DownsideUpDesign

Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

Does GM Design “get” Social Media more than Ford? The Lab is an emphatic “Yes”

It’s been a while since I’ve turned my mind to the GM empire (in fact the last time I saw fit to comment was when the highly questionable GMC Terrain surfaced…). But conversations with the head of social media at GMH (Holden) and a little discovery I made yesterday has got me thinking about the people’s car company all over again.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks discussing the ability of social media to open up dialogue between automotive designer and customer. The benefits, as I see them, are twofold. Firstly, designers get access to crucial insight from the people they often have the least professional contact with, their customers. Secondly, the designers themselves, as opposed to the cringe-inducing PR lackeys, can help spread the message about their work, breaking down the hitherto impermeable walls of the design studio.

Lo and behold, GM has jumped into the ring with a new project called The Lab (take a look at it here) and it seems to be a solid first step in engaging designer and customer in a productive, conversational way. This marks a turning point  in the use of social media as a truly two-way street into and out of automotive companies outside of the PR department. It’s also heralds the incorporation of social media research into the product development process by enabling access between customers and the people responsible for designing their cars. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Car Culture, Collaboration, Design, Design Strategy, Social Media, Things I like, Web, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Antonella gains a voice, brain, pulse and a… well, becomes a boy

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There’s a risk that I may depart on some vainglorious romp here, but I figure a little self-indulgence is warranted given that DownsideUpDesign has just kicked over the 10,000 visitor mark.

While I was out in Broken Hill, I had to good fortune to catch up with Mark Charmer at the Movement Design Bureau and, even more fortuitously, Rob Hunter and Amy Johannigman, whose work I had the pleasure of reading as part of the Sue Cischke project back in May.

We ended up having a mind expanding conversation (they come along with pleasing regularity when in Mark’s company), discussing the potential for a highly personal style of social media to help generate really meaningful dialogue around design and sustainability.

It’s dialogue that companies like Ford need to be having yet can’t seem to get started. I have a sneaking suspicion, as do Mark, Amy, Rob and many others, that their reliance on mute personae like Antonella has something to do with it…

While I’ll let Mark and Amy fill you in on the details, I’m honoured by the profile they’ve put together and the concept Mark discusses is something that resonates with me on so many levels. It speaks of a bright future for not only  this DownsideUpDesigner and the others out there like me, but also a more open, responsive and sustainable future for the automotive industry, which I seem to have been destined to be a part of for a while now.

If you’ve got this far, then your the kind of reader I love to have. It’s even better if you leave your thoughts below because without the dialogue we share, DownsideUp is just another tree falling in the woods.

Thanks so much for being a part of the first 10,000. I’m looking forward to many, many more.

[Image: Juliana O’Dean-Smith. “Glamorgan”, Manilla, North-Western N.S.W, longer ago than I care to remember]

Filed under: Blog, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Social Media, Sustainability, Things I like, Web, , , , , , , , ,

Lincoln to hit Weight Watchers. Unsurprisingly, Mercury dragged along for the ride.

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Automotive News (sub reqd.) is reporting that Lincoln and Mercury are looking to rationalise their product range by downsizing existing products and exploring new market segments. Although hardly surprising in the context of an industry-wide trend for downsizing, it is interesting that Ford is applying this strategy to it’s steadfastly large-car near-premium and premium brands.

Lincoln’s intentions were made clear with the delightfully characterful, Focus-based C Conept at January’s Detroit show and AN reports that the next MKS saloon and a small crossover will be moving to the Mondeo and Kuga platforms respectively. So far, so rational and so on trend even if the C Concept making production is “far from definite” according to Amy Wilson, author of the article.

Based on Amy’s intel though, it seems that Mercury will be… doing exactly the same thing! The other Merc will produce a four-door sedan based on the Focus, the Milan will move to the Mondeo platform and the Mariner will share its guts with the Kuga/Lincoln twins. Awesome.

For as long as I can remember, Mercury has struggled to find it’s place in the Ford Portfolio. Positioned as an entry-level premium brand to slot between work-a-day Ford and the once-glorious Lincoln, Merc has suffered the worst evils of badge-engineering, mis-directed marketing (the Milan Voga, aimed at Hispanic women being my fave) and being sandwiched between brands that gave it no room to breath. Surely the introduction of the new Ford Taurus, with it’s premium aspirations, will only cloud things further.

