Shop Talk Podcast Episode 1: Spencer Nugent on Why ‘Design Is Communication’ 

Muna Idriss Muna Idriss September 22, 2023

4 min read

Welcome to Shop Talk, a podcast where we catch up with designers and makers live from their workshops. In this episode, designer and Autodesker Jonathan Odom speaks with Spencer Nugent.  

Spencer is living the designer’s dream. He makes his living on his own terms, following his passion and sharing it with the world. He’s best known for his YouTube channel Sketch a Day, which focuses on industrial design sketching and the product design process. But there are so many other layers to his work, including consulting, design education, woodworking, and more. 

Below is a short excerpt from the conversation to give you a taste of what to expect. You can also listen to the full episode below.

This excerpt is edited for brevity and clarity. 

Tell us about your work. You have a YouTube channel. You have a book coming out. You have a consultancy. You lead workshops. Are we missing anything?

This is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. If people ask me, “Hey… what do you do for a living?” I’m like, “Well, today, this is what I’m doing.” 

I have a YouTube channel, which is a big part of marketing for me. Sometimes, I’m super active on the channel; other times, I take a little break.  

As far as other work goes, it’s consulting with businesses and helping them come up with solutions to problems. I’ve worked on everything from toys to consumer electronics to car concepts. I’ve done outdoor spaces, and I’ve designed homes. I’ve also consulted businesses on design strategy and visual communication. I also teach design online as part of a collective of contemporaries and professionals. We put together a program at the beginning of the pandemic because we saw an opportunity to shake things up in the education space.  

In my spare time, I enjoy making music for my YouTube channel. Of course, I do video work and promotional content as well. And I think the last thing is woodworking—I have a little home goods brand that I’ve been working on feverishly. I also collaborate with my sister, who is a designer. 

Indulge us with a thought experiment. Let’s imagine Big Toaster needs you to convince everyone to buy a new toaster even though they already have one. How do you go about solving that problem?

As a designer, it’s important to be really good at communication. Because design is communication. It is listening to people and what their current situation is and articulating to them what you observe.  

Oftentimes, someone who has an existing product may not be able to communicate what the next version of that product should be or what that thing they’re missing is. I would want to observe people using the toaster. What did they use it for—just bread? Or do they put pizza slices in their toaster? Are there any unconventional things they do because therein might lie an opportunity that [Big Toaster] hadn’t even thought of. That’s called looking at compensatory behaviors.  

Using a product in an unconventional way can sometimes lead to what I call a “prob-ortunity”: a problem and opportunity. It’s my job to communicate, to listen, to observe, and then say, “Hey, what if your toaster could do that thing that you’re doing and do it better than the way you’re doing it?” And then the lights go off.  

From a business perspective, it’s also my job to understand the desirability of whatever solution I have. Is this something that people are going to want? Where’s this going to fit in someone’s home? Does it match the aesthetic wishes of that target customer? Is this product going to say something about them? There’s a reason people buy Smeg appliances or Breville, as opposed to Kitchen-Aid, for example. It’s because aesthetically and, arguably, functionally, those brands have a certain messaging that resonates with people.  

Then there’s the business aspect. There is a certain customer who appreciates the relationship between price and functionality. You have to find a balance there.  

Then—and I think this is what makes industrial designers special—we have to understand the feasibility. It’d be great to have a natural gas-fueled toaster because that gets the perfect char and Maillard effect on the toast. But it’s not practical. So, you have to think about desirability, viability, and feasibility. The combination of those things would then be the ideal concept.  

Stay tuned for the next episode of Shop Talk. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube and get your audio-only fix on Spotify.

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