Case Study Ziba Design

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2011 “Making the Case” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.

The project was to design, organize and implement the 2010 International Conference for the Industrial Designers Society of America. As a consultancy with significant industrial design capabilities and a long involvement with the IDSA, Ziba was asked to plan the conference pro bono, from concept and visual identity to publicity, scheduling and speaker selection. The design team was tasked with creating an event relevant to the current generation of industrial designers, that would attract strong attendance and reinforce IDSA’s role as the premier organization for working industrial designers.

The field of creative professional conferences is broad and varied, with many IDs attending conferences held by professional organizations such as AIA, AIGA and IXDA, as well as conferences with general creative appeal such as South by Southwest Interactive, Gravity Free, Pop! Tech and TEDx.


Environment: $4,000; Printed collateral: $8,000; Attendee gifts: $10,000


For this project, Ziba had an unusual resource available: an internal team of industrial designers who matched with the conference’s target audience precisely. Their insights proved invaluable to the conference team throughout the project, from initial concept to detailed execution. They participated in early brainstorms to help identify the DIY theme, suggested speakers and activities, and rigorously critiqued specific aspects of the conference design, from signage and display fixtures to website and printed assets. “If the ID team gets it, then the conference will too,” became a regular refrain.


For decades, the Industrial Designers Society of America has been the nation’s premier gathering point for product designers: the go-to organization for professionals who create the next generation of cars, electronic gadgets, athletic shoes or almost anything mass-produced. And like most professional societies, the high point of IDSA’s annual calendar is its conference. For years the IDSA International Conference has been a typical gathering, bringing around 600 designers together in a hotel or convention center to get inspired, exchange business cards and portfolios, talk to vendors, and bestow awards.

When planning began for the 2010 IDSA Conference, it was clear that these annual events were starting to lose relevance. Attendance was flat, and online discussions pointed to a disparity between conference content and the changing realities of the design profession. Many creative professions have suffered generational gaps in recent years, but industrial design is at a particularly volatile moment: A burgeoning DIY ethos and cheap, powerful independent design and manufacturing tools are changing the way objects get created and the expectations consumers have of them. This is especially true for younger working designers in their 20s and 30s, who are experiencing these shifts firsthand.

Blogging and desktop publishing signaled a tumultuous shift for the publishing industry in the early 2000s, and the industrial design profession today is facing a similar shake-up. Consumers now examine the things they own with new scrutiny, demanding a deeper understanding of where they came from and how they were made. Emerging communities of makers, crafters and DIY enthusiasts are creating for each other and themselves what they might once have bought.

Ziba’s home base of Portland, Oregon, boasts one of the nation’s most active DIY communities, so it made a natural venue for hosting the IDSA 2010 Conference and exploring this upheaval. When IDSA selected Portland as the conference host city, Ziba was quick to propose DIY Design as a theme. The Portland Hilton was booked, and we began assembling a multidisciplinary design team to help with the planning.


Design conferences typically center on a series of high-profile designers presenting their latest, most inspirational work, but we realized that the 2010 conference would have to be different to be relevant. What we envisioned instead was a cross-craft discussion: a speaking schedule designed to bring together a more diverse spectrum of creators than ever before, from formally trained designers to garage-based entrepreneurs and artists from far outside the ID community. Not only would the discussion be new, but every touch point of the conference had to reflect this shift. The end result needed to celebrate Portland, celebrate the surge of modern invention, and resonate powerfully with young designers in a rapidly changing field.

The modern DIY resurgence carries a sense of excitement and upheaval—a feeling that the tools of creation are being passed around freely, and that for the first time in decades something truly unexpected might come of them. In designing the conference, we realized we couldn’t just schedule a series of talks; we had to make a platform. The maker and crafter communities are revolutionary because of their lack of predefined outcomes, so IDSA 2010 would need to relinquish some control of the space and discussion, and combine visual and programmatic elements in unpredictable ways.

