Ziba executives Sean Madden (from left) and Chelsea Vandiver with company founder Sohrab Vossoughi

One afternoon, a meeting at Ziba Design unfolds like many at the 30-year-old design firm’s sleek Pearl District offices. A half-dozen people gather around a long table in a conference room appointed in honey-toned woods and idea-ready whiteboards. The table holds a small fortune’s worth of MacBook Airs. 

Ziba’s employees include industrial designers, anthropologists, architects, engineers, and practitioners of specialties that challenge layman understanding. (“Kinetic design,” for example.) Conversation flows in a collage of global accents—the staff includes about 18 nationalities. Today begins with a series of koan-like statements, chipped in from around the table.

“When a brand makes a promise statement, there’s an implied need statement.”

“Teams with craftsman abilities won’t necessarily align with story.”

Slowly, the discussion becomes more concrete, as an interior designer describes creating retail spaces for a major international corporation that fit that company’s overall image. How do you figure out what a brand “means”—and then translate that abstraction into physical space? 

Paul O’Connor, a longtime Ziba executive creative director, nods. “When you do one of these complex projects,” he says, “you have to ask yourself: are the packaging, the copy, the spaces, the user interfaces all on the same page?”

A few chairs away, Chelsea Vandiver jumps in. “There needs to be a central pivot point,” says the 40-year-old Ziba veteran, who assumed overall leadership of the company during a recent and still-evolving transition. “An idea that drives the experience of the whole brand.”

 

FROM TOP: a pioneering flash drive for m-systems; Microsoft’s “natural” keyboard; a wound-dressing system for battlefield medics; Best Buy’s “modal” product line; Heinz packaging

O’Connor expands on her point. “When you can find a brand at Walmart, it can feel really flat and bland,” he says. “What’s the spark that gives it meaning?”

This last question more or less defines Ziba and what its 125 employees do with their days. Clients major (Mattel) and boutique (Portland Art Museum) come to Ziba to have products invented and their overarching identities—that 21st-century corporate je ne sais quoi, “brand”—reshaped. What is the spark of meaning behind a mass-produced corporate product? What qualities lend companies something resembling soul? Assuming those questions have answers, how can people within companies act upon them?

Appropriately enough, Ziba marks its 30th anniversary this year asking similar questions about itself. Last year, company founder Sohrab Vossoughi—long one of the looming personalities of Portland creative industry—handed control to a three-person team. Vandiver is “first among equals” (in Vossoughi’s phrase) alongside Sean Madden and Jin Lee, but the new structure emphasizes shared responsibility over traditional hierarchy. The move makes Ziba a laboratory of transition: a charismatic founder anointing a less-seasoned generation; individual leadership giving way to a more collaborative setup. 

Ziba began as an industrial design operation, making particular products. (In 1994, for example, Ziba created the splayed-out Microsoft ergonomic keyboard that became a mainstay of Clintonian office culture.) Physical design remains dear to the company. A visitor to Ziba’s offices first encounters a glossy turntable and stout boom box, created in 2011 for the audio brand TDK. Glass cases near the front desk display Ziba-created products—the new Heinz ketchup bottle, released last year, for example—like trophies. 

Today’s clients, however, want not just fresh products, but new business models. In 2012, Ziba created a retail concept, FitHub, to showcase Reebok’s populist orientation toward everyday exercise. New stores would revolve around areas (“Story Pods”) dedicated to specific aspects of fitness—“Flexibility,” say, or “Speed.” FitHub demanded that Reebok’s retail employees act as informal coaches first, salespeople second. And the concept had to adapt to different cultures: it debuted in Russia, Dubai, and South Korea.

“It used to be like this,” Vandiver explains. “We put our headphones on, designed a product, the client made the product, and that was it. Now we have to look at the client as a partner in a long-term process. How do they train employees? It’s not about creating the perfect design anymore.” 

 

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Ziba Design’s Pearl District headquarters, home to 83 of the firm’s employees

At street level, Ziba’s rectangular, glass-fronted headquarters gleam like a spaceship sent from Planet Modern. Inside, the serene mix of wood walls and concrete floors always reminds me of the Mad Men character who called a ’60s office “an Italian hospital.” Downstairs, however, it’s a different scene.

