Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

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.

Strategist ≠ WTF

I come from a design background.

I work across the worlds of communications, branding and business strategy.

It’s pretty easy for people to get confused about what kind of beast I am.

Hell, sometimes -when coffee is conspicuous by its absence- even I get confused.

Thankfully Peter Thomson over at The Economics of Innovation did a vox pops with his strategist mates, helping set everyone straight about just what it is that we do.


Read the rest of this entry »

Petroleum-powered Peccadilloes for Plutocrats


If austerity is all the rage, someone forgot to tell the manufacturers of city runabouts. Aston Martin’s much-maligned £35k Cygnet -based on the humble £10k Toyota iQ- is just starting to hit the streets. It’s also available in an even more exclusive Colette edition.


The amusingly named Fiat Abarth 695 Tributo Ferrari has been terrorising residents of Belgravia since late last year at an unamusingly steep £30k.


And the £11k Fiat 500 on which the Tributo is based is now available in a Gucci edition for a £5k premium.


Even Citroen is in on the act with the Orla Kiely-fettled edition of their quasi-premium DS3.

It doesn’t stop there, however.


Having the last laugh -as is so often the case in the Automotive world- are the Germans.

BMW Group brands Rolls Royce and Mini recently had a pash behind the bike shed and produced the Mini Inspired by Goodwood.

What do you get for your £25k premium over a standard £16k Mini? Leather, leather (everywhere), walnut veneers made at the Rolls Royce plant in Goodwood, “deep-shag” carpets and the smug satisfaction that, if you hadn’t worked it out already, you’re one of 1000 willing to pay £41,000 for a Mini.

Downsized luxury is everywhere these days; nary a day goes by when a report crosses my desk telling me that, despite the economic uncertainty, people are still enjoying luxuries, just in smaller portions. Now consumers can do it with their cars. Just don’t expect it to come cheap.


Warning: Dieter Rams/Apple love-fest starts now

Two obsessions of mine collided today. I learnt that Apple-man Jonathan Ive has written the forward to Dieter Rams latest book As Little Design as Possible.

The year after I started my industrial design degree, I took on a part-time job in Apple’s brow-beaten reseller chain. For years they’d been peddling uninspired, underpowered product.

They then suffered the humiliation of selling jelly beans and clam shells when everything else was black.

Life in Apple-land felt hopeless.

Yet as I fell for German industrial design during the week, it wasn’t long before I was selling it’s American second coming on weekends.

First came the seminal G4 Cube and then the iPod. They were the first expressions of a design aesthetic that has now come to define the brand.

However, the most fascinating thing about these products was not their design, brilliantly engaging as it remains.

Rather, it was the effect the objects had on anyone who came into contact with them. Customers were fascinated, resellers revitalised. We began to tell great stories about the products rather than trying (and failing) to win on specs.

The products delighted us and we wanted to share that with the world.

And here’s a video that explains how that delight happened; 8-odd minutes of Dieter Rams loveliness:


The key take-away for me?

“…learn a little bit that not the spectacular things are the important things. The unspectacular things are the important things”

If Apple has shown us anything over the years, a dogged determination to get the unspectacular right, those head-slapping problems of the modern age, really can underpin success.

It’s something I try to remember every day.

We are interpreters of meaning

More often than not, when party conversation turns to what I do for a living, I’ll provide an ever-changing explanation and get slapped in the face with “Oh, so you’re a market researcher!”.

Now there’s nothing wrong with market researchers. The way I describe what I do, on the other hand, could clearly do with some work.

Thankfully the Design Council has come to my aid. They had the nous to stick a camera in front of, among others, Robert Verganti, author of Design-driven Innovation, and he gave his thoughts on just that topic.

The killer take-away for me?

“…if you’re targeting a more radical type of innovation, if you radically want to change the meaning of things like the Nintendo Wii, it’s a radical change of meaning, and then you actually have to step back from users. Because otherwise users pull you into the current meaning of things and you want to envision the meaning by working with interpreters, other people outside your company typically, that can help you to see the experience of how people give meaning to things from a different perspective.”

Ok, so calling myself an interpreter of meaning could could unsettle a negroni or two on the cocktail circuit. But it’s a rather nice encapsulation of what I get to do at Sense.

(Verganti quote at 4:46)

Hat tip to Brian Ling at Design Sojourn

Aston Martin and Long-term Investments

Aston Martin today released pics of its new DB9-based model, the Virage and, somewhat surprisingly (for me at least), there’s been a huge amount of negativity thrown at the car.

Why? Because it doesn’t look “new” enough.