First, this meant utilizing existing platforms wherever possible. The conference website was built on a Wordpress blogging platform, and the printed Speaker Guides and City Guides were based on a 32-page notebook format called the Scout Book, invented by a local Portland print shop. The environmental graphics and signage took obvious, recognizable fixtures and materials and repurposed them: we built display tables out of spray-painted sawhorses and raw-edged honeycomb cardboard, and poster racks from Autopoles, string and binder clips. In each case, the DIY imperative of using familiar objects in creative ways drove the design, resulting in a lo-fi/high-design tension that permeated the conference venue.

The second driving theme was hackability: Wherever we could, we designed assets and signage that encouraged attendees to modify them. At its simplest, this meant graphics that were obviously temporary, from magnetic decorations on the escalators to vinyl clingfilm on the framed artwork of the conference center. At its most elaborate, it meant an 8' × 60' Pixel Wall made of painted boxes slotted into a Fome-Cor grid, forming custom icons depicting the “threat” and “opportunity” aspects of the DIY resurgence.

In the months before the conference, we hinted at this hackability by building opportunities for customization into the publicity initiatives and website. The “Participate” section on the conference microsite included a downloadable file of assets for creating custom posters, a gallery of DIY project images driven by an open Flickr group, and a Mad Libs–style letter that readers could download, complete and submit to their managers to ask permission to attend the conference.

More than in its environmental and graphic design, IDSA 2010 departed from previous years’ conferences in its programming choices. Of 30+ presenters, only five were formally trained industrial designers. Instead, we devoted the bulk of the schedule to independent innovators from further afield: software developers, chefs, medical doctors, magazine and blog editors, artists, instrument builders and other professions with much to teach professional designers about the merits of the DIY approach.


The success of the conference can be measured by its reach, which was considerable. True to their design intent, the conference graphics and assets were tweaked and repurposed by attendees from the very first day. Magnets showed up on cars parked outside, and pixels migrated across the Pixel Wall, distorting the icons. Attending firms and individuals seized upon the DIY theme and brought their own contributions. Lunar Design arrived from the Bay Area with entry forms for an impromptu design competition that they designed and screenprinted themselves. Wieden + Kennedy featured local independent food vendors at its IDSA rooftop party, serving from hand-built plywood replicas of their carts down on the street. A visiting furniture designer carted homemade lounge chairs built from shipping pallets into the main ballroom, inviting attendees to use them instead of the provided seating.

The conference content was a marked break from previous years. Moderated panel discussions each morning brought together experts who might never have otherwise shared a stage, resulting in cross-craft discussions that exposed a broad spectrum of potential in the DIY scene. Highlights included Dale Dougherty of Make magazine debating the value of open source design with Michael Czysz, designer of the world’s fastest electric motorcycle (a decidedly closed-system project), and Vanessa Bertozzi of discussing the role of craft and entrepreneurship in design school with educators from the Oregon College of Art and Craft.

DIY-enabling services and technologies were well represented, with small companies like Ponoko, Uncommon, Blurb and Newspaper Club telling their stories and showcasing the exploits of their customers. Major players like Nike and Intel showed how mass customization and an internal DIY design ethic are transforming their business. Taken together, this let attendees draw a clear line from the rising communities of makers and crafters to the effect they’re having on design and industry, both as a source of ideas and a growing consumer group.

More importantly, the discussions sparked by the conference, both intentional and incidental, were more substantial than at any conference in recent memory. Reactions from Metropolis, Fast Company, Monocle and other publications were overwhelmingly positive, reporting not just on speakers and panels, but reflecting on the growing role of amateur and independent design in the professional world. More broadly, the ongoing discussion on independent blogs, discussion boards and local media channels has been rigorous, suggesting a conference that was timely, appropriate and open-ended enough to advance the crucial design conversation of the next decade.

