Unfocus your eyes, and it appears that the walls of this small circular room are studded in a grid of black-scrolled bronze. Tiny squares march in rows from ceiling to chair rail, glowing under spot lighting.
Focus now, and it’s evident those squares are miniature plaques commemorating many of the patents earned by designers at Nottingham Spirk, the open innovation and product design firm that’s built a national reputation for innovations from toothbrushes and toys to packaging and patient care.
John Nottingham, co-president of the firm with partner John Spirk, takes a slow spin around the room, pointing out significant milestones with fresh enthusiasm. The hundreds of plaques are just a small sampling of the 1,000-or-so patents the company has earned during 40 years in business.
> JN: Too many people view business as a hobby. They really want to be doing something else, so they do it thinking it will lead to that “something else.”
> JN: We jealously guard
our weekends with family. … When we are on vacation, I’ll be in gift shops evaluating products. My wife says, “Stop it!”
> JS: There’s something magical
about the spark of a new idea started, then see it developed as a sketch, then built into an actual thing you see at the mall.
> JS: I still get a thrill every time.
When the Little Tikes products were in the Sears catalog, I remember thinking of that Frank Lloyd Wright quote — when he was asked what his favorite building was, he said, “The next one.” It’s always the next thing.
> JN: We make small mistakes and big successes. We always do a soft launch. If there’s a small mistake, you can rejigger. And if you have a small success, then the rest will take care of itself.
> JN: When people ask
how I manage a large creative group, I say, “I don’t.” I get out of their way. Companies are getting the message that they need an outside creative power like this.
> JN: We bound in
and crawl out. All of our creative energy is here. We keep it all here.
“I don’t really remember how many [patents] we have,” admits Nottingham. “It changes every day. We get one a week maybe.”
He starts at the beginning: patent No. 254439 for a pig-shaped child’s toy chest.
In 1972, Nottingham and Spirk were freshly hatched from the industrial design program at the Cleveland Institute of Art and had landed their first client.
Rotadyne Inc. was a tiny Hudson-based manufacturer of bedpans, which had agreed to work with the pair on a product redesign. But when Nottingham and Spirk discovered that Rotadyne also made a small line of rotation-molded children’s toys, they pitched the toy chest instead. After that project came plastic slides, ride-on toys and hundreds of other products.
That brand was called Little Tikes, and the work of Nottingham and Spirk helped turn a $600,000 bedpan manufacturer into a $600 million toy manufacturer.
“I remember how I felt when I first saw those Little Tikes products in a Sears catalog,” recalls Spirk. “I still get a thrill every time I see one of our products on the shelf.”
Growing up, Nottingham and Spirk led parallel lives.
Nottingham grew up in Sharon, Pa., and Spirk in Pittsburgh, both sons of steelworkers and kids who loved taking things apart.
Spirk recalls trying to fix his grandmother’s old gramophone. Nottingham looked forward to the day the toaster broke so he could try fixing it.
In high school, Nottingham dreamed of a career as an automotive designer, so he called General Motors’ headquarters for advice in getting started. They recommended he attend CIA.
Spirk had been coaxed toward engineering to channel his knack for invention, but he found it to be not quite right for him. He begrudgingly tagged along on a winter weekend drive to Cleveland with a friend who was applying to CIA.
“When I saw that industrial design studio, it was like the heavens opened up: That’s what I want to do,” Spirk recalls.
The young Nottingham and Spirk were star students.
At first, they were also fierce competitors. In one early class, Nottingham figured he had a lock on a design construction competition until he started hearing about this guy from the other class.
“I started hearing about him: ‘You should see his designs,’ ” says Nottingham. “I said, ‘That’s the guy I have to beat.’ ”
But then something clicked. “We finally said, ‘Why are we killing ourselves? Let’s just work together,’ ” recalls Nottingham.
They entered competitions together after that. They even had a jointly designed artwork — a painting titled Overland — become the feature piece in the May Show, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual juried exhibition of Northeast Ohio artists.
When they graduated from CIA in 1972, they launched Nottingham Spirk Design Associates out of a mustard yellow carriage house, where they designed products and branding for local companies such as Little Tikes, Mentor-based Mag-Nif and Avon-based Manco.
