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How century-old brand Whirlpool is leveraging design to map out its next 100 years

June 21, 2022, 5:59 PM UTC
Tisha Johnson, global consumer design lead at Whirlpool
Courtesy of Whirlpool

When Whirlpool founder Lou Upton received his first major order of 100 washing machines in the early 1900s, he quickly ran into trouble. A cast-iron gear failed in every single machine. Leaning on some rapid-fire innovation, Upton replaced the faulty parts with new cut-steel gears, not only solving the production problem, but doubling the company’s sales almost immediately.

Since then, Whirlpool has grown into a legacy brand, resonating with consumers across generations and American geography, consistently borrowing that same spirit of get-it-done problem solving. Tisha Johnson, global consumer design lead at the company, is one year in on her post and has found herself at the intersection of product design and consumer experience, particularly as the way we all live in and use our homes shift.

Johnson describes herself as “an analytical artist,” and recalls spending her childhood observing things and drawing perfect representations of them. She says the practice of replication taught her to create things from scratch. “That is the ID [industrial design] process in a nutshell.” 

In school, Johnson studied car design under a larger umbrella of industrial design, ultimately going on to work at Volvo and Herman Miller. “I consider myself to be continually scanning for ways to make things better,” she says, characterizing her design ethos and career trajectory. “Therefore, I don’t stop with the designs themselves. I often look to improve the process for our designers and for our business. This has led me into an area of focus; Digital Process Innovation. I work to create an environment where designers can explore, not only great solutions for our customers but great ways to elevate their own process of design.”

Now, at Whirlpool, Johnson is leveraging that philosophy to innovate as consumers change the way they live and work at home. Some exciting projects she’s led in the last year include a third, moveable dishwasher rack and an objective to elevate both design and sustainability. Johnson sat down with Fortune to share more of her story, reflect on her first year, and the thinking behind Whirlpool’s current design practice.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have been your main objectives since joining Whirlpool Corp.?

Tisha Johnson: Delivering the best products and experiences to people; helping them thrive and elevate their everyday lives. I’ve also focused on connecting with a modern consumer who has a higher expectation than we saw in past decades. Prior to joining Whirlpool Corp, I worked at Volvo Car Group where I learned a lot about the importance of connecting with the modern consumer and that knowledge comes with me to Whirlpool.

What is important to the Whirlpool consumer? What problem are you solving for?

TJ: The modern consumer wants products which fit seamlessly into their home environments. Considerably more focus is on the home as the result of people spending more time working, schooling, and connecting from their home environments. This was a recent trend which was accelerated by COVID. Therefore, people need to use the space in their homes with more flexibility and multiple uses. People will need appliances which support their everyday needs, but they’ll also expect those same products to enhance their interior decor in better ways.

One of the main enablers for a modern product experience is having a powerful UX or digital interaction platform. There is no doubt that people appreciate a finely crafted lever or knob. Yet, they are also very used to having much more digital touch screen controls. We can do so much in this space to elevate the experience of interacting with our products.

Does the company have a working design philosophy?

TJ: Our design philosophy is: We inspire lasting engagement, product leadership, and meaningful experiences at home and for our world. We do this on a foundation of empathy, innovation, sustainability, and craftsmanship, with people at the center of our process. All of these aspects tie together and help us design with the consumer’s everyday tasks in mind. As their needs change so do our designs, and that is what empathy means in design at a 110-year-old company like Whirlpool Corp.

We have a list of corresponding tenets: empathy (listen, be inclusive, instill meaning); innovation (be brave, iterate, elevate); sustainability (be a champion, inspire collective action, empower advocates); [and] craftsmanship (dive deep, collaborate proactively, aim high). With each and every design brief we begin with our design pillars. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing brands: Volvo Cars, Polestar electric performance vehicles, Herman Miller, and now Whirlpool with our substantial portfolio of brands. The common thread is putting people at the center of the process—we solve for people. We make things that make people’s lives better. Of course, one important component is our aesthetic approach. We start with a warm and minimalistic visual language.

How has the design practice at Whirlpool evolved in the last few years?

TJ: We’ve gone more deeply into the topic of sensorial craftsmanship—enhancing touch points which cause people to literally fall in love with our products. We are building on that work and expanding that idea. Modernizing those touchpoints, making interaction more natural, and at the same time with a heightened attention to the details which inspire people and cause them to feel reconnected to things that matter to them in an elevated way.

