As a kid growing up among the vast cornfields near Atkins, Iowa, Troy Maddox cultivated dreams as tall as late-summer stalks. But those dreams would occasionally sprout at the most inopportune times.
“In elementary school, I was in trouble constantly,” recalled the John Deere senior designer, with a laugh. “I’m sure if you go back and talk to my teachers, they’d say ‘well, when it comes to Troy, I don’t know if he did well in school but he sure drew a ton of pictures.’”
It was clear from an early age that Maddox was downright delighted by doodling. A pen, to many of us, might seem rather ordinary. For him, however, it’s a precision instrument of creativity as vital as a conductor’s wand, an artist’s brush, or a watchmaker’s loupe.
“I look at a white piece of paper and then a couple of hours later, it’s filled to the brim with something that has never existed,” he said. “And I get to do that for my job!”
The Synthesis of Style and Substance
At John Deere Dubuque Works, a sprawling factory in Dubuque, Iowa, where construction and forestry equipment is manufactured, Maddox brings his vivid imagination to life.
“My job is to be an advocate for the customer when it comes to in-cab design,” he explains. “I try to imagine what kind of experience they want. If they’re carrying a cell phone, where do they want to put it? Where will they keep a thermos? What storage solutions do they need?”
Fusing functionality with aesthetics is the synthesis of style and substance. When you sit behind the wheel of an 872GP Motor Grader, you expect every control to be easily accessible. You expect a comfortable seat that’s positioned for maximum visibility. But you also want a cab that looks as good as it performs.
“We designers go in and start to visualize the interior environment using either pen and paper or software like Adobe Photoshop?,” Maddox says. “I’ll sketch it up and show it to our engineers and customer groups. They’ll study it and say, ‘hey, that looks good” or they’ll give me a different opinion.
“It all boils down to putting myself in the shoes of the customer–the person operating the machine–and thinking what do I want this experience to be like? From that point, I just work day-in and day-out to make it happen.”
Designing with Virtual Pen and Paper
In the old days, designers used to pull up a chair to the drafting board, unfurl a roll of paper, and carefully use a triangular scale and straightedge to draw a new product.
Maddox’s desk is outfitted with what appears to be a floating horizontal television screen. It looks almost Jetsons-esque.
“It’s called a Wacom Cintiq?, and it allows me to draw and create digitally in the same way I would with a pen and paper,” he says. “It has thousands of levels of pressure sensitivity, which really bridges the gap between physical and digital sketching.”
There’s another cool part of his job, too.
“We have a virtual reality lab in the factory and when I put on the motion-capture headset, I’m transported inside a virtual cab,” Maddox says. “I sit in the driver’s seat and make sure operator controls are within reach and check out the fit and finish of the internal materials. I can even climb down the steps and walk around the machine. This technology enables us to build better equipment in a more cost-effective way.”
Deere makes significant investments in industrial design technology though Maddox’s role, as industrial designer, is relatively new for the company. Currently, he says, there are approximately ten employees worldwide working in this capacity.
“Back in the day, we collaborated with Henry Dreyfuss, a famous designer who worked on streamlining locomotives. In fact, some of the classic John Deere tractors were done by his hand,” he says. “Today, we work with Designworks, a BMW company, but we do recognize the need for robust internal design capabilities. And that’s why there’s such a need for these particular skills.”
Maddox already has designed interior components for the new 524 – 624 L-Series Wheel Loader line and says he’s working on several more exciting products, including full interiors, in the future.
The Road Less Traveled
Maddox’s path to Deere is filled with twists and turns. And that’s just fine by him.
“I’m kind of an off-road nut. When I was a kid, my family loved to take four-wheel drive vehicles off the pavement and onto trails,” he says. “We’d go to the country and climb rocks and get dirty. I had four-wheelers and dirt bikes growing up, and I think that sparked a passion for rugged vehicles. Today, the machines I work on are the dirtiest, the biggest, and the baddest around.”
Getting to Deere, though, was quite a journey. After graduating from Iowa State University, Maddox began an internship focusing on digital interfaces in 2013. He then worked on exterior design for the S430 and S440 Combines at John Deere Harvester Works, followed by a position created for industrial designers within the engineering development program.
“That’s a great way for engineers, and now designers, to develop their skills. You get to try out several roles over the course of two years,” Maddox says. “I went back to Harvester and several months later, my supervisor came to me and said ‘hey, Troy, you’re going to Dubuque to work on construction machines.’ I love Deere for that. They saw an opportunity, and they found a way to utilize someone to their full potential.”
Every job has its challenges, but Maddox has a relentless drive to build better products for those linked to the land.
“It’s hard to create something that’s aesthetically beautiful, functional, meets all the criteria we need as an engineering-focused company, and satisfies the customer,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I come here and I draw. I get to visualize things that were never there before.”