So, let’s pause for a minute, take a look at a side-by side comparison of a the original 2004 DB9 and the 2011 Virage and make up our own minds. Then read on.

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BMW i: a vision of premium urban mobility

Today sees the launch of perhaps one of the most important developments in the automotive sector in its 100 year-plus history. After much speculation, fuelled by a drip feed of information from BMW, the Munich-based company has pulled the wraps off BMW i.

Much more than a new car launch, i represents a new way of thinking, not just about personal transport but also urban mobility.

There had been clues all along that BMW wasn’t interested in simply producing a smaller car. The project codename -MegaCity- hinted that the company was well aware that there were some much bigger issues that it would have to deal with to stay relevant long into the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Nokia’s platform burns. Auto sector wonders what smells funny.

If this isn’t the corporate mea culpa of 2011, I don’t know what is:

This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven’t been delivering innovation fast enough. We’re not collaborating internally.

Nokia, our platform is burning.

This choice little paragraph comes from an internal email reportedly sent to Nokia employees by CEO Stephan Elop. There’s much more in the full catastrophe (read it here) but he speaks with remarkable honesty of the crap storm that faces companies that lack the will, the leadership or simply the inspiration to transition to new ways of developing products or, more fundamentally, doing business.

At Sense Worldwide we’re lucky that our clients have already realised that they need to change. Inspired change is, after all, what we specialise in. But having heard countless auto industry execs, either first hand at the Detroit motor show or through coverage of their presentations at CES, talk about how they can’t match the pace of development evident in the tech sector, I wonder how long it is before car companies have their Nokia moment.
It’s only a personal perspective but when the auto industry says that they can’t match the tech sector’s pace of development, they’re probably saying “We don’t want to, because we’ve been doing things real well for a hundred years and it’s too expensive to change”. I’m sure Nokia’s been saying that since the introduction of their first car phone in ’82. Now their platform is burning and it looks like a leap into the arms of Google or Microsoft is the only thing that’s going to save them.

Question is, who’s going to catch the automotive industry?

Hat tip to @joesimpson for his excellent coverage of the auto events at this years CES

(Image: Micky.! Licensed under Creative Commons)

Automotive Wallpaper: Why Porsche’s vinyl wrap competition misses the point

I’ve just had my eye drawn to a cute little competition being run by DesignBoom – in collaboration with Porsche and the Scuola Politecnica di Design – for which entrants have been asked to design a wrap “to enhance the visual appearance of the sports vehicle”.

There’s a clear impetus here, on the part of Porsche, to try and bring some of the visually-oriented expression of self that younger generations engage in online into their brand world.

Where once we projected ourselves into shiny new cars, using them as a representation of how we wanted to be perceived (and how we perceived ourselves), outlets like Facebook enable us to do this far more easily, cheaply and in real-time. These wraps are likely seen, from a marketing perspective, as the bridge between the two.

Yet it seems that until car manufacturers really – properly – get their head around the fact that cars themselves are no longer the social avatars of choice for a growing number of young people, we’ll have to put up with window-dressing like the wraps (or the fraught incorporation of Facebook and Twitter apps into in-car entertainment systems: “Hey guys, I’m sat in traffic! LOLZ”).

Read the rest of this entry »

Seth Godin on Testing

Seth has an annoying habit of encapsulating some ideas so succinctly that you basically need to copy and paste a post to get it out to your own audience.

He also has an annoying habit of… well… annoying some people ’round these parts but that’s another story.
Nevertheless, his post today hit one of the biggest innovation nails on the head. It concerns traditional processes of testing new propositions, something that anybody who works with more traditionally aligned clients on innovation strategy will have to deal with at some point.

Netflix tests everything. They’re very proud that they A/B test interactions, offerings, pricing, everything. It’s almost enough to get you to believe that rigorous testing is the key to success.

Except they didn’t test the model of renting DVDs by mail for a monthly fee.

And they didn’t test the model of having an innovative corporate culture.

And they didn’t test the idea of betting the company on a switch to online delivery.

The three biggest assets of the company weren’t tested, because they couldn’t be.

Sure, go ahead and test what’s testable. But the real victories come when you have the guts to launch the untestable.

Testing is surely one of the quickest ways to kill truly innovative propositions. Chuck something revolutionary out into your traditional consumer base for testing and it’s hardly surprising if it fails; most people wont actually be able to get their head around what you’ve presented them with.

A better bet, perhaps, is prototyping and designing iteratively with early adopters. These are the people who are actually going to drive mass-market adoption down the line and are a far better resource for refining innovative concepts into marketable propositions.
Image: Alforque

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!

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© 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.