"It was exciting to be able to give something back to society that meant something," exclaimed Sohrab Vossoughi. Judging by his enthusiasm, you'd think the amiable 50-year-old was talking about a cure for cancer. Instead, the founder and CEO of the renowned "design consultancy" Ziba was extolling the merits of a redesigned shower squeegee, one of the projects that landed his company on the international design map.
Ziba's Clerét Squeegee hit the market in 1989, and today it's part of the Smithsonian Permanent Collection because, as Vossoughi proudly states, it redefined what the squeegee could be. Since founding Portland-based Ziba, which means "beauty" in Farsi, in 1984, Vossoughi and his team have crafted the first thumb drive, revamped the webcam, and invented the ergonomic keyboard while designing business strategy for some of the world's most innovative companies.
Although Ziba has satellite offices in San Diego, Tokyo and Shanghai, its Pearl District office has become so crowded the company just commissioned Portland's Holst Architecture to build a 70,000-square-foot world headquarters on Northwest 9th Avenue and Lovejoy Street for its 110 employees and counting. Before he breaks ground on his new HQ this winter, we caught up with Vossoughi to pick his brain about the role of design in Oregon's economy and why creative types flock to Portland.
WW : Besides reinventing the squeegee, what else have you done?
Sohrab Vossoughi: For Microsoft we developed the ergonomic keyboard and joystick. The list is very long—from small startups to Fortune 100 companies. We helped create the vision for South Waterfront.
You're on the board of the University of Oregon Allied Arts and Architecture School. How important will the UO Portland campus' new product design degree program be to the Oregon economy?
Oregon is a manufacturing-based economy, and we don't have a product-design program anywhere in Portland. There are states with populations less than the entire metropolitan area of Portland, but they have a product-design degree. It is very important, especially now that a product is not about the thing anymore. It's about the thought process and the ability to think and to bring the design thinking into solving business problems. That's where I'm involved with the UO...to make sure we're developing designers who are problem solvers.
But how do you tailor that to Portland?
Here the angle is sustainability. If someone in another area or another state could think of sustainable design, it makes a lot more sense to be here.
Business leaders often say there's a lack of higher-education opportunities in the Portland area.
Well, I think that all the educational institutions are doing their best. I feel for [them] because our education system in this state is really flawed. The Legislature and the government support of education, and especially higher education, are quite sad. How do you create knowledge workers without the support of higher education?
So, what could be done to make it more favorable?
We have to compromise areas where we are spending and divert it toward education. It's one of those things where you might suffer just a little bit at the beginning, but over the longer term it is the right thing to do. I really don't think the kicker refund is the right thing. It's very short-term thinking.
Do you find Portland an interesting city design-wise?
Very much! There's so much draw to this community, to this state and to this metro area. It connects with a lot of the creative people very well. Right now there's enough momentum to draw people. In the beginning, we couldn't find designers to hire, but now I see people coming here without jobs, looking for jobs because they just want to come here. If we don't have the highest, we have one of the highest numbers of designers and creative people per capita in the United States.
Check out Ziba at ziba.com.