Behind the design: frog designer Robert Curtis talks about creating SanDisk's new flash drives

SanDisk, the world's largest supplier of flash storage cards, has introduced an innovative new family of USB flash drives, including the world's first backup USB flash drive with simple backup software activation at the touch of a button.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
6 min read
SanDisk, the world's largest supplier of flash storage cards, has introduced an innovative new family of USB flash drives, including the world's first backup USB flash drive with simple backup software activation at the touch of a button. frog design, my employer, provided the design language for the entire new SanDisk USB family, and I asked my colleague Robert Curtis, executive creative director industrial design at frog, a few questions about the design process:

What was the first thing SanDisk said to you about the design when they initially approached you and your team?
Robert Curtis: SanDisk is the market leader in USB flash drive category and the technical pioneer. In the past their design strategy was to flood the market with designs coming from different sources. The first goal for our project — designing the new SanDisk flagship line of USB flash drives — was to build a cohesive design language throughout the product line (and not just for the first products being launched at CES this year, but for the products coming out in the next few years). We wanted to create a design language that not only builds brand equity but has business benefits by reducing the number of SKUs that have to be supported.

Flash drives have always seemed kind of small and disposable — and not very safe. Is the design trying to change that perception?
RC: Yes. The essence of the SanDisk brand is trust and reliability, and we wanted those ideas to carry through with these devices. Today, flash drives are objects of utility. They’re no longer owned by any one individual — similar to a pen or pencil. We wanted to shift this perception by creating a stronger connection between users and their devices; to heighten their awareness of the device. We felt that if we could do this, then we would help customers have a more positive experience and feel more in control of their data.

Where did you and the team get ideas for the “L-shaped” design?
RC: It was a collaborative effort with SanDisk’s internal team. Every brand or series of products need that common visual anchor that consumers can easily recognize and associate with. The “L” shape worked well with our ideas and helped emphasize the SanDisk story and signature elements of “dynamic tension” and “balanced asymmetry.” Without going into too many boring engineering details it is worth saying the “L” shape is also a great way to meet the cost to manufacture goals we were given and still get a differentiated design. Good looks at the right price!

Why was it important to have a sliding USB connector?
RC: A sliding mechanism allows protection to the connector when not in use. The feature builds on the idea of trust and reliability. The connector is the link where data is transferred from the computer to the device. Data is being protected. It also eliminates the need for a cap, which inevitably will get lost.

How does the sliding mechanism lock into place?
RC: Engineering magic! There’s a latch inside that locks the connector into the fully open or fully closed position. It’s not obvious when using it, but the slide is actually a lever and depresses slightly when moved forward. The mechanical advantage of levers allows a small amount movement to be transferred into a large enough shift to disengage the locking latch.

And why did you use the color red?
RC: The primary color of the SanDisk brand is red. We always look for ways to reinforce our client’s brand in their products. There is an old expression we use in design: which defines which? In other words, does the product define the brand, or does the brand define the product?

Because you don’t need software to use them, these drives seem easy to use and portable. How did you design those elements into the product?
RC: Like any electronic product there is always software included and that’s actually true of SanDisk flash drives. The difference here, as you basically point out in your question, is that the user doesn’t have to use the software if they don’t want to. We didn’t have any involvement in the development of the software, but we did want to reinforce the ease of use and portability you refer to. Design details in the sliding mechanisms make it intuitive for the user to know how to open the device and which side is up, and in the case of the “Ultra” device, we designed the backup button to draw the user’s attention so they would be encouraged to take advantage of the software. Software that makes the data on the device safe also reinforces the portability. Reading the early blogs on the announcement of this product we’re surprised at the misunderstanding people have. Users should be assured they can backup data to their drive (and even to the Web in some cases), and have it password protected. It is, in essence, portable security.

Were there any initial designs that didn’t work?
RC: Yes. Like any project there’s always going to be a lot of ideas generated that end up going nowhere. But that’s all a part of the process. It’s important to know what doesn’t work. Designs get rejected for many reason, including aesthetics, cost, manufacturability, and more. When we start engineering they can also be rejected for functional reasons. That’s why it’s important to have room for a lot of iteration, experimentation, and validation throughout the process. As the saying goes, you have to break a few eggs to make a good omelet.

What’s morale like back at the studio when a design gets rejected?

RC: Valid and insightful criticism is taken in stride and ultimately adds to our process to produce a better product. We also have to keep in mind that design is subjective so rejection can be difficult for our designers to accept at times. The bottom line is we don’t put concepts in front of our clients that we’re not proud of and willing to stand behind. So when a client chooses a final direction they’re choosing a favorite amongst favorites, and it doesn’t hurt too much. In this case, the SanDisk team we worked with was incredibly smart and dedicated, with sophisticated design eyes. They challenged us to improve on their already successful products. It’s very satisfying when both client and design teams come together and everyone is happy with the result.

During the development stage are you and your team using pencils and paper to sketch out concepts and renderings or is it all done by computer?
RC: For this project we started out with hand drawn sketches and moved fairly quickly into creating 3D-visualization form models. For hand held objects like these it’s imperative that the design comes off the paper — or off the screen — and into the designer and client hands as soon as possible.  Each project is different, so we don’t always follow the same process. Similarly, designers work differently. Some designers these days have grown up using computers, and they’re remarkably fluent with the software where they’re able to sketch with it. Eventually every product ends up being designed and engineered digitally, but we never lose track of the fact we’re designing things people hold in their hand to use.

Is being a product designer like being a sculptor who makes art or more like being an architect who makes furniture, buildings, and things you can use?

RC: Really, we’re both. You don’t have to be an artist, a designer, or an architect to see beauty in buildings, furniture, and useful items. You don’t have to be a designer or engineer to see the technology behind making a sculpture. A product designer responds to a brief, navigates constraints, and then presents work that answers a specific need, and a basic human need is to experience beauty. The design process tends to be very controlled and defined because investment and commitment levels are very high, but that doesn’t negate creativity. In the end we have the best of both worlds; we create useful artistic objects that add value to people’s lives.