Seeing the Challenge, Finding Fun in Solving Problems

Gary van Deursen, seen here in his Essex office, is an award-winning inventor and designer. Van Deursen designed the lightest, most maneuverable wheelchair on the market and won the 2010 Red Dot award for product design, a recognition from the largest industrial design competition in the world. He has won hundreds of awards for his designs, but this one, for the design of a product that makes life so much better for the user, was most meaningful.
Gary van Deursen, seen here in his Essex office, is an award-winning inventor and designer. Van Deursen designed the lightest, most maneuverable wheelchair on the market and won the 2010 Red Dot award for product design, a recognition from the largest industrial design competition in the world. He has won hundreds of awards for his designs, but this one, for the design of a product that makes life so much better for the user, was most meaningful.

ESSEX - You may not know Gary van Deursen, but you will know some of the products he has invented and designed. There was the highly successful SpaceMaker line of kitchen products, the redesign of the Dustbuster, the Stanley MaxLife Tripod flashlights. There are hundreds more, all easily recognizable, and hundreds after that, much less well known. For van Deursen, solving problems has always been challenging and fun.

For most of his career, he worked for major corporations-as vice president of design for Black & Decker and corporate vice president for Coleman and The Stanley Works-heading design and innovation teams around the globe. He holds more than 60 U.S. and 100 international patents for innovation and design.

"I spent the first part of my career solving problems and designing products to improve a corporation's sales, designing the better toaster, the better hammer. When I was at Black & Decker and Stanley I led teams that designed hundred-countless-very successful products," he said.

He enjoyed it. He thrived, if the number of patents he holds is any measure.

In 2006, he founded his own company, Van Deursen, LLC, and about that time he also became familiar with a company called Sunrise Medical.

"We hit it off and they placed me on retainer to design all their new products," he said.

One of the first requests was to redesign the wheelchair. The designer and the company found themselves asking a number of questions: "If we redesigned every single piece, how light can we make it? Could we manufacture it at a price that was still reasonable? Could we, in fact, make something that was fully adjustable?" van Deursen recalled. "It means looking at everything with both an inventive and aesthetic eye."

Using design and manufacturing elements from automotive and cycling worlds, the high performance, fully adjustable wheelchair was born. It earned the 2010 Red Dot award for product design, the largest industrial design competition in the world.

"I've received hundreds of awards for nicely designed products. This one really meant something to me. It was designed purely to make life better for the end user," he said.

Hundreds of products, scores of patents-how did this all begin?

"I studied industrial design in college. I began to realize that what fascinated me was function, not just a pretty design. I began to see why people make a new product to solve a problem-and I've always had fun solving a problem," van Deursen recalled.

He still has fun, pulling products off the shelves in his office and pointing out the components that make for an elegant design, talking about the products he could not convince his corporate employer to manufacturer, recalling his field tests of the Stanley MaxLife Tripod flashlight.

"Don't accept things the way they are. That's important with product design. Step back and ask yourself how else something can be done."

It is that approach that has led him to another component of his business: facilitating brainstorming sessions for companies. Using what he calls a FreeFall brainstorming system, he helps groups pinpoint problems and opportunities, then create solutions.

"You are asking people to see the wonderful solution to a dumb problem. A problem can turn into a huge success if you look at it in a new way," he said.

Several years ago he was asked to give a presentation at a conference for architects.

"They asked how to do innovation within companies, how to be creative. I didn't know what to think. These were creative people, after all. It proved to be so much fun that now I do these presentations regularly."

Typically, van Deursen designs 10 to 15 products a year for companies. He also has a personal list-11 products he wants to invent, among them a better pool vacuum and a better coffeemaker. Those products, he promises, are not far away.

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