AC: What inspired you to co-found Catalyst?
Josh Wright (BS Product Design ‘03) Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Catalyst: The seed was planted when I was at ArtCenter. The College trains you to think about design, not just from the aesthetic or mechanical point of view, but also from a business perspective.
At ArtCenter, I was encouraged to look for a business partner. When you have someone who focuses on the financials, you can focus on making design work for the business.
AC: You’ve had an interesting career trajectory. Can you speak about your journey?
JW: Designing for an outdoor lifestyle has always been important to me. In the early years of my career, I started working in California, designing a lot of sports and lifestyle products, including footwear and backpacks for various surf, skate and snow companies.
Don’t go to Porsche. Don’t go to Apple. Go to a brand that doesn’t have great design yet.Josh WrightCo-Founder and CCO, Catalyst
Then, I moved to Wichita, Kansas, to work for the iconic Coleman company. It was a cool experience because it was a very small design team, and I got to touch all of their products. After six months, I contributed $30 million to the company’s bottom line.
That’s something else ArtCenter taught me: Don’t go to Porsche; don’t go to Apple — they already have great design. Go to a brand that doesn’t have great design, yet. Bringing good design and storytelling to their products transformed a 100-year-old brand into something fresh and fun. And they still sell some of my products today.
I later worked at Tumi in New York designing some of their carbon-fiber luggage and helping to expand some of the product categories into footwear, wristwatches and apparel. In 2006, I got this amazing opportunity in Hong Kong and I spent the next four years working at a world-class design consultancy firm. But I was always on the lookout for a business partner, based on what I had learned in school.
AC: How did you meet your Catalyst co-founder?
JW: Rock climbing. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to move here — the climbing community in Hong Kong brings together such a diverse group of people. My co-founder and I have such different backgrounds — she’s from bio-tech and finance.
Through the years, we developed a friendship based on trust from countless days of climbing the jungles. We realized that we had complementary skills, with her business and my design background and our mutual desire to be outdoors. We wanted to create outdoor products that brought value to people’s lives — that was the genesis of Catalyst.
AC: What was the first Catalyst product you designed?
JW: At the time in 2010, the iPhone was becoming the device of choice, even for climbers, so our product was a fully waterproof protective iPhone 4 case. Soon after, we launched and had a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Today, Catalyst has reached a tipping point where it’s becoming a global household brand name; our products are available in over 70 countries and major retailers, including Apple, BestBuy and Target, as well as eight Amazon marketplaces, four Shopify websites and WeChat in China.
AC: Catalyst 20L Waterproof backpack recently received the prestigious Red Dot Award. Can you speak about the design process?
JW: Each of our products fills a need and solves a problem. The waterproof backpack offers travelers an ultra-compact, lightweight pack that folds into a carry pouch that’s a little smaller than a 12-ounce soda can.
Waterproof is a core component of Catalyst. I’m kind of a nerd for waterproof products.
I’ve used this bag as a flotation device while snorkeling in Thailand. I’ve carried it through heavy tropical rainstorms and through a canyoneering trip in northern Italy, where I was jumping off waterfalls. The backpack works incredibly well. When the bag is rolled up, anything you keep inside it will stay dry.
AC: What are you working on right now?
JW: We’re always working on something new — we launch eight to 12 products every year. We were the first company to make waterproof cases for Apple watch and AirPods.
The backpack line is something we’re currently working on expanding, and soft goods in general. We’re heavily focused on expanding our business solutions for industrial applications of our products, including for oil and gas, hospitals and schools.
AC: How do you define success?
JW: Being able to create products I believe that bring value to the people who use them, and seeing a lantern I designed for the Coleman company being used on the show The Walking Dead.
AC: Do you have any superstitions?
JW: My dad always told me that it is bad luck to be superstitious and I live by that.
AC: What’s the design cliché you’re most tempted to use?
JW: I really subscribe to modernism. I believe that form should follow function with zero added details for ornamentation. Everything I build is intentionally designed, but not decorative. We are loosening up this “cliché” by adding some fashion and styling elements to some of our future collections, which I’m pretty excited about.
AC: What’s the one tool you can’t do without?
JW: My iPhone.
AC: What’s the first site you look at when you open your computer in the morning?
AC: What do you do to detox from media and screens?
JW: It’s not just screens, it’s the city itself because Hong Kong is so crowded. My detox is my weekends out in nature: rock climbing, hiking, canyoneering or surfing. I think an amazing secret of Hong Kong is that two-thirds of the territory is subtropical jungle with unreal, pristine waterfalls and beaches.
AC: If you could trade jobs with anyone for a day who would it be?
JW: As a designer, there’s no other job I’d rather be doing. But as a kid, I always wanted to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau.
AC: What book is on your bedside table?
JW: I have three books; none of them are finished. One is a history book called Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, another is a business book The E Myth and the third is a just-for-fun, fiction book called This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (John Dies at the End).
AC: Who are the most interesting designers working today?
JW: Marc Newson. I also really like Michael Young — he’s a British-born designer based in Hong Kong. Toy designer Michael Lau was at the forefront of the urban vinyl movement and I love his style. I’m also a huge fan of James Dyson, Jonathan Ive, and entertainment designer Stan Winston has always inspired me.
AC: Were you exposed to design growing up?
JW: I come from quite an artistic and mechanically inclined family. My grandfather was a renaissance man: a photographer, inventor, mechanic, engineer, architect, designer… He had so many hobbies and passions, and he created so many things. He made all of my grandmother’s jewelry.
He designed and physically built the house his family lived in, including the thermostat and heating system from spare parts. He built motorcycles for my mother and her siblings. When I was a kid, he built us a tree house with a zip line, which was super dangerous, and go-karts. I was always around people who were artistic and creating things.
AC: Describe a moment in your childhood when you first identified as a designer.
JW: When I was in high school, I was lucky to have an art teacher who brought in different brochures from art and design schools around the world. For the first time, I was aware you could design cars, toys or products as a career. As a kid, I was always sketching, building models, taking things apart and putting them together. When I found out it was a career path, there was no other option for me.
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AC: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
JW: Eternal life — I have too many hobbies and not enough time.
AC: What’s your most prized possession?
JW: My grandfather passed away this year, and I have the camera he used when he was working as a photographer and a backpack he built for his Boy Scout group in the 1950s.
AC: Where is your happy place?
JW: There are so many! Twenty meters deep, swimming with manta rays off the coast of Thailand, snowboarding in Japan. There’s a canyon in Hong Kong that looks like Jurassic Park — it’s just so raw with waterfalls everywhere. But to summarize, my happy place is being outside in a gorgeous location with people I care about.
AC: How would your closest friend describe you?
JW: A relentless, laser-focused — I hate to say it — asshole, but with a heart of gold.