Doug Weber

Douglas Weber is an American industrial designer based in Fukuoka, Japan. He formerly worked for Apple in Cupertino and is a fellow coffee nerd. He is currently working on what he deems the perfect coffee grinder at his new company Lyn Weber, which he founded with VFX designer Craig Lyn. We recently talked about the new wave of coffee and cafes and how and why design is becoming such an integral part of coffee culture.

Introduction

Blue Bottle Coffee helped catalyze the third wave of coffee, which has led to a tremendous amount of creative energy being focused on not only the coffee but also the implements and instruments that help turn an ordinary coffee bean into a cup of joy. My fondness for coffee prompted Pi.co alumnus , Liam Casey, to introduce me to Doug Weber, a former Apple designer who's living in Japan and is working on what is, without a doubt, one of the world's most perfect coffee grinders. I saw the machine and never before has an inanimate machine said so much. Doug and I caught up on the phone, and ended up talking about everything from coffee to Apple to life in Japan. This is an edited version of our long conversation.

Om Malik: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you end up in Japan?

Doug Weber: In college I had a scholarship to do ceramics in Japan. At the end of it, I had to make a decision between going back to find work in Silicon Valley or to stay in Japan and become a potter. [laughs]

It was a big choice at the time, but I decided to go back and work for Apple because I had received an offer from them about a year prior. It was an exciting time then. It was before the beginning of the iPod. When I had interned there previously, I worked on the old iMac that had the articulating display and the G3 tower — things that seem old now, but at the time they were exciting. When I returned to Apple, I started working on the first generations of the iPod. I was lucky enough to have been there when it was still small, when there was one industrial designer, one mechanical designer, one EE guy, and one software person designing a product.

I did the first couple generations of the iPod Nano and had started to work on the first generation of the iPhone when I decided that I wanted to do something in my career that brought me back to Japan. I started the product design team of Asia, which originally was just in Japan but eventually grew to include Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. I did that for about eight years before leaving Apple in 2014 to do the stuff that I’m doing now.

Om: Were you able to apply some of the skills you picked up in your ceramics‑related exploration into your industrial design work?

Doug: Definitely. When I was doing ceramics, I was very much a wheel‑based person. Bodies of rotation is something that I think about a lot.

Ever since high school, I used to draw a center line and then try to come up with symmetrical designs around the center line, things that could be thrown on the wheel. In manufacturing, I had always been particular to lathe‑based processes, which is also bodies of rotation. That also seems to be a pretty central part of what I think we’re doing right now, with Craig.

Om: So how does this guy who’s designing iPods and iPhones end up obsessed with coffee?

Doug: [laughs] Good question. I was lucky to be around in San Francisco when the [specialty] coffee scene was starting to take off. I remember when we were carpooling on the way into work at Apple. In the morning we’d often stop at Ritual Coffee Roasters to get what, at the time, was the best coffee in the city.

There were a couple of other people at Apple then, people who are on the Lyn Weber board now. [laughs] Every time we’d have a meeting, the first 5 to 10 minutes would be about making a cappuccino and talking about things that were wrong with the machine and how much better it could be, and then the next hour and a half would be talking about the iPod, the iPhone, or something else.

Coffee became a good punctuation in the busy days, a five‑minute pause for enjoyment, and it’s always been my vice of choice. It’s one that helps keep you going, and it’s fundamentally delicious. Also, you get to play with cool machines, and there’s a whole bunch of process tuning involved to make it better. All of those aspects have resonated with me from the beginning.

Om: I was in Japan last year around this time and I went to a lot of places in Tokyo for coffee. People take their coffee very seriously there.

Doug: In a sense, almost too seriously. There’s a sternness to it that you don’t get from places in the Bay Area. There are definitely places to have fantastic coffee in and around Tokyo. It’s a different feel for the scene in this country versus in other places.

Om: So how did your company Lyn Weber come together?

Doug: Craig came from the film industry, but he is also a coffee nerd like us and had decided that there was no grinder on the market that suited his needs. He didn’t know about designing and manufacturing but decided to teach himself CAD and put together a product at the time that was called the HG‑1.

