We are recording a series of interviews with the 3800 team and our friends to share who we are, why we gather around the same table, and what our work means to us.
In the third interview in the series, we invited Lee Ashton to discuss the path that led him to 3800, his greatest creative influences and the importance of invisible design.
During our time together we discussed why we, as creatives, should never limit our own learning and what makes a product honest.
Sophie Hill: Could you describe your career journey up to now that led you to 3800?
Lee Ashton: My career journey after university was quite sudden. I was doing an internship while I was at university as part of my year in business, then got kept on after that. They were based in Sheffield but unfortunately they couldn't offer me a full time job, so I looked elsewhere and I found a job at an industrial design startup in Manchester. There I mainly focused just on industrial design projects.
I was there for four years but then unfortunately I got made redundant, so I thought, “oh crap, what do I do now?” I’d felt really settled there. I thought it was a great job, it was good fun, but the work just sort of dried up. I think management were far more creative focused than business focused, which was admirable, but winning new work proved difficult which was really unfortunate.
After that I had a bit of a bit of a crisis and ended up going back into a job I wasn't massively happy about but it paid bills and it interested me in terms of the products that they sold.
I was working in retail at Apple for about three and a half years and then just on the off chance, I applied for a career experience contract. It was an internal contract to do graphic design with the International App Store team in London. I did that for about six months, maybe a little bit longer.
At the same time I got speaking to Dave here at 3,800, and he said he had an industrial design project going and he wasn't sure how to go about it. I said I was more than happy to come and do some freelance work to get that off the ground.
I was thinking, okay, I definitely don't want to be in retail anymore, so I want to go freelance at least or apply for other jobs. Things thankfully just worked out with Dave and 3,800 and that was a year ago now.
SH: What led you to want to a career in industrial design?
LA: I'm a bit strange because I knew quite early on when I was at school that I definitely wanted to do something creative, but with more of a practical application.
I loved drawing at school, that was my thing, and enjoyed my art lessons but I didn't know if I could get a career doing something purely art or design based. I thought “okay, what's the next best thing?”
That’s how I found industrial design because I'd always had an interest in how things work and always appreciated good design and products. I think it's just something that kind of fell in to place quite naturally.
When I went to university, it confirmed what I’d suspected. Yeah, this was definitely what I wanted to do, and there was this whole culture with it which has helped me develop a style that was in line with industrial design core principles.
It just felt like a good fit and I really enjoyed the engineering aspect to it, as well as the concept creation. That's where I found my niche, that initial idea generation, the really creative bit, which I still love coming back to.
SH: Who, or what, would you say is your biggest source of inspiration?
LA: If I was still studying, I would have just said Dieter Rams straight away because every design student loves Dieter Rams. He's ”The OG” within the Industrial Design community.
Currently I would say Benjamin Hubert is probably my lighthouse in terms of where I want to be and the level that I want to get to. He's the owner of Layer Studio in London, and they make beautiful, well-considered products that answer really tough briefs. They’re not just designing things for the sake of it. They're designing things that matter.
They seem to really care about what they do and the sort of impact they're making. I think that's always been important to me because it's quite a negative side effect to making or designing products. I think many industrial designers at some stage in their careers have been conscious of the fact that some of the things that they have designed probably haven’t done the world much good.
I think Hubert has a really conscientious approach to building his studio, making a diverse environment that is really forward thinking and doesn't seem to be making products solely for commercial gain.
I was drawn to 3800 because Dave wants to do work that matters and we as a team care about what we put out into the world. I thought this would be a good place to build that value within my own work as well and hold my work accountable.
SH: What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in a creative field?
LA: I found myself at a weird sort of junction when I went to university, in that we were getting to that point where digital and physical design were really meshing. You had the iPhone and other key tech products peaking.
Digital app design was THE thing, you couldn’t find a physical product without an app designed to partner with it. Nowadays, there's the product and the full service that goes around it.
I think for me, I had like a really traditional industrial design education in that we learned a lot of workshop skills and we did a lot of drawing and sketching and very practical stuff. The digital side of it, like CAD and rendering and all that kind of stuff were regarded as a good additional skill if you knew how to do it. Now you can't get by without knowing that stuff.
I feel like my advice to a younger person, just starting out as an industrial designer is to try and learn as much as you can. Don't think that things stop at the actual physical product itself. It goes much further than that. Any skills, such as web design or app design, anything like that, that interests you, just get stuck in and give it a try.
Things are more open than they've ever have been. You can learn anything off your own back. You don't necessarily have to have a formal education in it. That would be my advice, don’t think it ends with the product.
SH: How do you unwind?
LA: The best thing for me to completely detach myself from worries or stress or anything like that, is to get outside. I'm a big believer in giving yourself that time to rest, but also give yourself time to exercise as that’s just as good for you.
I love going cycling. That for me is the best mix of getting out to see a lot in a short amount of time and, as it's a repetitive motion, you're just constantly focused on that. It encourages a very present sort of mindset, which is obviously good for clearing your head. That's it really the main thing that I do, to sort of detach.
I think getting as far away from a desk as I can is important for me. I could sit here and say I like sketching, but I don't think that's what I want to do when I get home as a recreational thing, when it becomes your job, I think that's enough. Leave it at work.
SH: If you could be gifted one random (non work related) skill or talent what would it be and why?
LA: I would say probably carpentry, because I feel like that is a very mindful profession.
You can make beautiful things that last forever but it still incorporates my interest in service of design. I think certainly pieces you've made yourself, furniture in particular, can be one of the most honest things you can own. It's something that just last forever. It does one thing and it does it well.
I think that's the mark of a perfect product in a way, isn't it? It just does exactly what it's supposed to do and nothing else. I'm a big fan of honest design, and design with integrity.
SH: What makes a piece of design honest?
LA: Honesty in an object or a product can be a multitude of things. For me it means it’s made out of the right materials. It's actually good at doing what it's supposed to do. It doesn't try to be too many things.
It's probably less relevant to furniture, but some things, technology products especially, they're trying to do too much stuff and they probably lose a little bit of their integrity because of that.
To me something works well because it becomes invisible in your life. “The best design is invisible” I think the phrase goes? If I could design something that did that and became a classic for that reason, then, yeah, I'd be happy with that.