E03 - How to Design Furniture for The Digital Age

How to design furniture with Adam Harrigan, Senior Industrial Designer at Koala
February 4, 2020 | 01:09:31
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Meet Adam Harrigan, Senior Industrial Designer at Koala.

Learn how Koala design beautiful furniture that is strong, simple to assemble, and made for the digital age.

Explore why getting your hands dirty is so important, how good mentors can shape your design process, and why research is crucial to Koala's success.

Some questions I ask

  • When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? (01:00)
  • How did you discover your passion for furniture design? (06:34)
  • What was the first thing you designed and made yourself? (07:33)
  • How did you get your start in furniture design? (08:58)
  • What are some of the ways you might build and test your designs? (13:17)
  • How did you approach working with more senior designers? (15:00)
  • What is your favourite failure from the early part of your career? (17:06)
  • What was it about Koala's story that most appealed to you? (27:53)
  • How did you approach the Koala bed base design given the constraints? (30:15)
  • When did you realise you had something that was Koala's aesthetic? (37:26)
  • What was the biggest challenge of designing the Koala bed base? (45:13)
  • How does sustainability factor into design decisions at Koala? (46:55)
  • What is the detail of the Koala bed base that you're most proud of? (49:38)
  • If you were to design the Koala bed base again, what might you change? (53:12)
  • What have you learned that you're applying to new Koala designs? (55:40)
  • What qualities are important for furniture designers to have? (1:02:30)
  • What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in furniture design? (1:04:57)

In this episode, you'll learn

  • What Adam's grandfather helped him realise (04:08)
  • Adam's biggest inspiration as a designer (10:39)
  • The key lessons Adam learned by shadowing his mentor (12:04)
  • What prototyping looks like in the early stages of furniture design (13:27)
  • The importance of communication in design (14:00)
  • Why visual communication works best (16:10)
  • Why the unwillingness to pivot can take you in the wrong direction (17:29)
  • The unconscious practice we've both had instilled in us (20:29)
  • How creating a minimum viable product removes perfection from your process (27:16)
  • The problem Koala's bed base design was made to solve (29:06)
  • How Adam prototyped the design for the Koala bed base (34:46)
  • Why keeping the Koala bed base honest was so important (35:16)
  • What showed up in the early test assemblies (37:50)
  • What fear Adam had about his design for the Koala bed base (38:26)
  • Why women were a key part of the brief for the Koala bed base (39:20)
  • How customer insights and research improved the assembly experience (40:55)
  • How throwing pillows on the floor led to one of Koala's best received features (43:50)
  • Why looking at your designs in retrospect makes such a difference (54:57)
  • How Koala's "canvas" philosophy contributed to the new tv unit design (59:30)
  • How good mentors contribute value to you over a lifetime (1:06:25)

Also mentioned in this episode

Koala

Westinghouse

Mitch Taylor

Vikram Viswanath

Koala bed base

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In this episode of The Goods, I have with me Adam Harrigan, Senior Industrial Designer at Koala, and we talk about designing furniture for the digital age.


Life is changing rapidly as more people begin to work online and from home for the first time in their lives.

We’re also seeing more aware around the impacts of the products we choose on our environment. As more information becomes available, we’re also see more people than ever being purchasing products more mindfully. Product Designers backed by companies like Koala are coming forward in response.


There's are a few things you need to know about designing furniture before you start, and first is learning to communicate and collaborate with the people on your team.


That's because a big part of Design is language - it's interpreting what you can see in your mind, and from that creating something real in the world and it usually involves working with others. It's about translating ideas, and concepts into something that resembles a real-world product you can test out.


There were a lot of times where you'd get two-thirds of the way through a project and realize that someone hadn't interpreted something correctly and it was entirely your fault. Because you hadn't put the correct documentation together or you'd missed a dimension and things like that.


This involves making sure the information you’re giving out during the design process is as accurate as possible. You want to avoid running into snags halfway through, only to realize that it was because there was a design error at the beginning.


It’s careful work. A lot of attention to detail needs to go into designing. You want to double-check and triple-check your specifications with your manufacturers, and safeguard everyone’s time and effort.


But a lot of that pinpointing and nitpicking can sometimes lead to the mistaken idea that it has to be perfect. That’s potentially a dangerous trap to fall into. And from here you need to make a distinction – you’re not designing something to be perfect when you execute it. Rather, you’re designing to make exceptional work.


To do exceptional is to understand what's enough, knowing that you can improve on it later.


Making something exceptional involves getting into the process behinf why you're making this particular product. It’s also knowing when to stop planning and start making. It’s knowing what can be made better later, and knowing where you can focus your attention today.


It also involves keeping things simple and uncomplicated. Because when you’re aiming at a quality product and quality output, you can end up sitting in the incubation stage for longer than necessary.


In reality, there are usually deadlines, budgets, and the constraints of production time, as with any company. In business, you need to get a product off the ground eventually. At Koala, this focus keeps them in a doer’s mindset.


Koala does this by listening to their customers and giving them solutions that their competitors don’t have, or aren’t executing nearly as well.

Their designs details focus on solving really bloody annoying problems in novel ways for everyday people – it's details like their promise of a no-tool 4 minute assembly on their bed base, clever storage to tuck pillows, and holes designed so you can charge your devices while you snooze that make Koala's products great.


Another important area Koala focus on is sustainability, which Adam calls out when discussing the lengths they went to while sourcing materials and manufacturing.

Koala’s sourcing process took them all over the world trying to find the best materials. They had a lot to consider, especially with modern people being more aware and environmentally conscious of how and what they buy.


As a designer with all these things to consider, it's important to ask yourself: who are you designing for?


Do you want to design for yourself or for other people? You need to understand that first and foremost. Because if you wanted to design with yourself, you can still do that and get a lot of enjoyment from it. But there's a slightly different way that you would probably approach that.


When you start to realize this, you’ll begin to see how your design might change to fit their needs. Whether you’re new to the furniture design, or design in general – you should go to great lengths to understand why and how people using your product.


There are so many new tools and resources available to new and emerging designers, but there’s no resource equal to a great and thoughtful mentor. Adam recalls his mentorship by saying:


If you get a good mentor, they'll never let you stagnate on something or stagnate on an aesthetic or an idea for too long. They'll continue to push the direction that you're going.


While you do need to think about your long-term goals when you first set out, before you can get there, it’s essential to learn the basics and to learn from people with more experience than you in whatever industry it is. Finding someone who challenge you and hold you accountable, who can help you hone your skills, help you progress – it makes a massive difference to your development in the long run.

In furniture design, a great mentor will teach you that part of making functional, and beautiful furniture is delving deep into the process. It’s accepting that there is a process, and that designing doesn’t end with sketches. It’s seeing it through to the final product, observing it in the lives of people enjoying it. It’s continuing to improve on the things that can be improved, and never letting ideas and products stagnate.


At its most basic, designing furniture for the digital age is being open to new possibilities, having a maker’s mindset, having your people in mind, thinking about our relationship they have with the things they use every day—and letting all that drive you forward.

If this episode summary speaks to you, I'd love for you to take a listen to the full episode on your favourite podcast platform.

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Mike Rowe: Hi, my name is Mike, and this is “The Goods.” On this show, you’ll meet designers of all kinds, and go behind the scenes of their design process. You’ll discover what inspires them, what drives them, and how they adapt when things don’t go to plan. You’ll hear stories of their greatest successes, favorite failures, and key a-ha moments, and get practical advice you can use to bring your next design to life.


In this episode you’ll meet Adam Harrigan, a senior industrial designer at Koala, a young Australian company making beautiful furniture that’s strong, simple to assemble, and made to last. In our conversation we explore why getting your hands dirty is so important, how good mentors can shape your design process, why insights are crucial to Koala, and much, much more. So without anymore delay, please enjoy episode three of “The Goods” with Adam Harrigan.


Adam, welcome to the show.


Adam Harrigan: Thanks, Mike. Happy to be here.


