Interview with a Design Legend: Robert Brunner, Part II

A gathering of students. One wears a t-shirt that reads "The Degree is in Disruption"

August 26, 2021 | Interviewed by Erica Hur

In Part Two of this two-part interview with Robert Brunner, the renowned designer of paradigm-shifting products such as the Mac Powerbook and Beats headphones reveals his origin story as a designer. The founder of Ammunition Design Group shares some career advice, why he first hired Apple's most iconic designer Jony Ive in the 1990s, as well as the backstory on designing the Academy’s iconic Degree in Disruption t-shirt.

Don’t miss Part One of the interview, in which Brunner talks about his design philosophy, process and more.

Describe your path to becoming a designer? Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?  

It's kind of a yes and no about knowing. I didn't know that a profession as a designer existed until I was actually in college. You know, it's always interesting to look back at your history through a different lens.  

So I grew up in a household that was a very creative. My father was an engineer. He was a very creative engineer and he invented a lot of the mechanical technology in the first disc drives at IBM. He was also a builder – he was always building something [like the] two boats in our garage. My mom started out as a fashion model then she became a fine artist, a craftsperson, and eventually, she started her own children's clothing company. This was kind of the environment I grew up in – everything was a project and there was always something. I always joked about our Christmas tree – it was like performance art and every year it was different. My mom would go nuts on it so I just grew up in that environment, not really realizing it. Our house was filled with Danish modern furniture and I just thought it was furniture. I didn't realize it had any curation there.  

Anyway, I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do when I was a senior in high school. I went to see the counselor and he said, "Well you're good in math and science so you're an engineer. You should study engineering." I thought, "That's what my dad does, so I'll do that," and I decided to go to San Jose State. Largely because, again, I couldn't figure out where to go or what to do and it was easy.

I started off in engineering and found that I didn't really enjoy it. That high school counselor, if he had been any good, he would've looked and saw that I was also really strong in the arts and in all my shop classes. I was more a builder than a creator. So I thought I'm going to rebel against my dad and go over to the art building. I'd heard about this thing called graphic design and thought it was sort of like commercial art. Well, that could be interesting as I've been drawing and painting on my own. I walked into the building and there was this display case full of industrial design artifacts. You know, renderings, models, mock-ups, and sketches. I knew that was it, right in front of me.  

I've often said that I wonder what would've happened if I went into another door to a different part of the building. But that's how I got into design. After switching from engineering to design, I never looked back. School became fun and I was absorbing it – it just changed everything.  I found myself very, very fortunate to have stumbled onto my path. I know a lot of people take many years and many different careers to figure it out.

Back in the day, you hired Jony Ive, Apple's former Chief Design Officer. What were some of the qualities that struck you, and what career advice would you give to our students and aspiring designers. 

He came to visit me at my second company, Lunar. He was on a scholarship program that allowed him to travel and visit different areas. He came in and was super polite – a really sweet person and wanted to show his portfolio. He started showing it and all models he built which weren't just appearance models, but prototypes that worked or that you could take apart and show how it functioned. I remember thinking that this was so far advanced for a student to be able to carry something to this level of detail. It was an amazing, beautiful thing and everything had been figured out. After I saw it, I tried to hire him like three times and finally did. It's his ability and commitment to seize and have a vision, figure out and work it out to the nth degree, and then carry that into production. He has an amazing work ethic, but also this sort of joyous outlook. I think he had this rare combination of design ability and technical depth that you don't see often.  

As far as career advice, I like to say a good designer can make one thing really well – a model, a prototype, whatever. It takes a great designer to figure out how to make that thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of times over and move it into production. That not only takes skill and commitment, but as I was saying before, this ability to communicate and rally people around you. I think a lot of design education focuses on concept and developing concept, which of course is incredibly important, but I think some career advice I give is also really focusing on the technical aspects of how to manufacture and how to build something to market.  

As I mentioned earlier, social skills. Someone asked me recently what I would do differently if I went back to school and I said I would probably take a speech class, an acting class, and a stand-up comedy class. Your ability to stand in front of people and convince them of your idea and get them behind you is a really overlooked skill. As you go out into the world, whether you're starting a company or leading a huge project, having that ability really serves you. Go take a comedy class and learn to be comfortable standing in front of people! 

At the Academy, we emphasize the importance of learning from failure. Could you share what you think of this statement and why you think it’s important?  

It's very important. Obviously, you don't want to fail and don't want to be set up for failure. I think the thing you have to do is be willing to fail and be willing to take risks. When things don't go right, have the attitude of "Okay, that was interesting. I learned something here. I'm going to apply that next time." I think too many people let failures derail them, but the thing about being innovative is you have to take chances. Do your best, do your own diligence, but you’ve got to take a risk and sometimes it doesn't always work out. You have to be willing to do that and when it doesn't go right, you can't let that stop you. You have to learn to move on.

So, I think having that philosophy or thought path in school is really great. You don't want to have someone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure, because you won't do anything interesting. You'll just do the same thing over and over. Emphasizing that is really important. I remember when I was at Apple, and it was in a different generation of Apple, I was really impressed. People could fail once. If you kept failing, obviously that was a problem. But as long as you were trying to do something interesting and trying to create a new product that was innovative and pushing something, even if it failed, it didn't hurt your career. Again, if you did that over and over, yes. But I always felt there was an acceptance of failure as long as you were trying to push the envelope. I think that's super healthy and I really encourage that. I think it's great to have that approach in school because you don't want to teach people to fail. You want to teach people to be willing to fail and so that'll really allow you to go further. 

What has your experience working with Academy students been like so far? 

Honestly, great. I won't say I was surprised. I remember I didn't know what to expect because it's a new school and had an interesting combination of disciplines. Obviously USC is an amazing institution, but I was really impressed by the combination of intelligence and energy. Also, everyone was super polite and I think it's really important. The idea of being respectful, inquisitive, and intelligent is something that came across the very first time I was there and I thought that was exciting.  

When I started to see how the disciplines were working together, melding design, innovation, and entrepreneurship, I felt it was a really exciting place. I remember thinking that when I stop designing, this is the kind of place I'd want to teach at because there’s just really great energy there. 

The Degree in Disruption t-shirt you designed is now an Academy classic. What’s the inspiration, story, and process behind this t-shirt design? 

This was classic Jimmy Iovine. I worked with Jimmy for 10 years and loved the man – he's brilliant. But he called me and said, "Hey Robert, I need a t-shirt. Can you do it by tomorrow?" That's the way it worked. Honestly, I didn't have a lot of time. It's a very trite idea – the idea of a light bulb, Edison, the light bulb going off in your head. I was doodling and thinking about what could I do to twist that a little bit? So I thought maybe the lightbulb was exploding. Literally, it was the only idea as I didn't have time to play around with it much. I mocked it up, showed it to Jimmy and Dre, they liked it, literally did the artwork myself, and then just got it out the door. It's really funny that I hear it's a loved classic and it makes sense because that process totally fits Jimmy and Dre. I was always impressed working with them because they were very much "just do it." Ready, fire, aim was their kind of thing and so it makes sense that the whole Iovine and Young t-shirt went that way and I'm really pleased that everybody likes it. Again, sometimes your first idea is the best one anyways. But I didn't have time to do any other ideas. Figure this out, get the artwork done, print the t-shirts.

Thank you, Robert Brunner!

*This interview was edited for clarity.