By J.D. Booth
March 21, 2013
It was a statement heard by an industry insider at an auto show-”there are no bad cars.”
And it was what began a conversation with Chris Svensson, director of exterior design for the Americas at Ford Motor Co., the intent being to explore how good design is more than window dressing for modern products, but a key enabler that is a solid business proposition.
In other words, how good design means good business.
But Svensson, a native of Britain who’s spent the last few years with Ford in various design positions around the world-now in Dearborn, Mich.-balked at the “no bad cars” premise.
“In fact there are still bad cars out there,” says Svensson, while for obvious reasons refusing to name names. “For some manufacturers, design can be a tool to distract from poor quality and functionality.”
And that’s when Svensson began explaining how good design means far more than simply looking good-and by extension becoming an integral part of what makes a product (like a modern automobile for example) greater than the sum of its parts.
“We use design as a tool to build on the attributes of wonderful innovation and technology,” says Svensson. “It’s really the cherry on top of the cake to some extent.”
Even then, that may be just scratching the surface. And when, just under the surface, there’s a lack of substance to line up with customers’ expectations, there lies the disappointment.
When done correctly, the use of good design in a product (such as an automobile or truck) will build on the functionality that’s already there. Done poorly, it will ultimately disappoint.
In the end, customers of things like the vehicles they choose to park in their driveways won’t be fooled.
Here Svensson talks about Ford’s new Taurus, a reincarnation of the iconic vehicle of the same name that he says when it launched in 1985, “changed the mood of what customers were getting at the time.”
Marketer and author Seth Godin, who is notable in business circles for his fastidious attention to customer-centric principles such as permission marketing, agrees with the idea that good design “isn’t prettiness.”
But good design is more than that; one being that it tells a story. “It’s a story about who you believe you are and what you are going to bring to someone,” notes Godin.
He offers one example: walking into a doctor’s office.
“In rural India, it’s going to be much different than it is in mid-Manhattan. The doctor might be just as good, but we make decisions based on design and layout.”
And here Godin’s words seem to echo, at least in part what Ford’s Svensson is talking about in how design goes deeper than, in the case of a vehicle, the exterior shape and feel.
“How something works is the second thing about design,” says Godin. “For example, if the design of the airline website makes it difficult to get frequent flyer miles, I pick a different airline next time.”
Tony Driscoll, who for the last two years has worked as a principal at Continuum, a global design consultancy, and prior to that spent a decade designing theme parks for Walt Disney, is another proponent of the “good design/good business” mantra.
“When design is done well, it just makes sense,” says Driscoll.
Yet the power of good design, especially in a business context, goes beyond products and services.
“It’s understanding and meeting unmet needs in the marketplace,” he notes. “It’s where business puts itself in the customer’s shoes, trying to understand what they value in the world and what they want to have in a relationship with that brand.”
And that understanding, says Driscoll, comes from actually having conversations with a customer before design ideas even begin percolating in the mind of those who will create the look, feel and functionality of a product or service.
Take retail banking as an example.
Driscoll makes the point that those who live and breathe the business sometimes get caught up in the premise that every solution has to include the physical bricks and mortar branch.
In reality, good design “is independently solving those problems,” focusing on complementary touch points where customers can see the benefits, regardless of the location of the traditional bank branch.
The success of one company seems to have reduced the tension for designers like those at Continuum, that company being Apple, whose near meteoric rise includes a very obvious and near obsessive focus on design.
“Almost every client we talk to makes some reference to Apple,” says Driscoll. “They want some of that design thinking, although they’re framing it in ways that make sense for their company. “
But that’s just a starting point. Or maybe not even.
“When it comes to the artistic version of what design is, we go deeper,” adds Driscoll. “There are problems that need to be solved and generally it’s a balance between being design driven and a focus on what drives the business. The magic is blending those two worlds.”
In the world of designing good looking and good functioning cars and trucks, Ford’s Svensson uses the story of the original Taurus and what happened over the years to the brand and how Ford brought back “the visual excitement” that the vehicle first brought to the marketplace.
“I think what happened over time is that too much functionality came into the design,” says Svensson, referring to the first remake of the Taurus that didn’t always resound with customers.
“With the current vehicle, we’ve combined a great package with great functionality.”
Again, the “good design/good business” goal is about being able to make sure it’s the entire package that’s impacted by those visual cues.
In the case of the Taurus, Svensson says that first impression includes the idea that the customer is going to receive “more than they expect.”
Sales of the redesigned Taurus would seem to validate that: some 160,000 vehicles were sold in the U.S. by the end of February, up from the 50,000 of the previous model in the same period.
That design thinking, Svensson would argue, can be seen throughout the automaker’s offerings, and not just in the U.S.
“While each of our vehicles is tailored to the unique markets we’re in, there’s also a brand DNA that permeates through our products, wherever they’re sold,” he says. “You come to understand that when you look at a Ford product from a 20-foot distance.”
Svensson makes a somewhat tangential reference to Apple and the influence it brings to the design community through the reach of its customers.
“With brands like Apple and its products, the tenuous links might be finishing, materials, and other cues that we understand as a design team.”
But at the heart of the process of getting design to the point where it’s at all meaningful in the marketplace, engaging in good, solid conversations with customers are what Svensson calls his “first port of call.”
“They have insights that indicate directionally where you want to go with a car. We have a very good process of interacting with customers, getting a grip on what they want and desire. That’s absolutely necessary when you’re making and delivering good products that are hitting at the heart of what people want.”
Tony Driscoll of Continuum agrees in the importance of getting in the customer’s shoes, although he adds that when it comes to incorporating good design into a good business proposition, the “rich and fertile ground” is on the service side.
“It’s about taking a high level idea and going into the field, putting it in context and trying to understand what customers value in the world. Aspirationally, with what kind of brands do they want to have relationships?”
Good design, adds Seth Godin, is something that will continue to dominate the world of commerce.
“Everyone has a website and anyone can put a product on Amazon. And we’re spoiled because good design is more obvious in our lives. You walk into a building done by an architect that understands design and it spoils you because the next three doors down just don’t feel right.”
And you’ll do something about it.
“You’ll be judged or you’ll be ignored,” says Godin. “And if you’re going to be judged, you’ll be judged at some point on your design.”