Sustainability Scapegoats: Industrial Designers?


There’s an opinion piece over on BusinessWeek penned by Geoff Vuleta that got my attention a few days back. In “One Vision for the Future of Chrysler” (Link), Vuleta discusses how embracing sustainability initiatives could be good for Chrysler. So far so good. It’s easy to buy into cost-reducing initiatives that also happen to promote sustainability, and eliminating (or, at least, thoroughly scrutinizing) the painting processes in vehicle manufacturing is something worth investigating (after all, most designers love bare metal aesthetics; Nick Pugh for example). But what galled me was this comment:

Now the old-school guys down in design will squawk and say: “But people love shiny red metal!”

Excuse me?

Let’s be clear: I’ve never heard a designer argue for fewer options in their aesthetic palette, and that is what Vuleta is suggesting here. I happen to know some “old-school guys” in the automotive sector, and the only reason they’d say something like that would be to prevent someone in marketing from trying “shiny jaundice metal”.

Furthermore, it makes no sense for a designer to “squawk” over this issue. But you know who will:

a) Engineering – the bulk of any manufacturing change is going to fall on these guys, so if they don’t have the time or manpower or leadership you can expect them to be the first to say “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. And I wouldn’t blame them.

b) Marketing – for all the talk of innovation, some research shows that the marketing community is loathe to test uncharted waters; and a clear coated (which is still “paint”, btw) aluminum car is, from their perspective, dangerously uncharted waters.

c) Sales – if you think Marketing is going to get cold feet, just watch the blood drain from the faces of the sales force when you tell them there won’t be any “shiny red metal” to show off. Having been overruled by salespeople with no color sense, I’m well aware of their sensitivity to change.

d) Finance and Accounting – these guys may not have a direct stake, but they certainly have an indirect stake. Change the process and you change suppliers. They’ll have plenty of work to do as a result.

e) IT – someone is going to have to ensure systems are compatible between the company and all those new suppliers.

f) Advertising – advertising? Okay, probably not. They’re too busy reading the bad news on Ad Age and slugging down martinis.

Now what will the design group have to do? Explore new aesthetics… exactly the sort of thing Industrial Designers love doing.

Someone needs to remind Vuleta that the middle-of-the-road approach to which he refers wasn’t driven by Industrial Designers; it was pushed on them by people who wanted to play things as safe as possible for all the reasons noted above. So while I like the idea of doing away with paint because investigating other options during this time of materials innovation does make some sense, let’s make sure that the questions he poses:

Where’s the color? The unexpected use of materials and textures? The surprise? The aromatherapy? The paisley?

are directed at the people who truly have the final say. And most of the time it ain’t the Designers.

As for advice like:

And design the whole thing from the inside out

let’s not forget that this has already been done, and well-publicized efforts were led by at least one senior automotive designer, Jerry Hirshberg of Nissan Design International. While some of those efforts made it to production, the general push to “design from the inside out” never gained traction in the automotive industry (to my knowledge, at least). And while I don’t know, I suspect studio designers didn’t really make the final call on that either. How many marketers in the automotive industry really wanted their design team pursuing egg-inspired vehicles like the Nissan Gobi? or the first generation Nissan Altima?

For the record, most Industrial Designers are – and always have been – interested in sustainability, so let’s not try to turn the group least vested in how things are done today into scapegoats. We all know where the real responsibility lies. And if companies honestly want to start manufacturing sustainable products, then start taking responsibility for what’s come before and allow Industrial Designers to contribute to what is yet to come.

{Image Copyright © Nick Pugh, Inc; photo by Steven Heller}

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4 thoughts on “Sustainability Scapegoats: Industrial Designers?

  1. “…questions… …are directed at the people who truly have the final say. And most of the time it ain’t the Designers.”

    Who usually makes the call in the real world?

  2. That depends. In the example mentioned above, it was an influential SVP of Sales who only wanted primary colors on the company product. This person negated my recommendations; effectively demanding that R&D/Marketing (of which ID was a part) do as they were being told: use primaries.

    So they took the primary color scheme I’d developed for the low-end product line and stuck it on the new high-end product line I’d done as well… which of course had a more sophisticated color palette to match those products.

    The result was a mess and looked terrible at retail. I suspect the product sold poorly, bc not long after I was contacted by the SVP of Marketing to fix their color problems… and I declined, telling him they had the colors, they just had to go around Sales.

    Apparently that’s what they did. I eventually saw the products with my color recommendations (though of course, those colors were, by that time, no longer on trend).

    I’ve had similar experiences with Engineering and Marketing. Basically, it’s most often the senior executives (or pushiest mid-level managers) who make the final call. If they don’t like something – for whatever reason – they’ll shut it down. Sometimes regardless of where it is in the development pipeline… with obvious repercussions.

    One friend of mine once had his design over-ridden by the CEO himself because the design “looked too Mexican”! That CEO was Wolf Schmitt, the person some people consider responsible for the death of Rubbermaid.

    Perhaps if he’d spent less time offering up his design opinions and more time running the company, Rubbermaid wouldn’t have gone on the auction block.

    On another product (the first in company history to be slated for television advertising), I’d spent a couple of weeks working on ergonomics when the Marketing Director decided the ergonomics didn’t matter as much as the product looking like something he thought was important. My design manager and another designer went ballistic but I simply said “Fine”.

    We generated two concept models based on his new direction and presented them to senior management… and they freaked. I expected they would and after that we were left to design the product as we saw fit. Unfortunately, that Director’s interference cost us two weeks and gave us only one week to get back on track, generate a final concept model and deliver toolable CAD to the OEM. Working basically non-stop for 3-4 days we got the new (and by default final) design to a shop, model spit out in two days, and files sent to the OEM by the deadline. That product went on to sell well beyond expectations. Well beyond.

    And that Marketing Director? He’s taking plenty of credit for the product design. I know. I saw his LinkedIn profile.

  3. “Basically, it’s most often the senior executives (or pushiest mid-level managers) who make the final call.”

    Well, that certainly explains all of the craptastic products on the shelves.

    Thanks for the insight, Sven. Sounds like you’ve seen it all. I feel a bit lucky to be shielded from that madness. Though I have similar silliness in my position, at least it’s always from the same place and it’s somewhat predictable. There’s some comfort in predictability I guess.

  4. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is probably par for the course. Just comes with the ID profession… for now.

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