But it was music that he really wanted to do

“I had a sister and a brother-in-law, who went to top music schools,” said Gregory Smiley. “But with all the competition, they’d probably become classic struggling artists.” So, that was it for Smiley. He promptly put music as a career out of his mind. Then what? He had no idea what he wanted to do, so he took the Johnson O’Connor aptitude test in New York City. Young Smiley was bowled over when they suggested he go into acoustic engineering or become a surgeon. But, there was this third suggestion. Which ultimately meant industrial design.

At the Raymond Corporation, in Greene, in upstate New York, the in-house design department is smaller than the one in Mjölby. At the moment, it’s only Mr. Gregory Smiley. This, he explained, means he relies on a number of companies outside, whose expertise is crucial to the end result. “The inside is a liaison role where you need to find people with very good skill sets, in different areas,” said Smiley, and likened his job to that of a musical conductor, finding the right players, and making them contribute to the overall score.

The multiple brands of Toyota Material Handling North America
The multiple brands of Toyota Material Handling North America

How did Gregory Smiley come to work for Toyota? I asked him. “Long circuitous route,” he answered. “I started out at a time when the market was flooded with designers.” So, it was freelance design work, initially, before moving on to Smith Corona typewriters, then fax machines, and cell phones. But wasn’t he too young to have been designing typewriters? I was thinking. Smiley laughed, and conceded that he “may well have been the last American typewriter designer.” Then, in 2000, he was snapped up by Toyota-owned Raymond, and moved to Greene in upstate New York, not too far from where he was born. The move also meant he went from designing small handheld devices to large forklift trucks. “Oh, and now I’ve been with Raymond for 17 years.”

Lunch with Atlanta-based user interface firm

What brought Smiley all the way down to Atlanta, in Georgia, was Raymond wanted to make a seated version of a reach truck, and needed the guidance of a local engineering consultancy. While down there, Smiley felt he’d take the opportunity to meet another company. “I said, oh, that user interface firm, Echo Visualization, is also in Atlanta… And so we just met for lunch.” That one meeting led to research into Raymond’s entire telematics gateway. The user interface firm introduced the idea of ‘Personas’, so as to better understand the varying needs of users. “Take, for instance, the persona of a novice, working weekends as a summer job. That person is very different from somebody in a warehouse who’s been driving a truck for twenty years,” Gregory Smiley explained. It’s all about focusing on the users’ needs, of accommodating them and finding a solution, he said, “that is either universal – fits and suits everyone. Or going to the other extreme, which is customization.”

How does he actually find out what users need?

Smiley, who throughout the interview seemed equally happy (and prepared) to answer any question, said: “I’ve learnt some important things. One is to interview, talk to people.” And to travel to a variety of places, he added. What people say in northern Canada may be very different from what is expressed in the deserts of the American Southwest. He said he believes in cross-functional teams: “When I go out by myself I see things through my lens. But when I travel with a software designer…” The idea of viewing things from different angles is invaluable. “And then sitting down afterwards to compare notes.”

I’ve learnt some important things. One is to interview, talk to people.

Sometimes, said Smiley, talking to people does not reveal the whole truth. You have to observe them, also. A classic thing, he said, was when he interviewed a driver, wanting to know how he stood when he drove the truck, facing a particular way. “‘How do you stand when you drive? Do you ever stand this way?’” The driver’s answer was as short as it was categorical. ‘No, I never do that.’ “So we thanked him, shook hands, and the person drove away… doing just the opposite of what he said,” said Gregory Smiley, smiling.

They’re getting taller and they’re getting shorter

Designing trucks that will accommodate users is obviously of the essence, and can be a bit of a challenge: “Over time the population continues to grow, people are getting taller and taller,” Smiley said. But a number of immigrants coming to North America are sometimes shorter, which means he has to work with shorter populations, too. “Then, people are getting larger, but their arms aren’t getting any longer.” So, the human dimension to truck design is an ever-changing dynamic, Gregory Smiley said.

Differentiation between Toyota and Raymond brand
Differentiation between Toyota and Raymond brand

When designing a truck you want to find out what users prefer at every stage of the process. At Raymond they work with physical models, using plywood, for instance. “You get immediate feedback… like, if you sculpt a little piece of foam and then you have a small person lean against it, then a very tall person…” Smiley said he’s a big advocate for starting in the three-dimensional. But, at the other end of the spectrum, he will also increasingly rely on virtual reality techniques in the design work at Raymond.

Origami kayaks and da Vinci

“I very much enjoy working with teams, in a creative process,” Smiley said, when I asked him if his design endeavours stretched into other fields. And there it was: “I design aircraft and watercraft, as a creative outlet.” Apart from it being fun he said it’s a way of learning about new materials and techniques that may be useful in his forklift design work. “It’s all part of the same creative thing… to be a da Vinci type of inventor, and this is the closest I get to being an artist one day, an engineer and a visionary the next day.”

Trucks of the future - Gregory Smiley's design sketch.
Trucks of the future – Design sketches for Raymond.

The boats he’d been working on are folding kayaks that would fit into small spaces, “sort of like figuring out origami for boats”. His interest in aircraft emanated from a competition where a lightweight pedal-powered helicopter was involved. “I started working on the project thinking I might advance the art in a very small area, and I immediately was being passed by these big college teams using state-of-the-art materials,” Smiley remembered.

He has continued learning about new materials and structures and said it helps him at work. “When I look at a truss structure, and I am learning about new materials and processes, I can then go back, and it supplements my work,” said Smiley.

Nature photography is another fulfilling pursuit of Gregory Smiley.