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Fernd van Engelen with one of the prototypes for his 999Bottles project. (Photos by Annie Laurie Malarkey)

 Our latest Geek of the Week is looking to change the world, one water bottle at a time.

Product designer Fernd van Engelen, industrial design leader at the Seattle-based firm Artefact, is raising funds on Kickstarter for a project called 999Bottles, aiming to manufacture thousands of stainless steel bottles with dials for tracking the number of disposable bottles the user has saved. A companion iPhone app will help visualize the positive environmental impact.

It’s just one of many projects he has led over the years. He talks about his work, and the sources of his inspiration, in his answer to our questionnaire below.

Name: Fernd van Engelen

What do you do, exactly?

I am a product designer and I head up the industrial design function at Artefact. Simply put, the industrial designer is the “architect of everyday products.” We work with companies to help define what products they should develop next, as well as partner with them to bring those products to market. For me, that has included anything from desktop & notebook computers, cellphones (going all the way back to bulky trunk-mounted transceiver), supercomputers, cameras, printers, in-flight entertainment systems, electric shavers, cooktops and refrigerators, medical instruments and devices, bioincubators, microfluidics systems, technical and industrial equipment, optical transceivers, furniture, and yes, even the first reusable water bottle that comes with its own app, 999Bottles.

Where do you find the inspiration for your projects? 

For me 5 things make up good design: context, clarity, twist, details and consequent (my favorite Dutch word).

Context is about how well the solution fits the needs, and clarity is about getting to the essence of a product. A lot of our perception of quality comes from how well the details are executed. Consequent has to do with how well your actions match your stated objectives — i.e. about being consistent. Twist is about inspiration, about finding that fresh or unique spark or twist that will lead to a special product or experience. That magical spark can come from many different places — from the way we interact with a product to a nostalgic look back at an iconic product in the past, to an everyday object or item you find in nature.

In the case of 999Bottles, the inspiration came while I was taking out the garbage.  I wondered how we might change our behavior if it weren’t for the convenience of garbage removal service – what would you do if you couldn’t get rid of your empties? How big a pile of bottles would you create? (disposable bottles are a bit of a pet peeve). I started marking my glass bottle with a Sharpie every time I refilled it and kept track of the virtual pile of disposable bottles I had “non-consumed”. That experiment ultimately gave rise to the idea of 999Bottles.

How does your degree in environmental biology influence your work as an industrial designer?

I’ve always had these two sides – the artist and the scientist (I actually believe they are very complimentary). On the science side, I can get pretty geeky about the science or mechanisms behind how things work – especially when it comes to medical/biomedical realms. On the art side, I’m always looking for ways to create simple, beautiful and elegant solutions to complex situations. I believe that the ability to dig deeper and having an understanding of the underlying technology helps you focus on the things that are most important about that product.

Mother Nature provides us with many great examples of really elegant solutions — and being aware of some of those never hurts. I have a sense or awareness for the interconnectedness of things, and, because of that a sense for the impact we have collectively on our planet. It is that awareness, in part, that compelled me to create the 999Bottles project.

Of all the projects you’ve developed and prototyped over the years, is there one you’re most proud of?

If you accomplish what you set out to do, you’d be proud of all of them – so it’s really hard to single any of them out. If I had to pick a few I’d point at 999Bottles, my projects for Terabeam (free space optical transceivers), Nanopoint (bioincubator and microfluidics controller), SWYP (radically simple printer) and the WVIL (wireless viewfinder interchangeable lens system). What these projects have in common, is that they offer simple solutions to complex situations and use design in a unique way to solve a problem or shape the user experience in a way that had never been done before—whether it is an everyday object like a bottle, or a highly specialized scientific tool. The other thing that makes these projects stand out is that they were also collaborations with other super talented designers (Johanna Schoemaker, Jonas Buck, Markus Wierzoch, Olen Ronning, Peter Bristol, Oliver Grabes and Brady Olason).

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you?

My personal workspace is open, lively, collaborative – great for an ADD person like me. You would find a stack of sketches, doodles and random ideas, a to-do list that never seems to shrink, and an assortment of random objects (recently bottles and watches) that inform whatever projects I’m working on at the moment.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without?

My smartphone (how sad is that…)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.)

Ouch – not sure you want to be taking advise from me on this one. If pressed I’d offer these:

  • Be clear on your priorities especially with the important people in your life
  • Distinguish between “issues that need to be solved” and “issues that need to be managed.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? I am a designer — guess…

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Kirk (old-school!)

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility?

Time Machine! There’s something very appealing about taking charge of the one dimension I currently have least control over.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … First, fund 999Bottles. Then, probably sustainable energy.

I once waited in line for: Violent Femmes tickets.

Your role models (And why?): My dog – he never had a bad day.

Greatest Game In History: Soccer – I was born in Africa, grew up in Europe: soccer was so much in our blood that even the absence of a ball didn’t keep us from playing soccer (I remember great games played with a block of wood)

Best Gadget Ever: iPhone

First computer: something very non-memorable – I think maybe an old HP?

Current phone: iPhone 4

Favorite app: Photosynth – it provides a nice tool for capturing a scene and gives you an easy way to go back and explore that place later.

Favorite hangout: My neighborhood pub – a great place to chill, grab a beer (we’re very spoiled in Seattle), and catch up with friends.

Favorite cause: Protecting the oceans/marine habitat

Most important technology of 2012: mobile (still)

Most important technology of 2015: designed materials

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Life is too short to work with a**holes

Sites: (and till June 22, 999 Bottles)

Twitter: I’m very quiet on twitter, but @artefactgroup and @999bottles will give you a good idea of what my team and I are up to.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to

Photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey. See this site for more of her work.

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