Inside the Studio: Method Products

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Our first glimpse inside the walls of Method Products proved to be somewhat of a surprise.  Method’s close proximity to the city’s financial center gave us the impression we were about to walk into a rigid and sterile office space.  Those feelings were soon expelled, as we entered a space that was casual and full of quirky touches.  We met with Josh Handy and Sally Clarke, VP of Industrial Design and Design Director of Packaging, respectively.  Both native New Zealanders, their accents came through as we touched on everything from their careers at Method, creative processes, and of course – working together as a married couple. 

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How did you get involved at Method?

Josh Handy: “I met Adam and Eric, the two founders, when I was working in New York at Karim Rashid Studio.  This was back in 2000-2001 and they sat down across the table for Karim and me and said, ‘we want to change the world of cleaning. We want you to design a dish soap for us, and we want it to be the most revolutionary dish soap every created.’

We thought, this sounds all right. ‘How much money do you have?’

‘Uh, none.’

‘So what sort of distribution do you have?’

‘None’

Karim and I were kind of like, ‘uh-huh uh-huh, yeah see you later’

He and I had a chat afterwards and we thought; we’ll spend three days on it. We will try to get some shares off them -because at the time it was the dot.com boom, everyone was going for equity and talking start ups.  We thought, what the hell, we’ll take a punt on it. We worked on it and we came up with the idea for the upside down dish soap. They took that design and took it to Target and Target said ‘We love it, let’s do it but you have to be on the shelves in 16 weeks.’”

Oh my gosh…

“They had to be there on the shelves in 16 weeks, so it was crazy trying to get the formula done. The bottle needed to be sourced, manufactured, tested, and all of that stuff. It was a nightmare and it turned out to be a bit of a disaster, because the bottles started to leak.  And they were all on the top shelf.  There are great Method legends of people going around and wiping down Target stores, getting all the soap off the leaky bottles! [Laughs]  That kind of set the brand off.”

[After a brief move to Australia Josh had a chance encounter with one of Method’s founders]

“I bumped into Eric at a trade show in Chicago while I was there for my Australian job and we got to talking.  He was like ‘You should come work for me.’ This is the short story, there’s a much longer story which is kind of fun. [Laughs] So we kind of made that happen. 

So about 4 and a half, almost 5 years ago, we turned up here in San Francisco to work for Method. There were like 35 people.  Its been a bit of a ride ever since.” 

A fun ride?

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“Oh yeah! The great thing about it is, that they [Method] don’t want to be an average company. We’ve got huge plans and we feel like we have great people.  From a design perspective it’s great, because we’re trying to do interesting things with packaging.  Not just on the looks part of it but also on the sustainability side as well.  I see it as the way for which these kinds of companies have to move forward in the future, so it’s kind of cool.”

Do you think that as a designer, you need to be constantly stimulated and be in a creative environment?

“I think it helps an awful lot. I’d hate the opposite.  That’s kind of the reason why we have creative in-house because we have the ability to manifest so many things: make prototypes, do pictures, put things on walls.  It changes the whole culture of the whole place because there is so much stuff around suddenly. I think having so many creative people in-house changes the way the place feels.

The way that Method works is we try to think of design as a culture rather than a strategy. Rather than having a design process, we have a culture that is all about design so part of that is about collaboration, communication, and transparency. When we walk around the office, everyone’s thinking is on the walls.

No one has an office in the entire office, from the CEO all the way down. It’s all about this idea of transparency, collaboration, and building on each other’s thinking.  At other companies you’ll find that if you have to talk to someone you have to walk across to the other building, schedule a meeting, and do a PowerPoint presentation."

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Husband & Wife team: Josh Handy and Sally Clarke.

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Josh Handy: "The idea of drawing on the furniture is like breaking such a rule, so we kind of wanted to show people yeah break a rule, so what, just do it. Ask for forgiveness not permission."

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Left: Method's original bottle shape. Right: Josh's desk.

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Method's open work space.

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Method employees have their photos lining the stairwell.Method's CEO hard at work. Sally Clarke then joins us. A cheery “Hello!” marks her entry. After a brief introduction, Sally tells us about her position at Method Products. 

Sally Clarke: “I am the Design Director. My team does all the packaging graphics, point of sale, events, coupons, retail, all that stuff.”

JH: “She puts lipstick on my pigs.”

How is it working together? How’s the dynamic?

SC: “It's actually…”

JH: “You know we’re married right?”

That’s exactly why we’re asking.

JH: “It makes for interesting con-versations on the way home in the car.” 

SC: “I think the biggest thing is that we have to just remember to stop talking about work.  On the other hand I think it helps because we understand each other’s world. I know when I can tell Josh ‘I need a little more surface area to work on, or a little more this and that.’  Or I can understand Josh if he’s like ‘I need to do this.’”

JH: “I think it works pretty well, it could be worse.” [Laughs]

SC: “We can be sort of dogmatic about our points of view. I think that helps because we have to work out a resolution versus if we were not married, because it could be more contentious.” 

JH: "There is more at stake!” [Laughs]

People see these packages all the time and it’s interesting to actually go behind the scenes and see how they’re created.

SC: “I think –sometimes- people think they’re going to come to Method and we’re all going to dressed up.” 

That’s what I thought. I was expecting something like “do you want a cappuccino?”

SC: “We’re just very scrappy, by the seat of our pants, but we kind of like that. We like being that way.  It’s very fluid.  EVERYONE sits together; PR, interactive, advocacy, the business directors, and sales are all on this floor, so you talk face to face with everybody.  You have to work everything out. How do we make the product? How do we talk about the product? How do we sell the product? They’re all interrelated so we get to live that everyday which is fascinating... And terrifying.” [Laughs]

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Company ping pong tournaments are held in the "grass" covered room.