One could quite easily draw the conclusion that Mercury has no reason to live, given that the plans outlined simply call for still more badge-engineering. Indeed, the number of times that talk of Merc’s demise has emanated from Ford HQ tends to suggest that thoughts of Mercuricide have crossed the minds of Dearborn’s strategists more than once. Yet I can’t help feeling that the brand could still be put to some good.

Ford has developed some industry-leading ICE, hybrid and electric technologies and possesses studios of talented designers champing at the bit for a genuine challenge. Could Mercury, as it’s name suggests, become Ford’s messenger from the gods, bringing with it tales of a glorious, sustainable future? Why not allow Mercury to be the harbinger of Ford’s drive-train technologies and sustainability strategies in urban-appropriate packages?

This kind of test-bed automotive brand focused on urban vehicles isn’t entirely without precedent. Autobianchi fulfilled the same role for Fiat Group from ’55 to ’95 and presaged many innovations that later found their way into mainstream Fiat and Lancia products. You may scoff, wondering what place anonymous Mercury has becoming an expression of new urban cool, but let’s face it, what have they got to lose? Certainly not brand appeal. In the 2009 J.D. Power APEAL survey, Mercury sat comfortably in the bottom 10, along with Chrysler, Hyundai, Saab and Suzuki.

Given all the discussions I’ve had with @joesimpson and @charmermark about Ford’s future direction and encouraging a radical shift towards new models of personal mobility, Mercury’s reinvention as a sustainability-focused brand is scenario that I’d like to explore further. So over to you, dear reader. What do you think?

[Source: Automotive News (sub reqd.)]

Filed under: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Sustainability, , , , , , , , ,

Quick Thoughts: Does my D-Pillar look big in this?

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The embargo has finally lifted on the new Jaguar XJ and although I’ve just woken up and am still a little bleary eyed, the big Coventry cat has already made quite an impression.

Times are tough for luxury car makers and few have had it tougher for longer than Jaguar. As sales of traditional large saloons free-fall and the cost of running them continue to rise, any new entrant to the segment needs to offer distinction and at least a convincing veneer of making good financial and environmental sense. On the face of it, the new XJ seems to achieve all of this.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_w copyWhile the family resemblance to the XF is clear, the design team’s approach to proportion and surface resolution has imbued a more relaxed feel to the XJ, swapping the XF’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed exuberance for the preening satisfaction of a large, not corpulent, cat enjoying a luxuriant stretch. From the front and side, there is an elongated, fluid elegance to the form that’s really quite beguiling.

2010jaguarxj_abh000The cavernous upright grille in concert with the shoulder line that plunges down to form a more sharply defined corner than on the XF  further bolster the transition of Jaguar from a brand that majored in horizontal down-road graphics (forgettable S-Type notwithstanding) to a new sort of butch, low-set verticality that’s quite distinct from the XF. In a market segment that’s dominated by kidneys, cheese-graters and  gaping maws, Jaguar has clearly been working hard to establish a new and distinctive facial identity. The satisfying head-lamp graphic, first seen on the C-XF concept and sadly missed on the XF, finally sees the light of day here although is seems that the detail resolution of the lamp-cans and LED integration may leave a little bit to be desired.

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Seen in profile, there’s a pleasingly discreet muscularity to the surfaces that, once again, differentiate the car from the XF by way of having a touch more fluidity about them. The overly balanced nature of the fade of the shoulder line does give me some cause for concern however. In profile it’s not so noticeable but in any of the three-quarter views I’ve ssen (and remember, I’m only going off the press shots) the decision to break the shoulder so emphatically and equally on either side of the B-Pillar leaves the car looking a bit too static and heavy set. It would have been nice to see the break occurring a little further rearward with a touch more flounce through the rear haunch. To my mind, doing so would lighten things up a bit and reference both the XK a little more strongly and acknowledge the marque’s past XJ glories.

2010jaguarxj_abh007-1It’s also in profile that the most controversial element of the design comes in to play. To black-out the D-Pillar is an astoundingly bold move and, to be frank, one I’m struggling to see the stylistic benefit of. Lacking any visual relationship to other features seen in profile and butting up against the chromed DLO (therefore denying it the chance to appear as a continuation of the glasshouse from front to rear), it seems controversial for the sake of being so and a little bit cheap as a consequence. Every so often I see Range Rovers of various vintages with body coloured D-Pillars (and indeed pre-production Series 1 cars were so afflicted. In the Range Rover’s case the functional and stylistic benefits of the black-out were clear) and I’m now wondering how many XJ owners will go down the same path of having the pillar painted to match. It’s also interesting to note that in some of the rear 3/4 press shots, the blacked-out section is obfuscated by some none-too-artfully applied lens flare… second thoughts on behalf of the press department?

