Designing Difference in a World of Sameness

November 26, 2012

My notes from a fascinating talk given by Chris Bangle and hosted by Stanford REVS.

German word for entrepreneur translates to "you yourself continuously".

At his design firm, they try to look at everything in a new way. As an example, their ping pong table is a pentagon divided into five sections with room for five players at once.

Art engages you and changes your viewpoint. Don't look, see. They put a bench in a vineyard near the design studio as an experiment to change people's views.

Design is three parts: Why, How, and What.
Why = culture, motivation
How = process
What = only the proof of the above two. Not as important.

Car design so far has been done by guys who want to make them feel like go-karts. And, amazingly, they have made 3,000 pound cars feel like go-karts. But what happens when the why changes? (Tesla as an example).

Design tradition is about PERFECT surfaces.
While at BMW, he considered "Gina" - taking the clothes off a woman to put them on a chassis and create a car. Instead of a functional cloth car (has been done before), what about an emotional cloth car? Emotion not for what's under the hood, but for what's covering it?
This brings us to: what do PERFECT surfaces have to do with beauty? Some examples from the art and architecture worlds where an avant garde movement smashed the preconceptions of perfect beauty and replaced it with highly imperfect but highly beautiful objects. Turning surface into structure.

Mythbusters had a really amazing experiment where it asked what would happen if you took golf ball logic (the dimples make it go further) and applied it to cars. They formed dimples in clay on a car's body and found it created 11% fuel savings - extrapolated across the current desire to save on fuel efficiency, this would be staggeringly more cost effective than all current efforts being made to comply with regulations. But nobody is ambitious enough to try it! If form follows function, why can't we turn an ugly golf ball car into something beautiful and preserve its valuable function? Cars may not need perfect surfaces.

Example of a design colleague who applied this theory in designing a GT40 where a view from above made it look as though the car were in profile view in front of the Alps.

Weird but interesting analogy to the chicken and egg problem - if you really think about it, at some point you need a forcing function to allow for a chicken-laying egg. Yes - an egg which lays a chicken. The point here is that break points in history occur when someone says god damn it I'm making this happen now despite the fact it is physically impossible and despite all the naysayers, I'll find a way. Pushes through a constructed barrier. That's the right egg which will "lay its own chicken".

His collaborative project with MIT, the "Pink" sensor project - what if you put sensors on EVERYTHING and then the readings from these sensors caused things to change by themselves. This is similar to the "internet of things" movement where objects become automated machines through internet and software technology - the machine just knows what to do in concert with your behavior. Back to the project, what if a car had "physicality on demand"? You could drive somewhere and put it in your backpack instead of parking on the street and worrying about someone clipping your side mirror.

Another collaborative project for Singapore's government - what will the world be like in 2050. How do we want our cars to augment our lives in the future? The original cupholder was a butler.

What is a car? Three parts: Mobility, Environment, and Avatar.

(1) Mobility = get you around, take you from point A to B.

(2) Environment = enclosed in space. The interior. The above two, when taken together, create an Auto-mobile, a self-moving device. But that's not a car. An Automobile can be an elevator, a people mover, or a taxi. All it does is get you somewhere within an enclosed space.

(3) Avatar = the "car-ness" of something. This car projects ME to the world. My car is a representation of me. That's why I will take time to WASH my car - why bother doing so to an Automobile?

Chris challenged the audience to take apart the three elements of a car. A great early example is the SLK convertible (Z4 for BMW example) - pressing a button and seeing the form shift from coupe to convertible. It takes great engineering and design precision to make this happen so seamlessly. To get to revolutionary new cars, we need to think about ideas like this about how to radically change what we've come to expect from cars in their main three parts.

Concluded his prepared talk with a FANTASTIC quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: "A mind, once expanded to fit a new idea, never returns to its original shape."

His thoughts on VC Marc Andreessen's WSJ opinion piece thesis that software is eating the world... impact on cars? Sure. Gesture is the new surface.

BMW experience? Management asks, ok what happens if I buy into this (your idea), what does that mean five, 10, 15 years down the line? Very top-down decision-making team that doesn't retreat after making a big decision. Also had the interesting experience of being asked about his successor within his first week! They had gone two years between chief designers and wanted to have one lined up I guess. Key to his success there was in an honest way, convincing people that what you're doing is in their best interest.

Anecdote about his design school colleague who had been a car designer for Pontiac/GM for ten years before becoming (of all things) a BANKER for ten years and then returning to school. Chris asked him why a BANKER of all things when his career was going so well at GM? Because his generation really believed they could make flying cars. And that vision died. Thus, the lost generation of 1970s car designers who had seen their dreams die.

Last thing - a new challenge.
Italian saying: "The fox is pretty because it has a pretty tail."

Relevant book = On Typography

All designers have the view that what they do is PERFECT and everything after is measured in wrongness. This dehumanization of all non-designers is destructive.

CHALLENGE = make it so that everyone (designers, marketing, engineering, finance, etc.) is a valuable contributor to the creative process. Seems simple but is very challenging (and surely rewarding!)