Mad(men) About Design

"Look at their products. They love design" said Don Draper to Roger Sterling on last Sunday's airing of Mad Men. In this scene, the creative executive, Draper, was grilling the founding partner of SterlingCooperDraperPrice for his racist behavior toward their potential new client, Honda.

And this sums up why I cannot miss a single episode of this great TV show. A show whose base is a creative industry got me hooked in the first season. Don Draper, the all-American anti-hero is the show's anchor. Not withstanding his dark side, he represents what many designers aspire to be: a creative genius with a passion for his craft. There's that one memorable scene in Season 1 when he chastises a more conservative client for being a non-believer in the more risky and challenging work that the firm could produce for them. How many times have we wanted to say that during our less-successful client-designer relationships? And yes, I must admit, that Mr. Draper's pitching performances are mythical boardroom heroics that we dream of executing oneday.

Draper's creative muscle and references to industrial design aside, you've got to love their set design. How could any design professional not watch a show that has Castiglioni's Arco floor lamp as a prop? In fact, the whole SCDP office could be a template for cool interior design.

I imagine many people watch Mad Men out of nostalgia for the 1960s. And I guess I too must be counted among them. The 60s was a fantastic era for car design. But more importantly, it was a time when off-shoring of manufacturing didn't occur. The Kodak Carousel which appeared in a famous episode during Season 1 was actually made a few hours drive from SterlingCooper's Madison Avenue office.

While some argue that Mad Men is indeed a reflection of the fact that in some areas, we've still haven't progressed that much beyond the 1960s, it must be said we industrial designers rejoice when we too can boast "Look at their products. They love design." Because sadly in 2010, there are still companies out there that don't get it.


Tandem newspaper helps design

This week I have the honour of appearing on the cover of Tandem newspaper. It's not the first time the Toronto publication has featured my design work and this isn't the reason for writing this entry.

The fact they have published my work a few times is not important because it's my work. It's important because they feature design week after week and have been doing so since the 1990s. While other newspapers feature design periodically, Tandem has a steady design column. This dedication to the field shows a true commitment to design culture and this level of exposure does wonders for bringing its message to a larger audience.

The first line of the article is a quote from me: “I’ve always said everybody loves design – they just don’t know it."

Why do people not know it? Because they never get to see it. Society needs more newpapers like Tandem who can provide interesting commentary on design and on how design fits into everyday life.

Mark Curtis has written all but one of the articles featuring my work over the years. I always look forward to meeting up with Mark at the various Toronto design events throughout the year. His passion for design and his skills at communicating the different aspects of our work are a real asset to Tandem. It was a great pleasure to answer Mark's insightful questions over an iced latte at Dark Horse for the article. He always links design to people and this is so critical in bringing the benefits of design to society.

Thank you Mark and Tandem for the priviledge of appearing in your excellent publication and thank you even more for your continuing support and exposure of design.


Rome Design Pilgrimage

So you’ve just got off a flight from Paris, before which you’ve traversed the Altantic in a 747. You’re exhausted and hungry but in Rome and you have a few hours to take part in a design pilgrimage. So where to? The Colloseum, the Forum, maybe gaze at some Bernini sculpture? Hmmm, maybe not.

Instead we decided to look at Roman architecture through a slightly more recent perspective and headed for the Maxxi. This is Rome’s latest art gallery. The acronym stands for Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (National Museum of 21th Century Art).

A pilgrimage is supposed to be grueling on the pilgrims. This was no exception. One must suffer for good design. After a quick lunch of delicious foccaccia and pizza on a busy street in Trastevere under a solid rain shower, we attempted to navigate Rome’s transit system and find our way to the museum. Armed with our plasticized (laminated) map bought at the edicola (newsstand) we began boarding trams and buses, usually the wrong ones. After enduring what became known as the Termini crush (the Termini rail station’s metro stop is currently under renovation and commuters are hoarded through a narrow tunnel not designed to handle this many people) we were only one bus ride away from Zaha Hadid’s new art gallery.