Mike Rowe: Awesome. Aw, it’s really great to have you on, man. I really wanted to kick off with the first question around your background, and when you realized you wanted to be a designer.


Adam Harrigan: Cool. When did I realize I wanted to be a designer? Pretty early on, I think. I’ve always realized that sort of the more academic areas of like maths, and English, and all those sorts of things through school were definitely not my strong points. I much preferred being creative, being hands on, working in that sort of area. So I think, you know, definitely had a lot of inspiration from my grandfather sort of growing up. He was an engineer and when he came across to Australia from Estonia, you know, worked for a company that was called Email, and then it eventually changed into Westinghouse.


Mike Rowe: Oh wow.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, so that sort of he was a head engineer for those guys, and you know, sort of worked his way through that firm, got the majority of the life that I knew him through—at least the 30 years that he was alive while I was alive,  or when I was born from till now. Yeah, so getting to see someone who was very hands on, and you know, have so many fond memories of spending time with him in his workshop tinkering with things. You know, he sort of had a hobby of fastening crystals, and looking for some different types of stones, and things like that, and bringing them back and we’d, you know, carve them into different things. 


So, yeah, sort of spent a lot of time, you know, in the workshop with him learning how to be hands on and to create something. And to sort of work in a way where you’re working with something that doesn’t—coming up with an idea from somewhere that, you know, doesn’t necessarily have to be formulated, it was just you know, an organic sort of artistic element to it. So as a kid, you know, you really enjoy that. 


So when I went through to high school, you know, definitely moved across more into enjoyment with things like woodworking, and designer technology, and things like that. So when you get to that point in your final years of high school, and you’re sort of trying to work out what’s next, that sort of led across into design. But, yeah, where I went to school, you know, the term “industrial designer” wasn’t really something that was thrown around a lot, so it took a little bit of research to understand what did that area of study mean. But as soon as I started reading through it I knew that that’s exactly what I needed to do or what I wanted to do.


And then going out I just remember my first sort of couple of weeks at university in Newcastle and meeting the head of design there, or the head lecturer, Grant Paver, and you know, so much background. Worked on one of the first laptops to be ever made.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Adam Harrigan: Had a heap of other projects through furniture, and electronics, and things. And so just being hugely inspired by him, so I think yeah, probably about two weeks into that I knew that design is what I wanted to do.


Mike Rowe: Mm. And was your work in that workshop with your grandfather something that you think truly gave you that access to explore design? Cause I imagine like you’re working with him in the workshop, you’re constructing things, and he’s probably like teaching you skills and like how to use your hands, and how to actually like build things together.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, he helped me understand and learn that things that exist in your life they’re made by somebody.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Wow.


Adam Harrigan: That sort of way. So when you’re sitting on a chair, or looking at a table, or looking at a cabinet, or an appliance, you know, I think a lot of people would look at it and go, “It just comes from a shop. You know, I go down the road and buy this.”


Mike Rowe: The shop makes this.


Adam Harrigan: And it just the shop makes it, yeah, and having an understanding that people make these things and come up with these ideas and innovate along the way. I thought that was pretty cool to understand, and you know, I think the coolest thing that I could have ever seen with my grandfather was he built a fridge the whole way along the line that he wanted to take home.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Adam Harrigan: So he had this super funky kind of curved front, retro, Westinghouse fridge that, you know, lasted the whole way through. It’s actually, form what I understand, cause I wanted to try and keep it, but I think the amount of power that that thing would have chewed would just not have been ideal.


Mike Rowe: Up to scratch? Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. But we ended up sort of donating it to a sort of—what would you call them—like a retro furniture appliance guy, and he ended up taking that on, and he was just surprised at how the fact that even that was… I think it’s over 45 years old, it was still functioning completely to the way it should have been when it was first made. So, yeah…


Mike Rowe: It’s a testament to your grandfather’s craftsmanship, and the build quality, that he was like striving for.


Adam Harrigan: It just blew my mind that, you know, he followed that thing along the line in terms of all the elements that were molded, and pressed, and assembled. You know, to being able to sort of experience that, you know, sort of that story of him telling that. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.


Mike Rowe: I think it’s also a really uncommon thing now for one person to see something at the start through to completion. Like a lot of the factories that I read about have multiple people doing a small element and assembling this thing along the way. So I think this is like a really rare approach to have even maybe in your grandfather’s day.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I think he was pretty privileged to be able to do it, so I think, yeah, sort of being in the position that he was he could kind of follow along the line and work with those people. But yeah, it’s definitely in Australia not something you get to experience that often, but it was, you know, having that understanding or having that element of inspiration that went behind it is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a designer. But I definitely had more of a passion for furniture than I did for appliances.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, got it. How did you discover that passion for furniture?


Adam Harrigan: I just like making things. I think, you know, high school getting to sort of spend time in the workshop and work with woodwork, especially, and build cabinets and things like that. You know, that was just something I always really enjoyed doing. I think every young teenaged boy likes making something out of a woodwork shop, but I just wanted to sort of continue on with that and do something a little bit further. So, yeah, I’ve just always had. I love to do things with wood, essentially. Other materials as well now, but yeah, wood’s always been something that’s been really close to me because I just enjoy.


I don’t know, I suppose I’m a type of person that’s always on the go, so I find that working with that sort of material it can slow you down at times and relax you. Not so much when you’re working for a larger company and doing, you know, sort of design and development, this is more the hobby side, but that’s what got me into it initially, yeah.


Mike Rowe: Got it. Yeah. And what was the first thing that you ever designed and made yourself?


Adam Harrigan: Design and made myself. If you exclude high school works, sort of going into university, there as just bits and pieces in between that, sort of having a tinker in the workshop. So if I exclude high school work, and assignments, and things like that it would have been a weird little TV cabinet, actually.


Mike Rowe: Okay.


Adam Harrigan: That mom and dad have actually still got it, but yeah, it was this thing that sort of sat in the corner. I look back at it and think, “Thank goodness I’ve progressed as a designer since then,” but they seem to love it, so yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. That’s quite interesting. My parents also have a whole bunch of my artwork at home. And it’s stuff that I designed and drew when I was in high school, and I always go back home like, “Wow, I’ve really like come a long way since I was doing that kind of stuff.” So I totally get that where it’s like almost a piece of your past that they just hold onto that whenever you see them you’re like, “Okay, that’s that old thing. Like there it is. Always there.”


Adam Harrigan: Right. And I’m glad it holds all of those, you know, really important elements like CDs, and VHS, and all the stuff that you never touch anymore. I might be showing my age there by saying VHS, but yeah, it was important at the time.


Mike Rowe: For sure. You mentioned that you’ve studied at university, and I wanted to like dig into that a little bit and understand like how you actually progress through university to then get your start in furniture design.


Adam Harrigan: Yup. Well, progressed through. Like anyone who studies industrial design, you do your time there, so that was a four-year course that I had to do. And I think in terms of the transition from study to work I did that partway through my third year. Where I was studying there was an extremely long break at the end of the year, I think it ended applying to almost four months.


So I sort of thought, you know, why not try to get some experience in the industry? So, yeah, between third and fourth year I just started looking. I think I might have, yeah, just Googling where Australian manufacturers were in the furniture industry and started just looking through the list that was there. And I shortlisted it down to about three or four places, and just picked up the phone, and started calling through and saying, “Hey, my name is Adam. I’m an industrial designer. I have a love of furniture. Looking for some experience. Would you be willing to have me come down?”


And, yeah, I think the second place that I called, which was probably the first in my list, because it had some really pretty pictures and really cool designs that were there and I thought this would be the right one to go to. Yeah, they said come down and have a chat, and I went down, I met the owner Dennis, and yeah, that day he said, “Yeah. Sure. Come back next week,” and it kind of went from there.


