White leaving legacy of design innovation

Comments Email Print

The passing of the torch may be relatively quiet and unassuming, but it merits recognition. In Kingsport, Tenn., home to Eastman Chemical Co., one of the plastics industry’s most progressive thinkers is preparing to retire at the end of January, just before his 66th birthday. 

A journalist by training and a nearly 20-year veteran of Eastman, Gaylon White for the past eight-plus years has served as the chemical and resin maker’s director of design programs — in its own right an unusual type of position for such a company.

IDSA honors White in this exclusive PN video.

I admit that my friendship with Gaylon cannot help but to shape my perspective, but that friendship is borne in part from the respect I have for what he has achieved, against strong odds, in his current position. And I write it about it again now because I believe it also can provide a model for other plastics companies as they wrestle with ways to engage the design community.

You know designers — those trendy, black-clad, sometimes tattooed, earring-wearing types who often don’t have a tie in their closet. The type of folks not likely to be found at many plastics industry gatherings, but who are key influencers/recommenders within the brand-owner and original-equipment-manufacturing companies that comprise much of the plastics industry’s ultimate customers.

Eastman, a 91-year-old, conservative, engineering-centric company based in Appalachia, had the vision in 2003 to create a position with the purpose of engaging designers. Many in plastics have tried this, and many have failed. Gaylon almost did, too.

Over the years, he faced all the usual corporate political and financial hurdles: a lack of understanding among some in Eastman’s leadership of the design function, and why it should matter to a firm that makes chemicals and plastic resins; the inability to reliably demonstrate a tangible return on investment in an industry that often is driven by numbers and bean-counters; and perhaps some jealousy among some who wondered why Gaylon should be given resources to travel extensively (often to cool places and fun events) when budgets were tight and markets were soft.

But building credibility among designers is a long, slow process, with little prospect of immediate return on investment. The weak-hearted or half-committed need not apply. Every such venture needs a champion; Eastman had Gaylon. I credit his passion and persistence with single-handedly keeping the firm focused on its design goal. Even during budget-slashing tough times, Eastman continued to sponsor the education sessions at the annual Industrial Designers Society of America international conferences.

While internal support was hardly universal, Gaylon slowly won over other key Eastman executives — initially marketing Vice President Brad Lich, and then Lich’s successor, Tim Dell, now the firm’s vice president of innovation.

The result is that Eastman Chemical has earned a sterling reputation as a steadfast friend and supporter of design. Within the IDSA community, Eastman is seen as committed to innovation that leverages the attributes of good design (in combination with its materials portfolio) to help create products that make a difference.

Most recently, that includes Hydration Technology Innovations’ portable water-filtration technology, called HydroPack, that has the potential to save thousands of lives and millions of government dollars. Another project involved Geocell Systems Inc.’s plastics-intensive Rapid Deployment Flood Wall, which last year won the coveted IDSA Designer’s Choice Award and, more importantly, acceptance from the U.S. government.

Gaylon also was the driving force behind the creation and evolution of the online Eastman Innovation Lab, which recently got a facelift.

Now, with Gaylon’s retirement finally at hand, Eastman has publicly reaffirmed its commitment to carrying on what he started. Cathy Dodd, as director of downstream customer development, will take the lead role. Assisting will be innovation manager Jennifer Peavey, and creative services manager Farrell Calabrese. Add the fact that all of them, plus three Eastman VPs, attended this month’s IDSA conference in New Orleans — and it is clear that Gaylon is leaving a big footprint in Kingsport.

At heart, Gaylon White is a storyteller — and that talent, along with the ability to resist the pressure to commercialize his stories with Eastman brand names and sales pitches — has been a key reason for his success. As a result, Eastman now holds an enviable position within the influential design community. Others would do well to learn from his story.

Grace is associate publisher and conference director of  Plastics News and editorial director of Plastics News Global Group.