An Interview With David Yakos, Salient Technologies

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When I met David at HATCH, what struck me was how creative he was.  He was always thinking outside the box and doing clever things.  I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to work with him professionally this year and I’m thankful our paths crossed.  When I first met David he was extremely interested in the Toy and Game Industry.  The best way to learn about our industry as an inventor is to attend Mary Couzin’s Chicago Toy and Game conferences in Chicago.  So I invited him to attend.  That’s all he needed.  He’s now working with many amazing toy and game companies and I know that our (ThinkFun’s) product will not be the only or the last product that we will see from David and Salient!

Thank you my friend for participating in my series of interviews!

In one sentence, who are you?

I am a big kid, inventor, engineer, artist, dad, adventurer and co-owner of Salient Technologies Inc., a product design company that develops consumer products for leading brands around the globe.

What are Salient Technologies’ specialties?

Salient Technologies Inc. is a product design firm that provides industrial design, prototype development, 3D Printing, patent drawings, photorealistic renderings, animations and manufacturing support for leading brands that want to achieve a competitive edge in the marketplace. Salient has developed countless products from lines of wheelchairs, to award-winning, environmentally friendly pet toys that boast indestructibility; from breakthrough cryogenic valve technology for NASA to a ventilated welding helmet that was awarded by Popular Science as Prototype of the Year for 2013. 

We met at HATCH, a community that unites creative thought leaders to hatch a better world. How would you help to HATCH a better world?

I hope to inspire the next generation of creative people who also like to confuse the world of art and engineering.

How have you brought mentorship into your work at Salient?

Salient offers a mentorship program to engineering/design college students in their junior or senior year that are interested in product design and development. This opportunity allows the students to be involved on a project basis. In 2013, 6 mentees from Montana State University were able to shadow a designer on a real life project. This exercise allowed them to be involved in the actual creative process including brainstorms and idea presentations in front of the entire team. Students don’t always get to experience the tangible application of their knowledge until after college. Salient’s goal is to inspire and encourage students to pursue their passions of product design.

Who is or has been your mentor? What piece of advice did s/he give you?

My parents have been instrumental in my growth.  From day one, they recognized where my passions and abilities lined up, pointed me in that direction and have unceasingly encouraged me to keep going.  

You and Stephen spoke at HATCH about in 2011 about the design process and bringing inventions to life. Can you describe this briefly for us?

(Link: The Difference Helps Hatch Innovation and Creativity)

After developing countless products, we discovered there was a process that was consistent whether we were developing a valve for space or a dog toy. We broke the process into three stages.  From Ideation To Production includes:

1) Conceptual design, where you explore the look and function of the concept. 

2) The prototype process, where you physically and digitally test the feel and function.

3) The production design, where you communicate with the factory the design intent using manufacturing files and engineering drawings.   

How to you activate creativity?

I wouldn't say I “activate creativity”… I just try not to think like a grown up all the time or take my self too serious. I live in a safe place where it is okay to have silly ideas and safe to fail.

If you could only have two tools to create with on a desert island, what would they be?

I would likely take a large stack paper and a hatchet. I could make a pencil out of a bit of charcoal and then chronicle my adventures of how hard it actually is to make life comfortable using just an old hatchet.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

I loved Popsicle sticks as a kid along with a bottle of Elmer’s glue… I could make any and every toy if I had that on hand.

Why and how did you get into the toy and game industry?

As co-owner of Salient Technologies, and a serial inventor, I have developed products in most consumer industries. Naturally, I was drawn to toys and games because of the sheer joy of play. I find it to be a natural place for me to ideate with my childish imagination. I have been able to look into this fun industry with a lens that was focused on broader technologies including defense and medical. Thankfully, when introduced to a few wonderful people from leading toy and game brands through friends at HATCH, I jumped right in with both feet.

What advice can you give inventors who are also just getting into the toy and game industry?

Inventors need to be careful not to get too attached to a single idea. You need to take a broad sweep of ideas, polish the best ones, present them in their best light and keep moving on.  Tap into the creative parts of your imagination where you can come up with an original concept rather than smashing two existing products together.

What trends do you see in toys and games?

There is a digital trend of toys and games due to the speedy advancements in technology. Part of me clashes with this trend since I was a tactile, hands-on learner. I want to encourage my kids to build, get dirty, and experience play through mental stimulation as well as through physical motion. Toys and games used to be more dynamic and have become more stationary. I believe that is coming around and we are starting to see a balancing of action and technology.