Pretty much worked my entire four months as much as I could through that spot, and I met probably my biggest inspiration as a designer, Sonny, who was the research and development manager there. I think cause he reminded me a lot of my grandfather and he was this guy who just had an incredible ability to tinker with things and make things work. And I’d never seen anything like that, and being able to sort of see someone who, although had done things in the past that were very hands on, to be able to see someone in that sort of industry work at the level that he did was it just blew my mind.


Because a lot of the things that you do in university, you know, they’re very almost feel a little bit fictitious. You know, you’re sort of saying, “Oh, it’d be nice if I could make this so this part’s going to be inject molded, or cast, or extruded to do this certain thing,” and it always stays as a pretty sketch or rendering. Whereas, you know, here actually things were happening, so.


Mike Rowe: Fantastic.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, sot hey had a really big project that had come up during that time, so that’s I think why they were able to kind of get me on and use me as a bit of labor. So I just basically shadowed Sonny for the first few months that I was there, and ended up sort of working part-time through my final year of university, and then that’s where I went to work after because I just fell in love with the place. It was a family-owned business, still going, 54 years in operation now in manufacturing, so yeah, it was just… yeah, it gave me my start, so I’m forever grateful for that. But, yeah learnt so much working there as well, which was cool.


Mike Rowe: What were some of the key lessons that you learned by shadowing Sonny?


Adam Harrigan: Get your hands dirty.


Mike Rowe: Yeah? Okay?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah.


Mike Rowe: What does that look like actually like making the stuff yourself or--?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. Sort of, I think, like a lot of designers you love to… I love to sketch. So I love to get on a sketchbook, and start to come up with ideas, and think about it in that way where Sonny was very practical and he taught me to—yes, it’s great to draw all those things out, but at the same time go and build the bloody thing and have a look at it, and then you’ll solve a lot more problems in a faster way by being able to do that.


So, yeah, I was quite lucky with that type of role because the, you know, this manufacturing facility was like a massive workshop. So you could go through and work in timber, steel, plastic, aluminum, upholstery, all different sorts of things. So that was pretty cool in that way, but that would be the biggest lesson I learned from him, which was you know, just go and get your hands dirty, go and build it. Build a little mock up of it, build a prototype, test that little feature or connection detail, or problem that you’re trying to solve, and that will speed things along. So yeah, he sort of taught me to not be afraid of equipment and get ideas across that way, so yeah.


Mike Rowe: Fantastic. And what were some of the ways that you did build and test things? Would it just be something you would test yourself or did you have some, you know, people that would come in that would help you test out the different things that you’re building? What did it look like?


Adam Harrigan: It depends on what you were working on, but you know, it’s very hard with certain things that you’re designing that need to be geared for manufacture. You sometimes can’t use that manufacturing equipment, or the tooling, or something like that straight away. You’ve got to find a way to be a little bit ad hoc and mock up that part first. So you might machine something out of a solid piece of aluminum or just glue random bits and pieces together. So there was that element, which was the really early stages of a design, but then there was the if I needed something done at a higher level of quality, more detail and accuracy, I was able to go and work with a specialist in a particular area.


So whether I was with someone who was incredible at joinery or someone who was really good at welding or fabricating. Yeah, I could sort of go and spend time along with that person, which was a pretty fast way to grow up. Because you sort of learnt the importance of communicating with people that were much older than you and much more experienced than you. So you never wanted to come across as being arrogant by saying, “Hey, I’ve got an idea, can you make it?” Cause if you sort of go over there to one of the guys and say, “Hey, this is what I need you to make.” You know, they’re not going to give you the time of day, so you have to sort of… I learnt really early on, and I think I would have only been maybe 22, 21 or 22 when I went over there. That sort of, you know, as a young guy you’ve got to sort of earn respect.


Mike Rowe: Yes.


Adam Harrigan: Especially in Australian manufacturing.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. And how would you actually approach working with the more senior designers or people that were making things there? Was there a particular process or practice that you would have to do? Like would you—


Adam Harrigan: I just honestly wanted to learn from them. You know, and if you can show them that respect, and they can see that, that’s the best way to get across. Because then you don’t come across as saying that you’re the authority figure, or you’re someone who knows better than they do. You know, you just go in there with a completely open mind and show that to them that you want to learn from them, and they’ll show you everything, everything that they know.


I think it’s a pretty rare person in that particular organization because it was very tight-knit family owned. There was a lot of really nice people who had been there for long periods of time and were more than happy to part with their knowledge, provided that you showed them the respect that they deserved.


Mike Rowe: Mm. And in the early parts of the process, before you’d actually go to these more senior people, is there something that you would do? Like what would you focus on first before actually taking an idea to them? Is there like would you have a prototype, or an idea, or something there?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. Try to give them some detail. 


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: You know, I think anyone who works in that type of industry is usually a visual person.


Mike Rowe: Got it.


Adam Harrigan: So, you know, get some good visuals or good prototype prior to going to see them. So you can say, “Hey, this is the problem I’m trying to solve. Here’s some images, or drawings, something with them.” Because if you just try to communicate that with them verbally and say, “Oh, I’ve got this long kind of thing which needs to bend this way, and connect to this,” they’re going to look at you as confused as you are trying to explain it. So, yeah, just working on visual communication, which is probably the most important tool for a designer.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. I think in general, like designers have to be great at communicating, particularly like the problems that they’re trying to solve, or at least the problem that they’re experiencing with a current prototype so that other people can at least help unblock you and provide an access to provide a solution perhaps.


Adam Harrigan: Definitely. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And from your time working in that factory, is there a favorite failure, or maybe like a key lesson that you’ve learned that maybe set you up for later success?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I mean probably the biggest fail that I worked on would have been trying to work with motors for height adjustability. We had an almost two-year project that we were working on, which just ended up failing, because we just we went in the wrong direction, we weren’t willing to pivot from that. So, you know, sort of seeing the outcome of that I learnt so much from that failure because I learned from what we did wrong with that. 


And there was nothing negative along the process, do you know what I mean? We would get something through, we’d test it, we’d iterate it, we’d say, “Okay, this seems to be pretty good,” but we just we didn’t do enough research prior to understand what the market was doing. I think to really get that product across the line. So in terms of other things that were failures, there’s little bits, little stories here and there in terms of just… but they’re sort of more just usually coming down to not giving someone enough information. 


Mike Rowe: Got it.


Adam Harrigan: And giving that correct information and those details prior to something going onto the factory floor. Because there were two elements that we were working on, one was the ideation, R&D sort of element where you could make things and expect to fail. There was that component of, you know, when this thing actually did need to transition across from a prototype into a manufacturable item, and you needed to communicate that to X number of people in different sections of the factory. 


I worked pretty hard and fast to sort of, you know, what was required there because there was a lot of times where you’d get two-thirds of a way through a project and realize that someone hadn’t interpreted something correctly, and it was entirely your fault, because you hadn’t put the correct documentation together, or you’d missed a dimension, and things like that.


So there was plenty of times where you’d get partway through a project and sort of someone—I wouldn’t say plenty of times because once you make that mistake once or it’s twice…


Mike Rowe: You don’t make it again.


Adam Harrigan: … you don’t make it again. But, yeah, just communication and documentation was pretty important because, yeah, it’s a horrible feeling when you go out to look at a product or one of the first items that comes off that factory line, and you realize that it’s not what it was supposed to be, and you know, and that it is your fault it’s a pretty horrible feeling. So, yeah, at the time it feels awful, but then when you look at it in retrospect, you realize you learn a lot from it.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, is there any like process when that does occur that you go back and try and identify where the breakdown actually occurred? Like is there a process that you deploy around that kind of stuff?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I mean, when I was younger, you know, you sort of maybe I was a little bit arrogant, but you think that everything you do is correct. So, you know, there was a little bit of time there where I’d be like, “How could I? I couldn’t have possibly made a mistake.” So at first, you know, there was that element, which I had to sort of overcome and learn from. But then once I did get through that, in terms of insuring that it doesn’t happen again, it was just double-checking, triple-checking the work that you’re doing at those latter stages of a project. Yeah, so yeah, I’m not sure if that answered the question correctly, but yeah, that’s the way that I sort of remember it.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, I think what that reminds me of is learning from my dad. He was a carpenter and became a firefighter, so he’s got this incredible breadth of knowledge that he’s built up because in the era that he studied, or he practiced carpentry, you had to learn plumbing, and electrical, and the carpentry. And this saying that he told me when I was very young has always stuck with me, and that’s measure twice, cut once.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And I try and apply that to my design practice now, my work now, and I just think like, you know, be prepared, understand it, measure it, and then only just cut that one time. Be as prepared as you possibly can so you can deliver the right thing the first time.