We took the right bus this time but in the wrong direction and had to go to its terminus and wait in the cold for the bus to turn around and head the right way. Stop after stop more and more people piled into the vehicle and at one point a Roman gentlemen’s derrier was basically on my lap. But we endevoured on. Finally, after a journey that began almost two hours earlier, we were nearly there.

Of course as we walked the final leg, the rain kept coming down and as the air got damper and colder, we became wetter and more fatigued. When would this martyrdom end? After a few blocks through a non-descript north-Roman neighbourhood, we sighted the sign for the Maxxi. Through a concrete wall and there in idyllic quiet of a Roman suburb we had our reward. It was indeed design paradise. The smooth grey concrete blended beautifully with its surroundings and it seemed that this building, opened only a few months prior, had been there forever. Its modern oblique prisms and curves though different in design to its architectural neighbours, were a thoughtful and subtle contrast.

Inside, Zaha’s flowing superhighways of form were omnipresent. Stairways snaked and gleamed in the vast concrete foyer. The shapes were magnificent and the illuminated undertrays of the stairscases filled the hall with perfectly diffused light. Here and there the grayness was interrupted by long red columns hung in the airspace at various angles with magenta coloured light spewing out from the ends.

We stood there in awe and knowing that the arduous journey was totally worth it.

All photographs: Davide Tonizzo


Spicy Design

Celebrity designers have been creeping further and further into my turf over the last several years, dismantling the integrity of real designers one fake fashion collection or product at a time. But now they've gone too far.

I was never rattled when the likes of pop-starlettes like J Lo and Gwen Stefani begun putting out clothing lines. I'm not a fashion designer so I didn't really feel threathened. Then Cindy Crawford starting designing furniture and I became a bit nervous. When Diddy put out a line a car wheels, I really started to shake. But now, I really think it's time to get extremely worried. Victoria Beckham has been appointed Chief Design Executive for Range Rover.

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone with no design degree or car design experience would prance into an historically rich company like Range Rover and become a member of the decision makers. But hey, she's a celeb. Stars can do anything. The people who have sacrificied years to learn the trade of car design and worked endless hours on prototypes and production cars have got nothing on ex-put-together pop-stars. A-listers don't need training or talent just an invitation to walk in and look pretty.

It truly saddens me that a company as venerable as Range Rover has chosen to devalue its talented design staff by giving the ex-Spice Girl a title with the word "design" in it. I have no ill-feeling towards Ms. Beckham or any celebrity and I put more blame on the company's executive board than on the starlette. What message does that send to their styling studio and to the design community? We need gossip column cuties to spice up (pardon the pun) our products rather than managerial design vision and innovation?

Let's hope Posh's design career is an exception lest we want Mel B sketching up Lamborghinis.


I'm Unimpressed with UnEmotional

The following blog is a letter sent to the Globe and Mail late last week following my reading of their article on Industrial Design and Toronto's new "state of the art" streetcars.

I applaud the Globe and Mail for featuring Industrial Design prominently in Friday’s business section. However, I’d like to point out a slight oversight. Industrial design involves the creation of products. Vehicles are designed by Transportation Designers. While the two disciplines cohabitate liberally there is one overriding difference: Vehicles must have emotion. Ask any car designer in any company in any country in the world, and he or she will speak about the “styling theme”, the “flow” the “character”, the DNA of the product.

Yes, good design must encompass functionality on all levels including sustainability. However, without emotion, these object become appliances. The 2013 TTC Streetcars are a good example. The design though professionally executed and competent is devoid any real character. I firmly believe Toronto needed a more daring design, something to celebrate our city’s great diversity. We are a population of vibrant cultures not robots. As well, many of the “innovations” listed in the article have been used on trams for many years. The City, as paying client, could have demanded more gusto from Bombardier’s designers. After all, this was a very large contract.

Some of the example listed in the piece are not beacons of car design either. Toyota is hardly considered a styling leader and spacecraft are honed by aerodynamicists. The innovations wrought in some of the examples came more from the braintrusts of engineering teams rather than the emotions and passions of vehicle designers.