One day, Vossoughi wandered Ziba’s intentionally rough-edged basment workshop, a fluorescent-lit space littered with projects. Vossoughi, a 57-year-old who can be impish or professorial or philosophical as suits his point, picked up a sample of common plastic packaging. 

“Blister packs,” he said, shaking his head as if contemplating life’s sorrows. “Why are they so hard to open?” Questions like this more or less built Ziba. 

Vossoughi’s uncle came to the United States from Iran in the 1950s, and American education became a family tradition. Sohrab arrived in the Bay Area in 1971, 14 years old, ready for high school. “We were all planning to go back,” he says. “Lo and behold, the Revolution happened, and we stayed.” As a San Jose State University mechanical engineering major, looking to “invent stuff,” he wandered into a classroom lined with renderings for consumer products: industrial design. He changed his major the next day.

Vossoughi landed in Vancouver, Washington, as a Hewlett-Packard employee, but went his own way in 1984. In 1986, his new company, Ziba (Persian for “beautiful”), rented 1,187 square feet in a Beaverton business complex. By 1988, the client roster included Dow Chemical, Nike, and Intel. An Oregonian article from that year rattles off early (and very ’80s) Ziba projects: “an exercycle designed to encourage women and older persons to get more exercise ... a rowing machine for amateur and professional oarsmen ... a transparent electronic panel that turns any personal computer into an overhead projector.” The company had six employees, with plans to add a few more.

Decades of growth, acclaim, and prolific creation followed. Ziba overhauled FedEx’s retail centers (discovering, in a research epiphany, that visible, precarious towers of packages made customers uneasy). It created utility winches and medical devices and cosmetics packaging. For one brief period, the company was arguably best known for a squeegee-like home cleaning device. Press stories about Ziba invariably cast Vossoughi as the company’s protagonist, striding through the office, steering his ever-expanding team. He was called Entrepreneur of the Year (by Business Week, 1992) and a Global Leader of Tomorrow (by the World Economic Forum, 1994) and became one of those select Portlanders almost always referred to by first name. 

“They’re very much an anchor of the design corridor on the West Coast,” says Allan Chochinov, a partner at the industry magazine Core77. “They still know how to make stuff, and that’s a hugely respected quality.”

For many years, though, the firm has worked to make itself less a product-design shop than an all-purpose idea whisperer. Last year, for example, the firm created a new in-house brand for Best Buy, complete with products—Bluetooth cable, phone case, and a speaker—a candy-bright color scheme, graphic design, packaging, and a retail strategy. 

 “How do you create an integrated brand that really speaks to people?” Vossoughi says. “Apple does it well. Virgin does it well. Some others are half-assed but OK. Most companies can’t do it. That’s our value proposition.”

Today, Ziba has more than 100 employees. Its custom-built HQ occupies half a block in the Pearl District, and satellite offices operate in Munich, Tokyo, and San Diego. (On a tight deadline to create audio speakers for Logitech last year, Portland designers handed off a day’s work to Munich, nine hours ahead, via Skype each evening, then took over again the next morning.) In recent years, as Vossoughi tells it, running this beast began to pull him away from his first love: the world of the workshop, of tinkering and inventing. He also faced a simple problem of scale. “A lot of design firms struggle once they get beyond 15 or 20 people,” he says. “They fall apart, or they lose their vision.”

About two years ago, he began scrutinizing the situation. “I’ve never been wedded to, oh, that guy’s the owner,” Vossoughi says. “The whole idea is to create a company that lives beyond one person.”


 

As its founder contemplated change, Ziba sought an outside view. Thom Walters, a former member of ad agency Wieden & Kennedy’s global executive team, now describes himself as an “evocateur of organizational innovation”—something like a counselor for companies at a crossroads.

“You’ve met 40-year-olds who act like 8-year-olds?” Walters says. “That’s arrested development. I work with organizations to prevent arrested development.”

Walters found Ziba at what he calls an almost universal moment. “I’ve never seen a founder-based organization that doesn’t go through this,” he says. Companies run by charismatic entrepreneurs become too big for a single human to lead. Meanwhile, “all of a sudden—though of course it evolves gradually—there’s a group of individuals good enough to step up and carry the vision forward.” What happens next can be a crisis, or not. 

