Paid to Design, Not to Think (Too Much)


[PS image credit: itMoves]

What would the world of electronics look like if Apple behaved like a car company? What products would Jonathan Ive dream up if he had to deal with the same compromises that car designers have to deal with on a daily basis, from carry over components to carry over managers to carry over imagination?

A friend of itMoves, Steve F, pointed me towards this Autoblog Green post where the recently departed BMW head of design Chris Bangle talks about avatars, EVs, golf ball shaped cars and even sharing (gasp!).

I don't want to single out Mr Bangle. I have many friends who worked for him, and unlike other personalities in the industry, I am not aware he left any trail of discontented subordinates. But since he spoke out, I will use him as an excuse to discuss why highly talented, even visionary people, get drown out inside the car industry. Let's start with the obvious question:

Why didn't he do anything about it while at BMW?

When Mr. Bangle came into the Bavarian company, he instigated a mini-revolution. Car enthusiast worldwide were outraged (outraged!) at how he destroyed decades of tradition and turned some of their most admired cars into ugly ducklings. At the time, I criticized him as much as anybody else did. Design speaking, I was raised in the Audi/VW school of simple yet highly refined styling: elegant proportion, exquisite surfacing and the believe that no detail is too small to fuss over. Mr Bangle's apparent randomness and intuitive approach crashed head-on with the considered German canon at the time.* As years went by, I got to appreciate the Zeppelin metaphor behind the so-called flame surfacing. I also have to admit that, even if they are still incomprehensibly random in certain areas, the latest batch of BMWs (ironically released after Bangle's departure) are finally starting to work for me.

So Mr Bangle perhaps started a revolution but let's be honest, at the end of the day this revolution was as shallow as one would expect from a business that has been doing the same for over a century. BMWs today are just like BMWs before Bangle: highly inefficient, painted steel and plastic, over-engineered, overweight machines. The fact that they are arguably the best cars out there does not change the fact that they are machines developed for a future of unlimited resources and no speed restrictions, a future that was wounded in the 70s and is certainly dying as we speak.

How could this happen? Why someone as fearless as Mr Bangle, with what looks like very advanced ideas not just about style but also about the business, ended up stopping at the skin?

The truth is that design organizations (even under someone as charismatic as Mr Bangle) have a very limited strategic role in car companies. Like women in the show Mad Men (who are supposed to look pretty and shut up), the role of car designers is to make cars look pretty and just shut the f up. Also like these women, for whom this is the way things have always been seems a curse and a relief, most of the top brass at car design organizations prefers to go along with the flow. Why rock the boat? Author Clayton M Christensen explains it in one of the many great pages inside The Innovator's Dilemma:

"Even when a serious manager decides to pursue a disruptive technology, the people in the organization are likely to ignore it or, at best, cooperate reluctantly if it doesn't fit 'their' model of what it takes to succeed as an organization and as individuals within the organization." (my emphasis)

In other words: Fat Chance.

Incidentally, one of the favorite excuses for conservative managers is the one used by Mr Bangle: the fallacy that cars are different. It reminds me of the novelists who clung to their typewriters back in the early 90s because a word processor will never have the same soul as my Olivetti. The truth is, no object is different, and nothing stops the clock of innovation. Sacred, seemingly immune objects and business models (and the industries that produced them) become obsolete all the time, taking down with them zealots who insist that people can't live without our gizmo. Cars were certainly different for my generation, but they are increasingly becoming just another hassle for kids who rather spend their time and money elsewhere.

Furthermore, what Mr. Bangle now proposes is nothing new to car design organizations. Every studio has several people talking and dreaming about these issues. Young, talented recruits would talk about it (some of them endlessly), ideas would be presented to management, pats in the back would ensue, and then everyone will shrug their shoulders and continue with The Program. Once in a while, a concept car would appear, hinting at a very different future before disappearing after its fifteen days of fame. And the next generation of vehicles would come out, only to be 2% better, again.

I am glad that Mr Bangle has decided to get out of the closet and say out loud what some of us have been saying for a while. Now free from the corporate PR machine, he is talking about the kind of disruptive services and technologies that attack the core of the car business. But let's be honest, now that he is an industry outsider, the value of his words is, I am afraid, quite limited.

On the other hand, real change will come to the car industry from the outside, never from within (like the music and phone business were changed by a tiny computer maker), so maybe Mr Bangle can be now more influential, after all.

Now when is that long rumored iCar coming out?

* It is good to remember that it was in fact Ford who arguably started the revolution, with a series of intriguing vehicles (Ka, Puma, Focus, Cougar) that still look incredibly modern, fifteen years after their appearance.