Belgrade 1 Toronto 0

Canada can usually claim wins in ice hockey but when it comes to design most countries put us to shame. Okay let me clarify this. Yes we have talented designers and do have a “few” decent companies producing quality products but once again a country has come out of the blue and beaten us to the punch. And the punch here is a biggie, DesignWeek in Milan.

For those of you unfamiliar with this event, it a weeklong lovefest of design that completely envelopes the Northern Italian city. For this year’s edition, Belgrade has sent a delegation of young Serbian designers to promote their talents during the year’s greatest design show. I am happy for them as I am for any city or country that invests and promotes their creative individuals. However, I am deeply saddened that our country and our city never show up to these events in a meaningful way. Yes, there have been token events and the odd lecture. I had the pleasure of giving one at the Triennale museum in 2004. But for the most part it is other cities that send their hopefuls forward.

Why is this important? Well, for starters the Italian furniture sector is the largest industry that invests in innovative and new furniture pieces. If you’re going to promote your radical new idea, this is the place. Also, exporting design talent to Italy will do wonders for a design career and bring prosperity to our city.

It never ceases to baffle me that for all this talk about Toronto as a design centre with more designers per capita than any other North American city, we never promote our talent. Ironically, Toronto and Milano are twin cities. Why? There couldn’t be a more mis-matched marriage outside of Hollywood’s celeb debacles. Toronto is completely off the world’s it-city radar when it comes to design.

Governments at all levels must do more to promote our designers at world events and give Toronto’s talented designers the recognition they deserve.


Start It Up

Maybe Mick Jagger and the boys had it right in the 80s when they asked us to “Start Me Up”. As economies around the world search for the booster cables to electrify an upswing in job creation, they might well take these lyrics to heart.

Thomas Friedman wrote an excellent editorial in last weekend’s New York Times. In it, he discusses how the powers at be might have been wiser to shed monies to startups rather than trying to bail out the ailing dinosaurs of the old economy. Mr. Friedman claims that the quality jobs of the future will come from the new, bolder, more innovative and creative companies that are being wrought at this very instant.

While Canada has wheathered the recession well in comparison to its counterparts, we cannot rest on these laurels but must continue to find and support the new enterprises that will take us into the 21st century and create the jobs that will sustain our economy. It is quite disturbing that Dalton McQuinty allowed Samsung to be our wind turbine provider instead of looking to build a new Made in Canada solution.

Also, where are the Canadian companies in the new transportation economy? Everywhere in the world new and smaller companies are proposing zero-emission solutions to automobiles. Croatia recently showed a prototype for a new electric car called the Dok-Ing XD. Canada is quite a large country with an industrial base and yet we have not shown any even remotely encouraging prototypes in this new market sector.

There has always been a lack of visionary, risk-taking entrepreneurship in Canada and as a result the manufacturing sector has year by year shrunk, shedding an ever growing number of jobs. In its wake we are left with volumes of manufacturing capacity. Perhaps what is needed is a new breed of manager, leaders who see that by using innovation, creativity and design we can harness these old manufacturing facilities and start churning out the products of the future.

Canada needs to start some startups lest we end up finishing last at the finish line, if we even get there.


Canadian International Auto Show High-Low

As I didn’t manage to post a good auto show review from Detroit, I’d thought I’d head over to the Toronto Convention Centre to check out the rides at the Canadian International Auto Show. I should start off by saying that this event is really more of a local dealer show than a major car happening. Without a real automotive industry in this country I guess it’s all that we can expect. However, it does give Torontonians a chance to see the latest and upcoming hardware and even look at a few recent (as in 1 to 2 years old) prototype vehicles.

There were some standouts for me. The Infiniti Essense concept was superb. Its graceful shapes and unique bulging beltline stopped many visitors for a closer look. As well, the Lincoln Concept C was a great vision for an upscale small car. Its futuristic interior in white with polished aluminum accents was beautiful. On the other hand the much anticipated Honda CR-Z hybrid sportscar disappointed. Somehow, the body just doesn’t hang together well and I find the front overhang makes the car look heavy. The forms seem mismatched. There are organic bits mixed with tighter tense lines. The mashup doesn’t play very well.

