Living for design
Steve Martinez grew up in the San Gabriel Valley East of Los Angeles with parents who were handy and smart, but not college educated.
His dad was a Navy mechanic whose back yard was a sea of car parts and projects. His mom could make anything out of fabric. He followed in their footsteps, becoming skilled at drawing and design.
For six months, Martinez has been a product developer at Fully, the company that designs ergonomic furniture on the central east side. The path to how he got there is as curvy as an Eames chair, but the most recent twist was his being accepted into the Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI) program, an initiative of Portland Leadership Foundation supported in part by Worksystems.
Martinez, 28, and three friends drifted north to Portland in 2014 after getting his BA in Economics with a minor in business from Humboldt University because it was cheaper than the Bay Area. He volunteered at Meridian, a print shop, so he could use the equipment and designed posters while working a warehouse job.
"I've always had a knack for building things. And my sister is an officer in the Air Force and does satellite launching, at one point based in Greenland."
He sees now his parents had a limited view of the professional world.
"Coming from a family of immigrants, my parents always emphasized traditional roles, such as law, medicine and business, to me and my sister. It never occurred to them there were professional roles in these fields (design, art and craft)."
You down with PCC?
He grew restless about his lack of opportunities "I wasn't feeling that stimulated or engaged." So, he signed up for classes at Portland Community College.
"That's when it clicked there are career opportunities in design. Being in this city exposed me to the type of community I wanted growing up as a kid. It was something I had never understood. I decided the only way to get better as a designer was to go back to school. Only this time I signed up for a one-year Computer Aided Design (CAD) program."
He was impressed that lot of the teachers had day jobs as designers, working at places such as Autodesk. Then he started tutoring math there at PCC Southeast and Cascade.
Taking math again, he suddenly saw his purpose.
"I took Physics one, two three and I took calculus on through four."
Was he already good at math?
"I was terrible!"
He remembers in high school being so bad in algebra class he came 40th out of 40.
This time he succeeded because he could see math through the lens of design. "I could apply it more to my own work. That's what enabled me to excel and be a tutor."
He sketches an example in his ever-present notebook with a Zebra F-701 retractable ball point pen, his designing pen of choice. He had been trying to design a vase with an elliptical base, but which tapered to a triangular opening at the top. Add to that he wanted long curving marks to go up the side of the vase, like irregular stripes.
"When I took these math courses, I figured out the golden ratio and log spirals and was able to integrate in into my work, ad make it. More of a balance of science and art."
The vase was never made, it was purely digital, apart from the 3D model he printed. The goal was to make it out of clear glass. But he learned another, practical lesson. "It was so complex it was almost impossible to make."
Internship and leadership
The ELI program promotes more individuals of color into professional development.
Emerging Leaders' mission is to empower diverse talent to excel as professionals through opportunity and a supportive community. It serves students of color who have a strong connection to the greater Portland metro area. Funded in part by Worksystems, ELI matches underrepresented college students with paid internships at area employers with many transitioning into full-time work.
Martinez was among 876 applicants in 2018. Four hundred and thirty-eight semi-finalists were selected for a full-day interview event at the University of Portland to compete for 100 summer internships.
Through ELI, Martinez benefitted from mentorship, networking and professional development.
He heard about the internship through an email from his supervisor. He had already been helping out at the campus STEM center, doing outreach to local public schools, organizing field trips to tech companies. "These were schools with lower income students and students of color. This was to give them opportunities in tech."
After the day of interviews, he was matched for more interviews with two companies: Thug Design, which does user experience and software design, and Fully, which makes furniture.
"I can tell you this, within 15 minutes of interviewing at Fully I knew this was my topic."
He loves the prototype lab with band saws and table saws. "You can go from a concept on paper, make it, and by lunchtime you have a working porotype ready to go." The alternative at Thug would be long days on the computer looking at wire frames and making an intangible product.
The internship was from June to September 2018. "I was planting seed to stay on as a staff member. When September hit, they made an offer and I was able to stay. Now I feel I am combining everything I've ever learned, whether it's drawing and design or crunching numbers to see how something will work, using my CAD training to make blueprints, and even making assembly instructions, which can be so daunting at a place like IKEA."
His team is a director, two project managers and three developers. Often Martinez designs concepts, hands it off to an engineer who figured out the mechanics of a desk or a chair or a lamp. "In terms of the ideation I do spend a lot of time in the design process."
"It's a great job, and there's a lot of room for growth, but the company's growing so quickly that there are growing pains."
He references the book "Creative Confidence" by DEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley. It's about the product cycle and design thinking.
"It's OK to fail, so long as you fail fast. The sooner we fail, the sooner we learn from our mistakes. I can apply to life, friendships, relationships, different types of goals and milestones. A young and thriving company, as long as they fail fast, I think they can excel."
Even though he was an intern jus last summer, now he is immersed in projects that will made and sold in stores. Currently he's working on an under-the-desk footrest with four positions. Two sides have different curves so they can rock. Again, he sketches it out with his Zebra.
"If you think of the stages as ideation, prototype, refinement and deeply, this is in the third stage. The design is just about there. I should have this done some time this week." It could be in stores in three months.
Chip off the old block
"The challenge was, I didn't have a formal design background. Everyone who does this has gone to school for design, or they have family that has done it. That process is more familiar. For me the challenge was meshing all these themes into a new combination, not knowing if it would work."
His dad has visited and was most impressed by the wood shop. Martinez remembers fondly how his father used to team up with him for his school science projects, and they would win. In eighth grade they had to make a model of a theme park ride to explore the physics of motion. While others did Ferris wheels and swings, he and his dad made a papier-mâché Matterhorn with a water pump and plastic tube water slides.
"Now I have miniature models of chairs made out of cardboard, and I send him photos, and it takes him back to those days."
Emerging Leaders (EL) is dedicated to improving racial and cultural diversity at the leadership level in Portland-area companies by providing pathways to leadership for traditional and non-traditional students of color and aspiring professionals.
Find out more at: emergingleaderspdx.org/
According to a Worksystems spokesperson, "Steven's ELI internship demonstrated to him that growth begins with investment, and investment begins with one's self. It also showed him that organizations can embrace and foster diversity in the workplace — not as a "handout" to underrepresented students, but as an essential part of delivering adaptive solutions and innovations."
Martinez added, "The biggest lesson learned is learning itself. I have realized that success starts with learning, but learning does not stop in the classroom. In a dynamic field like product development, every stage is important to innovate new solutions tailored to our audience. Yet stages constantly change, so one must remain a student for life and continue learning about the industry and audiences."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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