Response from the IDSA itself reinforced this impression:

“We absolutely needed this and you and your team delivered! I believe this conference will be memorable for its quality and smart approach for sometime to come. We now have a new bench mark!” —Eric Anderson, IDSA President

“What an amazing job you and the team did for the conference. I received a lot of great comments about the presentations and the content. Things like, I can’t believe we got the Mayor of Portland to be at the opening of an IDSA conference to, I learned more from that musical instrument maker than I have learnt from any designer..the breadth of positive comment was huge. I heard a number of corporate designers comment on the fact that after the first morning of keynotes, they totally understood how DIY applied to them.” —Clive Roux, IDSA CEO

written by Kevin Max 

Sohrab Vossoughi, 53, left Tehran, Iran for the United States forty years ago to study engineering. He worked for Hewlett-Packard before falling in love with Portland. It was there, in 1984 that Vossoughi founded Ziba, a gold standard in industrial design. Ziba works with clients like Honda and Nike to help design products and packaging, branding and communications. Designing for a global market demands a global perspective. Today, at Ziba’s headquarters, you’ll find people from eighteen countries collaborating across many disciplines and projects in a Pearl District building that is, itself, a marvel of creativity and sustainable building. Vossoughi lives in Portland with his wife, Haleh, his son, Aria and daughter, Ava.

You had already left Iran for the UnitedStates before the Iranian Revolution.What do you miss most?

I miss the food, hospitality, learning, the importance of family and experiencing the multitude of human interactions that make up daily life in Iran, such as frequenting the newsstand, the neighborhood grocer and tea shop. The values and philosophy rooted in ancient Persian culture are still with me. For example, I think of Persian proverbs in my daily life to this day, proverbs that have even guided me in creating and managing Ziba and moving it forward.

How did you end up at San Jose State? What were your first impressions of America?

My father sent my uncle to the U.S. in the early 1960s to study, and then he sent my brother in 1969. I followed in 1971, initially to finish high school and get a college degree and learn the language. We lived in San Jose. I wanted to study engineering, and San Jose State had a very good program and was close. The plan was always for me and my brother to return to Iran after my studies. But then the revolution took place in 1977 and we delayed going back, with the result that I’ve been here ever since, except for a visit to Iran in 2001.

My first impressions? Moving to a new culture is always hard, especially when you leave your parents behind. It was not easy because it was such a huge change. If it hadn’t been for my brother and my uncle, it would have been much more difficult. Some things were strange, but I adapted. Persians assimilate very quickly.

What I noticed was that the family was not the center of society, it was the individual. In Iran, people from extended families live very close to each other and kids are never alone. For me, it was strange to eat dinner alone. While the social fabric seemed thinner, I learned quickly that in the U.S. what counts is to be independent and make your own way in the world.

The other surprising thing was to see that everybody worked, and worked hard. In Iran, it was still unusual for kids and students to work, and there was a clear balance between work and home.
Of course, I started working right away because there was the opportunity to work, even though my father was furious with my uncle about it. We told him that was just the way it was here.

Generational respect was missing and jarring to me. For example, in the classroom, I noticed respect was lacking. In Iran as in other countries the teacher is like a god. Respect for authority and elders were missing.

Of course I loved the abundance and the freedom. You could be anything by working hard. It is still the land of opportunity. I still believe that nowhere else like the U.S. allows you to do what you want and succeed.

In 1982, the U.S. was in a recession.You left Hewlett Packard and began consulting with companies in Portland. Why Portland?

In 1982, I was freelancing but still at HP. In 1984, I launched Ziba Design. I love Portland. I connect with
the way it is situated, the nature and water giving it a character similar to European cities that I encountered when I first left Iran. Portland’s values of humanity, craft, lack of pretension and balance appeal to me. A lot of start-ups were here at that time, and it had an atmosphere conducive to taking risks. I had the chance to return to California or go elsewhere but I wanted to be here.

Tell me about the genesis for Ziba and its early days.

