Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Winning by sticking to your roots; Volvo and Range Rover

So that makes two brands trotting out old cars in a bid to highlight just how good their new cars are.

Firstly, we had Volvo asking journalists to drive old workhorses like the 240, 740 and 850 at the UK launch of the naughty S60. Joe Simpson, writing for Car Design News remarked on how much improved the overall performance of the new car was. 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!

The latest from Twitter

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

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.