“You’ve got to refresh the structure,” Walters says, “and fuse new leadership with the founder’s experience and insight.”

Walters often advocates for what he calls a “triad”: a three-person executive council. He dislikes consensus decision-making—the pass-the-talking-stick, Occupy Wall Street style of endless debate and feeling-sharing that has doomed many an organic co-op grocery. But he believes three people, sharing authority and responsibility, can push companies forward. Wieden & Kennedy uses this structure to run each of its offices. Walters has urged the model on fast-growing physicians groups, replacing a singular CEO with a triad “office of the president.”

“It’s a more contemporary model,” Walters says, “which reflects the complexity of business today. It’s more transparent than one-person leadership, where the decision-making happens inside his or her head. There has to be a conversation. There’s an inherent flexibility: more than one person is steeped in the challenges of the organization. And there’s always a tiebreaking vote.” 

At Ziba, he observed a new generation of talent ready for a boost. 


 

Chelsea Vandiver, whose soothing but solid demeanor would make for a great doctor’s bedside manner, often refers to people as “humans.” (“I realized I could do work that changes how humans interact with the world,” she says, for instance.) At first, this made her sound oddly like a wildlife biologist. Soon, though, her use of the word began to seem warmer: a mark of sympathy.

The University of Washington graphic design graduate started at Ziba as a contractor in 1998. In 2003, she started the firm’s Communications Design
department, steering projects like the rebranding of the Portland Art Museum and Oregon College of Art and Craft. And she developed a knack for orchestrating the multidisciplinary squadrons that huddle over particular jobs in white-walled workrooms clustered around Ziba’s main open-plan office.

“My passion is empathy, and humans in teams,” she says. “We fall so madly in love with individual talent. The reality is, the work is a collective endeavor. Someone may be potentially phenomenal, but do they collaborate? Do they generate a lot of ideas that help the team?”

In the makeover shaped by Vossoughi and Walters, Vandiver took on the title of Executive Managing Director of Creative. “This business has to be run by a creative,” Vossoughi says, “but a creative with a good business head. A lot of designers are not good at business, frankly. Chelsea grew up at Ziba. And she is so much better than me as a manager.” 

Joining her in the triad is Sean Madden, 33, who began his career in software and digital media. But he balanced his computer science degree from Willamette University with a second major in literature, focused on modernist writers like Italo Calvino. (“My synapses are built along a stream of consciousness,” he says.) Conversation with Madden can be a slightly mind-bending dissection of technological and cultural trends; he considers sci-fi and fantasy authors like Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman as essential to 21st-century designers as any book on business or innovation.

“What are the implications of design?” he asks, in one characteristic riff. “The next explosion of digital devices will be wearable tech and the ‘Internet of things.’ The companies making those products are all American companies. What are the unintended consequences of that? Everyone once just assumed that carbon emissions were part of doing business. What assumptions do we make now?”

After working in the Bay Area, Madden returned to Portland, his hometown, for a Ziba job three years ago. In the new regime, his role includes—not to put too crude a point on it—selling the company to clients. His literary background trained him unusually but well. In an era in which every business extols “innovation” and “disruption,” a good story is essential.  

“It’s a problem Ziba helped create: the recognition that design is important,” Madden says. “General Electric has a design center in Silicon Valley with 700 employees now. The client asks, why do we need you guys? We can do this ourselves. We have to figure out how to communicate why we’re valuable.”

To Walters, Madden’s and Vandiver’s contrasting personalities give Ziba both balance and renewed potency. The veteran Vandiver—“old enough but young enough,” Walters says—embodies the firm’s culture. Madden threads the strands of an increasingly complicated business into a compelling story. The third member of the new leadership team, operations manager Jin Lee, exhibits “an almost artistic ability to balance cost-control and the need to think creatively.” Lee, a self-deprecating and quietly formidable 45-year-old native of South Korea, describes herself as “the keeper of the sandbox.” She monitors supply purchases and travel expenses, and is the person who gets the call when an employee trips the alarm while working after hours on New Year’s Eve. “I am not a creative person,” Lee says, “but I work to create conditions in which creative people operate.”