Adam Harrigan: I think I’ve had three or four teachers/mentors that have said very similar things to me, so yeah, that often comes to mind, and it’s just an unconscious practice now. Especially when you’re making something, to sort of check that measurement twice before you cut it.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. What do you think—this might be an unusual question—but did you have any bad habits as a young designer that you’ve kind of ironed out of your process? Cause I know myself, like what you were saying before, I believed I was right, and I couldn’t possibly be wrong in the early parts of my design career. And you know, there are certainly some moments that have humbled me and just open me to the possibility that perhaps I don’t know enough as what I think I do, and that I can probably use a bit of schooling there.


Adam Harrigan: Mm. I think going back to that get your hands dirty comment that I was telling you, sort of saying to you, with Sonny. A very similar thing comes to mind if I’m thinking about bad habits was I would often hide inside a sketchbook to try to get an idea cross. So sort of learning that because, you know, you did from a university or a study perspective you did have a lot of time to spend on a project. You didn’t realize that at the time cause you thought everything was, you know, this is a huge project, and how am I ever going to get everything done? 


But when you go out into the real world of design, you realize that those things have to happen quite quickly, and I think at the beginning I was quite slow and would want to perfect a pretty picture. And that word “perfect” or “perfection” definitely comes to mind, and I think that was a big thing, which I had to overcome. And it wasn’t until I spoke again sort of working professionally back to my lecture at Graham where you’re sort of referring to it as, you know, you don’t have to do things perfectly, it’s not about perfection. 


You can do things exceptionally, but you don’t have to do things perfectly. And trying to keep that in mind when I’m working on things now, it definitely speeds me up, because I don’t spend too much time on making something like a sketch perfect, or a rendering perfect, because that’s only part of the process.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: So trying to overcome that, I found, has definitely sped me because I definitely at times, you know, would scrunch up a piece of paper because I wasn’t happy with a line that I’d drawn, but it had no relevance whatsoever to the overall, you know, sort of success of the project or not.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: So, yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. You can’t really sit on a sketch, right?


Adam Harrigan: No, it’s one of many things that you need to do in the process, so yeah, I’ll definitely become a bit more efficient with that over the years, I think.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. I loved a little note that you mentioned before around the difference between perfection and like being exceptional. How do you relate to the distinction between the two? Cause I see a lot of younger designers focusing on getting things perfect really early in, say, a mockup in, you know, Design Tool or something like that. But really the thing that people interact with is, in my work as a UX designer, is the actual thing that you build. 


Adam Harrigan: Yeah.


Mike Rowe: So is there something like that for a furniture designer or an industrial designer?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. I think I didn’t really properly learn this until working at Koala. I think the idea of an MVP—what is your minimum viable product? You know, looking at it in that way removes perfection or perfectionism very quickly. Because you look at it in a way and going what’s the—not necessarily the least amount of work, but what’s the minimum viable amount of work that I need to do and the minimum amount of features that I need to put into this product to get it out to the market and get it tested so I can iterate or I can do another version of this? That’s probably the most important thing that I’ve learned in terms of removing that perfection side of things. 


Because you can do an MVP exceptionally by putting in good sort of research and groundwork before launching that product, but you know, that’s how I distinguish the two, I suppose. Like to do exceptional is to understand what’s enough knowing that you can improve on it later.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, and focus on the improvement of that over time.


Adam Harrigan: Yes. Definitely.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Great. You mention Koala, and I think this is a great segue into the company you work for right now. Can you tell us a little bit about Koala and how you first came into contact with them? 


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. I got into contact with them when I was working at the manufacturer I was just mentioning. And it was actually a pretty strange phone call because it came across from a fellow, and I can’t remember his name, he was speaking to me. He just said, “Hey, I just want to see if you’re interested in working for a mattress company.” And the first thought that came to mind was, “No. No. I’m very happy where I am.” It’s, yeah, a mattress company does not really sound that interesting, you know, I’m making furniture.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, a bit of a difference.


Adam Harrigan: Thanks very much. And he said, “No, I really think you should, you know, look into the role and have a chat to the guys there. You know, they’re young, they’re really innovative and inspired by this sort of this new sort of start-up/tech/physical product area of the market that seems to be emerging.” So, yeah, yeah, sort of went and had a look through the role, and I’ve always had pretty open relationships or conversations with my past and current employers. 


So I just, I remember speaking to the owner of the company that I was at, and just saying, “Hey, this is an important that has come up. What do you think I should do?” And he said, “Go and have a chat to them. You’ve got nothing to lose.” You know, sort of it’s important that you get out and see the world or work with other people. And yeah, went and met Mitch, who was one of the owners of Koala, and he sat down with us and explained what his vision was, and what he was looking at doing with growing the company, and turning it form a mattress company into a furniture company.


And I think just, you know, sort of seeing this—it was quite a small office at the time—but jut the energy that was in that office and seeing the guys working there, it was very youthful. You know, I felt quite—not that I was old when I started there—but I felt pretty old walking into that office. You know, seeing how it was all set up, and the way the guys were working, and the story behind what he was trying to do, it just it won me over. I remember coming home to my wife—actually she was my fiancé at the time—just incredibly excited about the opportunity and said, “Man, like this is the role that’s there. What do you think?” And, yeah, it just it felt like a bit of a no-brainer.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: But there was something a little bit infectious about Mitch’s energy at the time and what he wanted to do. So, yeah.


Mike Rowe: What was it about the story that really captured your attention that had you see it like something you really wanted to do?


Adam Harrigan: Disrupting the furniture industry. My god, that was… there’s just a lot of crap in the market, and just that whole idea around disrupting that with quality furniture that is easy to assemble. I know that sounds like I’m, you know, like trying to sell the product, but it really was that. It was just removing headache and complication, and you know, by that stage I had done my fair share of moving, my fair share of furniture assembly, and you know, I was pretty aware of the pain point that was in the industry. So to meet a company that was wanting to disrupt that, yeah, that was just perfect.


Mike Rowe: And what is it about Koala’s focus on furniture design that is unique compared to what currently or what did exist in the market before them?


Adam Harrigan: Putting things together without the use of a tool.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Got it.


Adam Harrigan: That would probably be, you know, there’s plenty of other things that they do really, really well in terms of super fast delivery, you know, amazing sort of marketing, and online elements for that, good customer experience. But from a design perspective or the area that I was going into was we need you to make this product, and the first product that we worked on that I wanted to look at was the bed base, which needed to… You know, the problem was we’ve got a mattress, it’s doing really well, but we need to get this off the ground, we don’t currently have a product, but we want to do something that’s a little bit different. 


And it was the brief for that product was we needed to get the mattress off the ground, and it needed to be done in a way that used zero tools and zero fixings. So, again, coming from manufacture where everything uses tools and everything uses fixings, it was a bit intimidating, but yeah, a hell of a brief to kick things off.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, and that’s probably a great segue to talk about the bed base, because that is the first product that you designed at Koala, right?