Two vehicles though illustrate how to and how not to dream up cars. The Volkwagen Up Lite concept was my favourite vehicle in the show. This concept for an ultra-high mileage automobile is functional and also very sophisticated. The simple shape has aerodynamics in mind yet it doesn’t bore the viewer as many low air drag vehicles do. There is no homage to ugly anatomical aero-shapes. The lines are crisp and they interrupt the two box design in the right places. I love how they tapered the roofline for low drag not only in the side elevation but the plan view also.

From the sublime we travel to the ridiculous. When I mentioned in the first paragraph that Canada doesn’t have a real car industry I meant it. Tucked away in a corner of the show was some good ole CanCon. The Plethore is Canada’s Supercar that begs the question, why do we need a supercar? While car companies around the world are trying to reduce fuel consumption, this Quebec-based enterprise is trying to take on the Bugatti Veyron. This car was the opposite of the Up Lite not only in purpose but in looks. It truly is a plethora of design details. I see styling hints from Ferrari, McLaren and Peugeot and this mélange is not pretty. The front view looks like a cartoon villain saying “can I look meaner”. It’s really too bad that all this great engineering went into a fuel burner that few people can own rather than an intelligent transportation solution that this over-polluted planet is in dire need of.

Photo: VW Up Lite


Year of the Tiger

Happy Year of the Tiger. Chinese New Year was celebrated this past weekend. In honour of this day, I’d like to ask readers to ponder something. During the recent Climate Summit in Copenhagen, China was listed as a developing nation while Canada took its seat among the developed nations.

What is the barometer used to measure who is developed and who is developing? Actually, it might be more appropriate to use a stopwatch or a speedometer. China will have 42 high speed rail lines by 2012, that’s in two years my friends. Canada on the other hand has 0 right now and probably will have 0 in 2012. The bullet trains running right now can average speeds of 345 kmh (215 mph). The journey from the southern coastal manufacturing region of Guangzhou to Wuhan inland can be accomplished in just over three hours. That distance? 1064 kliometers or 664 miles.

Yes, I heard the debates before on this. But Canada doesn’t have the population or the money to support this...blah, blah, blah. There is enough traffic in Canada’s highly populated Windsor to Quebec City corridor to justify a high speed rail line. Think of the jobs that could be created and the emissions saved with a modern electric railway. Bombardier has the technology to build these and yet it’s the other countries that buy their spanking new train sets while we trudge along in ancient hardware.

So the argument is how can a country with nothing close to this achievement be given a place on the developed list? Alright, I know there is more to a country than high speed trains but China is riding a huge wave of diversified economic development. They are no longer the country that just fills Walmart’s shelves. They are pursuing great innovations in green technology by building solar panels and wind turbines. Yes Mr. McGuinty they foster their own companies to build these not farm out the work to Samsung. China erected one of the world’s great sport venues with the Bird's Nest during the Beijing Olympics having the vision to hold an international competition and draw in the world’s great architects. At the North American International Automobile Show, I looked over their BYD (Build Your Dream) cars. Not too shabby. And they are one of many car companies poised to enter the world market. They are not just capable of making things but completely competent in designing them. And they will get better and better at this…remember Japan anyone? Their great industry began by outsourcing design to Europeans but quickly developed their own amazing creative talent pool.

I would encourage Canadians to get out of neutral and join the fast train before the tiger’s tail disappears into the distance.


The Detroit Auto No-Show

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has always eluded me. Every year I ponder doing the three and a half hour drive to Detroit to take in one of the world’ largest car exhibitions. But as sure as the sky is blue I never go because of the unpredictable January weather. Until this year and alas, the auto show has eluded me again.