We still offer the HG-1 [coffee grinder], but the interesting thing is that I already had some plans in place for my own products, with the idea of making $1,000 hand grinders to start before getting into more niche products. He beat me to it. I remember thinking, “Ah, shit. This guy’s totally doing exactly what I was planning to do as my exit strategy from Apple.” [laughs]

I bought one and it was a nice object, but there were many small details in the materials and the manufacturing that I thought could make it better. I put together a 10- or 15‑page PDF with feedback and wished him good luck. Craig got the email, and while normally he would probably ignore that type of thing, he realized it came from a guy at Apple.

We started talking via email, then met up in San Francisco to talk about what we liked about existing coffee products and what we didn’t like. I think the what‑we‑didn’t‑like category was a lot bigger. We both had our sights set on bigger and more complex things but didn’t want to do it by ourselves in a bubble. It made a lot of sense with our core strengths to put them together.

Om: Why do you think so many people are trying to make better grinders?

Doug: It goes back to the fact that from an equipment standpoint, the quality of your coffee comes down to your grind and your extraction.

If you’re doing espresso, it’s about the quality of your grinder and the quality of your espresso machine and how they work together. It’s an often overlooked part of the process but equally important to everything that comes after it.

When Craig and I look at the incumbents of the industry — we call them the tractor manufacturers — one of the things that is interesting to us is, how can they have been doing this for 50 years and not changed a single thing? And why does the machine go together like this? Why is there crud stuck inside, why can’t you clean it? The list of problems has been there for so long and has stagnated for so long that people have started to accept the problems as the norm. We see these things as fixable problems.

Also, there’s our design ethos: It’s the complete opposite of designing for obsolescence or for a model upgrade in a couple of years. We both feel strongly about that. I felt especially strongly about that after coming from an industry that is focused around consumerism and upgrades every year and every two years.

We make things that are intended to last forever, stuff that will never break. Once you buy a grinder from us, we want it to be the last one you ever buy. We want you and your children to use it.

Om: It seems like this is an expression of your ideas and your designs. Is it also a reaction to all of these products you created at Apple that become obsolete in a couple of years and add to the world’s clutter. Is that right?

Doug: I can unequivocally say yes to that, 100 percent. I loved the stuff we designed and made at Apple. In that industry and in the industry of building cell phones and other things, we used better materials, we built better products, things that were meant to last. It’s an industry where the technology is refreshing so quickly that you have to make new versions every year just to stay up with the key functionality of it. I get it.

That said, the reality is that you’re making things that are meant to last, but people are refreshing every year, every two years. And with things like the cosmetic quality standards that go into creating an Apple product, the waste that’s developed as a result is astronomical.

Even with coffee products, people will happily spend a couple hundred dollars on a grinder that, realistically, is only going to last them a couple years. They’re probably better off buying one from us that will last them their lifetime, and that will create a lot less waste and eliminate the process of repurchasing and having to recycle or throw away. It’s an important part of what we do.

Om: The unfortunate part of electronics is that they were built to become obsolete. I have a wonderful Leica camera, and it may last five, seven years, but it will become obsolete in seven years. I can hold onto it in a more nostalgic fashion, but once you put a chip into something, it’s meant to be replaced. I think it just has a shelf life, which is the reality of our time. Everything is going to be like that.

Doug: When you go back 50 to 70 years ago, and you look at what people were enjoying from coffee then to people who are making coffee right now, has the microchip made the masters of the craft any better? Arguably not. There are ways that you can use silicon to make some things easier, more repeatable, or more convenient. But it’s not necessarily going to improve the quality of what’s in the cup.

We’re very aware of that. At every chance we have, we try to remove the technology and the barriers. We try to remove the things that are going to make our stuff need to be replaced or changed in seven to 10 years’ time. Stuff that we design does have electronics. We’re designing it so that a particular part of it is a module. Even if that blows a fuse in 10 years, it’s replaceable. The last thing we want to have is a high-quality product with the core mechanical bits still functioning well but there isn’t a chip to make it move.