Adam Harrigan: It was, yeah, that was what I came across to do, so…


Mike Rowe: Given those constraints, like no tools, you know, easy to assemble. I’ve seen the site and I own one myself, and I think I was able to put it together in four minutes without any tools. So it’s a remarkable piece of design, and aesthetically, it’s beautiful as well. But how did you approach that design constraint? Like where did you start to make that work? Because it sounds like what exists before is that you have screws, and tools, and like this really hard way to assemble things, and now you’re trying to move into this easy future that no one else was looking at. So there’s no reference point to start with, I imagine.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, there wasn’t really much of a reference point. I mean there were certain beds that were in the market that used a fixing without the use of a tool to go together. But the brief at the time was no fixings, no tools, so I needed to sort of think about how I could simplify it even further. We also had a pretty tight time to market. In most of the products that I’ve worked on in the past, you would allow 12 months to two years, minimum, to sort of get something designed, developed, and put into market.


You know, we had a much shorter timeframe, and that was a big factor I suppose in the design and the development of it, which was I couldn’t overcomplicate this. So you know, I could have looked at ways of doing, you know, really detailed sort of hard to manufacture elements that would have potentially resulted in something going together and meeting that brief, but it might have been really challenging to actually find a manufacturer to make that product. 


So, yeah, when I started looking at it, I think there was probably three or four weeks that were in there where there was a lot of sketchbook time. Just, you know, researching the market, looking at trends, looking at what was said, what was inspiring me from materials, and finishes, and getting that onto paper and just seeing what would happen. And nothing was really coming together, everything that I was drawing I wasn’t liking, it just didn’t feel like it was going to suit the brand. It didn’t feel like it was going to sort of work logistically. It was going to be too heavy because we needed to sort of allow one person to be able to handle the components but also handle a box to, you know, get it up a set of stairs or into an apartment that might have some tight challenging areas to get through.


So it was just… and then the strength element came into it as well, which is you know, how do we without putting too many legs on it support this? And, yeah, so I think it must have been maybe into the third or the fourth week where it did feel a little bit, almost a little bit hopeless, and I thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to solve this problem. But I just went back to, you know, I just need the bed to be lifted, I just need to feel like it’s floating.


You know, I had this idea of wanting to float the bed in a way. That’s all I needed. It didn’t need to have a really big base to it, it didn’t need to have huge bedheads or anything, you know, super in your face. I really wanted it to just… I suppose because of how successful the mattress was, I wanted it to be a really, like a plinth for that in away, to sort of present the sort of the key product of the company at the time. So, yeah, just went back to the drawing board by trying to really simplify that idea of I just need a floating platform.


And then, you know, with Sonny my old boss in my head, get your hands dirty and start building some things, so I just started to, yeah, go out and play with some materials, and play with the mattress, lift it off the ground, see what it looked like, and it started to come together pretty quickly after that. There was, I think, there was a handful of prototypes that we produced, but you know, the very first successful prototype I’ll always remember because I was at the facility where I was producing it, and I just remember putting it together and putting the final piece in, and sending a picture across to Mitch at Koala. And getting a phone call coming straight away and saying, “You have to get back to the office now.”


Mike Rowe: Oh, really?


Adam Harrigan: Grab this bit of furniture, and yeah, we packed it up, put it into the back of my little wagon that I had, and yeah, took it downstairs, and I’ve still got the video on my phone in terms of, yeah, just with a small ground of people we had in the company. We assembled it, and I think it took me about three and a half minutes to put it together, and it just all slotted together beautifully.


Mike Rowe: Wow.


Adam Harrigan: And chuck the mattress on top, and that was sort of where it began.


Mike Rowe: Wow. And that was like the proof of concept, right?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. It was really just meant to be a product, like it was just first like 1.0 prototype. There was other ones which I’d sort of looked at, which you know, weren’t worth bringing in at the time, but this was the very first prototype that I was happy to put in front of someone, and it’s yeah, worked really well. The guys wanted to have it made straight away like let’s get started, but that was the beginning of a lot of challenge.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, and actually getting that prototype together, was it just you working inside of a workshop? Did you have a team that was part of it? Like how did that actually look to piece that together?


Adam Harrigan: The prototyping bit was just me working inside a workshop, getting some things CNC cup, asking a few people, you know, a few people that I knew were sort of pretty savvy in that sort of area about, you know, what you know, size should I make these connection details? What are some of the challenges that I might face? What are some materials I should be looking for? Yeah, went from there. 


Material was a huge one. You know, I wanted the product to be honest, so I was quite inspired by plywood at the time, and looking at a lot of the materials that were out there. I have a huge love for solid timber but knew there was going to be challenges in the weight, and you know, finding a manufacturer that would be able to work with joinery, and yeah, sort of more complex details was potentially a challenge because I might have blown that timeline out a little bit. 


And then looking at other materials, you know, like MDF, and chipboard, and you know, laminates, and things like that. They were definitely out of the question, cause again, I wanted the product to feel quite natural. I had always been inspired by sort of natural timbers, so yeah, that sort of the idea of having plywood and maintaining the exposed edge of it was my way of keeping the product honest.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve noticed like even with Koala, with the bed base, like the rounded corners, like you’ve got these design details that seem to carry throughout all the different products that are now on the Koala site. And plywood features, it seems like it very heavily, like they’re in that honest material, which is really quite lovely.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I think there’s definitely things that we’re working on in the future that won’t be plywood, but it was a great product to start with because it allowed us to develop a Koala aesthetic using that material, and then you know, the idea of you were sort of mentioning the curvature and things like that. I just I have a—at the moment anyway—I’m really liking things that don’t have sharp edges. So I don’t know if that’s the father coming out in me, but I just yeah, I just like the look of things that don’t necessarily have, you know, a square edge.


So, and you know, it’s a very traditional way to manufacture square edge things and put them together. And you know, I just I look at a lot of our competitors and a lot of the other products that are out there, and I just I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to try and create something that was a little bit different that didn’t look like it had… although it will come off a factory line, there’s no way of avoiding that. I didn’t want it to look like that to a customer. You know, I wanted it to have it feel a little bit more hands on, and yeah, sort of a bit more Australian? I don’t know if that’s… not necessarily Australian, but just to, yeah, to feel honest.


Mike Rowe: You mentioned before as well like this was the first product that had like the Koala aesthetic, and I wonder like when did you realize you had something that was an aesthetic that’s unique to Koala? Like when did you have that a-ha moment? Was there anything that showed up throughout the design process?


Adam Harrigan: We started getting some random people to put it together. During this stage now we have a couple of them made, and we were testing them in the office, you know as sort of people were working on them. We had certain areas that we were concerned about in terms of like strength of the bed head and what the panels would be like if you were sitting on them for long periods of time. You know, would they bend, warp, or crack? But he was starting to get a couple of different people to put it together, and one of the first assemblies that we did, we had a fellow that was across the road that was renovating an apartment, and he just needed a bed for a photo shoot. And we got him and his partner to put it together, and they were just they were really stoked with the experience.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Wow.


Adam Harrigan: And sort of looking at that and I thought… it was at that moment where I went, “Man, we could be onto something quite cool here. It’s, you know, the way that they had responded into putting it together, there was always the fear that this was too simple. That what I had made was going to be, you know, not received professionally in the market. Then we’re gonna go there’s not enough complexity in this. It hasn’t been designed with enough engineering and where are the, you know, intricate German engineered connection details and things like that. 


But for the majority of our customers, they sort of looked at it as a… I think the way that it referred to in the past through some of the feedback was someone who generally labels themselves as bad at putting something together was able to do this. So it had a sense of achievement by doing it, you know, a couple of friends who sort of took a couple of prototypes early on and played with them. You know, they said a similar sort of thing, which was like, “Oh, you know, my boyfriend John was always telling me that I’m crap at putting things together, but hey, look what I was able to do here.” And that was a big part of the brief where the brief we developed a character, and that character was not male, it was female, and we wanted to, you know, I just wanted to imagine that a female renting potentially by herself was able to carry this product up a set of stairs, unbox it, and put it together all by themselves in that short period of time. That was the kind of goal, so we wanted to make sure that things weren’t super heavy, and overcomplicated.


