Interview with Ashley Etling

Ashley Etling was an architect at Sutton-Suzuki architect before founding Red Clay, an online marketplace for exceptional product design. She’s done everything from develop the company’s visual identity to raise a $1 million seed fund. Red Clay’s customer base includes several Fortune 50 companies as well as small hardware startups and retail suppliers.

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What’s your studio’s design philosophy?
Collaborating to Design Better Solutions

What motivates you to do great work?
A passion for the positive impact design can have on the world in combination with working with an exceptional team to make it happen.

What’s your studio’s superpower?
Having good times with a great team. My co-founder Abigail Kiefer and I originally bonded over good drinks, good food and an exciting idea: bringing the right people together to solve problems. Our beginnings symbolized our ethos of working hard, together, to solve problems while having a good time along the way.

What’s the first project your company worked on?
Red Clay actually started out as a brand of sustainable home decor products manufactured in the United States. We thought the best way to build our brand was to bring the right people together to develop the designs, have the public vote on the designs they liked, and then bring those designs to the market. We built the online platform to make the design and voting process possible, got great placements in some of the biggest trade shows in the country, but found manufacturing and sales distribution incredibly difficult. We met a lot of people at these trade shows, and we realized that they were really drawn to the idea of connecting the right people to simplify the design process and make it more efficient. We took a good look at the marketplace, a good look in the mirror, and decided it was time to evolve. We dropped the idea of making and selling our own products, and became a technology platform that connects brands to industrial and graphic designers. We’ve really honed our product — a combination of talent pool, design process and project management.

Dillard’s department store ran the first project on the Red Clay platform. The tools we provided and the clear scope outlined on the platform allowed Dillard’s to create custom pieces that spoke directly to their consumer within weeks. Their team spent just a few hours managing the process, received implementable concepts and deliverables from talented designers around the globe, and together they created a collection that spoke directly to their target customer.

Results: 75 Design Concepts were submitted and 12 were brought to market. The concepts were so overwhelmingly popular the Dillard’s team manufactured more than planned. The products sold in stores and online at a five times sell through rate, and several pieces sold out.

One of the Designers: Marco Gallegos. This Rhode Island School of Design alum, who has worked with design studios in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, was able to apply his extensive knowledge of furniture, home accessories, and wood to the particular needs of Dillard’s and the desires of their customers.

How do you go from concept to finished product?
Join Phase: Once a designer finds a design project, or two, or many, that excites them they can just click a button to show their interest. Their quality portfolio and personal description will be placed directly in the hands of the brand sponsoring the project.

Design Phase: Designers then ideate, sketch, and submit initial concepts to the brand. They’re compensated for all submitted work and have the opportunity to message with the brand about their brief.

Revise Phase: Designers receive feedback on their first ideas, refine, add detail, and submit fuller, more specific designs to the brand for review.

Deliver Phase: From the beginning, the designers have known what technical specs the brand expects and needs to move forward with manufacturing. Once a winning design (or multiple designs) are chosen, designers submit technical drawings and are awarded a buyout fee from the brand.

Where does the team find inspiration? How do you keep the team inspired?
We are incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by inspiration inside and outside of the office. Inside, we are surrounded by 300 talented industrial designers. Being based in the bay area we have endless inspiration. We recently took a visit to the Museum of Craft and Design.

What keeps you up at night?
Growing up I was the girl at slumber parties who awoke with whipped cream or a mustache on her face. Sleep has always been a talent of mine, until recently. It started when I was asked to be interviewed by Jason Calacanis at Launch Beacon in NYC. I kept awaking to those nightmare dreams of slipping on stage, being tongue tied, all the great stage fright dreams. Luckily I have really grown to love chatting to the public about what we are up to at Red Clay and find that, today, the things that float through my mind the most are endless ideas and making sure our team has what they need to be successful.

What medium have you never worked with but would like to try?
Wool and its place in the home and fashion.

What does your leading designer’s / CEO’s desk look like?
Looking to my left at Abby’s desk makes me smile. It tells a beautiful story of her Red Clay journey. There is a traveling coffee mug from one of Red Clay’s investors, thank you gifts from events she has spoken at, sunflowers and, yes, a cocktail mixer in the distance for those in-office late evening Manhattans.

What’s a typical day like at your office?
The most “typical” a day gets is starting out together, eating and drinking coffee. Beyond that, pretty much anything is fair game. That’s what keeps it exciting and us always on our toes.

Does the firm have a mascot / sacred room / nicknames / anything quirky?
The team loves their animals, leaving us with many amazing mascots: cats, dogs and even a snake.

What are three things you believe in right now?
The power of connecting and sharing knowledge, keeping it simple, and commitment.

Connecting and Sharing Knowledge
“We are social creatures. Our natural need to connect with one another, to record and pass on knowledge, has informed the design of many tools of communication. The internet is today’s most powerful example, altering our sense of geography and distance and forming new kinds of communities through social networking with a constant flow of knowledge, data and images at our fingertips . . .” — Cooper-Hewitt Tools Exhibition

Keeping it Simple.
“Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.” – Dieter Rams

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back – concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that is the moment one definitely commits oneself . . . all sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Weather you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” – Goethe

What are you currently fascinated by? How is that feeding into your work?
I am fascinated by the idea that every solution equals a new opportunity. Specifically, I have been thinking a lot about the sharing economy. As the on-demand workforce rises in design and beyond so will new economies, economies that will revisit history and feed the newly found increases in the technology enabled self-employed workforce. It will effect and create new opportunities in health care, retirement funds, how the self-employed complete taxes, and more.

What excites you about the future of design?
Dieter Rams and the youth. I am excited to see which pieces current and future designers take from history, such as inspiration from some of the greats like Dieter Rams, and apply it to the future of designing objects, technology, business and government.

How does San Francisco influence the work you do?
With events like, Ethics of Design and exhibits like Ai Weiwei’s at Acaltraz earlier this year, we are constantly influenced to challenge and think beyond the norm.

Any upcoming, exciting projects you can talk about?
There are so many exciting projects on the platform right now. I wish I could talk about all of them! To give you a peek into one of them, think about the future of gardening and how we get food.

Wine, liquor or beer?
Wine and bourbon.

What are studio’s tips for other designers out there who may just be getting started?
Paint a clear picture of your vision, commit, and evolve. Look and evolve it every day. It will be your driving force in the good times and bad (there will be plenty of these, promise. If not, please share your secret).

If your studio had a motto, what would it be?
Go Team