Neil Ferrier, an engineer by trade, began his career in industrial design being paid in whiskey.
At the time, he worked in advanced product development for Oakley and didn’t feel right charging his first client, whisky maker Macallan, for his side gig. So the company would send him 25- and 30-year-old bottles of booze.
“Of course, my friends cajoled me into drinking them,” he told Inverse. “Now, a bottle of Macallan 30 is about $6,500, up from $1,000. That's probably why I haven't tasted Macallan 30 since my 30th birthday.”
Ferrier, now 37, established his firm, Discommon, in 2014 as a blog and to pursue side projects before it eventually grew into a formal business. He said that his experience as an engineer makes Discommon stand out in the design world.
“I arguably have no right to own and operate an industrial design firm, but I think that's what makes us unique,” he said. “My primary field is industrial design with an acute awareness of real-life engineering and the whole aspect of the product development cycle that normally an industrial designer doesn't really need to know about.”
Since then, the firm has done design work for Butterfly Network, the soon-to-be publicly listed maker of a portable ultrasound device, as well as makers of watches and headphones, among others. Earlier this year, he was able to use his connections with overseas factories and a state university contact to secure a Boeing Dreamlifter to import more than 1.5 million three-ply medical-grade masks to the U.S. for southeastern medical professionals.
For the latest in its New Pioneers series, Inverse spoke to Ferrier about his career, the dangers of lazy design, and what he thinks is the most useless piece of technology. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What did you do before you founded your firm?
At the end of high school, I was split between going to art school and engineering school because I love shapes, lighting, reflection, all of that. I thought that engineering would be a safer job, but I was also thoroughly addicted to how stuff works. My first job out of college was at Oakley, the sunglasses company. I had a unique process of getting in there when I was 22. I was just a random kid from Scotland that had harassed them enough times, and they gave me an interview to be a test technician at the R&D lab. Luckily, the vice president of the company at the time led me into the design and development team. I was thrown in the deep end from day one — my first project was something for the Delta Force. I worked at Oakley for 11 years, with a lot of freelancing on the side.
When did you start your firm?
I founded Discommon in 2014, but it wasn't a firm back then; it was me consulting. I was writing a blog of things that were disruptive and uncommon, so I called it Discommon. Then I needed a company name to consult under for Macallan, the whiskey company. The guy who ran Macallan and the Oakley CEO had a drinking session, and as the token Scottish person, I was brought in. At the end of a pretty heavy Macallan session, they decided they were going to make the world's most badass hip flask.
It sort of got thrust on me. I was completely naive; I got paid in whiskey for almost two years. I didn't think I could charge them any money. It’s amazing how these things happen because I was doing very complex product development, and I became Macallan’s guy that did random things. Unbeknownst to me, that was the beginning of building a repertoire.
Can you give me an example of one of the projects you did for them?
The hip flask was an Oakley and Macallan collaboration, and it was basically indestructible. It was made with carbon fiber and machined aluminum. I managed everything from the design through production. Next we started the development of these beautiful automatic ice ball machines designed by Barber Osgerby, a large design firm in London. It ended up sadly losing funding. We also worked on a custom blending machine with 15 different flavor profiles of scotch that would blend a custom bottle of whiskey. We got it working. It was the most expensive distillery probably ever built in our lifetime. But they decided not to do it. Then we did another Macallan flask in collaboration with well-respected watch company Urwerk.
What was your first exposure to engineering and industrial design?
The first strong memory that I have, and it's part of what fuels me with regard to our product development, is my dad had a corded Black and Decker drill that smelled like the world was burning whenever you turned it on. It was probably from the 1980s and he still has it to this day. It was the first thing that I remember being completely indestructible. I am so troubled in today's society that everything is just disposable, and that it's somehow acceptable that things such as drills be $500, and it's deemed fine that they might not work after a while. I was keenly interested in the quality of execution and engineering from a standpoint of making things work and making them continue to work. We weren't a hands-on family, so I think part of why I'm so into all this stuff is also a rebellion against the fact that I didn't do tinkering when I was younger.
“I've just been prone to always taking on challenges.”