Here’s my adventure. Yes, I did make it to Detroit but did I see any of the many concept vehicles? Well, let’s just say that my losing streak continues. I ventured to Motown with two objectives. Firstly, business, to meet some of the startup companies in the Electric Avenue segment of the show. Finally, in the new era of the ecological revolution, the powers that be at NAIAS have decided to dedicate a sizable portion of the exhibition to low emission cars. Secondly, I went for leisure, to check out the latest concept cars and new production vehicles making their debut in Detroit.

As I shook the hand of the last prospective business contact I had made at Electric Avenue, an announcement on the PA system asked all attendees and exhibitors to evacuate the show floor because a fire had broken out. I thought the incident could not be serious as they asked people to walk at a normal pace toward the nearest exit. I assumed surely they can douse these little flames quickly and get back to business as usual before I’m even halfway to the door. So I casually sauntered out trying to check out as many automobiles as possible thinking, yeah whatever, fire shmire. That was until I saw the smoke, a lot of smoke and I began to smell something serious getting over-roasted by the Audi booth.

Needless to say, it was a fairly large burner. After thirty minutes in the lobby they announced the show would reopen in two hours. That later got updated to two and half hours and then finally to three and a half, at which point I decided to keep my record intact and not see the Detroit Autoshow again eventhough I actually went to Detroit.

What I can report is that there were many startup companies showing electric or high mileage vehicles in Electric Avenue. There seem to be two camps, the enterprises that have used designers to style the vehicles and the others who created cars out of engineering studies. While the latter vehicles are definitely interesting technically, I wonder how well they will capture the public’s desire to purchase them. Will these vehicles show up to the showroom and never walk out the door. Will they go to the eco-party but never get asked to dance? Will these cars never do the good work they were meant to do? Will success elude them as the North American International Auto Show eludes me?


A Matter of Process: CargoMAX600 Part 2

So how does a designer find a solution? Well, there’s no straight forward way to achieve this. Light bulbs just don’t turn on. And sometimes the harder you try the worse the outcome. The CargoMAX 600 certainly posed a challenge. The more I sketched, the more frustrated I became. By Sunday midnight, all I had were some very pedestrian designs, things that any competitor could envision. I needed something unique. After two full days of freehand drawing, scaled side views and long thinking sessions, I was nowhere closer to a design than I was on Friday. Time was running out quickly. I needed something to show the manufacturer by Monday morning at 8.30.

Finally at 4am, I caught a glimpse of the vision. By creating a protruding feature line that grew gently out of the front of the cabin and then got more pronounced as it moved backward, I could retain a consistent width of the narrower cabin all through the roofline. This was important in creating a dominant “core”. A core is rounded corner between two principle surfaces and they are particularly important in automobile design to establish volumes. This core would define the vehicle as being tall and narrow like the Sprinter. The feature line which I called Line “D”, would break from the volume created by the core and establish the wider cargo volume. Also, it would visually slim the side view and create a sleeker look.

With this thought sketched out, I retired to a couple of hours of sleep. Early Monday morning I was back at the drawing board. Armed with a refreshing nap and a huge sense of relief that I’d found the magic styling bean, I set out to finish the rough design. At 8.30, I scanned my sketches and emailed them to my client. Approval was swift but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. We needed to put together a more formal presentation for my client’s customer by 5 pm.

Six hours to do a couple of sketches? Seems easy right? Not quite. Because of the aggressive timeline, I needed to make sure that the lines that I created were doable from a functional standpoint. Without this verification, the design could get ruined in the engineering stage. Hence, I began frantically drafting two dimensional cross sections to assure that it could work.

After a grueling afternoon session and no lunch break, I had the truck roughly worked out. Our meeting with the customer went incredibly well and we got approval to proceed.

The next six weeks were spent detailing and engineering the body. It did not change very much from the original sketch and ten weeks from that first initial idea I watched the truck motor out of the factory.

Watch the CargoMAX 600 movie.


A Matter of Process: CargoMAX600 Part 1

As stated in the trailer to Design Confidential, this blog promises to take readers behind the scenes of a design project. Designers talk frequently about “process”, the activity we engage in to create products. This process can be very complex with multiple phases ranging from research and information gathering to ideation and sketching to prototyping and validation. Sometimes, it’s linear as described above and sometimes it’s a circle, a zigzag or any combination of these.

