Automotive or Software, Design Is Design

I love cars. I find inspiration in the design, engineering, and history of cars. For the second year now I’ve attended AutoWeek’s Design Forum with my daughter. This very well-run event is a half day of talks and panels from luminaries in the field of automotive design, followed by guided tours of the North American International Auto Show.

Last year I learned about KickStarter, and wondered whether the world of atoms had gotten ahead of the world of bits when it came to customer development.

This year I was struck by the commonality in design and creative processes between software and cars.

Max Wolff, Design Director for Lincoln, talked about the importance of having his team co-located. “Team”, for Lincoln means digital designers, clay sculptors, interior designers, exterior designers, color & material people, and engineers. That reminded me of the XP practice of “whole team” (customers and developers) as well as Atomic’s model of poly-skilled, co-located, self-managing, teams of makers. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating; you benefit from being together. Max also pointed out that creating compelling automotive products is about more than the product, it’s also about the experience. Seems like a nice summary of user-centered design, to me.

Clay Dean, the Director of Design at Cadillac, asked an interesting question, namely, Who are we designing for: Customers? The media? Each other? I was struck by a similar tension in the web design world between re-use of established design patterns, novelty, potentially gratuitous change, and the rare but valuable innovation. As a designer, how do you balance those opposing forces? Clay also talked about the tradeoff involved in research. Too much, and you stymie creativity, too little and you risk being too speculative and missing your customers. Clay stated that in the early stages of design it was important to be more divergent, while management required convergence and validation with customers towards the end of the design process. That’s a good model for software, too.

Peter Schreyer, the Chief Design Officer of Kia, described the ultimate compliment to a car designer: “I love this car.” He also identified the need for designers to have time to think out of the box, time to explore, time for trial and error. That gave me pause as the leader of a highly productive, high utilization software product company. How do you build that time in? How do you charge clients for the value created with this time? Peter also hit on a truism that Extreme Programming advocates learned long ago, namely, that “most people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

Each one of these speakers was impressive for what they’ve accomplished and inspiring with the insights they shared. When they took questions from the audience in a panel format I recorded a few interesting nuggets.

On constraints (economy, safety, shared architectures):

Peter Schreyer — “Without these constraints we’d be stylists, not designers.”

Max Wolff — “Satisfying all these challenges and constraints are what make it design, not an art project.”

How much extra will people pay for design in a product?

Clay Dean — “Everything is designed, whether it’s good or bad, it’s designed.”

Clay Dean — “Naiveté can be a great thing in design, a great thing.”

What’s the role of a designer?

Peter Schreyer — “A designer is like a spider that sits in the middle of the web, knowing a little bit about every aspect.” (generalists versus deep specialists)