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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Quick Thoughts: A small car in a big car’s pants: the new Ford Focus

Ford’s new Focus has been unleashed a full year ahead of it’s European on-sale date and it’s already generating substantial comment in the sphere of the blogs. Ed Stubbs and Dustin Shedlarski have both written interesting critiques of a design that I, personally, find a little schizophrenic. But let’s face it: when you’re trying to design one C-Segment product for two markets – one that’s been downsized for decades and another that’s only just coming to terms with the concept – things are bound to get a little hectic. Read the rest of this entry »

Quote of the day: J Mays on life experience informing design

“A designer is only as good as what he or she knows. If all you know is what you’ve garnered from fifteen years of living in Detroit, it’s going to limit what you can lay down. If you’ve had experiences around the world, you’ll be able to design a much richer story for people to enjoy.”

J Mays, Global Vice President of Design, Ford Motor Company

Just read this in an Esquire interview with J Mays and what he has to say adds to some of the points I was making in my recent interview with Raph Goldsworthy over at Design Droplets.

There’s a whole lot more in the interview that chimes with me too, especially J’s thoughts on simplicity, building stories and the cars of the 50s.

Short but wonderfully sweet, it’s well worth a couple of minutes of your time.

P. S. What better image to represent J’s globetrotting ways than his (and Martin Smith’s) seminal Avus, somewhat out of context with some serious looking travellers in marle catsuits. Hawt.

[Source: Esquire Image: Audi Press]

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]

Antonella gains a voice, brain, pulse and a… well, becomes a boy

me_and_molly

There’s a risk that I may depart on some vainglorious romp here, but I figure a little self-indulgence is warranted given that DownsideUpDesign has just kicked over the 10,000 visitor mark.

While I was out in Broken Hill, I had to good fortune to catch up with Mark Charmer at the Movement Design Bureau and, even more fortuitously, Rob Hunter and Amy Johannigman, whose work I had the pleasure of reading as part of the Sue Cischke project back in May.

We ended up having a mind expanding conversation (they come along with pleasing regularity when in Mark’s company), discussing the potential for a highly personal style of social media to help generate really meaningful dialogue around design and sustainability.

It’s dialogue that companies like Ford need to be having yet can’t seem to get started. I have a sneaking suspicion, as do Mark, Amy, Rob and many others, that their reliance on mute personae like Antonella has something to do with it…

While I’ll let Mark and Amy fill you in on the details, I’m honoured by the profile they’ve put together and the concept Mark discusses is something that resonates with me on so many levels. It speaks of a bright future for not only  this DownsideUpDesigner and the others out there like me, but also a more open, responsive and sustainable future for the automotive industry, which I seem to have been destined to be a part of for a while now.

If you’ve got this far, then your the kind of reader I love to have. It’s even better if you leave your thoughts below because without the dialogue we share, DownsideUp is just another tree falling in the woods.

Thanks so much for being a part of the first 10,000. I’m looking forward to many, many more.

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[Image: Juliana O’Dean-Smith. “Glamorgan”, Manilla, North-Western N.S.W, longer ago than I care to remember]

Ford Pits New Taurus Against Luxury Brands, hands Mercury/Lincoln a Noose

800x600_Taurus_ads_01

Up until now, confusion has reigned supreme regarding Ford’s positioning of the new is-it-premium-or-isn’t-it Taurus and how it relates to the Lincoln/Mercury ranges.

Well be confused no longer because the online ad campaign for the new car, going live on August 4, pits the new EcoBoosted sedan against… the Lexus LS460!

In a move that’s sure to mightily upset the brand guardians at Lincoln and Mercury (if indeed there are any…), the campaign gives a blow-by-blow account of how the butch sedan bests the behemoth from Japan, along with the Audi A6, Infiniti M45X and Acura RL, while being up to three times cheaper.

The Detroit News quotes Jim Hall, an analyst at 2953 Analytics LLP as saying the approach is “smart and necessary”. “None of the cars in its segment have these features… when people think of your car as more upscale than it is, it’s only going to help you when they see the price.”

Indeed! Why bother with less well equipped Mercury or an overpriced Lincoln?

The words home and goal are coming to mind right now…

[Source: The Detroit News via Autoblog]

Lincoln to hit Weight Watchers. Unsurprisingly, Mercury dragged along for the ride.

Fat_C_Concept

Automotive News (sub reqd.) is reporting that Lincoln and Mercury are looking to rationalise their product range by downsizing existing products and exploring new market segments. Although hardly surprising in the context of an industry-wide trend for downsizing, it is interesting that Ford is applying this strategy to it’s steadfastly large-car near-premium and premium brands.

