When Richard Branson asks you to design the inside of a spaceship, you don't say no.
That's the position British design company Seymourpowell took in 2005 when the famous entrepreneur embarked on his ambitious Virgin Galactic project. Branson approached the company during his search for a design firm to develop a concept for the interior of the VSS Enterprise, the spacecraft that would bring space travel to the (very rich) average person.
Seymourpowell founder and CEO Dick Powell jumped at the opportunity. His company had been producing ground-breaking designs since 1984, but here was an opportunity to quite literally shape the future.
Up in the air
"As kids, we dreamed of going to space, so to have this opportunity to actually think about the design of a real spaceship was absolutely amazing," Powell says of the Virgin project.
Virgin's brief for Enterprise's first concept design required an interior that could withstand the physical realities of space travel while still giving astronauts a first-class flight with a $200,000 view. Bearing in mind that "weight is absolutely everything" in any kind of aircraft, the design also had to position passengers safely to withstand g-forces during takeoff and re-entry.
"When you accelerate upwards, you need to be sitting upright. But when you come down, you're subject to high g-forces, and we need your brain and your main organs in a straight line. Therefore, you need to be lying flat," he says. "Once you've done that, you have to get the mechanisms in to make it all work, and then there isn't a lot left!"
Seymourpowell's work on that early design helped shape initial ideas into 3D form, highlighting important questions for the development team and showing would-be astronauts just what space flight looks like.
While Virgin has had its share of problems since that early proof of concept, most notably athat resulted in the death of one of its pilots, the initial design worked to "materialize a vision" for Virgin.
"Progress is only ever made by continuously learning from failures large and small," Powell says.
Learning from the past is vital to the designer's role, even while keeping one eye on the future. One of Seymourpowell's more adventurous creations, the AirCruise, represents this dichotomy perfectly. A "floating hotel" that harks back to the airships of the early 20th century, such as the Graf Zeppelin, AirCruise is the dirigible for the discerning modern tourist.
The 869-feet-high, diamond-shaped craft uses hydrogen-filled cells for lift while those inside are treated to luxury accommodations and dining. Just like the cruise ships of the seas, this AirCruise makes the journey the destination.
While the aircraft currently exists only in a 3D computer-assisted design (CAD) image, the design has been sold to a division of Samsung, which intends to build similar lightweight structures and eventually the actual AirCruise. According to Powell, the project demonstrates one of Seymourpowell's key remits: "optimistic futurism."
"I think it's our duty as creative people to think about the future," he says. "I like to misquote George Bernard Shaw and say, 'You see things and you say: why? But a designer dreams things that never were and says: why not?'
"We have to dream about the future and say, 'You could do this.' And that might change the market forever."
It's been a long road for the company that got its start designing small appliances for French company Tefal in the 1980s. But whether it's a kettle or a spaceship, there are some elements of design that stay the same.
"There are very few things in this world which are completely new, even the great innovations of our time," Powell says. "If you think about the iPod, it was built on some known technologies that other businesses had developed."
In creating the Tefal Freeline kettle, Seymourpowell took the appliance's round heating element and replaced it with a slimmer, rectangular element to help create the world's first truly cordless kettle. A few years later, the company reworked British company Technophone's cell phone "brick" by moving and grouping internal components, resulting in the world's first truly pocketable mobile. When Technophone became part of Nokia, that reinvention went on to inform a generation of cell phone designs.
As Powell says, "Innovation is not about a big idea, but it's about a series of small ideas put together in a new and different way."
The edge of the future
Powell is no stranger to imagining the world of tomorrow. He had a childhood love for "The Jetsons" and British comic book "space hero" Dan Dare, after all. But while he drew plenty of early inspiration from these pop culture icons, he says the designer's path toward creating the future is unique.
"If you think about ad men and novelists, they can think about the future. But designers can actually build that future and show the world what it looks like," he says.
That might be something as small as a creating a wristwatch for Casio that changes the direction of fashion, or building a working motorcycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell to demonstrate the future of the hydrogen economy.
"That's why it's such an exciting job, because you're always on the edge of the future," he says.
While the creators of "The Jetsons" had the freedom to imagine anything seen only on a TV screen, any team that creates designs for mass production and consumption has to balance creativity with practicality, creating products that are innovative as well as intuitive.
"For something to be intuitive, you have to have some familiarity with it," Powell says. "When you're presented with something totally new, then you need to compare it with something else in order to understand how it functions. If you've never seen it before, then it's not going to be intuitive."
Powell tells of a teacher friend who presented an old typewriter to a class of 8-year-old students to gauge their reactions. To understand the design and what the unfamiliar device did, one student turned to what he knew.
"He said, 'Cool! A laptop that prints as you write, and you don't have to plug it in!'"
Seymourpowell had a similar experience while designing a new deodorant can for Unilever brand Lynx (known as Axe in the US). While the redesign gave early focus groups pause because the spray mechanism was so different from previous cans, Powell says it soon became a voyage of discovery.
"The joy was to find something that wasn't so new that it wasn't entirely intuitive, but when you did discover how it worked, you thought, 'wow.'"
As with all good designs, there's no denying that first gut reaction.
"We used to call it the x factor -- why people get that first emotional, visceral reaction to something. You want people to say, 'God, I love that; what is it?'" he says. "If you can achieve that, then you've created a new paradigm."
This story appeared in the winter edition of CNET Magazine. It has been modified for its online appearance. For other magazine stories, click here.