Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Does GM Design "get" Social Media more than Ford? The Lab is an emphatic "Yes"

It’s been a while since I’ve turned my mind to the GM empire (in fact the last time I saw fit to comment was when the highly questionable GMC Terrain surfaced…). But conversations with the head of social media at GMH (Holden) and a little discovery I made yesterday has got me thinking about the people’s car company all over again.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks discussing the ability of social media to open up dialogue between automotive designer and customer. The benefits, as I see them, are twofold. Firstly, designers get access to crucial insight from the people they often have the least professional contact with, their customers. Secondly, the designers themselves, as opposed to the cringe-inducing PR lackeys, can help spread the message about their work, breaking down the hitherto impermeable walls of the design studio.

Lo and behold, GM has jumped into the ring with a new project called The Lab (take a look at it here) and it seems to be a solid first step in engaging designer and customer in a productive, conversational way. This marks a turning point  in the use of social media as a truly two-way street into and out of automotive companies outside of the PR department. It’s also heralds the incorporation of social media research into the product development process by enabling access between customers and the people responsible for designing their cars.

Traditionally, market research consultancies were commissioned to suss out customer need and wants on behalf of design departments. Somewhat predictably, market researchers, with their marketing imperatives, ask marketing questions and present their marketing answers, mostly metrics, to… designers.

Based on my experience, marketers and designers very rarely speak the same language and, unsurprisingly, rooms of blank stares and yawns are the usual outcome. At best, there might be a clue or two hidden in the marketer-speak for design management to interpret for the benefit of the designers. At worst, nobody in design gets it and they go off and sketch something for themselves (probably on the back of the latest trend report from marketing).

Somewhat notoriously, Ford has tried to get around this disconnect by building a persona around the marketing metrics (her name is Antonella) but at the end of the day she’s a fabrication, too easily moulded to suit the whims of the various stakeholders in the design/marketing/sales triumvirate.

Recognising that the traditional market research model fails to connect with designers and that there’s no substitute for real people, a small number of ex-designers and design strategists (people who, in this context, sit at the confluence of market insight and design output) have set up consultancies that aim to ask the right kind questions of customers in order to get design-relevant responses.

The key to their success is that their outcomes are presented in ways that make sense to designers and the marketing/sales teams. It’s a largely successful approach, and having worked in this kind of arrangement, I can attest to the palpable sense of relief expressed by designers when another of their ilk gets up and delivers truly useful, comprehensible market insights. Importantly, these consultancies strive to deliver outcomes where the direct implications for the designer’s work are clearly defined.

Where this approach falls down, however, is when you want to establish a richer, longer-lasting conversation with the customer. The project-by-project basis on which the older strategy consultancies work is just too finite and the idea of using the internet to reach more people in a more more conversational way just hasn’t occurred to them.

This is why GM’s Lab experiment is so interesting. It cuts out the woefully inappropriate (for designers) market research companies, the simplex, time-limited information stream of the design strategy consultancies and gets right to the customer in a way that openly encourages dialogue.

Admittedly, there are a couple of issues that come to mind. Firstly, if the content isn’t inclusive and word isn’t spread far enough, the only people the designers will be talking to are the die-hard fans (although die-hards have their place as brand evangelists, it’s actually Joe Average who almost always provides the most surprising, useful insights). Their current content videos are too one-sided and way too corporate for this commentator.

Secondly, I have an inkling that asking the right kind of questions, the analysis of the responses and, most crucially, maintaining the momentum of the project will still require dedicated design strategists. Then again, I would say that. I still believe that outside consulting will continue to have an important role in defining design projects, a social media stream will simply provide another, more immediate source of feedback for designers to bounce off.

As an experiment, The Lab ties in closely with the views I’ve expressed in the past and GM should be applauded for their pioneering efforts. It will be fascinating to watch how the dialogue between designer and customer develops over the months and, hopefully, years to come. Ultimately, it represents a bold step towards opening up the design process in a useful, engaging way and a wonderfully appropriate one. I mean, it is the people’s car company after all.

[Source: General Motors, Thanks to @cbarger for the original tweet]

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Alice Taylor of MakieLab

Not Alice Taylor, but one of her dolls

Alice Taylor founded Makielab, a new toys and games company based in Shoreditch, London, in February 2011. Within their magic lab, they’re making a new kind of future-smashing toy: customisable, 3D-printed, locally made, and game-enabled.