Lincoln’s intentions were made clear with the delightfully characterful, Focus-based C Conept at January’s Detroit show and AN reports that the next MKS saloon and a small crossover will be moving to the Mondeo and Kuga platforms respectively. So far, so rational and so on trend even if the C Concept making production is “far from definite” according to Amy Wilson, author of the article.

Based on Amy’s intel though, it seems that Mercury will be… doing exactly the same thing! The other Merc will produce a four-door sedan based on the Focus, the Milan will move to the Mondeo platform and the Mariner will share its guts with the Kuga/Lincoln twins. Awesome.

For as long as I can remember, Mercury has struggled to find it’s place in the Ford Portfolio. Positioned as an entry-level premium brand to slot between work-a-day Ford and the once-glorious Lincoln, Merc has suffered the worst evils of badge-engineering, mis-directed marketing (the Milan Voga, aimed at Hispanic women being my fave) and being sandwiched between brands that gave it no room to breath. Surely the introduction of the new Ford Taurus, with it’s premium aspirations, will only cloud things further.

One could quite easily draw the conclusion that Mercury has no reason to live, given that the plans outlined simply call for still more badge-engineering. Indeed, the number of times that talk of Merc’s demise has emanated from Ford HQ tends to suggest that thoughts of Mercuricide have crossed the minds of Dearborn’s strategists more than once. Yet I can’t help feeling that the brand could still be put to some good.

Ford has developed some industry-leading ICE, hybrid and electric technologies and possesses studios of talented designers champing at the bit for a genuine challenge. Could Mercury, as it’s name suggests, become Ford’s messenger from the gods, bringing with it tales of a glorious, sustainable future? Why not allow Mercury to be the harbinger of Ford’s drive-train technologies and sustainability strategies in urban-appropriate packages?

This kind of test-bed automotive brand focused on urban vehicles isn’t entirely without precedent. Autobianchi fulfilled the same role for Fiat Group from ’55 to ’95 and presaged many innovations that later found their way into mainstream Fiat and Lancia products. You may scoff, wondering what place anonymous Mercury has becoming an expression of new urban cool, but let’s face it, what have they got to lose? Certainly not brand appeal. In the 2009 J.D. Power APEAL survey, Mercury sat comfortably in the bottom 10, along with Chrysler, Hyundai, Saab and Suzuki.

Given all the discussions I’ve had with @joesimpson and @charmermark about Ford’s future direction and encouraging a radical shift towards new models of personal mobility, Mercury’s reinvention as a sustainability-focused brand is scenario that I’d like to explore further. So over to you, dear reader. What do you think?

[Source: Automotive News (sub reqd.)]

A beer in the sun and the future of the industry. A perfect combo, no?

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Ah, the perils of a pub on the Thames, a pint and a video camera!

Last Friday I had the good fortune to, finally meet with the other half of the Movement Design Bureau, Mark Charmer.

With Joe Simpson and I in tow, he lead us to the most magical London pub I’d ever encountered, the Angel at Rotherhithe (somewhere near Bermondsey if you’re keen).

Ostensibly a social gathering, the ever scheming Mark had the sense to bring along a video camera to catch unsuspecting design strategists mid-pint, mid-cigarette and mid-flight setting the problems of the automotive world to rights.

Head over to the Movement Design Bureau to see Joe and I talking about the long term prospects for automotive industry and how I feel that, despite the massive strides made in HMI and connectivity in the last few years, I still don’t think that we’ve successfully grasped the aesthetic and social potential of the digital age.

[Photo: Mark Charmer]

Update: Sue Cischke, meet Drew Smith. And Dan and Amy and Robb too!

Now with a 10 minute highlights reel of the original 40 minute interview

Last week I was offered the enormous privilege of taking part in a project being run by Joe Simpson and Mark Charmer of the Movement Design Bureau. They’ve been tasked with looking at the perception of Ford’s sustainability message, from top to bottom and inside out. Having watched the project develop over the last few months, I leapt at the chance to be involved.

I was asked to review Joe and Mark’s interview with Sue Cischke, Ford’s group Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering and provide my observations based on what I heard. Given Sue’s long and illustrious history in the industry, it wasn’t a task I took lightly. My take on things now been published for the world (and Ford) to read and I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction.

It wasn’t all about me, however, and I commend you to read the fantastic contributions from Dan Stuges, of Intrago, and Amy Johannigman and Robb Hunter from the University of Cincinnati’s storied Department of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning.

One of the really exciting aspects of  this project is that 4 people have come together and drawn three different, but highly related (and, in my view, relevant) conclusions from Joe and Mark’s interview with Sue.

Although small in scale, the process amply demonstrates the power of the internet to enable collaboration and connection between geographically dispersed stake-holders, something that Clay Shirky talked about to great effect in his 2005 presentation at TED.

Head over to Re*Move to see the other critiques, plus a whole lot more on the Ford project.

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.