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Having been a one-time owner of a Citroen CX, I never thought I’d see the day when another manufacturer would so whole-heatedly embrace the large fast-back saloon. Yet the XJ sees Jaguar strengthening it’s affinity for the body-style, having shocked me senseless with the similarly fast-backed XF. Playing up to the current vogue for coupe-esque 4-doors, there’s an elegance to the fall of the XJ’s roof line over the rear-seats into a bone-line that runs through the trunk lid. If only my eye didn’t have to do a double take every time it hit that damned D-Pillar!

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wallpaper_13The rear of the car, like the front, trades the horizontal, Aston-esque feel of the XF for a more formal vertical arrangement and, to be frank, none of the press shots seem to capture a particularly flattering view of it. The shallow, high-set appearance of the glass leads to a very deep trunk-lid and a deep, pouty bumper that all conspire to make the rear 3/4 heavy and  block-like. It’s an effect not dissimilar to the similarly heavy-handed treatment that blighted the otherwise lovely XK8.

I can’t help thinking that the rear screen shouldn’t have been pulled further down, either through a larger aperture or by masking, as Citroen did with the CX and, more recently, Volkswagen with the Passat CC, to reduce the height of the body section. Indeed, pulling the base of the rear screen lower would also allow it to key with the waist line and enable a somewhat more satisfying resolution of the D-Pillar to boot. The inward flow of the tall rear lamps also make the whole composition feel a little bit narrow from some angles.

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Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wint copyThe interior is yet another handsome departure from Jaguars past and there are some truly lovely details to be found. Favourite of these would have to be the wood or carbon fibre waist rail that encircles the cockpit, a conscious nod to sports cruiser boats like the Riva says chief designer Ian Callum. Indeed the whole leather-trimmed IP structure is a refreshing repost to the dull, high-hooded monoliths we’ve seen in recent years from BMW and Mercedes with the cowled centre vents and jewel-like clock looking particularly rakish.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_wdial copyOn the technology front it’s noteworthy that Jaguar has joined with Land Rover in being the first to market with a completely TFT-based instrument display allowing for customisation and on-the-fly re-configurability. Given the inherent flexibility of the system, it would be nice to see Jaguar offering customers a choice of dial face as the one depicted in the press shots seems just a little heavy-handed and overly analogue in style for the underlying technology.

Jaguar-XJ_2010_1600x1200_w copybleurghGiven that so much of the story of a car’s interior is told through the details, I’m reluctant to go further until I actually sit in the car and can have a good feel, but I will say this: i thought the neon blue ambient lighting in the XF was a little below a Jaguar’s station in life. Here it seems inappropriately cheap and overly cold, especially against the warmer trim choices available. Neon blue against tobacco tan? No thanks.

On an environmental note, I was astonished to learn that the aluminium (50% of which is post-recycled) XJ weighs slightly less than the XF and anywhere up to an amazing 220 Kg less that the German competition. Combined with Jag’s phenomenal diesels, never mind the green-washing hybrid, we should expect a combination of performance and parsimoniousness never before seen in this segment of the market. The green argument is also helped by the car being 85% recyclable come the end of it’s (hopefully) long life.

The proof of a new car is always in the metal and it may be some time before I can get my hands -and eyes- on the real thing, but on the whole my first impression is a positive one. The XJ can’t fail to cut a distinctive swathe through the throngs of 3-box luxury saloons -more awkward design elements aside- and the interior marks a refreshing change both from the cloyingly retro feel of the previous car and the considered averageness of it’s competitors. As with Jags past, it may well be the detailing that lets it down but on first impressions the new XJ is well placed to steal the thunder of the luxury saloon market as the first green shoots of financial recovery begin to appear.

Filed under: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I like, , , ,

Brand Capital and How Not to Spend It

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Over the last decade I’ve noticed an increasing number of brands willing to cash in on their previously unimpeachable images in the chase for bigger margins.

Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class).

There are other brands, however, that can’t afford to play so loose and free with their brand capital and Aston Martin is a prime example. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I Hate, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ever wondered what a Design Strategist does? Ralf Beuker’s got you covered…

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Coming back to Sydney after almost four years away, I’m getting a lot of questions about what I actually do for a living these days. Although I’m getting to cocktail party spiel down pat, Raph Goldsworthy over at Design Droplets has just published a fascinating interview with Ralf Beuker (design management luminary and all ’round nice guy) that’s helping me enormously when discussion about the weather has been exhausted.

