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Learning About Design from Non-Auto People

In which ideas about design and innovation are encountered at a conference at which there are no people from the auto industry.

So I attend the conference “Strategy 06” organized by the IIT Institute of Design. And the first two guys I meet are pathologists from the University of Michigan. They’re attending the two-day event on design and innovation, they explain, because they’re trying to find the ways and means to improve what they and their colleagues do. I go through the list of attendees: Steelcase, Apple, Pitney Bowes, Motorola, Dow Chemical, Herman Miller, Hewlett-Packard . . . And search though I do, I come up with zero names of automotive OEMs or supplier companies. Which could lead to one of two conclusions:

  • I shouldn’t be in Chicago at “Strategy 06,” I should be attending something with the word “auto” in its title.
  • One of the problems of the auto industry can be diagnosed in part—in large part—by the absence of auto people at conferences where there are plenty of non-automotive people.

As you can imagine, I’m opting for the second.

One of the pathologists told me that they were there because going forward, with the competitive nature of health care, they will need to be increasingly differentiated. And so they figured that they might find some new ideas in a venue not focused on health care. Hallelujah! That’s forward thinking. These guys are looking for the ways and means to stand out in an industry that has to be even more risk averse than automotive.

“Does it surprise you?” Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, the Steelcase/Robert C. Pew Professor of Design at IIT, and arranger of “Strategy 06,” says to me with an intonation that makes it clear that he knows that I should know better. His remark came back at me after I’d made the observation to him: “There are no auto people here.”

“Does it surprise you?”

I would have liked to have responded, “Yes.” I would have liked to have felt more than six inches tall.

I mumbled something about maybe they all attend conferences at Art Center or CCS or something . . .

One idea that people in the car business hew to like the Rock of Ages is the notion that cars and trucks have a HUGE emotional component, that people have something that goes beyond mere ownership of their vehicles, that they append all kinds of affection to it. Maybe to the extent of a figurative “I My Car” bumper sticker on every set of four wheels rolling. But then I talk with Jeremy Alexis, assistant professor at IIT Institute of Design. He tells me that he’s getting the sense that there are people who are transferring this emotional attachment to things like iPods and PowerBooks. Yes, there is that massive youth-biased community of aftermarket tuners and slammers. But there are a whole lot of young people for whom cars are not a big deal, not much more than a means of transportation.

Aw, what does he know? He doesn’t even own a car. “But if I did, it would be a BMW,” he remarks. “It’s a designer’s car.”

One of the most interesting presentations came from a man who is not a designer. Rather, from an academician. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Martin holds degrees from Harvard. His interests currently include global competitiveness, integrative thinking, and business design, all of which were certainly germane to the presentations and conversations at Strategy 06.

The point that he emphasized, one that was designated by the Harvard Business Review as one of the “Breakthrough Ideas for 2005,” is that corporate types, or we can call them “suits,” tend to be wired differently than designers. The suits look for “reliability,” or consistency and repeatability. Reliability, he said, has substantiation based on past data. There are limited variables. There is the minimization of judgment and the avoidance of the possibility of bias. Designers, on the other hand, are interested in “validity.” It works toward outcomes that meet objectives. Validity is something that uses a broader number of variables. Judgment is integrated, and there is an acknowledgement of “the reality of bias.”

He talked about the different modes of reasoning behind each. Reliability is based on inductive and deductive logic. Inductive is what “is”; deductive is what “should be.” Those pursuing validity use inductive and deductive logic, too, but then, Martin said, they include another form of logic: abductive, which describes what “might be.”

Given this, there should be little surprise that the title of his presentation was “Designing in Hostile Territory.”

He suggested that the business people and the designers “are wired to think differently.”

So what does this mean if you’re a designer? Martin had five recommendations that designers can use to get their ideas and approaches accepted by the suits:

  • “Take ‘design-unfriendliness’ as a design challenge.” Just another thing to creatively overcome.
  • “Empathize with the ‘design-unfriendly elements.’” If you can understand their issues, you may be able to solve the problem.
  • “Speak the language of reliability.” They like to hear terms like regression, proof and deployment. Of the terms ordinarily used by designers, Martin noted, “it will terrify the businessman.”
  • “Use analogies and stories.” Martin said, “Reliability-oriented people are in the proof game.” But what if you don’t have any proof because this is something new? Martin suggests using an analogy to something else that was successful—something that will provide proof points.
  • “Bite off as little a piece as possible to generate proof.” If you can show something, anything that seems to be significantly substantive, even though it may be a minor thing, this will help improve your chances.

After the telecom and dot-com bubbles popped in the late 1990s, Motorola was in a situation that was almost domestic automaker-like in the fact that the financials were running red. And if one is to use an analogy (see point 4 above), then the auto situation is germane when you take into account that many of the big competitors in the cell phone business are non-domestic (e.g., Nokia; Samsung). One thing: Scott Durchslag, corporate vp in charge of Global Product and Experience Invention for Motorola Mobile Devices, noted is that at the company they “no longer call them ‘cell phones.’” They’re called “devices.”

While devices may be something of a vanilla term, the adjectives that Durchslag piled in front of it are anything but: he said that they’re working toward creating devices that are “wickedly compelling, lustful, beautiful” that will “blow the minds away of people when they use them.”

Apparently, even when Motorola was undergoing what now seems like the obligatory downsizing that American corporations initiate it was still hiring people (from places like IIT Institute of Design, Patrick Whitney noted) in the innovation and design area.

The comeback that Motorola is making is one that is based on those two things, innovation and design. As is stated in the corporation’s most-recent Form 10-K report: “The Mobile Devices segment is focused on profitable and sustainable growth. We believe we can accomplish our strategy by driving our seamless mobility vision, creating valuable differentiation of our products through design . . . We are differentiating through design by offering the most compelling products in the six primary form factors . . .” [emphasis added] Durchslag talked about those six form factors under the heading of “DSGN—A Critical 4-LETR Word,” referencing the various products the company has designed and engineered for the form factors: RAZR and PEBL for the clamshell; SLVR for the candy bar; SLDR for the slider; ROTR for the rotator. (There are a couple that don’t make the four-letter approach, with the most notable being simply Q for the Qwerty keyboard form factor; PDA is another anomaly.)

But it is not purely design that is making the difference. Durchslag said that they are deploying a “new model of product development,” one that leverages the resources of suppliers, and he admitted, “We’re trying to be a much better partner than in the past.”

Jim Wicks, vp and director of Consumer Experience Design for Motorola, amplified the approach to product development being used. He said that there are basics, which include such things as principles and rules, with, for example, design principles including simplicity, honesty, richness, and surprise. Then there is “rhythm,” which is “weaving what we are doing in design into the fabric of how the company operates.” One of the aspects of rhythm is to create “icons,” which he described as “design-driven products that focus on defining the brand direction.” The aforementioned four-letter products are examples.

An important point he raised is that one of the things that they’re doing when creating the visual language for the products is taking into account the key technologies and components that are involved such that they are able to share them across products—not so much a platform strategy as may be used by auto people, but more of a component-set approach.

Douglas Look, senior product manager and design strategist at Autodesk, who is receiving a Master of Design Methods at the Institute of Design this year, on how to innovate in a manner so that you’re both “smart and lucky,” recommendations that combine the reliable and the valid:

  • Have big dreams
  • Include diverse disciplines
  • Consider business frameworks
  • Use structured methods
  • Stay naïve
  • To which I might add:
  • Learn about what people in other industries are doing/thinking.