Is there a different process when designing a product for a small company versus a huge mass-market product?

JH: “I don’t know, I kind of feel like I’m designing for the people.  We are still a relatively small brand. I think Method sees itself as a challenger brand; we kind of always want to be the alternative to ‘Big soap’.  The reason why our bottles are so aesthetic in whatever way is because we realize that –as you may see it on the shelf at a supermarket and pick it up and put it in your trolley- it actually lives in your home for months. Why should it look like an advertisement for 20% off or whatever it is?  The products really live in people’s homes so you have to walk the balance between being impactful and standing out on the shelf, but also being sympathetic to the fact that people use it.  We always have the view that people are very house-proud and they don’t want to have ugly bottles."

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Method's in-house store display.Method products neatly aligned."Other companies are obsessed with maximizing shelf presence and communicating so much on the fronts of their bottles.  The actual product itself is the manifestation of the corporate strategy so it’s kind of like, you don’t need to be crazy.  You have to communicate the right things, but the whole proposition is more powerful than treating it like a billboard for advertising.

But we do think of it as marketing.  If you think about it, half of all decisions are made standing in front of the shelf.  Other companies spend so much time making this right, spending millions of dollars marketing it…” 

After the product has been designed. 

JH: “Yeah.  We think that this is our marketing.  We want to make sure that when people are standing there they go ‘this is beautiful’ and pick that up.’”

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Wall art created with discarded sample tops

Now tell me more about Method’s environmental efforts when designing packaging.

JH: “It’s a pretty big process. We have a department that we call ‘Greenskeeping’, of which Adam is the founder. Our Greenskeeping team and another person help set strategic guidelines across the entire organization.  They venture all the way into the chemicals we use and make sure that each ingredient is bio-degradable and sustainably [sic] sourced.  All the way through to packaging, to how we transport our products by bio diesel trucks, to how vendors operate. It’s very complicated, but basically Method is a Cradle-to-Cradle company. 

It’s this idea that -in the future- to be pretty sustainable, you cant generate any waste with any of your products.  Anything being made has to be able to be returned back to nature or recycled into itself again an infinite number of times.  It means you can’t use any chemicals that are remotely toxic or remotely non-biodegradable.  So with packaging, everything has to be recyclable.  Where that manifests itself in packaging - we have a dirty list of ingredients that we cannot use in packaging.” 

A materials blacklist?

JH: “Yeah. Then we say anything we use must have a past, present, or a future.  It had to be made from recyclable things, it can’t do any harm to the environment, and it has to be recyclable in the end. So it very much limits our material choices. Our PET bottles –the clear bottles - they’re all made from 100 % recycled plastic so we’re not creating any new plastic to make any PET bottles. So they go back into the recycled strain.  That was a first for the industry and in America.”  

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Sally Clarke at her desk.

Where do you see Method in the future?

JH: “I think our new laundry product is a great example of where we think things can go.  If you take a sustainability view as you enter projects, it opens up a whole bunch of new thinking that people haven’t really done yet. So with laundry -for 40 to 50 years- people have been putting loads of water into detergent, for whatever reason, which meant that the jugs had to be big and heavy and hard to carry. The big companies have no reason to change. If they own that market why would they rock the boat, right?  So they’re kind of trapped in being who they are.  So little companies like Method come along, rethink that whole equation, and it turned out that we could concentrate it down dramatically with no loss of efficacy.” 

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Words of wisdom by Method's employees

It’s so set in the mindset that you need so much detergent to clean your clothes.

JH: “The thing that bugs me is that the big laundry companies know that people do this, but they have done nothing to stop it.  They’re talking from both sides of their mouth about being environmental, but at the same time they don’t want to confuse the consumer by telling them how much they need to use.  What ends up happening is that you, as a consumer, end up throwing away about a third of your detergent that you don’t need to use, because you’re just overdosing and it kind of wrecks your machine.  

It’s a disaster to overdose. Whirlpool has machines that sense the amount of detergent with the amount of dirt, and if they sense you’ve put too much soap in they add extra flushes of water to rinse it out.

What happens is, if you put too much detergent, too much foam gets created and the foam carries the dirt into your machine and it starts to collect in the machine.  It gets moldy and horrible and the machine starts to smell and it all gets gunked up.  So it’s this whole thing, it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the consumer, and it’s bad for the machine. [Laughs]

The Method laundry detergent is a great intersection of sustainability, consumer need, and business need.  It’s a hugely disruptive product. If it catches on -which we think it will- for the big companies they’re so unprepared to do anything because they’re so invested in these big jugs of water.  It makes me angry that it’s been like that for years for no reason.  I kind of feel like that’s their big Achilles heel; they’re so integrated into making these big jugs.  So I think little disruptive companies like Method will be the game changers that will take people to a better place; that’s what I hope the future of Method is.”

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Left: The piñata in question. Middle: Method's miniature mock up of their Dwell and Design booth. Right: Method pooch.

As our tour of Method came to an end, we met with the rest of the packaging crew.  There we noticed, a piñata hanging in the room.  We were compelled to ask. One of the designers filled us in.  

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What’s the story behind the piñata?

Deena: “That was from my contribution.

We have a brand experience meeting and we were going to have a trophy for every week, or every two weeks.  We pass it around to whomever we think is doing a good job. So we all brought in what we thought the trophy could be and that was mine.  That didn’t win, so now it’s just there.” 

SC: “I think it could be our creative team mascot.” [Laughs]

So what won?

SC: “We have Astrid. It’s this creepy little statue-girl-thing. [Laughs]

We never met Astrid. 

By Ivan Navarro. 

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