Meet the designer behind the Fitbit

February 28, 2014, 7:51 PM UTC

Gadi Amit has the bearing of an artist, but his salt-and-pepper beard, denim button-down shirt, slim-fit gray slacks, and work-boot-inspired footwear all recall the uniform of a manufacturer—with a little Bay Area flair, of course.

On his wrist is a Fitbit, the trendy piece of wearable tech that combines a pedometer, altimeter, and sleep-tracker. Amit says the device has an intuitive user interface, a good fit for a wearer’s body, and, above all, functionality.

He should know. He designed it.

The Israeli designer, 51, creates products with people in mind. He is perhaps best known for the original Fitbit, but his body of work is varied. In the past, he designed the Palm Zire, which sold over a million units and was one of the fastest-selling personal digital assistants of the early 2000s. He worked with Dell and Netgear to design the Inspiron notebook and Platinum II router, respectively. He has worked on other wearables such as Whistle—a health tracker for dogs—and Sproutling, which is sometimes referred to as a “Fitbit for babies.”

“The hyping effect with all these gadgets is that you’re not really sure you need them,” Amit says. “So how do we make sure that whatever we make becomes part of your life?”

MORE: This fitness wearable tells you how to improve

Amit’s design firm in San Francisco, NewDealDesign, is deliberately small, employing just 30 people. But the workshop is open and airy, with a rustic industrial feel. Exposed concrete pillars—remnants of the post-1906 earthquake reconstruction—and metal accents complement the hardwood floors. Pop-art-inspired décor, from furry rugs to bright typographical wall art, infuses the space. A large wall covered in whiteboard paint has a few dozen accurately depicted Star Wars vessels in black dry-erase marker—all sketched from memory by one of the designers.

Sprawled across the workshop’s rectangular floor is an open desk system lovingly dubbed “The Spine,” where designers have side-by-side computer workstations. Off to the side of the main workspace are smaller collaboration rooms with tables, abundant sketchbooks, and more whiteboard walls. In the far back corner of the office, there is a room that houses the technical workshop, where designers spend much of their time creating scale models of their products out of the same foam material used in surfboard cores.

The crude construction process is actually the most important part of designing, Amit says. “A lot of studios make design a little more cerebral and a little more cognitive,” he says. “I’m in the other camp. I like to make design more visceral.” Amit believes in the “wisdom of the hand,” and he instructs his designers to use pens, paper, foam, wood, and other rudimentary materials before switching to computers. “Computers force you to think ahead and kill the serendipity of exploration,” he says. “The strength of the company comes from not only being analytical but also from play.”

The products in Amit’s design portfolio—the Lytro camera, the Fitbit Force, the Better Place electric car charging station, the interactive Sifteo Cubes—have a particular character to them. Whereas design powerhouses like Apple (AAPL) focus on what Amit calls a “precious” aesthetic—masculine lines, sharp corners, and cool metal—Amit’s designs seem downright cuddly, with rounded edges, soft plastics, bright colors, and durability. In the NewDealDesign world, everything is tactile. The days of placing technology under a glass to be gawked at have passed.

Whistle co-founder Steven Eidelman recalls when he chose Amit’s firm for his product in October 2012. “Some firms were too utilitarian or too practical, or they treated their designs like an art project,” Eidelman says. “Gadi and his team knew the balance.” The firm’s designers also helped Eidelman’s team articulate the company’s brand. “We had no idea what it should look like,” Eidelman says. “It was part therapy for us to come to a point where we understood what we wanted to build. Working with Gadi helped us refine what we wanted.”

When this reporter visits the NewDeal workshop, she is given a rare glimpse into the process of designing a product from start to finish. In one of the collaboration rooms, sketches made with art markers, each slightly different, adorn the walls. The sketches are for a product under development—call it an entertainment device—whose physical form has yet to be determined. Earlier in the day, the client gave their feedback; now, Amit and a few of his colleagues are hashing out the details of the design.

Later, in another meeting in another room, Amit and a different team of designers discuss the progress of a product that is further along. This product—which focuses on personal care—has reached the stage where decisions about final colors and potential names have come into play. “Red is too bloody,” Amit says at one point, with disgust, as a designer brings his attention to the next mockup. For a personal care product, a crimson hue won’t do.

The team moves on to discussing potential names for the product. Suggestions range from the foreign to the familiar to utterly made-up words. With the client holding the final say, the team at NewDealDesign is preparing for all possible outcomes.

It’s this same process that one of the firm’s early customers, Sling Media, endured for its Slingbox media-streaming device. Together, Sling and NewDeal settled on the product’s initial trapezoid shape. They went on to collaborate on more than a dozen new products. “In the design world you can have really crazy people who will die by design and can be difficult to work with,” former Sling project manager Andrew Einaudi says. “Gadi is patient and balanced and very clear. When I started leaning toward the wrong design choice, he would provide guidance.”

Amit grew up in a suburb of Tel Aviv during the 1960s. His parents were both architects, and he remembers needing to hide his LEGO blocks from his father, who also loved to play with them. In high school, Amit gravitated to science and technology. After his mandatory service in the Israeli military, Amit enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, hoping to become an industrial designer.

His first job was with an Israeli design and manufacturing company called Scitex (now called Scailex) as a model-maker. During the day, he would make models for his boss’s designs. At night, he would model his own versions of the products. “My designs won, time after time,” Amit says.

The early 1990s were an exciting time for computer-based industrial design, and Amit moved to the United States to work at Frog Design under the German industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger. The well-known firm had just finished its work on Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer, and Amit joined in time to work on projects such as a modular storage system for EMC. When the dot-com crash took the air out of the technology industry, Amit felt that it was time to set off on his own.

Amit started NewDealDesign in the wake of the dot-com crash. It turned out to be a boon to the small studio: While major design firms flailed and tried to cover their losses, NewDeal was able to offer better rates. “We were in the boonies [of San Francisco],” Amit says. “It was a sketchy area—although we were adjacent to the offices for Burning Man.”

In the firm’s first two years, headcount grew from two people to 10. The firm went on a tear after making its breakthrough with the Palm Zire; its work for Netgear brought it further acclaim. The 2008 global economic downturn slowed the company’s progress until the Fitbit was released later that year. It has only grown in popularity since; with it, so has NewDeal’s fortunes.

One of Fitbit’s earliest proponents was Michelle Obama. Amit’s first meeting with the first lady of the United States, however, bordered on awkward. The original Fitbit, which is shaped like a large pill and was initially designed for women to clip onto their person, was most effectively worn in the B.F.C.—as in, “bra, front and center.”

“It was kind of embarrassing after it came out,” Amit says, “because at just about every social occasion I had, after I said I designed the Fitbit, a woman would do this.” Amit mimes reaching down the front of his shirt to pull out an imaginary Fitbit. “We got the National Design Award, and when I was at the White House, I started walking forward to shake the hand of the first lady, and she started doing that! And so I stop her, and I say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that!'”

For future projects, Amit says he wants to focus on the intersection of software, hardware, and cloud designs. He also wants to pump the brakes a bit. NewDealDesign has seen a 50% increase in projects in the last two years, with revenue to match. But Amit wants to keep the firm relatively small, and be the go-to for big problems. To do so, he will be more selective about projects, which can take one to one-and-a-half years to complete from start to finish. (At any given time, the firm is working on about 10 projects, for which it typically charges between $200,000 and more than $1 million each.)

By keeping the firm small, Amit hopes to preserve the serendipity of his design studio.

“We humanize technology,” he says. “We make technology connect, speak, and interact with humans in a positive way. We want people to enjoy technology. We want people to really thrive with technology.”

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