What’s important is that every good design project has some kind of process. This series of blogs called “A Matter of Process” will take readers into this activity one project at a time. For this first installment, I’ll choose a simple one, the CargoMAX 600 cargo van that I designed a year ago.

While vehicle projects tend to be very involved, the CargoMAX was straight forward and had a textbook linear approach. The main reason for this? Time. The design team had 10 weeks to take the truck from sketch to prototype. This adventure began the week before Christmas 2008. A local truck body manufacturer was tasked by an American company with designing and building a first prototype for a new vehicle. The design brief was to create a cargo van with the same interior volume as the Mercedes Sprinter but built on an American chassis. The business case was that while the Sprinter was very practical and attractive, its chassis was not rugged to take the punishment that vans go through in North America and it was expensive. Also, by utilizing Chevrolet equipment, purchase and repair costs would be lower. To compete with the Sprinter, however, the van had to possess an attractive body, something quite uncommon in the truck body industry.

The first step was a daylong meeting the Friday before Christmas at the manufacturer’s facility to fine tune the vehicle specification. In that session we laid out the basic dimensions, the type of doors we would use, how many fiberglass components would make up the body and some basic design features. With this schematic in hand, I set out that weekend to create the rough design and styling.

Needless to say, it was not an easy task. The cargo body walls needed to be fairly upright in cross section to provide adequate volume but the cab of the Chevrolet had a large amount of tumble-home, meaning its upper cabin caved in toward the centre of the vehicle. This was my primary design challenge: how to neatly transition from the inward sloping cabin to the boxy cargo area. There are several easy ways to accomplish this but since the client wanted an attractive automotive look, I had to find something that broke from the norm.

To be continued...

The movie below tells the whole story.


Architecture in Context

The Washington Post called the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal the worst single piece of architecture of the past decade. Certainly, the museum’s addition has stimulated mixed reviews. So it’s not surprising that yet again, it has been trashed.

However, I believe that a building needs to be judged in its context, the context here being our city. Toronto is hardly a place full of avant-garde architecture. Anyone notice what usually gets built around here? Terribly proportioned, over decorated, pseudo-renaissance-victorian-art deco mashups. Hello people. The ROM actually had the sense to stage an international design competition for a “modern” building. That deserves credit in itself.

Yes, we do get the odd piece of contempory design, but the so-called “Toronto school of architecture” puts up the same fare year after year. The solutions are so predictable that one would think a chain store was behind them. I’ll agree that Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal has some shoddy detailing and from some angles it’s not that pretty. However, it’s a welcome change from the boring glass, steel and wood packing crates we usually get.

In a society where discussion about design of any kind is non-existent, the ROM extension got designers and non-designers talking about architecture and that’s a positive thing.

Lastly, Toronto is a diverse city. It is one of the few truly pluralistic societies on the planet. Shouldn’t that be characterized by its buildings. Modernist rectangular prisms executed by the city’s top practitioners are great and important works to have in this city. But should they be the only works? We need different types of architectural solutions and the Crystal’s deconstructivist theme is a fantastic foil to the other contemporary buildings.

In Toronto, there is no courage to adopt the solutions that we need to make our city better. Let’s at minimum not trash those daring enough to make our city a bit more visually exciting.


Innovation for all

Today’s blog is a letter to the editor I sent to the Toronto Star.

David Crane’s excellent piece in last Friday’s Toronto Star “Liberals need an economic vision” is truly visionary. Two points of the article really stand out for me because they are verification of beliefs that I have held for many years.

First this quote, “…manufacturing must become more knowledge intensive, with greater investment in research and development, as well as training and skills upgrading, design and marketing.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. Canadian companies need to delete their current short-term practice of not investing in design and begin to act like global players. What is key is that manufacturers can be innovative merely by implementing an alternative approach to how they develop products. With modest investment, a producer can improve their chances of sustainable success in the new post-recession economy by using design. Companies must shed the old approach of getting “a guy in the back” or a CAD jockey to be their product developer and use professionals for these endeavours. They must also employ better and more sophisticated strategies in the branding and marketing of their products.