And don’t get me wrong, sort of in early stages of assembly we had to make our tweaks because we learned that even with something that is super, super simple, it can still be very complicated to put together if the instructions aren’t right. And we had sort of parts that looked very much the same, look the same, you know, but you could still incorrectly put it together because they were so similar. We noticed, you know, sort of certain challenges with those first lots of assembly testing where people would go to put it together and not know where to begin because they were like, “I can’t tell the difference in parts,” and they try to grab one bit, put it into the next, and it would not be right. But you had spent so much time around the product that you couldn’t understand how they could get it wrong, but…


Mike Rowe: Yeah, and when you design things, sometimes you lose that first like the ability to look at this product like a first-timer. And it’s really humbling to see when you put something out that how they actually respond to that and how they actually think about piecing something like a bed together. Because I imagine you’ve seen some really fascinating people trying to piece these things together in those early days.


Adam Harrigan: Definitely. And I had to really sort of amazing guys that I still work with today that were able to help me through that process of assembly and refining the product to the point that it was able to become something that we could put into the market and, you know, sort of between me, Dmitri, and Vikram, you know those two guys were huge in those early stages of helping me get things across the line. Especially with Vikram, who worked a lot on insights with me, so he is the head of insight. So he would sort of, you know, he would test the market, ask the right questions, understand you know, the challenges and the pain points in a slightly different way to me. Because he wasn’t quite as around the product as me if that makes sense.


Mike Rowe: He had a distance.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, distanced enough to be able to see the reality, and there were tough conversations at times, but you know, but he was sort of able to help me see and understand a better assembly experience. You know, and also with what Vik did there, and something that Koala does really well is that sort of surveying customer experience side of things. So going on, we spend a lot of time in people’s homes prior and during the design phase to really understand how people live in their homes, how people sleep, what they like, what they dislike. So that was a huge part of the design and development.


You know, I didn’t really look at this as something that I personally yes, I was inspired by what I made, and I really wanted to put that aesthetic out there, but it was a huge part of that design was driven by customer feedback. So it’s almost been designed more by the customer than it has been designed by me in a way. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: It sounds like you’re not just building one piece of furniture in isolation, you’re trying to think about how this one piece of furniture may fit cohesively with the other furniture and the way that they live in their own space. And then potentially, I imagine, what future needs they may have and where you may be able to solve other problems that they have for their spaces.


Adam Harrigan: Every single feature that was put into that product was tested or asked in the market, and we got feedback on that, and some of it was, you know… And that drove, I suppose, or gave us a good understanding of the key pain points that we needed to address, and what our USPs were going to be for the product. 


Mike Rowe: USP, just for anyone that’s not heard that term, that’s a unique sales proposition, right?


Adam Harrigan: Correct. Yeah. So that unique element was something that is really hard to get into a product sometimes, and we wanted to try our best to do that. You know, where the company was coming from, you know, there was a couple of really solid ones in terms of four-hour delivery, no one was doing that in the market. Zero tools, zero fixings, there wasn’t many people in the market that were doing that. So there was two pretty easy ones to get off the market if we were able to achieve it. But then, you know, being able to sort of put that… I think the only other one that I can really look at that was in the product that was received really well was our idea to put the pillow storage behind the bed head.


And I just have so many memories of beds in the past where you go through this ritual of before you get to bed of throwing all of your pillows on the ground. And my partner, she likes her accessory pillows, so we had a few extra ones on the bed, and there was always this ritual of throwing them on the ground. And I just never really understood why that had to happen, and really disliked that, so the idea to just why can’t we do that behind the bed head sort of came up as question. And that was one of the very things we put in, and it stayed the whole way through because people responded really well to it. And I still do, today, put my accessory pillows—if that’s what you call them—behind the bed. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: But I think it does really highlight how you understand people and their intent and how they use that particular design. In this case, the bed base, like you know, that experience that you have with your wife, those accessory pillows, like you’ve designed a solution to solve essentially what is a problem. Because you get up in the mornings, accessory pillows are all over the floor, you might trip, fall, hit your head, who knows what? Because they’re a trip hazard there, right?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, something so soft can be really dangerous, right?


Mike Rowe: Yeah. What was the biggest challenge that you found through designing the bed base?


Adam Harrigan: Probably selecting the right material. It needed to tick so many boxes and it needed to be at a quality, at a level that allowed us to manufacture it and hold stock. You know, one of the most important things with Koala is being able to give a customer something in quite a short turn around. You know, there’s a lot of companies that you buy a piece of furniture from there usually is a lead time and you have to—unless it’s very rarely held in stock and you have to wait six, you know, two, three, up to 16 weeks for a piece of furniture. So we need this product to be in stock all the time, and if it sells successfully, we need to be able to hold a lot of stock.


And working with a raw material, you need to be able to manage that process and find a way to… make sure you find the right product, the right quality of material, that allows you to hold that level of stock and also be able to produce the details that you need to. Because this was a tool less connection, so we needed to make sure that the quality of the material, the quality of the substrate was right, so yeah, that became almost a one and a half year investigation, let’s call it that, sort of in terms of trying to source the right materials, and it took us all over the world.


Mike Rowe: Oh yeah. Wow.


Adam Harrigan: So we needed to make sure that we were not only ticking sustainability boxes, but we were also ticking the boxes that allowed us to sort of to access enough of the material.


Mike Rowe: And you mentioned sustainability. How does sustainability actually factor into the design decisions that you make at Koala?


Adam Harrigan: That’s huge. Yeah. That’s huge. We need to make sure it ticks all of the necessary boxes in terms of where the products come from, the way that the forest is being managed, the glues that they’re using that go into the product, the veneers that are being chosen, and everything. We look into all of those factors and that’s sort of why we ended up going to Europe to look for material because we didn’t want to tap into the Australian timber because it just didn’t… it wasn’t the right fit for us. There’s a lot that gets consumed in the construction industry in Australia, and we needed to meet a particular level of quality. And, yeah, we found an incredible material that we’re using for all of our new products that come out of Europe. 


So, yeah, it was you know, a great experience to be able to go over and see those forests, and how they’re managed, and how the factories work, and we saw factories that were 100% run by the waste of the products. The wood chips that came of the shavings that made the plywood, that all went back into a furnace, and 100% fueled the factory. Like, yeah, we saw some really cool things and learned a hell of a lot over there.


Mike Rowe: Wow. That’s fantastic.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. And to know with these future products that are coming out that it is coming from that area and it is super sustainable, and that we’re not creating a problem in the environment is a really important factor. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, I think it’s something most modern consumers are going to be very conscious of. Particularly right now in Australia there’s massive bushfires, and this is a very hot topic, literally, for us right now.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. It is, mate, and that sort of knowing, you know, that we wanted to continue into the future using timber-based products. It’s something that’s really important to us. But, you know, it’s not for me as a designer it’s not about designing things and pushing for, you know, excess consumption. You know, we want to create pieces of furniture, and I want to create pieces of furniture, that people keep for a lifetime. You know, I don’t want it to be what you see so often. You know, I don’t want it to be that piece of furniture that’s on the side of the road after the second move or the first move. 


You know, and that was really one of the biggest pieces of feedback we got, especially with the bed was, you know, with competitor-based products, when they get pulled apart, they usually get damaged on that disassembly. And that disassembly process generally relates to someone not wanting to take that product to the next move, and they will leave it on the side of the road. And I just didn’t want this product to be like that. We wanted to design something that was, in a way, iconic if we could. That meant that people would want to hand it down or pass it on, or keep it, so.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. I know, for me, like when I first saw the bed base it looked beautiful, but in having mine for it must be like two years now, it feels like something I definitely want to keep for a lifetime. 


Adam Harrigan: Oh, it’s nice feedback.


Mike Rowe: Just its sheer ability to like pick it apart, move it, not get damaged. It’s just it’s a remarkable piece of design.


Adam Harrigan: Thank you, mate, I appreciate that.


Mike Rowe: I wanted to ask you about the detail of the bed base that you’re most proud of as well. What might that be?


