Who is Sara Little Turnball? An Icon.
September 26, 2022
In an interview with fashion designer Alexa Adams, we learned that Sara Little Turnball was her inspiration. But, no one I spoke with had ever heard of Turnball. After a really deep dive in a rabbit hole of Sarah Little Turnball articles, I can unequivocally say she's a 'must-know' icon.

"Sara Little Turnbull is a designer, strategic planner, teacher, cultural anthropologist, problem solver—and master of the “creative accident.”" wrote Véronique Vienne in Metropolis. Going on to note that, "For more than five decades now, Mrs. Turnbull, née Sara Little, has been corporate America’s secret weapon. Working behind the scenes with top product-development people at General Mills, Corning, Procter & Gamble, and 3M—to name just a few of her long-term clients—she operates at the intersection of design and commerce. An independent thinker, she is a role model for many women. Los Angeles interior designer Gere Kavanaugh believes that Turnbull paved the way “for the next three or four generations of female designers.”

Born Sara Finkelstein in New York City in 1917, she attended Girls Commercial High School in Brooklyn. In 1935, she won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design, where she graduated in 1939. This launched one of our country’s most stunning careers in design, business, and education.

What did Little Turnball create?

  • Disposable medical and antipollution masks made from non-woven fibers,
  • Nutritious soybean candy,
  • A one-dial radio from the 1960s that is still in use more than 50 years later,
  • And the now ubiquitous freezer-to-oven CorningWare.

During her career, she advised Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Marks & Spencer, American Can, DuPont, Ford, Nissan, Pfizer, Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Lever Brothers, Motorola, NASA and Volvo. And, she consulted on a range of domestic products including housewares, home storage systems, food, counters that cook, microwave cooking products, personal care, medication delivery systems, cosmetics, fabric processes (knit and non-wovens), space suits, furniture, toys, decoration and packaging, household cleaning products, pet care, tapes and adhesives, and car interiors.

How did she do it?

Many of her ideas arose from her intense interest in different cultures and the natural world. Sara Little Turnball was a self-trained cultural anthropologist, who traveled to the world from as Borneo, to the Philippines, to Kenya, always on the lookout for how people and animals solved everyday problems. Notably, her design for a pot lid was inspired by observing cheetahs grasping their prey in the wild.

In another case, she began the design process for a burglar-proof lock by interviewing thieves in jail. (The experts in her opinion!)

Furthermore, Turnbull drew on her immense collection of artifacts for inspiration. "I am a young oldie,” she explained in the Metropolis interview. “There are many young oldies like me out there, and society today is somewhat more receptive to us—as long as we are willing to keep learning new things all the time.”

To maintain her "young oldie" status, she read religiously. "Her insights are not flashes of inspiration, but of sustained efforts to keep up with the culture. Turnbull reads—and clips—five newspapers daily: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Japan Times, The China Strait Times, and The London Financial Times, which she thinks is the best paper of all. She also reads about 60 publications a month—everything from scientific journals to consumer publications, trade press, and magazines. She has archived all of her clippings since the early 1960s; they are the backbone of her “lab” at Stanford," shared Vienne.

She built a better world by focusing on “tools for living” that use fewer materials, last longer, and save time. Her methodology was precise: Start with why, talk to end-users, create a plan, and implement a solution.

What advice did she have to offer?

“It always starts with a fundamental curiosity,” she said of her quest for innovative product design. “When I can't find the answer in a book, I go out and search for it. The excitement of my life is that I have always jumped into the unknown to find what I needed to know.”

What can we take away?

Sara Little Turnball may have died in 2016, but there is still a lot that product designers and business leaders can learn from here.

Among her big ideas is that when solving a problem, we must:

  • Start with why,
  • talk to end-users,
  • create a plan,
  • and implement a solution.

Other big ideas include her approach to gathering and storing information. She believed in "taking the time to bring together unrelated ideas that lead to new connections." Whether traveling, learning about a new material, or listening to a new problem, she constantly investigated how two unrelated ideas might yield a new better, solution to an old problem.

Her imprint on the world is vast, and she deserves a more prominent place in history. To find out more, read: https://www.amazon.com/Lettuce-Trouble-Sara-Little-Maker/dp/1737209802 or https://metropolismag.com/profiles/sara-little-turnbull-corporate-americas-secret-weapon/



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