I received a number of emails after last week’s article, The Ballistics of Design, asking for specific cases and a bit more guidance. Fair enough.
Case in Point
When Toyota debuted its new hybrid Prius at the Kyoto Conference on global warming in December 1997, Detroit was astonished. The Prius was far beyond concept and production-ready—it was “line off,” meaning in production, over a half decade before Detroit would put a hybrid on the street.
While Toyota had picked up on the growing environmental awareness following the oil crises in the 1980s and had in 1990 publicly committed to developing alternative fuel vehicles, Detroit was enjoying the success of SUVs and pickups in the late 1990s, which made them profit-blind to other market shifts developing with longer lead times. Executives collectively said that consumers prefer larger trucks, which are heavier and less fuel-efficient, and that there was no business case for hybrids. They failed to understand the market fully, because they couldn’t see the broader context. Or, they were trying to outsmart potentially stricter efficiency standards. Either way, they were, in effect, solving yesterday’s problems with today’s solutions.
Detroit is still playing catchup, solving today’s problems with today’s solutions. Toyota, meanwhile, is pursuing the ultimate eco-friendly car, having already developed fuel cell vehicles. In other words, they are solving today's problems with tomorrow's solutions—innovating. (Visit the Toyota Environment site to find out more.)
I asked car designer Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s CALTY Design Research, to weigh in. CALTY (California+Toyota) is one of Toyota’s most influential design centers. CALTY is involved in nearly all of Toyota’s major vehicle design programs. According to Kevin, Toyota wants constant movement forward, and design plays an enormous role in that effort. He has a few rules for the road warriors in his company that have now become mantra.
Rule #1: Balance Today and Tomorrow.
“People can’t tell you what they want in the future,” says Kevin. “But they know what they want now. You have to balance creativity with market acceptability. You have to push the envelope and be progressive, but you can’t get too far out there, because customers won’t understand. Your design has to evoke something familiar or emotional while at the same time offering something new and unfamiliar.”
He adds, “You have to avoid a strict design bias and remember who you’re designing for. You can’t be selfish, you must focus outward, and on the problem you’re trying to solve for customers.”
Rule #2: Keep it Real and Resonant.
Kevin will tell you that “there’s a sense of urgency to make design count, to resonate with the buyer.” He believes you can never stand still. “The customer is always moving, changing, and if you’re not out there all the time trying to understand the functional and emotional needs of consumers, your design will simply fall flat.”
Rule #3: Blend Creativity and Competition.
“We take creative contribution very seriously,” Kevin notes. “It’s part of every performance review and looked at closely from an evaluation perspective. We work as team, but it’s always overlaid with intense competition for the winning ideas. For every design, we have a number of smaller teams in the hunt. To make creativity flow and give people the freedom to think, we’ve removed much of the layering that other organizations have. Hierarchy stifles innovation, and we need open and honest disagreement about every idea. Every idea counts!”
In fact, all of Toyota’s studios (there are several) compete against each other to win the business; in other words, complacency is minimized by treating internal design centers as arms-length vendor-partners.
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.