Meet Vincent Valderrama: Engineering Director

Engineering Director

Smart Design is a strategic design consultancy that helps people live better and work smarter.

Sometimes it’s about reinventing a new product category. Or re-imagining an entire system. To the end user, the design is seamless; for Smart, it’s an in-depth process of refining the key components that make good experiences great. Our engineers and designers work behind the scenes on prototyping and rapid iteration to make sure the product or service is the best it can be, meets consumer needs, and can stand the test of time in the real world. 
We sat down with Vincent Valderrama, Engineering Director, to learn about the challenges of designing everything from a spray mop to glass storage containers, why inexpensive 3D printers are making product development faster and more flexible, and how he became the star of a YouTube series with several million views and counting.

Tell us about a time you solved an intimidating design challenge

One of the first projects I worked on at Smart was a spray mop for OXO. Based on user insights and research, we had already designed two innovative features for the product: a slim profile to clean hard-to-reach spaces under furniture, and a removable scrubber head for different surfaces (most people have two flooring materials, such as wood and tile). The challenge was to make the scrubber head—which included a large and complex mechanism in early iterations—just the right size while also more intuitive to use. It was a classic design problem, with two conflicting user requirements to resolve. In the end, we were able to refine and simplify the mechanism to a simplified foot pedal and spring-loaded locking feature that allowed for the slim profile we knew was important. The client was able to launch what became a very popular product.

What are the new frontiers of your discipline?

Rapid additive prototyping has changed dramatically since I was in engineering school. Back then we shared one very expensive 3D printer between hundreds of students. Now, prices have gotten low enough that most engineers can afford to have one, even at home. With several large format printers at Smart Design, we don’t have to rely on external vendors—and that makes rapid prototyping and model making much faster and our timetable more flexible. 

The latest printers can also handle different materials such as silicone-like and thermal plastic elastomers—not just hard plastic, as before—and that opens up new opportunities for high-temperature products. In the future, we’ll likely see more and more bespoke products made for individual consumers from 3D printers rather than mass production. You’ll have customization and on-demand consumption on a scale we’re not used to seeing.

With several large format printers at Smart Design, we don’t have to rely on external vendors—and that makes rapid prototyping and model making much faster and our timetable more flexible.”

So what is engineering anyway?

First, I’ll say what engineers are not: inventors or scientists. By that, I mean we don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Engineering is about applying the knowledge that’s already well known as a tool kit to solve problems. Design engineers use conventional methods to make a product better or more efficient or user-friendly and with more functional benefits. That’s the nature of product design engineering: we think about the internal workings of a product and look for the simplest way of improving it while always maintaining the overall design intent.

What types of problems do you find exciting?

The most exciting problems are those that bring me into an industry or product category or let me engage with new materials. This often happens at Smart Design, because of the variety of projects: one day it’s a medical device, the next it’s advanced engineering for something like the Gatorade Smart Gx Bottle. One of my first projects here was designing a line of glass food storage containers with leak-proof silicone lids. I’d worked with plastic but not glass, and had to learn about this artisan material, which has more pure, organic forms than plastic. Ultimately, we created a very successful line of glass vessels with plastic tops and a gasket for a good seal. It was beautiful—with the right aesthetic and design perspective and being engineered for mass production.

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Explore careers at Smart Design

We offer flexible work that intentionally combines the benefits of remote work with in-person collaboration.

Join us

Explore careers at Smart Design

We offer flexible work that intentionally combines the benefits of remote work with in-person collaboration.

Describe the qualities of a designer at Smart Design

They’re always ready to dive right into a project and do the groundwork to be fully immersed in the product space. They have a deep sense of empathy for the end user because it drives human-centered design. But we also understand it’s not just the consumer that has to deal with our decisions; it’s our clients, factory workers, and vendors too—and we keep that in mind. Our designers and engineers are amazing collaborators, and many come from different backgrounds. Teams are multidisciplinary; it’s rare to have two engineers on a single project. This means we have to understand each other’s perspectives and communicate technical details to partners with different backgrounds.

Talk about the leadership at Smart Design

There are well-defined leadership roles, but we also empower people to embrace leadership at all levels. Everyone from interns to senior staff is given the space to learn and grow and lead projects. This way you own the project and even present it to clients because they like hearing from the people that are doing the work on the ground. Leadership at Smart is also about humility and setting your ego aside. We never assume we know everything about a product or sector and are always willing to be proven wrong. What we like to say is, “Show me a better way.” 

What influences your design work?

That’s easy: good design! It can be as simple as a mug with just the right handle or a well-weighted kitchen spoon with steel inside that gives it the right center of mass. And then there are more complex systems, such as the Samsung bespoke refrigerator I recently purchased. A refrigerator is very functional, of course, but this one has some really thoughtful usability and design features: for example, you can change the panels to add colored glass instead of the typical stainless steel. They managed to make a fridge more human and versatile. I often refer to Bernd Polster’s book Braun: Fifty Years of Design and Innovation about the German product design company and how it consistently uses simple forms to create visual impact. Their iconic coffee maker and stereo speakers have influenced how I think about design.

On a personal note, tell us about what you’re reading, learning, and creating

I love to cook. I’m always discovering new techniques and gadgets, such as a paella kit or a sous vide machine. During the pandemic, I got into baking. A year ago, I was asked by the company Epicurious to start a YouTube show called “Tried & Tested” which lets me use my design engineering experience to put different kitchen appliances to the test. I use the same criteria and approach I would at Smart, exploring a product’s features, price, and benefits and what’s best for the consumer. For example, the first episode pitted a $25 blender against a $600 model. Will the lowercost blender meet your needs? Or should you splurge on the expensive option? (You’ll have to watch the episode to find out.) I enjoy all these kitchen tools—and, of course, the food!

About Vincent Valderrama, Engineering Director

Vincent is an Engineering Director who is inspired by nature and complex (and simple) mechanical systems. He brings expertise in mechanical design, design for manufacturability and assembly, and value engineering. He has worked in sectors including consumer packaged goods, housewares, and medical devices, with notable clients such as OXO, L’Oreal, and Millipore Sigma. He has a degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh University and was named inventor on more than 40 patents.

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