Adam Harrigan: As much as I want to say pillow shortage, I’ve never been much of a pillow accessory kind of guy. So that was probably one that was more for my partner than for me. I think the thing that I’m most proud of is just creating something that other people are proud to own and have come and given me that feedback. There’s so many little details that I put into it where I wanted to, you know, have the feeling of it floating. So angling the legs in a particular way so you just see a shadow line in most areas of the bedroom when you’re walking around it.


You know, I wanted to see just enough timber or just enough of that veneer as you look around the edges, you know, not having the sharp corners. So, you know, you remove the potential of someone kicking something, like kicking it when they’re walking to the bathroom, or getting out of bed in the morning. You know, all of those little features were things that I’m very proud of. But, yeah, there’s not a specific detail that’s on it that I’m proud of, but it was just being able to… as a designer, I’m proud of that’s the first thing that I’ve ever made that had zero tools, zero fixings.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: You know, I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life, to say that that was my first project that had that brief requirement.


Mike Rowe: Mm. Tell you what, for me, like what I love about the bed base too is, and you mentioned sharp corners a couple of times. And now that I think of it, every bed that I’ve ever owned has a corner that I have kicked my shin, and I must have divots carved out of my shins from just waking up in the middle of the night, still being really sleepy, and then just hitting the edge of the bed, and then waking up whoever I’m sleeping with, and then causing a whole big thing. And since getting this Koala bed base, I just have not had that experience since.


Adam Harrigan: The two, yeah, the two pain points for me was, yeah, I’d had this really sharp corner on the end that I would always hit with my shins or kick when I was getting out of bed. And the other one was the mattress sat quite deep into the bed, so I would constantly scrape the tops of my hands, nails, trying to tuck my sheets in and change the bed every time.


Mike Rowe: Oh, yeah.


Adam Harrigan: You know, it was that sort of was one of the reasons why a platform bed was gonna be the first thing that I designed because there was no way I was gonna be designing something that had this big 200, 300 mill kind of dropping design to it because there’s just, you know, had a lot of negative thoughts around that.


Mike Rowe: Mm. So you’re probably like taking in your own problems when you were designing as well when designing solutions.


Adam Harrigan: A little bit of that, yeah. I know I said it was definitely a lot of customer feedback and, you know, user feedback. Yeah, there was a couple things that I had to try and put in for myself.


Mike Rowe: Get in for yourself. Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: Which turned out to be other people’s issues as well, but yeah, that was just… Oh, mate, the amount of times that I remember just that past bed that I had trying to change that bloody mattress and scratching my hands putting it in and out, it just, yeah.


Mike Rowe: It seems so obvious in hindsight to design solutions for those things, but it seems like a lot of people don’t actually think about those common problems that show up as well.


Adam Harrigan: Potentially. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And if you were to design or redesign the bed base from scratch again, is there anything that you would do differently or would you approach it in a different way?


Adam Harrigan: Mate, always. Always improvements. The second you make your first prototype, you make improvements or want to change it. Yeah, there’s lots of things that you look at and would like to improve. But, you know, you sort of… we do that via feedback in the company, I suppose. So you know, we get this out into market, and we have an amazing review process that, you know, we get almost every product that goes out, you know, a customer will review that and give us feedback. We’ve been really lucky with the bed that the majority of it has been five-star reviews. So everyone’s just super stoked with their experience with it, but those small percentage of issues that come through that you look at and go, “Yeah, this is an improvement we can make.” 


So we’re actually, you know ,we’re in the process of looking at what a 2.0 would look like for that. I can’t sort of say too much about that at this point, but we’re always looking at what improvements we can make. Not only in the assembly or the quality of the product, or the experience, but also in, you know, improving manufacturing efficiency, always trying to make things more sustainable, or use less material, and things like that, so yes.


Mike Rowe: I absolutely love that as well. Like you’ve started with one product and you’re looking to iterate and just improve it. Like you’ve got a great product already, but what you’ve just said is like perhaps it could be better, let’s explore it. And not a lot of companies or people just think about their products or the things that they make through that lens. Like they’re not looking to continually improve it, and I think it’s such a testament to the quality of the company and the design that goes on at Koala that you’re actually doing that.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, it’s a huge part of our process is to always retro something, look at something in retrospect, and just go you know, what did we do right, what did we do wrong, what can we do next time to improve it, and put that into our development pipeline, and work on it again? So yeah, and you know even with future products or things that might not necessarily be bed related, you know, we’re able to put that learning into that almost straight away. So it sort of has a carry on effect into other product areas, so and you know, because we’re trying to do something that’s, you know, a little bit different to traditional furniture companies, you know, it does have its challenges, but we’re learning and evolving pretty quickly, I think.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. And what are the things that you’ve learned from the bed base that you’ve applied to some of the new products at Koala or of launching like the TV unit?


Adam Harrigan: You know, we learnt some assembly and connection detail. Challenges, I suppose, you know we definitely needed to improve certain—well, not improve—but we needed to see how those connection details could potentially adapt into a new product. We needed to continue to improve the material because we needed to make sure that we could find a way to potentially use less material and use a better quality material as we moved into other products. You know, and we also needed to with something like the TV units, we needed to look at how we tackled a cabinet which was different to a bed. 


So that was another challenge, so you know, we sort of had four or five different designs and iterations that we looked at in that process. But there was a big drive to want to try and aesthetically produce something that was similar because we did like the features, and the style, and the feel of the bed base head. Because there was something quite minimal about it, and I’ve always been… with a lot of things that I’ve designed in the past, and a lot of things that are designed at Koala, I’m trying to be more about creating a canvas more so than a statement piece. So that’s something that addresses all those issues, but it’s something that really, in a way, can fall into the background a little bit and let personal possessions and things that you put onto it create the life in that product.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, so that sort… I don’t know, again, I don’t know if that answered the question entirely, but that was sort of the drive for, you know, for future products that we’re looking at, and especially for the TV unit. Cause it does go together in a very similar way to the bed, but we just had to tackle the cabinetry side of it a little bit.


Mike Rowe: And what were the unique challenges of the designing the TV unit that showed up when you started to explore these different potential ways that it could look?


Adam Harrigan: I mean, besides the thing actually going together and tackling the cabinetry, it was cable management. You know, if I look at accessory pillows, and kicking shins, and assembly as being huge pain points for the bed, you know, cables for a TV unit was a really big one. 


Mike Rowe: 100%.


Adam Harrigan: And, you know, I just I had this TV unit at home at the time which just had this dusty pile of crap sitting behind it that, you know, just was really said to me that there’s got to be a better way that we could do it. So that was one of the biggest challenges initially was how do we take the average person’s, you know, number of devices. You know, we’re not sort of saying we’re going to try and target someone that’s got, you know, 50 different electronic devices. But, you know, the average number of devices, how can we take that and house them, and house the cables and everything in a neat and organized way. That was a huge challenge, and we did a lot of different testing to get that one across.


And then also how do we do something that was simple in terms of accessing all of the areas of the unit, you know, in terms of being zero tools, zero fixings using things like hardware—the runners, and drawers, and doors, and things like that was definitely going to be a big challenge. So I really just went back to basics with that one and thought what if we just do a really simple sliding door? And again, there was always that fear of this is going to be too simple, this is not going to be enough of a technically evolved product to get people to want to buy it, but the first couple of tests that we did with it, you know, it worked really well. And the simplicity and how it goes together and how the door slides and sort of shows the section that you need to access and closes it back over, you know, it does the job well and truly. So, yeah, we were pretty stoked with that.


Mike Rowe: It allows people to showcase their own possessions, right? Like it’s part of that canvas philosophy about…


Adam Harrigan: Definitely.


Mike Rowe: …it kind of receding into the background somewhat.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. We did a huge amount of… in terms of our design process we call it like our parameters that we work on, and we look at the different sizes of electronics and devices that go into the unit, the different ways that people would, you know, sort of need to access things, and that idea of you know, having to bend all the way over the back to change a cord and things like that. We realized that most cabinets are too big, so we wanted to give front and rear access to being able to unplug cords. So we sort of created a little sliding cavity that comes up in the middle and shows where the power board is, and you can put it back down, and keep doing what you’re doing.