The client list they accumulated included startups to big names such as Dirt Devil, Invacare, Scotts, Nestle, Sherwin-Williams and Procter & Gamble.
“We would go to houseware shows and have lots of firms calling on us,” says Mike Merriman, former CEO of Royal Appliance, another early Nottingham Spirk client. “But Nottingham Spirk always did the best work. They always had the best talent.”
According to Merriman, who led Royal Appliance from 1995 to 2004 and is now an operating partner with Resilience Capital Partners, the company’s collaboration with Nottingham Spirk coincided with a difficult time in Royal’s history.
“They were one of the legs of the stool,” recalls Merriman. “We built it back up to $400 million by 2001. Without their contribution, we would not have made it as far as we did.”
In their 40 years working together, Nottingham and Spirk have developed a national reputation as designers who create innovations that are grounded in the practical needs of consumers. They’ve served more than 1,400 clients, and their 60 employees are working on more than 100 projects in a dozen industries at any given time.
They estimate their patents have generated a total of more than $45 billion in revenues for their clients.
For each project, they start with the price point in mind and work backward.
“Designers often behave more like artists than business people, but [Nottingham and Spirk] aren’t like that,” says Daniel Cuffaro, chairman of the industrial design program at the Cleveland Institute of Art. “There’s a tendency for the aesthetic to have priority over whether something is innovative and meets a need. They are always trying to solve a problem, but in an innovative way.”
They’re the names behind dozens of products you’ve seen on shelves, such as the SpinBrush — originally created for Dr. John’s Products, and eventually acquired by Church & Dwight — as well as the “Try Me” clamshell in which SpinBrush is packaged.
They created the Swiffer Sweeper Vac, which blended a cordless vacuum with the Swiffer-brand cleaning pads. They helped Manco transform a commodity product — duct tape — into a widely recognized Duck Tape brand with its ubiquitous duck logo.
Sherwin-Williams came to the firm in 2000 to find a new way of packaging paint that would reduce the drippy mess made by pouring it out. The result was Twist & Pour, used in Sherwin-Williams’ Dutch Boy brand, which replaced the metal canisters and flat tap-in lids with a plastic container, twist-off top and molded handle.
“Working with them was an unbelievable experience,” says Adam Chafe, Sherwin-Williams’ vice president of marketing and point person for the Twist & Pour project. “They were vigilant about avoiding the ‘I can’t’ and finding the ‘I can’ in the room.”
One of the secrets of their success from the beginning has been to create shared-risk partnerships with their clients, reducing their fees in exchange for an investment stake in the product’s success. They always keep the Nottingham Spirk name behind the scenes, preferring to be what Nottingham calls the “Intel inside.”
“It’s human nature to resort to your model being the correct one,” says Chafe. “It takes a special individual to help you see through that, through the anticipated and unanticipated challenges.”
A current project is the Care4 Station, a product of Columbus-based HealthSpot, a company created by Nottingham, Spirk and Steve Cashman, a health care tech executive. The Care4 Station is a kiosk that allows a physician — through video conferencing and remotely controlled instruments — to evaluate common ailments and prescribe basic treatment. Before the end of the year, 30 Care4 Stations will be deployed throughout Northeast Ohio (though the company won’t disclose exactly where).
Nottingham and Spirk. John and John. In the Cleveland business community, they’ve become synonymous, a matched set.
They bring different styles to their work — Nottingham the more ebullient, Spirk the more reserved — but when it comes to making decisions, they are surprisingly like-minded.
“It’s challenging to describe,” says Rachel Nottingham Colosimo, Nottingham’s daughter who works at the firm along with her brother Bill and two of Spirk’s four children. “They are a lot alike. … They respect what the other one says, even if they don’t agree.”
Nottingham and Spirk have run the numbers. After 40 years, they’ve spent 10,000 days and 100,000 hours together. For about 10 years, they even lived next door to one another and shared a backyard, where the Nottingham and Spirk children played together.
“We debate, we talk about things, we discuss, we analyze, and at some point, Bam! It’s, OK, let’s go,” says Nottingham. “By the end of the day, we agree. We’ve never had an argument. Ever.”
