Curt Anderson of Compass Design in Pleasanton holds a medial device that his company designed. (Mike Lucia/Tri-Valley Herald)
PLEASANTON - WHEN a medical device comes to the attention of Compass Product Design Inc., the science and innovation behind the product is not the issue. What the Pleasanton company cares about is how it feels, whether the device repairs a human eye or has a laser that can remove tattoos."They might have a device that does great things, but it looks like it came out of Frankenstein's labs," said Curt Anderson, 54, Compass Product Design's owner and chief executive. "They want something that looks appealing, and that's where we come in."
Compass Product Design and its 12-person staff take products made by others and craft a design around them that will make them both marketable and practical to use. The company has seen its revenues grow an average of 15 percent per year.
Consumers may assume that the company that manufactures a product designed it as well. That's not always the case.
"Sometimes it's like (customers) give us a box of pieces and tell us to make it look like they want it to look," Anderson said.
Industrial design technology has changed a great deal since Anderson entered the business in 1989.
Hand drawings and draft boards have been replaced by computers. And instead of dot-matrix printers creating two-dimensional representations of products, today's machines can produce a detailed 3-D plastic replica of a concept.
Other industrial design companies have come and gone, but Compass Product Design has stayed in business
for more than 17 years largely because it has found a niche market with medical devices, Anderson said.He attributes his success with medical technology to "absolutely
DESIGNIBusiness 2dumb luck."
He started the company out of the bedroom of his home, and his first client was his next-door neighbor, founder of Iris Medical Instruments Inc., who needed help with the design of an eye surgery device.
To prepare, Anderson put on scrubs and watched how a similar medical device was used during surgery. He wasn't impressed.
The device was the size of a washing machine, had a confusing control panel and, because eye surgery is done in dim areas, was hard to read.
"The nurses were using a flashlight to look at the control panel, and they were struggling for 10, 20 or 30 minutes to try and figure out how to use it," Anderson said. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Here a patient is waiting on the surgery table like a slab of meat, and they're chewing through money ... because it takes so long to figure out how to use the device.'
"Right then, I knew we needed to make something that works easily and intuitively," he said.
Anderson's design was much smaller, featured only a few knobs, a color-coded display and a logical left-to-right layout.
He knew he was on the right track when medical technicians saw his device for the first time. It was as if a light went off in their head "like a cartoon" and they immediately understood how to use it, Anderson said.
That first device was the OcuLight GL. Iris Medical, which marketed the OcuLight, went public as Iridex Corp. in 1996.
About 70 percent of Compass Product Design's clients are medical device companies, but the company also has designed a range of other products, including sports equipment, phones and toys.
Along its hallways are both photos and prototypes of some of the 200-plus products the company has helped design over the years. These include a tug-boat toy called Hammer Away! for Livermore-based Discovery Toys Inc., a golf-swing analyzer GolfAchiever for Sunnyvale-based Focaltron Corp., and a device called HomeBase for San Antonio-based AT&T Inc. that allows for cell phones to be used as cordless phones at home.
Scott Christensen, president and chief executive of Fremont-based medical device company Dynatherm Medical Inc., has known Curt Anderson for years. Christensen is using Compass Product Design to design a second-generation core body heating device to manage a person's body temperature.
"Just like with an interior decorator, we give (Compass designers) the essence of what we are trying to do and then see what kind of interesting ideas they can come up with," Christensen said. "We want to put forward something we are comfortable will catch a customer or doctor's eye."
Depending on the size and complexity of the project, Compass Product Design's services can range from $20,000 to $100,000.
In 1993, Compass Product Design added mechanical engineering to its offerings, which allows it to advise clients on ways to improve the inner workings of their products. Anderson hopes one day to be able to mass manufacture products as well.
Anderson chose "Compass" as his company name to convey the importance of addressing design issues early in the product-creation process.
"I see many products out there where you can tell the design was done quickly and just forced through the manufacturing process," Anderson said. "It is important to have something that is really well thought out and logical."
As a small company, Compass has an advantage over some bigger firms because it involves clients on a more personal level, Anderson said.
And his employees scour gadget and design magazines to stay up on the latest trends.
"Designs are constantly evolving and people constantly demand better quality," Anderson said. "Even if you look at a toothbrush, it used to be just a stick and bristles. Now there are so many different (designs) you can find."
These days, Anderson leaves much of the design process to his employees, but he's always looking for the next great design: "Sometimes I'll be walking in a store and my wife will look at me and say, 'Will you quit redesigning everything you see?'" Anderson said.
While he admits it might be "sexier" to have his designs featured in the high-tech gadget world and tech magazines like Wired, he said the medical device field has its rewards, too.
"It has a better ring to know you helped someone from a medical standpoint, versus, 'That copy I made on that fax machine is really great for me,'" he said.
Contact David Morrill at (925) 416-4805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.