What UX Designers Can Learn from Heath Ceramics

By Egotist / /

You don’t have to be a designer to know that everyday objects can make you happy. I’ve always appreciated well crafted dishes and silverware. They offer a little pleasure in the day to day. When I was a kid – we had a set of Dansk plates that had walls that helped you scoop up the food onto your fork. No knife needed, it was great. So great I used them through college and when I was done, I then passed them on to my sister who loved them.

Needless to say neither of us use our knives that much when eating. Much to the chagrin of my mother, this small design decision has completely affected both of our long term behavior.

In my own career as a UX designer, I’ve found inspiration comes not only from studying and perfecting your own craft, but from everyday life and from the objects we use day in and day out. These objects, the people who make them, and their approach has provided me endless ideas for my own digital work.

I firmly believe when we get out of our own habits – we can learn a ton from practices, traditions and customs that are outside of our specific disciplines. From time to time, I take my team to different design studios in the Bay Area to help inspire creativity by learning about how creatives from a completely different discipline make stuff.

Our most recent trip was to Heath Ceramics, an iconic artisan pottery company in San Francisco. I mean, everyone love dishes, right? Heath Ceramics believes it’s possible to impact people’s relationships with the things that they buy; in this case, beautifully designed, custom crafted ceramics.

Here is what we learned:

Details matter.

The colors, glazes, and designs at Heath Ceramics are still based on the founder Edith Heath’s sketches and studies. Though she passed away, her design, aesthetic and approach to conservation are still evident in the way Heath produces work at the studio. There is a conscious effort to design with detail in mind.

Everything about their studio is considered. The Heaths moved to Bay Area in search of a place to make great pottery. The studio was built by the Heaths to house their growing pottery. Natural light that pours into the building, the temperature they heat the kiln was selected for its efficient energy use, and even the setting the studio sits in by the Bay in Sausalito reflects the company’s commitment to quality artisan craftsmanship.

Design as one team.

During our trip to Heath, my team and I were impressed with the way everyone at the studio operated as one team and it felt like everyone was an essential piece of the puzzle. Everyone took great pride in the skills they contributed to each part of the process no matter how small or big a person’s role was.

This was especially clear when we got a closer look at the ceramic-making process. We learned about creating molds and using them to form pieces like plates and bowls. We learned about making clay, saw the kilns, met the teams that add handles to mugs, and the people who paint on glazes. Each person played a crucial role in the creation process, and everyone was contributing to designing with integrity.

Design with a clear vision.

Heath uses an incremental, design-centered manufacturing process, similar to the waterfall process we use for many of our products. Meaning, a lot of people touch the product on its way to market, all contributing their individual parts, one after another. With so many players, it is essential to have a clear sense of what we are working towards so we can each make the best choices, at every step.

Design with humanity.

I was really struck by how human their process was. Even though Heath is producing pieces at scale, there was still a person physically touching every single piece that was created, and those people were happy and proud of the work that they were doing. Everything was meant to enhance the way people eat and connect.

As a designer, my approach to my work is to try and leave the world a little bit better than how I found it. It’s important to keep the experiences we design functional, efficient, and scalable – but to never lose that human touch that makes an object or a tool feel great when you use it.

Overall, it’s important to encourage your teams to take a walk. Get out of the office. Explore different industries, and find inspiration off-screen to fuel the passion to create.


Jessica L’Esperance specializes in the development of large commerce and content sites, and currently serves as the VP of UX at Huge’s San Francisco office. Her work at Huge has focused on making large brands sites reach broader audiences and develop new communication platforms for clients like Twitter, American Express, Four Seasons, Reuters, The City of New York, Rue La La, and American University. You can follow her @jessless.