Full of wonderful insights into the different roles designers and design can play within companies, Ralf covers the full spectrum of design strategy, design management and how design thinking can be applied business-wide, from operational matters up to the corporate level.

Head over to Design Droplets and read one of Raph’s best interviews yet.

[Picture: neutralSurface/Flikr licensed under Creative Commons]

Filed under: Design, Design Education, Design Strategy, , , ,

Ferrari 599? Not so much. Ferrari 599 in matt black? YES!

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Having enjoyed a lovely lunch with the even more lovely Lady Nogrady in Marylebone, we set off to find a place for a coffee.

Low and behold, parked with impunity in the Baker Street bus lane, was this wonderfully sinister Ferrari 599.

Normally not much a fan of the new Fazzas (has there been a truly poetic stallion since the F355 or 456?), this machine drew me in like a moth to the matt black flame. No mere wrapping job, this appeared to be a full re-spray. It was also fitted with a (relatively) subtle carbon fiber body kit for good measure.

Seems the traffic cops were similarly attracted, judging by the growing pile of parking tickets under the wiper.

Filed under: Car, Car Culture, Design, Eye Candy, Photography, Things I like, , , , , ,

A beer in the sun and the future of the industry. A perfect combo, no?

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Ah, the perils of a pub on the Thames, a pint and a video camera!

Last Friday I had the good fortune to, finally meet with the other half of the Movement Design Bureau, Mark Charmer.

With Joe Simpson and I in tow, he lead us to the most magical London pub I’d ever encountered, the Angel at Rotherhithe (somewhere near Bermondsey if you’re keen).

Ostensibly a social gathering, the ever scheming Mark had the sense to bring along a video camera to catch unsuspecting design strategists mid-pint, mid-cigarette and mid-flight setting the problems of the automotive world to rights.

Head over to the Movement Design Bureau to see Joe and I talking about the long term prospects for automotive industry and how I feel that, despite the massive strides made in HMI and connectivity in the last few years, I still don’t think that we’ve successfully grasped the aesthetic and social potential of the digital age.

[Photo: Mark Charmer

Filed under: Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Philosophy, Social Media, Sustainability, , , , , , , , , ,

No, no, no! A V10 does not an Esprit make!

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Although it’s only a rumour promulgated by Evo magazine at this point, the very thought of Toyota lending it’s new Lexus V10 to a future Esprit is enough to make me seethe with vitriolic outrage.

Lest we forget, the original Esprit was the ultimate road-going expression of Colin “to add speed, add lightness” Chapman’s fanatical obsession with elegant efficiency. He was obsessed to a fault perhaps, as demonstrated by the time, when upon returning from a GP race and having demanded more weight be removed from the prototype Esprit’s rear transaxle, he sort of fell on his own sword . He took off for home in the amended mule making it a short distance before the new “added lightness” tore itself free from the car, leaving him stranded on the airport exit road.

If this little anecdote goes to show anything, it’s that Colin would be turning in his fibreglass grave at the thought of a stonking great ten-pot in the back of his little supercar that could, no matter how much Lexus green-washing it may have had or the fact that Lotus may also produce an “eco Esprit”. Why not make all Esprits eco?

I have long thought that the future of maximum driving enjoyment lies in super-lightweight, compact and fuel efficient cars that are unencumbered by concessions to overt luxury or pretensions to practicality, in essence the Lotus approach. The new Evora, by all accounts, stays as true to Colin’s edicts as much as a 2+2 Cayman competitor can, but the Esprit should be the very essence of the company’s fabled light-weight history, not an offensive repudiation.

P.S The sketch in the Evo article makes it look like Lotus has decided to throw the baby out with the bath water, do an Audi and put the V10 in front of the front axle line. Whatever will they think of next?

Filed under: Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Lost in Translaton, Philosophy, Quotes, Sustainability, Things I Hate, , , , , , ,

Awesome(ly) Small Target Market Alert: Japanese Rockers

Take a look at this film clip and tell me that a design project based around these guys wouldn’t be absurd fun.

They’re a little bit macho, a little bit fem, a little bit psycho and yet oddly controlled. Overlay this on Japanese car culture and I have a feeling that there’s creative space for some suitably bonkers vehicles.

Filed under: Car, Car Culture, Concept, Design, Design Strategy, Music, Things I like, , , , , ,

About DownsideUpDesign

I'm Drew Smith and I'm a freelance design strategist and journalist for the automotive industry. DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. Get in touch at downsideupdesigner (at) me (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.