This latest adventure came after nearly four years commissioning games, apps and web TV shows for Channel 4 Education.

Previous to Channel 4 Alice was VP Digital for BBC Worldwide (LA), and previous to that, the brains behind another start up producing Java entertainment software – avatars, forums, chat apps.

Alice is an avid gamer, an innovator and an admirer of the indie spirit, most apparent in indie games and web development. Alice blogs at Wonderlandblog, and her personal tweets are at @wonderlandblog.

Our usual interview is beyond the jump.

Alice Taylor will be appearing at CreativeMornings/London on Friday March 23rd -sponsored by The Sanderson Hotel and Sense Worldwide– at the Billiard Room at The Sanderson Hotel at 50 Berners Street, W1T 3NG. For more information and to reserve tickets, please go to the CreativeMornings London Eventbrite page.

Read the rest of this entry »

Update: An unconventional review: Lexus RX 450 h

The RX at Portishead

It was with genuine surprise that I received a Twitter dm (direct message for the uninitiated) from the ever-friendly @Valvo at Toyota PR asking if I wanted to have a Lexus RX 450 h for a week. Having never experienced a hybrid and having not experienced a Lexus on the road since a mate’s father’s LS400 back in – ooooh – 1990, I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a chance to trial the luxury brand that, to some eyes, changed everything and the drivetrain technology that some believe still will. Read the rest of this entry »

Do I detect a movement? Car design gets more social by the week.

Screen shot 2009-08-31 at 08.20.33

I’ve just spent two fantastic days volunteering, presenting and learning at the sensational UXAustralia user experience conference in Canberra, Australia.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that this morning I learnt of another socially-led automotive design project.

Following in the vein of GM’s The Lab, Local Motors and Peugeot, Fiat Brasil has now launched the Mio project. Read the rest of this entry »

Musing on models

Photo: Matt Ward

As someone who’s just turned 35, for some a few years younger than me, and for many many years older, it wasn’t unusual to find models of cars displayed proudly on our shelves or strewn across the floor.

Aside from inviting a collision with an adult foot, they were also an invitation to imagine another world.

I remember well the bedroom races I’d conduct, pitting F40 against 993, C111 against E-Type, A110 against Countach; improbably paired in my adult mind, but impossibly evocative to my child one.

I’d spend hours studying details like NACA ducts. I’d blow through them and imagine what it would feel like to enter at the front as air, and emerge somewhere near the back. Or was it the side? The fogging of the F40’s plastic rear screen was inconclusive.

I’d imagine engine sounds and suspension movement. I’d simulate bumpy roads to the point of destroying delicate plastic hubs. These models -representations of real-world cars- enchanted me.

While I was car mad, even my less car mad friends had these models. Cars, as Chris Bangle has pointed out, were our avatars. They were powerful symbols of other, more exotic lives. The were objects of escape and potential. Together, we invested hours in the alternative worlds to which these cars gave us access.

But things started to change. For while F1, XJ220, 928, 850, 500 E and 600 SEL was the code from which I compiled my fantasies, for some of my friends and many of their younger siblings, virtual worlds coded by programmers became the escape of choice.

Mario, Sonic and their friends became their avatars. They were portable, sharable, and mutable. Younger siblings no longer drove the models on their shelves with the characters of their imagination. The switch of a cartridge, CD-ROM or app and the configuration of a character allowed them to be almost anything they wanted to be, wherever they wanted to be.

Then, with the advent of social networks, opportunities for self-expression and the creation of multiple identities exploded. We could all, adults and children alike, be many versions of ourselves all at once. Before us were the tools to shape new identities, share them with the world and kill them off in the space of an hour.

Model cars, much like their life-sized equivalents, must feel emotionally static and identity-constricting.

Sales figures of Mattel’s “Wheels” category, which includes the Matchbox and Hotwheels brands showed modest growth between 2015 and 2016. But a quick glance at their respective websites show only the slightest nods given to contemporary production brands and cars.

BMW’s collaboration with Hotwheels, for example, has produced 5 models, only one of them current: the M4. Matchbox does better with 6 contemporary models, although why anyone thought a Fiat 500X was worthy of a die cast is beyond me.