So you’re sort of doing all of that work was sort of hugely important to what we hope is create a successful product. You know, it’s very early on in its launch of into the market, and sort of only came out sort of late, late last year. So it’s, you know, we’re sort of hoping that a lot of those features are received well.


Mike Rowe: Fantastic. And is there a detail that you’re proud of on the TV unit?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I really like the cable management. I know that sounds a bit nerdy, but I like the fact that we’re able to create this sort of like false panel. So once it’s closed you don’t even really know it’s there, but it’s there, but when you’re sitting there and you’re looking at your TV unit watching TV. You know, most of the stuff is hidden, you can still see your devices, right, because you might need to, you know, use your PlayStation, or your Apple TV, or whatever it is that you’ve got. But I just like the fact that the majority of that mess is hidden. And then even if you go to the back of the unit to vacuum behind it or whatever, it’s still inside the unit. So you just, yeah, the cable part of it is probably the thing I’m most part of.


I really like the style of it, too. I remember when we got one of our first prototypes I was so excited to get it home and get rid of my other TV unit so I could get this thing in and see how it looked and felt. Because I just I was really proud of the aesthetic of it, like it was quite… yeah.


Mike Rowe: Actually, I purchased a TV unit about a year ago, and my girlfriend always tells me about how like I typically do pretty well about purchasing furniture in particular around assembly and making sure that it’s easy to assemble. But this one thing looked like it was going to be easy, and it must have had 150 different screws. And I sat there for about eight hours assembling this thing. I’m like, “Oh, I just have to throw this thing out. Like I have to get rid of this. I hate this thing in my life right now. It’s such a pain.” So I think that making it easy for people to assemble and hiding those details is really ultra important.


Adam Harrigan: There was a similar fear with this one, right? In terms of could we do the same thing as the bed, could we make this thing go together in a couple of minutes? It didn’t feel possible at the time because every product that we tested would take, you know, 20, 30, 40 minutes plus to put together.


Mike Rowe: And what would you say might be one of the most important qualities for a person to have as a furniture designer? If they were to take on the ideas that you push forward with Koala, is there something that’s really ultra important that you would say they would need to have?


Adam Harrigan: I suppose one of the things that I’ve learned recently as it comes to mind is, you know, do you want to design for yourself or for other people? You need to understand that first and foremost. Because if you wanted to design for yourself, you know, you can still do that and get a lot of enjoyment from it. But, you know, there’s a slightly different way that you would probably approach that, whereas designing for other people, you know if that’s what you want to do, which is something that I quite enjoy doing, you know, you need to listen to other people.


Mike Rowe: Yeah.


Adam Harrigan: That’s probably the most important thing. So, you know, understand that there is a process before starting that idea in some way because you’ve got to find the problem. So, you know, starting out as a furniture designer, you know, going back to what I was talking about, about getting your hands dirty. Learn how things go together. Go and do a little woodworking course. There’s some amazing places around Australia that you can go and learn those hands-on elements if you haven’t because using your hands to create those things will make you a better designer, especially better furniture designer. So that was sort of, yeah, getting your hands dirty probably be the most important thing. But, yeah, in terms of working as a designer in Australia commercially, you know, definitely understand that you need to design for other people and not yourself is probably important. At least that’s something that’s important to me.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, cause you’re not going to be the only person buying it, right?


Adam Harrigan: Exactly. Yeah. And learning what other people like and dislike, too, in different market segments, different areas. You know, they’re really important, because you know that and being able to if you are working for a company, and you’re sort of feeling new to that company, or that company is new to the market, really trying to understand who it is that you want to design for so you can kind of create that link. And you know if you know who you’re designing for because I know if I was designing these products for my parents it’s probably the entirely the wrong market and they’re not going to want that. But, you know, we understand our market and who we want to design for pretty well, I think, and that’s probably one of the most important things you need to do before kicking things off.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, have a key person in mind that these products that you’re making is going to be designed for sounds like the thing that you really want people to focus on. Is there any advice that you would give to someone perhaps studying industrial design, or furniture design, or thinking about making a career switch into this field?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah. I mean if they’re just about to start, or they’re currently through it, keep going because it’s a bloody good job. I really, really enjoy being a designer. It’s sort of one of the guys that I work with at the moment, Francesca, we sort of quite often have these moments where we say we’ve got the best job in the world. You know, and for me personally, I love doing it. So if I can inspire someone who wants to study it, or is going to study it, by letting her know how I feel about that, there’s not many better feelings for me than creating something. 


So, yeah, that’s… and find some good mentors. You know, if where you’re studying doesn’t give you access to that, you know, get off your chair and go and knock on some doors, or pick up the phone, or send an email. You know, I sort of grew up working with some pretty old school people, so if you want to work with manufacturers and you want to work with furniture in particular, don’t send them an email. Go and knock on their door, go and show them your face, and speak to them face to face. You know, that’s sort of they’ll respond much better to you in that way. Cause, you know, they’re real people, and you know, sometimes I think we get caught behind our computers and our phones a little bit too much, so yeah.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Like a little bit isolated in a lot of ways. Like just focusing on your own little vacuum, perhaps.


Adam Harrigan: Yes. Yeah, but that mentor side of things, like finding someone that you can chat to about ideas and problems that you’re facing, and things like that, that have had experience in that area, or even if it’s not necessarily direct in line experience with what you’re working on. You know, they can share things with you that just help you evolve as a person, and from a design perspective, it’s so important to do that. You know, I’ve been pretty lucky to work with some pretty cool people, and you know, learn a lot along the way, but also have the understanding. And if you get a good mentor, you know, they’ll never let you stagnate on something or stagnate on an aesthetic or an idea for too long and they’ll continue to push the direction that you’re going.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, that is the value of a mentor, right? To keep challenging you to be better than you were yesterday with the things that you’re designing and making.


Adam Harrigan: Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And where can people find you if they’re curious? Are you online anywhere?


Adam Harrigan: Yeah, I mean LinkedIn’s pretty easy these days, if you need to reach out, otherwise jump on Instagram and you can send me a message on there. I don’t use Facebook that  much these days. So probably Insta or LinkedIn would be the easiest. Yeah.


Mike Rowe: And what’s your handle on Instagram?


Adam Harrigan: Handle? Ah, just @adam_harrigan, I’m pretty sure. You’re testing my memory now. Yeah. Yeah, I’m not huge on social media, but I do try to post things here and there, try not to post too much about my daughter, but I’m pretty obsessed with her at the moment, so.


Mike Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. Fantastic. Any parting thoughts before we wrap up?


Adam Harrigan: Get your hands dirty.


Mike Rowe: Yeah, that seems to be the common story here.


Adam Harrigan: Go and make a bloody thing. Yeah. I suppose that’s the… that would probably be my parting one that, yeah, get your hands dirty.


Mike Rowe: Well, Adam, thank you so much for your time. This has been a really fantastic conversation. I’ve really loved to get into the details on how you think and how you approach problem-solving, and the work that you’re actually doing with Koala. I’m super inspired by the work that you’re doing and the way that you’re actually thinking about people’s needs, and I’m just excited for what you guys build next.


Adam Harrigan: So am I, mate. Yeah. Very excited. There’s a lot still to come from Koala, so yeah.


Mike Rowe: I’m excited to see where you guys go.


Adam Harrigan: Thanks, Mike.


Mike Rowe: Hey there, it’s Mike again. I wanted to say thank you for your time, attention, and listening this far. So what did you think? If you liked this episode and want to hear more, you can subscribe to “The Goods” on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts, Spotify, or get “The Goods” on your favorite podcast network, or listening apps. This podcast only exists with the support of people like you. If you got valuable advice, a great insight, or see potential in the show, I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider leaving a rating and review. Thank you and practice good design.


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