The triad took command last year. Walters, who continues to consult for the company, is optimistic about Ziba in particular and this system in general. “If you’re part of a team, your thinking is naturally sharper,” he says. “You have to thrive in the creative tension of a group.”


 

On the morning Germany played Portugal in the World Cup, Ziba’s Portland staff gathered in an airy common room for a regular weekly meeting. At an internationalist company that employs a fair number of Germans, Madden faced stiff competition for attention from the flat-screen. He persevered.

“I hope you all feel that last week was a great week for Ziba,” he said. He noted the public panel discussion in the auditorium, which had featured a Wired editor and Airbnb’s “lead of experience design” talking about designing services, as opposed to objects. Ziba marked that occasion by launching its own online magazine on the same subject. A brown-bag discussion on health care was coming up: “We’ll talk about how to apply design to intractable social problems,” Madden said.

Meanwhile, business rolled on. Various staffers in the room were freshly returned from far corners of the country, and several major projects were poised for launch. I promised not to reveal still-proprietary client relationships; suffice it to say that Madden name-dropped several of the nation’s largest and most powerful companies.     

Ziba has created an environment in which Portland collides with the wide world—where global commerce and culture vibrate against our city’s familiar, sometimes insular preoccupations with craft, quality of life, and idealism. (In one of our interviews, Vandiver told me: “Business exists to create value for humans.” That might inspire eye rolls in the ExxonMobil executive suite, but it fits perfectly with the Portland entrepreneurial ethic.) Vandiver and Madden both seem to consider Portland as an equal player in that dynamic.

“Portland is a real advantage right now,” Madden told me. “In San Francisco, the conversation is only about money, the attention economy, social media. In Portland, the conversation is much broader, and just more interesting. We have a guy on staff who apprenticed himself to a carpenter in his spare time. People have pottery studios. They make beer. Ziba is their passion, but it’s not their life.”

“We’re in a beautiful place where we can serve global clients but have access to this amazing grassroots creative energy,” Vandiver says. “And we owe it to Portland to bring ideas from our global clients back here.”

Thus the challenge: the new “triad” must simultaneously keep Ziba rooted in the distinctive culture that helped set it apart in the first place, run day-to-day operations on several continents, and evolve in a design-obsessed business world. 

“Consultancies can have a tough time moving to the next level,” says Charles Austen Angell, founder of the Portland design firm Modern Edge and chair of the board for the Industrial Designers Society of America. “Sohrab was very successful at bringing people together. Now they have to keep the music going.”


That day in Ziba’s basement workshop, Vossoughi showed off a number of projects in the making: a spray bottle with a built-in capsule of powdered detergent; a collapsible clothes hanger for sweaters; polished wooden components for the folding seats Ziba created for its own auditorium. “No existing chair would really fit the dimensions,” Vossoughi said. “We never intended to start a furniture system, but that’s where it’s headed.”

As new hands steer the creative juggernaut he set in motion 30 years ago, Vossoughi says his role will revolve around mentoring, devising new ideas, and, in ways that may be hard to quantify, keeping Ziba in touch with the frisson of inspiration he felt as a college kid, when he walked into a classroom full of blueprints for things yet unmade. “I feel great,” he said. “And I think it’s because I didn’t have to do it, but it was the right time. Is it hard? Absolutely. This is my baby. It’s like seeing your kid go out into the world, and maybe they make mistakes, but they’re not your mistakes. If you solve all your kids’ problems, they never learn.

“I’ve seen too many people hang on too long because they’re defined by the company, and they think the company is defined by them. You have to think about what it takes to create an organization that lives beyond you.”

As we walked out, Vossoughi showed me a pair of reading glasses he’d designed as a personal project. Not long before, he explained, his daughter had stepped on his glasses and broken them. “If you wear glasses, you’re always doing this,” he demonstrated, tilting the glasses forward on his head as if he were reading a document in his hands. “Now watch.” He held the glasses and popped the lenses down: a tiny hinge allowed the wearer to tilt the lenses without moving the frame. “It’s a special geometry,” he said, with a sly grin. “Patented.” 

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