When I got married, I was working at Hewlett Packard, freelancing at the same time and Haleh was going to school. About a year later, I took a huge risk and left HP. Haleh gave me enormous support and encouraged me to seize the opportunity, do what I wanted to do and not be afraid of failure. She helped with office work such as bookkeeping and even sanding models in the early days. I couldn’t have done it without her.

For the first few years it was myself, a few interns and short-term contractors. But it was a good time to be starting, as barriers to entry in Portland were low. The cost of living was manageable and an entrepreneur could go a long time without running out of steam or funds. What was difficult was finding designers in Portland. That has certainly changed. My first fulltime hire was Henry Chin in 1987, who is today’s Ziba’s executive director.

ProForm exercise equipment was an early client, and since we worked out of their facility, that helped us incubate and develop in a way that was mutually beneficial. Nevertheless, I learned some hard lessons on starting a business, as do all entrepreneurs.

What resources does Ziba bring to a design process?

We started by focusing on designing and creating beautiful objects, and now we create beautiful experiences, which include and integrate objects (products), environments such as retail, services, communications, and interaction design such as user interface and web. Almost everything is created in the context of the user experience and the brand. The resources we bring are many. We are so
multidisciplinary that we can take innovation projects from beginning to end. We can take the innovation process from the definition of the brand and consumer, to identifying opportunities for the consumer and brand, to giving a brand an identity, creating a design strategy and applying that strategy to everything related to a brand whether it is a store, packaging, product, Internet or servicefor a 360 degree experience. Our design practice groups are Consumer Insights and Trends, Industrial Design, Environments Design, Communication Design and Interaction Design.

Tell me about the relationship between creativity and workspace and how that plays out at your Pearl District building.

Creativity is our daily bread. So what we designed is a building that supports creative work. That means we have as many project rooms as individual desk space, because creative work depends on collaboration and teamwork, particularly if you have a multidisciplinary group. The project rooms enable teams to maximize the amount of time working together, minimizing the amount of time they spend
in solitary activity at their desks.

We also wanted to build in opportunities for spontaneous brainstorming and serendipity. The various empty spaces— corridors, lounge areas, the kitchen, the two decks—allow people to bump into each other and easily find a comfortable place to exchange ideas.

Flexibility is very important to creativity— whether in time or space. We need to know what is the boundary, but the boundary needs to be elastic. I think of it like creating a six-lane not one-lane highway.

What are the benefits of a multicultural office?

Rigid thinking is the enemy of innovation. Having many cultures represented keeps rigidity at bay. I believe it is very important to be exposed to different points of views and insights that emerge from different cultures. A behavior that makes sense in Japan may seem alien in the U.S. , but it could also
be forward looking. In the Ziba culture, tolerance for a variety of perspectives is built into our daily lives.

We are a microcosm of America, even the world. That is why the U.S. is such a good environment for innovation, because despite its many real issues and problems, it is still very tolerant compared to many other countries.

What are the benefits to clients?

Innovation! Having different points of viewcreates breakthroughs. Most of our clients are global companies that need various perspectives and for their design partner to understand global culture.

The World Cup must have been interesting at Ziba.

We had a huge screen in the Ziba auditorium running all the games so that staff could have fun watching. I was often there for the 7 a.m. games. I thought Argentina, Spain and Holland had the best odds of making it to the semifinals. Two out of three was not bad!

What are you working on now?

Once the Industrial Designer Society of America 2010 conference is over on August 7, I’ll be turning my attention to the Portland Center for Design and Innovation. PCDI is a nonprofit, city-supported
initiative to raise Portland’s contribution to the design industry and economy. The first phase will focus on creating a materials library in the city, which I believe, will make Portland a regular destination for designers all over the U.S. western region. Right now the only such library is in New York. When we have one here, designers from Vancouver to Los Angeles to Phoenix will have the option to view cutting edge material in Portland rather than the more expensive New York.

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