Acclaimed US designer heeds humble Holon roots

Gadi Amit won a National Design Award for ‘objects that are beautiful and have a lot of design value, yet are functional for Joe Public.’

Fast Company magazine declared him one of the ‘1000 Most Creative People’ for 2014, and last year he lunched with the US First Lady after receiving the 2013 National Design Award. His team at New Deal Design in San Francisco has received more than 100 design awards since its founding 14 years ago.

Israel-born Gadi Amit is surely proud of these accomplishments, but doesn’t let the accolades distract him from listening to his hands.

“The wisdom of the hand is amazingly important for any process of innovation,” he says.

This helped make New Deal one of the top five design teams in the United States, and explains why companies from giant Google to tiny startups seek New Deal’s help to envision the gadgetry of the future. The wisdom of Amit’s hands has most recently taken the shape of Fitbit wearable health-tracking devices, Google’s Ara Modular phone, the Lytro camera and Sproutling wearable baby monitor.

Lytro, the world’s first light field camera.

Lytro, the world’s first light field camera.

The tech industry, Amit tells ISRAEL21c, is too cerebral and overwhelmingly glorifies analytics.

“The way things are created is not always the result of a problem looking for a solution and is not always linear. There are a lot of serendipitous ways in which solutions present themselves.”

He has been listening to the wisdom of his hands since he was a child growing up in Holon, a city south of Tel Aviv that today houses the world-renowned Design Museum.

“I was the kid who always built stuff with LEGO, but I wasn’t a great painter or anything like that,” says Amit, whose parents were architects. “At the same time, I was always thinking about forms and objects. I somehow discovered, late in my army service when I was about 22, that there is something called industrial design.”

Whistle device for pet tracking.

Whistle device for pet tracking.

This appealed to him immediately. “I wanted to hold something in my hand, something I made, and architecture is too big to grasp in your hand. I wanted to control the end-to-end creation of the object.”

Very uncool

Amit first aspired to be an automotive designer but when he started studying at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, he came across an early Macintosh computer.

“From that moment, I was enamored of the notion of an object that has some intelligence in it and enables sophisticated interaction between people,” says Amit, 51.

Not everyone shared his enthusiasm.

“I started designing for electronics when it was still uncool,” he says. “Most of my peers wanted to be famous furniture designers in those days.”

Sproutling wearable baby monitor.

Sproutling wearable baby monitor.

Times have changed. When Amit went to a recent furniture design fair in Milan – New Deal Design is now dabbling in functional furniture – the Italians were in awe of the nifty Lytro light-field camera he designed for a California company.

“It was bizarre that Milanese designers were dreaming about doing what we do here, while in Silicon Valley we’re dreaming of furniture design.”

Amit ended up in Silicon Valley through his work with Scitex (now Scailex), an Israel-based company that collaborated with California’s Frogdesign on the Snow White design language for Macintosh – bringing Amit back to the very object that sparked his career and into a close working relationship with Steve Jobs.

“After three years I had the opportunity to move here to work for Frog. It was very much a dream job. I landed here at the end of 1993 and have been here ever since.”

Common-sense creations

When Amit founded New Deal, he chose a name that reflected his disdain for the prevailing elitist approach. There would be no $50,000 chairs coming out of his 30-person company.

Ara, Google's modular smartphone.

Ara, Google’s modular smartphone.

Being from humble Holon, a quintessentially middle-class Israeli city, “it was important to me to create meaningful objects that could improve people’s lives without taking a second mortgage,” says Amit.

“New Deal Design is about that common-sense ability to deliver objects that are beautiful and have a lot of design value yet are functional and effective in day-to-day use for Joe Public.”

Married to a graphic designer and curator originally from Tel Aviv, Amit visits family in Israel about twice a year.

“I spent a lot of time in the desert in my youth, and now I ‘force’ my Americanized daughters to enjoy the desert,” Amit says with a laugh. “Last year we took them to Timna [the Arava desert site of an ancient copper mining operation] and they had a lot of fun.”

A boy in a toy store

His daughters are 16 and 12 years old, about the same ages as the Obama girls.

“Meeting Michelle Obama was some kind of a pinnacle,” says Amit. “She’s a very impressive person and I had the opportunity to have lunch with her. We had an amazing talk about our girls.”

Sling is a New Deal design.

Sling is a New Deal design.

The First Lady was an early adopter of Fitbit’s wearable, wireless activity trackers, whose design earned Amit a lot of attention.

Of course, great design does not guarantee success. New Deal designed the sleek charging stations for the Better Place electric car network that ran out of gas, so to speak, last year.

“It hurts,” Amit concedes. “We were emotionally attached to Better Place. But it’s part of life. Trying to make a dent in the universe is always a risky business and inevitably leads to some failures.”

There is no time for looking back, however. “We have so many exciting things going on. We are neck deep into wearables,” says Amit.

Gadi Amit: Designing Tech To Anticipate Cultural Shifts from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

“We are one of the forerunners in this field, so we have a few very interesting product designs coming around the corner. We are working on two very large projects in the space between furniture and electronics, one of which will be public in three or four months. We also deal with inventing new computing platforms for an industry that has been shell-shocked by mobile phones.”

He is referring to Ara, Google’s modular phone system comprised of a base onto which users can slide a CPU, screen, camera, battery and other components that suit their needs. Amit calls it “one of the more significant attempts to break the mold and start again in the mobile phone industry.”

Surprisingly, he is not a big tech user himself.

“I hardly use any of the projects I design. I typically throw these things by the side and move on,” he admits. “I’m to some degree a boy in a toy store.”

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.