That’s how they decided to tackle one of the biggest projects of their careers — construction of the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center, located in the former First Church of Christ Scientist not far from University Circle.
They’d been looking for an opportunity to build the ideal creative space. During a San Francisco business trip 10 years ago, the pair toured Pixar Studio’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. It was designed by Steve Jobs and John Lasseter and billed as “the most creative space on the planet,” with a central atrium that forced employees to interact across departments.
“I said, ‘If we ever have the chance to build a creative space, that’s what we would want,’ ” says Nottingham. “The church was like that.”
When they found out the building was on the market in 2003, the only other interest had been a developer who wanted to tear it down. It was a 60,000-square-foot, five-story landmark built for a congregation of 1,000 that had withered to just 50.
Nottingham and Spirk toured the place, discussed its potential. In exactly 15 minutes they had made up their minds for their new Pixar-esque headquarters.
The sanctuary itself forms the central atrium of the working space in a model they call “vertical innovation.” Each floor overlooking the atrium houses a step in the design process. Concepts are generated on the top level, the ideas spilling down to product designers and engineers. In the lower level is a full prototyping lab that keeps all innovations in house until they are ready for production.
“You see consumer research, the design process happening, engineering, prototyping,” says Cuffaro. “Normally, you might get half of those things in a design firm.”
The floor of the sanctuary is a flowing river of workspaces that fosters the kind of collaboration they were hoping for. The best hint at the building’s grandeur is that it was the building upon which Paul Severance formed his idea for Severance Hall, using the same architect and similar concept.
Sure, the building is big. It’s cool. It’s unique. But the home of Nottingham Spirk says more about them than it does its architect.
“It’s not about the building,” says Chafe. “It’s about how they make square pegs fit into round holes. That’s a great example.”
To this day, they share an office at the Innovation Center, a tradition that started in a tiny garage in 1972. A lighted cabinet displays just a fraction of their many awards, including their 2006 Cleveland Arts Prize.
“They are an anchor for this design community,” says Cuffaro. “They are one of the few design firms in the country getting top CEOs to Cleveland for meetings. Their stature is such that people will come to them.”
Nottingham and Spirk never did return to the idea of innovation in bedpans. But bring it up and Nottingham will rattle off a half-dozen ways they can be improved.
“No matter how stale, no matter how ordinary, there is no product where you can’t innovate,” says Nottingham. “None.”
The hallway encircling the outside of the sanctuary is lined with product samples from their portfolio: a lineup of SpinBrushes in every color, a new Reynolds Wrap product that combines the attributes of aluminum foil and parchment paper. A Scotts lawn care product that reduces the mess and waste of lawn fertilization.
Tour guide Nottingham shares the attributes of each, punctuated with an occasional “Isn’t that cool?”
Both Nottingham and Spirk are 63. They’re on the boards of CIA, the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle Inc., but otherwise hoard their free time to spend with family. The idea of retirement hasn’t occurred to them.
“This is the best 30 years coming up,” says Spirk. “This is when you put into practice everything you’ve learned. You’re starting to get things figured out.”
1972: Nottingham and Spirk graduate from the industrial design program at the Cleveland Institute of Art and start their design firm near University Circle. There they begin a tradition that endures today: sharing an office.
1980: Register their first patent for a pig-shaped child’s toy chest for then-Rotadyne Inc., which became the $600 million toy company Little Tikes. “From the very first we had a shared risk relationship,” says Nottingham. “This company couldn’t pay us what we thought we were worth, so we said, ‘You have to give us a piece of the upside if it works out.’ And we still do that today.”
1990: They register a patent for a Royal vacuum cleaner, which became Hoover/Dirt Devil, the first of 100-plus patents Nottingham Spirk has earned for the company, including the first true hand-held vacuum, the first full line of bagless vacuums, the first all-plastic upright and the first with onboard tools.
2006: Inspired by a visit to Pixar Studios headquarters in California, they move into the Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center on Overlook Road in Cleveland — formerly the home of the First Church of Christ Scientist. The move allows the firm to bring under one roof the product innovation process, from concept development and consumer research to product design and prototyping.
2006: The duo wins the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Mid-Career Award for Design.