The Israeli Designer Who Won Over Michelle Obama

How does handwork apply to a design studio that deals mostly with technology? What’s wrong with Apple? A conversation with Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, which won a U.S. National Design Award last month

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At the awards ceremony for the winners of the U.S. National Design Awards, held two weeks ago in the White House in Washington, Michelle Obama spoke of how jealous her husband is that she gets to host the ceremony every year instead of him. "Because really, deep down, he would have been an architect had he been as talented and creative as all of you," the First Lady told the attendees.

Michelle Obama then referenced NewDealDesign, founded by Israeli Gadi Amit. The website “declares, ‘We bring the unknown to life, delightfully. Sparking life to dreams, crafting visions into reality, we move fast and act bravely to do good,’" she said.

Founded by Amit in 2000, NewDealDesign is a multidisciplinary design firm located in San Francisco. It won this year's award for product design for its body of work over the years, which includes crafting the Lytro Light Field Camera, the Fitbit Wireless Trackers, and the Netgear Platinum II. The firm has also designed for a number of Israeli companies such as Tami 4 and Better Place.  

"This was the first time I've been in the White House and the ceremony was very moving," said Amit by telephone from his studio in San Francisco a few days after the September 20 ceremony. "When I shook the First Lady's hand she even told me that she uses Fitbit products. It is exciting to know that design is something to be considered and has an important place on the national agenda,” he said.

“Obama spoke with great appreciation to all the designers who were there, in cultural and economic terms. We definitely could feel they cared, that they want to support design. The meal in honor of the winners is considered today to be one of the leading social events in the area of culture for high society in Washington," said Amit.

The National Design Awards were conceived by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum to honor lasting achievement in American design. They were first launched at the White House in 2000. 

Light Field Camera.
The Band Smartphone Car Charger.
Better Place charge spots.
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Light Field Camera.Credit: Courtesy
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The Band Smartphone Car Charger.Credit: NewDealDesign LLC
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Better Place charge spots.Credit: Reuters

"It is an award that the state stands behind and when the First Lady runs the ceremony held in honor of the winners, every major media outlet covers it," said Amit, There is a clear intention of the American establishment to advance the sector." 

An organic connection

Amit, 50, was born in Holon. He graduated with a degree in industrial design from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem in 1989 and has lived and worked in the United States since 1993. Before opening his own studio, he was vice president of design at the American design firm Frog Design.

In 2000 he founded NewDealDesign with Chris Lenart; it is located in San Francisco and today has some 30 employees. Lenart left in 2004 and Amit is now the sole principal designer and president. The studio, which has won over a hundred other awards and prizes, is involved in multi-disciplinary design, in a wide range of sectors including industrial, graphic and interactive design. The firm works mostly with technology startups and companies.

Much of NewDealDesign’s success comes in form of appealing to the broader public. Said Amit, “If there is something we especially excel at it is the ability to forecast in advance how the general public will respond," said Amit. Fittingly, the company is named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s populist economic and social recovery policies in 1930s America.

“Working with your hands is architectural, external and internal,” said Amit. “The work with your hands discovers things that it is impossible to discover only with a computer.”

What is the role of simplicity and clarity?

"The first five seconds are the most important in the life of a product,” he said. “In the end the simplicity creates a simple and clean language of design that in the end receives depth," he said.

This is the time to mention Apple.

"I have a lot of respect for Apple, but I think their products and language of design is a bit too cold. Today everyone is trying to be Steve Jobs, and as a result of that one of my big problems is to convince decision-makers to try different things. Apple's ability for execution is out of the ordinary, but I think their design language holds only as the result of their marketing and manufacturing ability. The bottom line is I prefer things a little bit softer and warmer, but again, I respect the extraordinary influence of Apple on the design world," said Amit.

What has changed in the world of design since you finished Bezalel?

"Today design is recognized as an inseparable part of the technology: For years they said Apple made just pretty things but look where they are today. It is impossible to turn technology into an integral part of the culture without good design," said Amit.

Gadi Amit.Credit: NewDealDesign LLC
First lady Michelle Obama.Credit: AP

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