer technology, sporting outdoors, and transportation, we apply the core tenants of simplicity (like Apple’s legendary simplicity) to the intersections between consumers and products within our industry.
Honesty ensures no elements are obtrusive, over the top, or aggressive. Done well, it introduces a new material in a clever way that complements the life of the product. Honesty can elevate a product from “technology” to something more approachable.
The most compelling devices are clever. I love the word “clever” because it refers to an element that’s coherent and well-considered. Who doesn’t love something that allows you to discover details that bring out the personality of the product?
As a consultancy, STEL doesn’t simply throw out ideas and hope they stick. After we toss out ideas, we refine and execute them. This makes cleverness key, because it lets you satisfy difficult constraints. Not to mention, being clever is just plain fun.
Storytelling is an underrated design element. Nowadays, with Amazon and other low-cost retailers, consumers will always have a cheaper option. This makes storytelling of paramount importance, as consumers seek a meaning or connection.
Storytelling applies to all three facets of STEL’s design--product, brand, and digital:
- First, we combine engineering and design to create a product.
- Then, we compose a brand image. A brand is what the company looks like through the consumer’s eyes. It includes identification, logo, colors, aesthetics, and images.
- Simultaneously, we focus on the digital aspects of a product. Whether it’s a website or application’s UI or an IoT device’s connectivity, a digital interface should compliment the design and the company’s image.
These elements combine to create a story for consumers to buy into. When a consumer buys a product, they’re buying into its story.
Could you give examples of product designs with a strong brand story?
Inboard was a sport/outdoors company that added a scooter into their product offering. We worked with them to switch the brand from a sport enthusiast company to a transportation company. Their new story influenced both design and marketing materials to support their new consumer messaging:
“We’re not building a scooter to launch off a ramp; we’re building a scooter to transport people within cities.”
The scooter has an aluminum throttle, a lightweight forged composite frame, and connects to an app.
"Luno Life's products begin with a travel need and an idea for an innovative solution. From there, STEL expands upon a simple sketch to meticulously workshop every possible design iteration to reach a final product that is ready for the road." - STEL's work with Luno Life
How do you incorporate IoT into a product?
When we design an IoT product, we start with the consumer, selecting our goal around human-centered design. We analyze the use case before applying design thinking. We combine all the components, bringing together a clunky minimum viable product. That clunkiness is okay, because we need to start with a baseline. Once we have that rudimentary package, we bring in those 3 keywords (simplicity, cleverness, and honesty). That’s where the mind of a designer comes in, focusing on materials, placement, and UI/UX. Then, at market, IoT naturally brings excitement to a product.
How are new product design methods redefining traditional boundaries?
New technologies are pushing the boundaries in design, making it increasingly important to mold new materials and aesthetics around technology.
More and more, STEL is working with new, non-traditional products. Gnarbox, for instance is a small computer device that’s IP67-rated (completely weather resistant). That significantly affected our process. We were forced to push the boundaries to create a product that worked with the tech inside it, while still looking aesthetically pleasing with an environmentally friendly material choice.
Nature and tech: GNARBOX 2.0 SSD has a dedicated Intel® quad-core processor, a metal/rubber enclosure, and is designed to handle underwater submersion in 1 meter for up to 30 minutes.
How do you design for manufacturing with the environment in mind? What are common difficulties of environmentally friendly product design?
Industrial designers design an item or piece of art to be mass-produced. That can be scary, raising the question, “What we’re doing: is it ethical for our world?”
At STEL, we always design with the end-of-use lifecycle in mind. That could start at the concept-level, where we introduce new materials and showcase them to the client. It could also include an environmentally friendly manufacturing process, where we design the product to be disassembled and recycled.
Difficulties of environmentally friendly product design
It’s easier to assemble/disassemble a product when it’s going to be thrown away, so environmentally conscious design can lead to increased costs in time and materials. It also requires the existence of a relevant sustainable material. At STEL, we’ve built a library of recyclable or plant-based materials and understand the science behind each material we use. To counteract the increase in cost, however, we can market a story that addresses the price, permitting us to sell at a higher margin.
At the end of the day, however, none of these are fatal. The benefit to the environment is worth the extra effort.
What’s your involvement with 1% for the planet?
Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, set a vision for companies like us that mass-produce products. Clothing is one of the worst products for the environment, but Patagonia, a clothing company, is the top company supporting the environment. By giving back, we can counteract the harm that mass production does to the world.
As a company, STEL donates 1% of our revenue to nonprofits. Last year, we donated to the channels in Santa Barbara to keep them clean for sea life migration. We also donated to the trail systems in our local area that had been harmed by wildfires.
Outside of the office, our employees donate their time and energy. The city of Ventura, Patagonia, and a local brewing company all bring people together to network and develop creative ideas that help us be involved in helping the outdoors.
Topa Topa Brewing Company in Ventura, California, partners with 1% For The Planet, like STEL and Patagonia, to give back the environment.
You clearly love the outdoors. Is that your primary industry?
We love sports and the outdoors, but we also jump at the opportunity to improve lives in other ways. If we’re approached by a medical product that can improve living conditions, that’s enough to drive our passion and propel our design team’s efforts. Fundamentally, we believe in creating projects that will change the world.
Curious how STEL can help with your green product design? Check out their profile.