What other trends you see?

There is a trend of autonomous technology, a shrinking world, and we will soon not be limited by the processing power and speed of technology. We, people, have come to rely more and more on it to the point we don’t have to remember anything. We can just ask Google or Siri.

What’s your thoughts on the maker movement?

Before there was a “maker movement” there were just craft supplies like Popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue, and paper tubes. On a personal note, my parents recognized that I had a passion to make, invent and design as just a little boy. My mother cut down an empty drier box, filled it with supplies including empty shampoo bottles, egg cartons, string and everything else I would need to build my first spaceship, first homemade pair of paper shoes and a cardboard robot suit. It was David’s Creative Corner. I could visit that world and come back with something new, an invention that was unique and never before seen. Today, I do the same thing but design products for leading brands. I know that the modern maker movement is going to spawn the next Steve Jobs or the next Thomas Edison. It is a necessary environment for a tactile learner and creative child.

 What are your passions?

I am passionate about family-fun-time living in the middle of Montana in a log cabin between 7 mountain ranges.  I love disappearing in the Beartooth Wilderness a few times a year on the search for the elusive cutthroat trout, I enjoy painting geek art inspired by my favorite Sci-Fi shows and I love my job where I get to design something new every day.

Speaking of your geek art, you are also an artist and sell your art on Etsy.  What inspired you to start painting again as an adult?

As a child, I was drawn to the world of art, drawing and painting. It was a passion that slipped away for a time in the midst of busy life and adulthood. Thankfully, a friend from HATCH shared the story of her son’s art exhibit and how much joy he gets out of it. Art was a place where this young boy that lives with autism could express himself in a way he couldn’t verbalize or emote. This inspired me not to let my passion sit idle. I started getting out my paints and along with my children, started painting again.

What is your place of inspiration? 

I am always inspired by the creation around me. I find nothing more fascinating then the intricacy of life, plants, animals and the stars above. I love to retreat to the quiet of the mountains, away from a cell phone, TV and computer…. then again… sometimes I’m inspired in the mix of the biggest noise, problems and mess. I just like the quiet better.  

When is breaking the rules okay?

Breaking the rules is okay for the sake of freedom under oppression… or anytime the theme song to Indiana Jones is playing (humming it counts). 

What would your DJ name be?

Pass… if I have to answer… D.J.Yakos, since those are my initials.

You are a contributor to Elke Govertsen’s Mamalode called Finding Liam.  Can you tell us more about that?

I am a proud father of three playful children, a daughter and two boys. When one of those children, my oldest son Liam, is adventurous in a creative way, one can’t help but find him in situations that make you ask “What were you thinking?”  In this digital era, we always have an iPhone in reach so naturally my wife and I started capturing these moments as pictures leading to #PlacesIFindLiam. We would find him at the age of 2 and 3 hanging from the chandelier over the dining table or elbow deep in watermelon.  Realizing we had compiled nearly 80 moments of parental confusion, we figured it would be best to encourage other parents that are raising an explorer by sharing our story in Mamalode.

Were you like Liam as a child yourself?  You are one of the most creative people I know.  Tell us a story from your childhood about your own creative development.

I was like Liam to an extent. However, he defiantly explores the boundaries of the physical answering questions like “Could I climb that? Or “Would I fit into that?” My childhood was a bit more subdued and involved a lot of discovery in a different-paint it, build it, draw it, invent it sort of way. I have always been so content with a pile of supplies with no instructions included or with a blank canvas and a pile of paints. I know I was designed with a passion to create. Thankfully, my family environment was a safe place to explore this arena. Too many kids stop being an artist because someone said their drawing was ugly or won’t pursue science and engineering because they didn’t get a nudge to build a cardboard rocket.  I remember building a Flintstone car as a kid all by myself.  The idea was to have a foot powered car that I could scoot around in. It never actually worked but my parents and siblings thought it was great nonetheless.

What makes you smile?

I smile most of the time… I think it is a combination of the fact I’m easily entertained and I find my life is full of joy.  My family makes me smile, mountain lakes full of trout make me smile, and even challenges make me smile.  

Describe the best day you ever had....

One morning, my wife and I trekked across a large snowy glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and by evening made it to a palm tree-lined beach where we camped... Nothing beats the combination of palm trees and penguins.

What is your Superpower?

My superpower?...i suppose I just never get bored. There is always something to make, paint, climb or discover. I guess in a word… I love to "create".

Thanks, David, for a terrific interview!