With regards to design — I'm sorry, it’s clichéd; I can't help it — it’s just always been cars. I remember teaching myself to draw the Dodge Viper RT/10. I almost failed my higher art final exam in high school because I tried to draw the car with pencils. My art teacher was like, “Are you insane? This is not going to be possible. You could do so many simple things that would get you an A.” For some reason, I had to try and do that.
What did you think an engineer or industrial designer did when you were a kid?
I think I had "designer" completely nailed -- somebody that can conceptualize and realize real items. Oakley and automotive firms are quite traditional, even still to this day, in the sense that they have a design department and those guys’ skill sets are in Illustrator, Photoshop, and genuine blue pencil sketching and drawing astounding forms. They can conceptualize and conceive fully 3D forms, be it from robotics to cars to whatever with pencil. But I could never hire one of the Oakley designers into my firm now. My expectation as an industrial designer is somebody with a degree who pushes into at least two or three other avenues of learning, be that modelmaking or CAD. There wasn't always an expectation an industrial designer would be able to do 3D CAD. Designers have to be multitools.
For my expectation of an "engineer": I did not know that they got to do fun stuff. Growing up in Scotland, if you're an engineer, you went into the oil and gas industry or to work for Rolls Royce turbines. I almost took a job in Virginia in heating, ventilation, and AC. Oakley was my savior in that the engineers there do incredibly fun, unique, and challenging things. Now there are engineers at bike firms and at startup automotive firms that are having a riot; the demands on them are very broad.
What impact has Instagram had on the design field?
You could argue my entire business is essentially built off of Instagram. It's a portfolio of things. That goes in both directions. You can figure out the sensibilities of the head of engineering at a firm you're about to work with, to make sure that you understand how they think before you work with them. Instagram allowed my business to happen. I found my head designer, Kevin Coss, when I was searching for certain car renders, and he had done one, so I offered him a project to work on.
When did you actually know the career path you wanted to take was in engineering or industrial design?
I did a summer placement at Pro Drive, which ran the Subaru World Rally Team at the time. I took cars apart. I just remember being dumbfounded by the fact that engineers had to create and make things work, and the sheer velocity and ferocity that a rally car exists secured my feeling of wanting to do some kind of engineering that doesn't follow a boring norm. Industrial design came from wanting to make things. I loved design so much, I wanted to make things beautiful. Oakley attracts some of the best industrial designers in the world. I got to see them work day in and day out. To see these guys create with a blue pencil was humbling. At that point in time, I just knew I wanted to work a lifetime with people who created beautiful and impressive things, so I started my firm and hired people better than me.
“End up at that desk that inspires you each day.”
What's a time that you failed in design and engineering?
Do we have four hours? I'm exceptional at failing. One of my proudest things is my ability to admit it. The best failure is hip flask number two for Macallan, which was supposed to be the world's most complicated hip flask. We machined 500 flasks for them, and the first flask arrived at Macallan and the first person to see it within 10 seconds spotted a spelling mistake. It said “mouthpece” instead of “mouthpiece.” It went through five rounds of approvals and we just read over the mistake.
My whole world stopped. At 4 a.m. I was woken up by the guy who ran Macallan. That afternoon, I was on a red-eye from Los Angeles to Scotland. My dad had always told me to take responsibility. We managed to fix it within 10 days and hit the launch date — they sold out in three minutes. Still, the experience was awful. I didn't sleep for 10 days. That mistake probably cost $60,000. My company earnings at a time were probably $150,000. But it also ended up being one of the prouder defining moments of my company because it's how I would like to address anything that goes wrong in the future. That I’ll work tirelessly to fix things. I think our whole society doesn't take enough responsibility in general.
What's a rookie mistake that you've made?
I 3D-printed a titanium component in inches versus millimeters and got a $3,500 bill for it versus $250. It was a small component for a watch and we ended up printing it at 17 inches.
How do you think you've changed your field?
It's still to be done. We're at one of the first cresting points. We have a saying that is inappropriate: [screw] mediocrity. Fast design is unacceptable to me, and there is a lot of it out there today. I think I'm going to change our field by just sticking to my principles that mediocrity is not acceptable. We really only carry around four clients at a time, and I would bet you, if you spoke to them, they’d tell you they feel like we are their design firm. That's pretty special. I'd like to change the industry by eradicating fast design. Some people assume that means things should be expensive, but it doesn't. It just means making the ergonomics, function, textures, or just the lines of whatever that object is better. It might cost $1,000 more in the injection mold, but the finished piece won’t cost more.