Secondly, David Crane sees the immense potential of looking to Canada’s different cultural communities for their energy and talent. Our nation has been gifted with a truly diverse society. Immigrants are a treasure trove of new ideas and approaches to problem solving. Also, their link to their ancestral homeland gives access to foreign markets and additional bases of knowledge. My own connection to Italy allowed me to learn the methodologies of Italian automotive and industrial design which were critical to starting a successful design consultancy here in Canada.

Thank you, Mr.Crane, for recognizing the value of Canada’s multicultural mosaic and for linking the word innovation with the word design.


Bono: Popstar to CarCzar

Bono’s latest editorial in Sunday’s New York Times on the state of automotive design certainly struck a sweet chord with me.

The auto industry’s dismal collection of minivans, SUVs and un-sexy sedans of the last few decades has stuffed our roads with a lot of visual jalopies. His proposed installation of figures like Marc Newson, Steve Jobs and Frank Gehry as auto-supremos might seem flighty but we need only look back to the automotive heyday to see that these new hires could really make the industry rock again.

In the 1960s, Detroit was run by the engineering departments. Born of these development teams were products like the Mustang, the GTO and some very elegant Lincolns. All became icons of American ingenuity and creativity. The 1970s saw direction go from the gearheads to the beancounters and what we have is our present day tedium. We have our “safe” solutions, our “family feeling” where all the cars in the brand share the same styling flavors. The big problem is that all the world’s brands (with a couple of exceptions) are getting their flavor from the same spice rack.

The important difference to acknowledge is that the 1960s had a more design-driven approach while subsequent decades opted for a corporate approach with shareholders affecting the decision-making. This is an environment that stifles the bold solitary visionary while embracing a design by committee product development method.

There is abundant talent in the car styling studios of the world. Note ex-BMW design director Chris Bangle. His flame surfaced Z4 is still the coolest BMW of the last decade and his “Bangle butt” 7 Series while the butt of much criticism continues to be copied today. Mazda consistently holds up the design torch and can make even a smaller car like the new Mazda 3 Sport look lovely.

The ability is there but its fruits are not always sold to the market. For example, Renault continues to captivate with its show cars but the latest Clio and Megane models are quite dull.

So Bono, I vote with you. Let’s make the designers the vocalists and lead guitarists of the auto industry and not the background singers.


My Eco Epiphany

The word epiphany has come to mean a reckoning, an awakening or an event that can change one’s life or way of thinking. So as we pass this day on Christian calendars, I’d like to share my Eco-Epiphany.

First some background. My dream from as far back as I can remember was to become a car designer. And of course, within a future car designer’s dream there lies that even bigger desire to design big displacement, multi-cylinder, long hooded, super exotic sportscars. When I lived in Turin, working as an automotive stylist in a large design house, I designed for companies that made these. So it is quite ironic that my epiphany happened in the very place where these machines are conceived.

It was just before Christmas 1991. On a typical dull, colourless, Torinese winter day, I boarded a plane headed for Amsterdam. But on takeoff, I noted a strange sight. As the aircraft ascended, I could make out a precise distinction between the purple coloured smog and the cleaner air above it. With each second that passed, this line descended on the window until it was gone. It was as if the plane was emerging from a polluted lake. Looking down a few moments later, I could see this haze, purple like the Hendrix song hanging over the city, a smoggy shroud of Turin.

From that day on, I dreamed a revised dream. My objects of desire suddenly had less cylinders if none at all. The world seemed in need of new solutions very quickly. It was in that moment that my dream machines became leafy green instead of Italian racing red.

I have always retained since that day that people would need new solutions to transportation. Whether it’s mass transit, human powered vehicles or just cars without the petroleum, the world would have to evolve. Sadly, it has not evolved quickly enough. So in this new decade I hope that political leaders and industrialists will have their epiphanies also.