How has the team at Whirlpool leveraged design to solve a problem or innovate in terms of that idea of craftsmanship?

TJ: Our FreeFlex Third Rack that is now on some Kitchenaid dishwashers is a product design I am very proud of. Our product rethinks what is possible within a confined space by creating a fully functional third rack while still allowing ample space below it. One of Whirlpool Corp’s design pillars is innovation: be brave, iterate, elevate. The design and execution of the FreeFlex Third Rack is just that; we were brave and elevated the design of a product that has pretty much looked the same since inception. The product fits seamlessly into the home environment. The footprint of the product remains the same, but the feature we designed is a game changer for consumers.

What stakeholders are involved in that problem?

TJ: There are stakeholders up and down the value chain, but we have a very streamlined design process that gets input from consumers, industrial designers, materials and sustainability experts, engineers, and researchers. We track global macro trends and we focus on the longevity of our solutions, because we design durable goods that are going to last. They need to perform their job but also look good over the course of several years.

What new consumer needs have emerged? How is Whirlpool Corp. evolving the brand to meet that?

TJ: Our data through the pandemic shows that consumers are using our appliances more! Data from connected wall ovens and ranges showed they were being used twice as much. That means our appliances need to perform. But there can also be an element of craftsmanship and design that makes using them enjoyable. The right weight and silent swing of a refrigerator door. Or the snap shut of a dryer. The craftsmanship is the consistent thread across our brands—but each has its own individual design expression—be it the clean lines of a Whirlpool brand, the dynamic use of color in the KitchenAid brand, or some of the more wild flourishes we can put on a JennAir brand piece.

Where do you see the company devoting its resources in the next few years in terms of design? What is next?

TJ: We design appliances to help improve life at home for consumers—and that is our guiding light. The home appliances of today aren’t the same machines your grandparents had, and they will continue to evolve, to improve over time. But not only are modern appliances smarter and more powerful—they are also more efficient in their use of water and energy.

How would you characterize your leadership style?

TJ: I believe strongly in a servant leadership model. My first aim is to listen to the need—this could be the consumer need or the needs of our team members—and actively work to provide solutions which give them the best outcome. I’m also convinced that by showing up with an honest open approach, our team members will have more authentic connections. This matters more than ever. We are all seeking depth in our relationships and purpose in our work.

How do you hire?

TJ: We think of recruiting as an “always on” activity. We look for the best and brightest in different ways. We leverage internships to get to know potential team members earlier in their studies. We are connecting with different organizations and HBCUs in order to increase our team’s diversity. As a global function, we seek different perspectives to provide people with meaningful solutions around the world.

What is the advice you give aspiring designers?

TJ: If you are thinking of a job in design, my advice to you is to begin by looking for a school which has a heritage that is undeniably impactful. You should be able to see their list of alumni as a rich list of creatives and design leaders who lead the way. Then commit to the path…and be flexible about the twists and turns you may have along the way. It took me years to get through design school. If I had gone through directly, I could have completed the program and gotten my degree within three years because the school ran on a trimester plan. However, it took me about five years to finish. I remember I used to call my parents while I was going to school. “Well mom and dad, I’ve had to move onto plan X!” I often had to pause to take internships or simply get a job for a semester to earn enough to keep going. I also applied for every scholarship known to humanity. All that effort paid off. I love what I do. Everyday I’m excited to get into the studio and make great designs with talented people.

Do you have a mentor?

TJ: My first design manager at Volvo was a huge influence on me. He had a kind of timelessness. I believe this was because he always kept the consumer needs close to his heart. He wanted people to always love the things he created. He wanted all of us, as designers, to create things that stood the test of time. Honestly, his guidance; his words come back to me on a daily basis, even today. In turn, I share those ideas with the next generation of designers. I’ve added to those ideas through my experiences. However, the fundamental principles remain: Put your heart into your work. Represent the voices of our consumers through your designs. Make things that last.

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

Building a legacy brand like Whirlpool requires trust—earning and retaining it. If you’d like to learn more about what business leaders can do to build and restore trust with their employees, consumers, and industries, then sign up for Fortune’s new newsletter, The Trust Factor, launching this Sunday, June 26. Each Sunday my colleague Jacob Carpenter will analyze the critical role of trust in corporate America, offer insight and advice from experienced experts, and provide actionable tips executives can take to build faith in their leadership and business.

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