How Thomas Meyerhoffer designs our favorite things.
By Michael Roberts
One morning this spring, Thomas Meyerhoffer had a break-through on the race track-which made him furious. In recent years, the acclaimed 52-year-old industrial designer has thrown himself into motorsports, training at the Porsche Sport Driving School and beginning in 2016, competing in the Pirelli GT3 Cup, a series for the elite amateurs. At the Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California, he dropped his lap time by three and a half seconds-an eternity. “I came out of the car and was so angry,” he says. “I was just thinking, Why didn’t I do that before? It was so simple.”
Meyerhoffer is obsessed with simplicity. The remarkable diverse range of mold-demolishing sports products he has created-the first wraparound ski goggles, the Smith V3; no-fuss rear-entry snowboard binding the Flow that offered the control of a strap in; award-winning Neil Pryde windsurf sails-have been celebrated for their elegant austerity.
Even his show-stopping designs, like the translucent Apple eMate (an iMac precursor that the company’s chief, Johnathan Ive, tapped Meyerhoffer to develop) and his hourglass-shaped longboards, which he introduced nine years ago to great confusion in the surf industry, adhere to his Scandinavian aesthetic. He was born and raised in Sweden.
"He has an uncanny ability to find the cleanest line connecting form and function."
Early on, Meyerhoffer took positions at places designers dream of spending their careers: Apple, IDEO, Porsche. But he prefers and environment that’s “more free,” so for almost 20 years he has run his own studio in Montara, California, overlooking a surf break south of San Francisco. Today, he works with a broad client base that includes brands in technology, medicine, and even politics. (He was one of the three designers selected to craft the look and message of Michael Bloomberg’s presidential bid, before the billionaire decided not to run.) His latest sports product is the one he’s holding on the cover of this magazine- a break-apart travel surfboard that can outfitted with several tail configurations and fits into a faux golf bag, which can be checked for free on most airlines.
Not long after his dramatic improvement on the track, I met Meyerhoffer at his studio to talk about his creative process and what fuels innovation. Surfing and racing top the list. As he explained it, cutting his time was the result of the kind of decidedly simple design solution that he seeks for everything. “I didn't need to be faster where is as fast” He said, his blue eyes flashing. “I needed to be faster where I was slow.” Instead of gunning it on the straight aways, he focused on precise breaking and turning going into corners. “I’d forgotten what really matters,” he concluded, smiling.
Thomas Meyerhoffer is obsessed with simplicity, whether it's in his industrial designs or the surfboards he rides in California. We talked to him about the importance of always exploring.
I’ve always asked myself that question: What do I do? It’s why I’ve put myself in so many different situations. When I was younger, my answers were mostly gut feelings: Hey, I don’t want to work here anymore; I’m going to do my own thing. But in the past two or three years, the question has taken on a broader meaning and scope. Now it’s: What can I do?
People wonder why I left Apple. But once you start exploring, why would you stop? I was at Apple only because I’d left Porsche. And I was at Porsche because I’d left Sweden to go to a school somewhere else. You have to leave to take the next step.
"The design process always starts with the aim to ask the right questions. What kind of experience do you want to create? What’s the cultural context? Put yourself in the shoes of the user. Understand where the product will live."
In race car driving, there’s no time to think about a mistake, because the next turn is in your face. You get reminded very quickly that you lost focus. It’s the same with design: you have to understand what really matters and not be discouraged by all the things that don’t.
It is so hard to get to simplicity. Then you get there and it’s like, Why didn’t we do that earlier? We had such a great idea—why did we spend two years with all this shit we tacked on?
Surfing is a bit like dancing naked in front of everyone at a bar. You fall and everyone else goes, “Ha ha!” That’s what I went through with my first surfboard project. I had to paddle my boards out and stand up on them in front of these opinionated gentlemen in the water. It wasn’t a painless experience. People would laugh and say, “What the fuck is that? What are you trying to do?” I had to learn not to care. To be innovative, you can’t give a shit.
The last straw we cling to is our expertise. But if you continue to do that, at a certain point, you can no longer go anywhere new. If there isn’t a constant flow of energy and curiosity, you stagnate. If I had chosen to be a specialist, it would have been much easier to become very good at something and be perceived as a success. Instead, now I’m starting to be able to bring all my experiences together on a higher plane. That’s my challenge.
I just went running for 45 minutes and I really had to push to get through it. I do the same thing at work. The pleasure comes when you go all the way.
I ask everybody what they think. I ask my son a lot—he’s 17, which makes him perfect for so many things. But I also need to understand where he’s coming from. When someone shares their opinion, your job is to decipher what they are actually saying.
"Great design doesn’t need to be explained. People will get it just by looking, touching, and experiencing it."
In a lot of sports, the dream used to be all about going faster. Now sports culture is driven by fashion and social media. I think that is very positive. People aren’t searching for ultimate performance so much as the ultimate experience. There’s a functionality side but also an emotional side. My job is to bring those together.
I still use my pen and pencil.
That moment when you come out of the cave to show what you’ve made, that’s when you have to be fearless.