What do you think your superpower is?
It's probably envisioning the timeline of events to the final product. I’ve got a good sense of the realistic nature of doing a project. As a company owner, I can very quickly envision hurdles, challenges, opportunities, how we might work with somebody. Once you've lived product development, you get a bit of a Spidey Sense for this stuff.
SUPERPOWER: “I’ve got a good sense of the realistic nature of doing a project.”
So my superpower is the cognizance and an acute awareness of what it takes to make something real, and not being scared to vocalize that. It sounds like a really boring superpower. We also just design dope stuff. I like our use of lines, very subtle, super complex to model lines that are visually simple. It's something that might have taken three or four days to model correctly. The end result is just this subtlety that you can't really explain. It just works.
What's one thing you’d tell your teenage self?
I had a passive-aggressive boss at Oakley, and for a period of time there, that did a lot of damage to me. I did not have enough confidence in my own abilities. I should have gotten harder and faster. To trust my gut. What I would have told myself is that I was too influenced by my peers and trusting that they were right over me.
What's a prediction you have for 2030?
We will have a reversion to analog. I think we'll get exhausted by being connected. Look at cars now. If you're a car person, the things that turn you on is not the newest, fastest McLaren 765; it’s the 1970s Porsche. People are going back to emotional experiences versus the fastest, best, dopest tech. Some things are always going to be connected, but I hope that our passions might go back to more analog.
What do you do on a day off?
Drive or mountain bike. Both driving fast and mountain biking clear your mind of any noise. It requires complete focus. I used to tinker on things. I've built motorcycles and worked on cars and stuff, but I have kids now. The idea of getting a window of three unadulterated hours or something like that to tinker — that does not happen anymore.
If your biography were written today, what would you want the title to be and who would you want to write it?
I've not had enough whiskey for these questions. Title: He Lived Loud. Who would I want to write it? Probably my dad. He's watched this whole journey. I have an awesome relationship with my dad. I just sent him an email asking him to go through a client message to see if the tone was OK.
Who is a game-changer you want to shout out?
My head of design, [Kevin Coss]. If we continue to grow, by the time I’m 50 or whatever, it will be because of the unique blend of Kevin and I. I don't think he gets enough of a shoutout. I'd also shout out any working moms because they continue to astound me throughout times like now and in general. What my wife does continues to blow my mind. Like we all think we're hard, owning companies, doing cool stuff, and running things. Being a parent that works — that's real work.
What motivates you?
The fact that Ferrari F40s keep getting more expensive. I have a giant neon sign in my office that says, “need money for F40.” I adore mechanical machines. With the F40, the sum of all the parts is better than the parts themselves. But its end result is something epic. I joke about this to people quite a lot. Of course, I'm not an idiot; I'll have set up all the right 401(k)s, my family will be safe and all those things.
I could have given you something about philanthropy, removing plastic from the oceans, or any of that kind of stuff we think about. Often, fast design leads to a lot of waste. That's something that troubles me greatly. For instance, wireless chargers are one of the worst things that’s been brought into our world. When you're using wireless charging, you can't use your phone anymore. It's far more free to have a cable in it. There's something like 700-plus accredited charging factories in China that make wireless chargers that are essentially disposable plastic pucks that probably just end up in the ocean.
What's next for you?
I'm going to launch a children's watch company early next year. It has a couple of very unique elements to it. The startup was my wife's idea. That's consuming a lot of our time. Discommon is quite close on a few projects. One of them is a massive architectural installation for a large hotel company in London. That’s something that has required us to bring on structural engineers and machining partners. The thing is almost 50 feet long and hangs from the ceiling. That's the next six months of my life. Then we continue to work on new devices for a really awesome medical company called Butterfly Network that makes a handheld ultrasound machine. I'm pretty convinced they will change the world of medicine as we know it — and we’re their design firm. That's probably the client I'm most proud of.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I care greatly about college-level engineers and designers. I would urge them that they don't need to settle. There are fascinating engineering jobs in a myriad of fields that I never imagined existed and are worth chasing. End up at that desk that inspires you each day.