Friday, March 07, 2008

Seeing Life From a New Angle

Well, I'm not dead. I've been concentrating on my food blog. I think about cars a lot. I'm a man and I figure that this is genetic. One of the things that strikes me is the rut that automotive design is in. I'm not talking about concept designs, those are frequently amazingly inventive, but about actual production cars.

I actually hate concept cars for that very fact. The incredible ideas and designs almost never make it into production. No matter how avant-garde or on-the-edge a car company claims to be, the designs end up derivative. The production cars are always pale shadows of the wondrous concept cars. I also hate how there's this phenomenon is explained by company insiders as a result of fear, fear that a car will be ahead of its time. The examples they inevitably cite are the Cord 810 and Ford Edsel.

They talk as though the Edsel was ahead of its time. The Cord was too fancy-looking. The public just wasn't ready and highlight all these futuristic aspects of the cars to support their idea. Well, no. The Edsel failed because it was ugly, poorly built, and aside from the flying vagina on the front, was a thoroughly conventional car. The Cord would have been a success if not for some serious quality problems, poor funding and terrible dealer support.

No, they were not too tomorrow. In fact, I don't think there's such a thing. Actually, yes. I totally agree with myself. I declare that there is no such thing as "ahead of its time." I say that there are half-baked ideas that become prescient in retrospect, but they failed not because their time hadn't come. They failed because they were irreparably crappy in some important way.

I think the auto industry and industry in general is in desperate need of fresh eyes. People who look at a situation and come up with wildly divergent ideas about providing product to that situation. Imagine a family car with three wheels, the doors consist of the entire side of the car, two seats in front, one in back, and powered by electricity. Or imagine a car that starts life is something the size of a Mini Cooper, but allows for the purchase of modules that simply snap on to the base, extending utility.

And while I say that automobiles triggered this thought line, I mean to extend this to ALL areas of design and life. This is innovation in its purest sense. Apple did a good job of this with the iPhone, but they didn't take it nearly far enough. They completely rethought the cell phone and made their eventual product purely Apple. The iPhone is also a fabulous example of innovation because it was a monstrous success because, surprise, the company actually thought it out and backed it fully! My god! What a novel concept! If it had failed, people would have undoubtedly called it ahead of its time.

This is a cry out to major corporations, not the microscopic, poorly funded ones full of edgy designers fresh from RISD or IT. The little guys are great thinkers but they suck balls at doing business. That's why none of them are successful. Edison had it 100% right. You take your profits and plow them all back into making more inventions. You innovate and you never stop innovating. His electric light was certainly ahead of its time, but he knew business first and invention second. If you make something, figure out how to sell it. If you can't sell it, you're doing something wrong.

What the hell happened to that spirit? We have wide-eyed innovators who couldn't sell fire to Eskimos because the block-headed businessmen are too busy selling them ice cubes. We are in desperate need of a complete re-thinking of our design and engineering in pick a subject. Personal computers need it, rather badly I might add. Housing and architecture is in such desperate need of it the world is now aware of it.

The businesses that develop these technologies get into such ruts that, whether they mean to or not, they never seem to get out. They become locked into a particular rule set that forces them to continue making a product according to what has come before instead of injecting re-thinks into the equation. We're limited by what we can reasonably do, for sure, but even if we dance dangerously close to the limit of practicality, what results can be a reasonable success, foment future innovation, and build strength; e.g. the original Macintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the self-parking Lexus. When innovation is applied to brutal practicality, the result can be so simple it's a wonder that it isn't applied to everything, such as the environmental advances done in the Bank of American tower in New York.

For an object that was not ahead of its time, just stupid, I look to the Segway Human Transport Device. This two wheeled badge of geekiness has been an utter failure. It was hyped to the point of pain and ended up being a complete and total let-down. It's not because Dean Kamen was living in the future, it's because he has a great idea that he just can't package correctly to make it important. It's interesting that two great salesmen, not engineers, were the ones to rip the Segway a new one well before its release: Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.

To move the world forward, we need a massive meeting of salesmen, to figure out what to make, engineers to figure out how to make it, and designers to package it in a way that truly impresses. If we could do this once a year, technological advance would probably accelerate.

1 comment:

Steph said...

I really like this post. There is so much to be said for thinking outside the box and arriving at a complete paradigm shift.
Too few people are able to, and often the ones who can do not have the expertise to carry out the concepts. What's really key is a collaboration of minds.