Otherwise, Mattel “Wheels” is focussed on collaborations with game, animation, comic and film franchises.

With this in mind, I’d posit that the childhood connection that we once built with car brands through their scale models is on the wane.

If that’s the case, then it surely follows that car brands are losing early access to their future advocates.

And it probably means the end of the era in which, once you’d grown up and made some money, you went and reaffirmed your loyalty and love for a brand by buying one of its products.

If this is all true, it feels like another nail in the coffin of the car as avatar. It also feels like another signal that the industry that fuelled so much imagination is seriously adrift in the face of technology and entertainment companies.

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Rodrigo Bautista & Anna Warrington from Forum for the Future

To speak on the theme of Future, we felt it only appropriate that Forum for the Future be included as part of the global, CreativeMornings mix.

Taking a pragmatic view that a sustainable future for all will be underpinned by sustainable business (both in the financial and environmental senses), they work with corporations, governments and NGOs to co-create new approaches to delivering products and services. Putting systems innovation at the heart of their work, they’re now focussed on transforming the man-made organisms that underpin our society: finance, food and energy.

Speaking will be Rodrigo Bauista, a designer and teacher specialised in sustainable innovation, and Anna Warrington, an advisor within the Sustainable Business Team, who spends her time bringing together different industries to collaboratively develop sustainability solutions.

The usual interview is below, but we hope you can make it to our new venue partner, MRM Meteorite on April 26th to hear Rodrigo and Anna in full flight.

CreativeMornings/London on Friday April 26th is generously sponsored by MRM meteorite and will be held at MRM meteorite, 76-80 Southwark Street, London, SE1 0PN.


Where do you go when you need to concentrate?

A: The swimming pool.

R: I normally take the train heading south.

Is it about what you know or who you know?

A: Both.

R: It’s more about what you do. However every little helps, so, be kind to people and share your wisdom.

What’s been the most pivotal point in your life thus far?

A: Getting my first bike. The sense of freedom has never diminished.

R: Professionally, quitting my job for the richest man in the world.

Do you think there’s enough discourse between disciplines?

A: Some connections are stronger than others. I’d like to see more conversations between seemingly unrelated disciplines.

R: No. It depends of the organisation some are very good at it and some need help to have interdisciplinary dialogue.

Can you teach innovation?

A: Honestly, I don’t know. You can teach the theory. You can definitely create the right environment. And you can inspire it without doubt. And you can bring people along with you so that they experience it. Does that add up to people then being able to do it? Who knows. But I hope so.

R: Yes. But you need to live it too.

Dollar or Yuan?

A: Both at the moment. But for how long?

R: Amero

Do you believe in an afterlife?

A: I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more to this life thing than we know…

R: No

Negative or positive freedom? 

A: Positive. In the main.

R: Positive freedom

Ideal holiday?

A: I love our tiny family campervan!

R: Shared with family, people are the places.

Can you draw?

A: Yes. Badly.

R: Yes

Can you draw us a wave?

A: Yes. Ask me when I see you and I’ll show you

R: A Mexican wave?

Individual or state (or both)?

A: A world where individuals are the state but somehow better than Big Society…

R: Society and community?

Favourite LP?

A: Depends on my mood. Could be Take That one minute, Eagles the next, followed by Ibrahim Ferrer and then Chris Wood after that. A tad eclectic.

R: Tough one…

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (2009). HBE

The bends. Radiohead

Helville deluxe E. Bunbury

Last book read?

A: Behind the beautiful forevers. Read it, I tell you.

R: Vivir. Julio Scherer.

The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A: Pretend you’re a car when you cycle on London roads. Never squeeze yourself into the side.

R: Never give up, just… follow the energy.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?

A: Get involved!

R: Don’t listen to me, go out and do what you love.

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Adil Abrar

We often hear about reusing goods, but what about reusing people?

Thanks to London startup The Amazings, the concept isn’t as incongruous as it might first sound.

We’re faced with a rapidly aging population that, on the one hand, is hobbled by an employment market that looks unkindly on advancing years.

On the other hand, our amazing elders are finding that they have to work longer to make up for an increasing shortfall in social care.

The Amazings is working to bridge that gap, matching skilled elders to a younger audience that is keen to benefit from an Amazing’s years of experience and willing to pay for it.