Om: What does the grinder do, and how is it different from what’s out there?

Doug: We looked at what was out there, and the problems with existing grinders, which is that they’re extremely difficult to clean. Other things on the market will take you a good hour to clean, whereas with ours you can pop off a couple parts and clean it in about 20 seconds. We also knew that we wanted to basically get out everything that you put into it. If you put in 18.3 grams, you get out 18.3 grams. Both of these things make a big difference in the process.

Om: For the longest time there was no design in the coffee world. Everything was very Mr. Coffee. Now there is so much innovation. Why do you think that’s happening?

Doug: One thing I find a bit distracting is what’s happening in the coffee industry from an industrial design standpoint. You look at the machines and the products being developed and it’s closer to reskinning than it is to actual reengineering. When you look at reskinned products for, say, an espresso machine, it’s using the same concepts of the core mechanisms that have existed for half a century and putting it into a different shiny box or changing something small.

The design gets in the way of what the thing is supposed to do. We always start with the core of what we’re trying to do and let that drive the design. We start with the heart of the mechanism and then go outward and try to let that dictate the way that everything else falls into place.

Om: Is that the same way Apple designed its products, starting with the core and then going up to the top?

Doug: In a way I’d say yes. I was not sitting around drawing stuff and trying to figure out the look and shape. I was more focused on the technical details together with the [ideas from the] industrial designers at that time.

Apple is clear about that. You have your specific roles. Even though we were working side by side with the industrial designers at Apple, I was very much on the technical end of the spectrum. But, at the same time, I was influenced by the same process that drove the design of all the products at Apple.

Technologies, the parts design, manufacturing — those were closely tied together. The way that Craig and I are designing products, we’re fusing all of those things into a much smaller group. We’re two guys right now that make up the industrial design, the product design, the manufacturing engineering, the marketing. That’s not the long‑term plan, but it certainly enables quick decision-making at this stage.

Om: Your new grinder, the EG-1, is it for professionals, or is it for nerds like me who want it at home?

Doug: [laughs] Good question. From the beginning we’ve been calling the EG‑1 a commercial coffee grinder. We designed it with specific needs that we saw from how people are making single‑dose coffee in cafes.

That said, we can’t dictate who is going to buy our products. There’s been a pretty even mix. I think we have, luckily, a pretty good reputation from the HG‑1 that we’ve already had out on the market for a couple of years. A lot of people who own the HG‑1 and are happy with that at home, the extreme aficionados, have also purchased what we’ve been calling our commercial grinder (EG-1) for home use.

Om: What’s next for you? What other products are you guys going to make at Lyn Weber?

Doug: The first years has been defined by setting up the manufacturing chain, the sales channel, and automating as many things as possible to make the company more efficient. The future is going to be focused on product proliferation, not refreshing stuff that we already have but expanding. One of the obvious ones is espresso machines. That’s much within our sights, as well as products that aren’t limited to coffee.

We intentionally don’t have any references to coffee in the company name. It’s our core focus, especially for now, and something that’s always going to be at the heart of the company, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to that, because there are so many things we want to make.

Om: I’m excited to see what you make of it. Before you go, what are the best products on the market for a fellow coffee nerd? Also, what beans do you like?

Doug: I’ve always been particular to the Olympia Cremina espresso machine. Very old, very untouched, made in the hills in Switzerland. I’ve visited the factory. I own three vintage ones and one new one. It’s a simple and elegant design, and something that I respect.

From a bean perspective, I’m partial to one of my local roasters here in Japan called Honey Coffee. It’s a mom‑and‑pop place. Randomly, they happen to live less than a kilometer away from me. Their son was the World Barista Champion two years ago. That family has coffee running deeply in their veins, and we’ve used them as a sounding board for a lot of our concepts early on.

When it comes to the beans, I’ve had everything around the world. I’ve traveled to Copenhagen for coffee collecting, which I absolutely love, and all the stuff around San Francisco. I have an apartment around the corner from Four Barrel, so I’m partial to them. I love Blue Bottle. There’s a long list of good coffees.

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