It’s gives us huge pleasure to present Adil Abrar, co-founder of The Amazings, at this month’s CreativeMornings/London, where he’ll be speaking to our 3rd global theme for 2013, Reuse.

We’re also overjoyed to announce our partnership with The Goldsmiths Centre in Farringdon, who’ll be hosting this event for us. It’s a stunning venue and they’ll be special offer for CreativeMornings/London fans announced in due course.

In the mean time, be sure to check out our interview with Adil below and set your calendar to catch a ticket to hear the story of The Amazings.

Adil Abrar will be appearing at CreativeMornings/London, hosted and sponsored by The Goldsmiths Centre, on Friday, March 22nd. Doors open at 8:30am. Tickets will become available on the CreativeMornings/London Eventbrite page at 11am on Monday, March 18th.

Where do you go when you need to concentrate?
My whole career has been built on not concentrating.

Is it about what you know or who you know?
They’re both important. But ‘why’ is more important. If you have a purpose, everything else will become easier.

What’s been the most pivotal point in your life thus far?
Passing my 11+ and leaving the Estate I grew up in and heading to grammar school to hang out with well-fed kids who go skiing every year.

Do you think there’s enough discourse between disciplines?
Nowadays, definitely. It’s rarer to find a specialist than a generalist. The pendulum has probably gone too far towards broad, rather than, deep knowledge.

Can you teach innovation?
You can affect people with the spirit, confidence and attitude to experiment, take risks and be brave. Innovation is the result of that.

Dollar or Yuan?

Do you believe in an afterlife?
Ask me when I’m dead

Negative or positive freedom?

Ideal holiday?
Climbing a (small) mountain

Can you draw?
Only flowers

Can you draw us a wave?
Not on my phone

Individual or state (or both)?

Favourite LP?
Neil Young – Decade

Last book read?
Dirt – Mötley Crüe

The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Marriage is like a shirt. You have to put it on to know whether it fits.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?
Do something you love, with the people you love.

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Paul Ormorod

The Zürich chapter, situated in one of the more understated money capitals of the world, chose Money as the global theme for CreativeMornings in February.

Given London’s all-together more challenging take on that which makes capitalism go ’round, we knew that – for us – any old money man (or woman) wouldn’t do.

One only has to look at the titles of Paul Ormorod’s books to get a sense that he’s no classical economist. Starting with The Death of Economics, moving through Butterfly Economics and Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics and concluding (for now) with Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World, Ormorod has tirelessly challenged the economic orthodoxy. In it’s place, he argues for a model that more closely aligns with our irrational, networked selves and the natural systems we are beholden to.

Whoever said economics, creativity and desire to be more in tune with the world around us were mutually exclusive should get stuck in to Paul’s books.

Or, if you’re a CreativeMornings fan, come along to his talk. Hosted locally by LBi and supported globally by Squarespace, it will a fantastic opportunity to engage with a topic that we creatives rarely enjoy discussing.

Our usual interview is below for some further insight into Paul’s way of thinking. Otherwise, we’ll look forward to seeing you on the 22nd of February.

Paul Ormorod will be appearing at CreativeMornings/London, hosted and sponsored by LBi, on Friday, February 22nd. Doors open at 8:30am. Tickets will become available on the CreativeMornings/London Eventbrite page at 11am on Monday, February 18th.


Where do you go when you need to concentrate?
Anywhere where I can’t be interrupted and I have space to pace around when necessary

Is it about what you know or who you know?
This seems a pretty cynical question

What’s been the most pivotal point in your life thus far?
I grew up on a council estate in Rochdale, and getting into Cambridge was pivotal

Do you think there’s enough discourse between disciplines?
No, nowhere near enough. I liaise with a wide range of disciplines, anthropology,
psychology, economics, physics, for example. This is really important if we want to get a
better understanding of social and economic problems.

Can you teach innovation?

Dollar or Yuan?

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Negative or positive freedom?

Ideal holiday?
I am a keen hillwalker, so a cottage in the Scottish Highlands, ideally on the North West
coast. I would also like uninterrupted fine weather, but that is just a fantasy.

Can you draw?

Can you draw us a wave?

Individual or state (or both)?
Mainly individual

Favourite LP?
The Velvet Underground and Nico

Last book read?
Irvine Welch’s Skag Boys

The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
During the 1980s and early 1990s I had become increasingly critical of mainstream, free
market economics. I was approached by Faber and Faber to write what became the Death
of Economics. But I had never written a non-academic book and I was very nervous about
agreeing to do it. But several people really pressed me. Worldwide, it sold over 1 million.
More importantly, it opened up whole new intellectual avenues and contacts which I would
never have come across if I had not written the book.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?
Start off doing academic work, with a strong quant emphasis, but then get out after a few
years and use your innovative ideas in your own business

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Mark Stevenson

It gives me enormous pleasure to introduce our inaugural speaker for 2013, Mark Stevenson.

Playing the part of polymath to a tee, Mark could be considered a comedian, an author, musician and futurologist all rolled in to one. Happily, his wikipedia entry also calls him out as a public speaker.

Which is perfect really, because -in combination with the knowledge he’s gained researching optimism and setting up the League of Pragmatic Optimists– he’s perfectly poised to talk to our first global theme of 2013: Happiness.

Mark will be appearing at CreativeMornings favourite North London venue, Forward Technology, on January 25th. But if you’d like the down-low ahead of time, we have our usual interview below. We’d also recommend that you check out his series of posts for The School of Life and his latest book, An Optimists Tour of the Future.

Mark Stevenson will be appearing at CreativeMornings/London, hosted and sponsored by Forward Technology, on Friday, January 25th. Doors open at 8:30am. Tickets will become available on the CreativeMornings/London Eventbrite pageat 11am on Monday, January 21st.

Where do you go when you need to concentrate?
Anywhere quiet.

Is it about what you know or who you know?
It’s about what you ask and who you ask it of.

What’s been the most pivotal point in your life thus far?
Every point in your life can be pivotal.

Do you think there’s enough discourse between disciplines?
No, a thousand times no.

Can you teach innovation?
You can teach people the techniques that might lead to innovation. Better though is not to have an education system that teaches people out of their creativity in the first place.

Dollar or Yuan?
My preferred currency is the currency of ideas.

Do you believe in an afterlife?
I’ll let you know if I get there.

Negative or positive freedom?
The latter.

Ideal holiday?
Wherever my girlfriend is going.

Can you draw?
I have played Pictionary.

Can you draw us a wave?
Will you draw me a beach?

Individual or state (or both)?
It’s a negotiation.

Favourite LP?
I don’t do favourites. To say something is a favourite is to put it above all others, whereas I like lots of things equally but for different reasons. Seriously, you want me to put Stevie Wonder and Black Sabbath in the same race?

Last book read?
I tend to read several books simultaneously – so, Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn, Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, The Leaderless Revolution by Carne Ross and Debt, The First 5,000 years by David Graeber.

The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be tempted into putting your experiences into hierarchies.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?
Come on over. We have wine.

CreativeMornings/London Interviews: Tom Foulkes & Michael Johnson

Back in July 2011, when CreativeMornings/London launched, we had the honour of Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks as our first speaker.

September 2012 sees him take the stage again, this time with long-time collaborator and friend Tom Foulkes.

Until recently, Tom was UKMEA Marketing Director at Arup, preceded by senior marketing roles at Buro Happold and Land Securities. He’s also Global Creative Ambassador for the D&AD White Pencil, and the Chair and founding member of the Design Business Association’s Client Membership Panel.

Which makes him ideally placed to talk about his creative partnership with Michael. With a double act looking at who directs the creative process and how they go about it, it will a rollicking exploration of the client/agency relationship, how it can go right and what happens when it goes wrong.

Our usual interview with Tom is below and Michael’s is still available here.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you to the St. Martins Lane hotel on September 28th.

Tom Foulkes & Michael Johnson will be appearing at CreativeMornings/London on Friday September 28th – sponsored by the St. Martins Lane hotel – at 45 Saint Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4HX. The nearest tube is Leicester Square. For more information and to reserve tickets, please go to the CreativeMornings London Eventbrite page.

Where do you go when you need to concentrate?
Anywhere with my iPod, as long as I can shut out the world with music I can concentrate…

Read the rest of this entry »

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

Want DownsideUpdates sent to your email address? Click here:



© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.