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 »

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

Cars, culture and how the General lost touch

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My deep, abiding passion sits at the confluence of cars and culture.

For a while I thought I wanted to be the guy drawing cars but I soon came to realise I was more interested in the effect that cars have on people. The same goes for the flip-side: as the needs and wants of a culture change, people effect change on cars. It’s an engrossing cycle of cultural cause and effect.

So it was that I started my working life as a design strategist for the car industry. Like a pig in muck, I delight in observing the whys and hows of the choices people make when they buy a car. Connecting the emotional dots between the prospective customer’s personal needs, surface composition or the “face” of a brand and the eventual purchasing decision is a fascinating experience.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt, however, is that in my work my personal view counts for naught.

I’ve driven 400 Bhp bahnstormers that have left me stone cold and angry with the world (BMW 750i, Mercedes CL), been totally enchanted by an oddball French coupe that left others infuriated with it’s dynamic mediocrity (Renault Laguna) and I adore Volvo 200s and Citroen CXs. Clearly my automotive passions fall outside the mainstream.

Personally, I am but one consumer among millions (and one that’s unlikely to ever spend money on a new car). Professionally, however, it’s my job to elicit the passions, desires and fears both from individual customers and the cultural world they inhabit. I then filter this cocktail into a form that helps designer and eventual owner find a happy medium, that elusive product that sets synapses (and wallets) alight.

Grant McCracken has published a fascinating piece examining Bob Lutz’s role in GMs downfall. He argues that it was the former Car Czar’s imposition of his personal views on what a car should be, rather than understanding American culture, that lead to a yawning disconnect between American consumers and GM.

Of Lutz’s single-mindedness, McCraken has this to say:

“In point of fact, he knew relatively little about our culture. What Lutz knew was cars, and what he liked about cars, by all accounts, was speed….He loved muscles cars because they went fast. Lutz was worse than average as a river captain. I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lutz did not ever grasp the muscle car revival (the one portrayed by Hollywood in XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and now Fast and Furious). He must have gloried in the power and the glory and all that sound. Just as surely, he must have been mystified by fact that it was being produced in some case [sic] by tiny, winged Hondas.”

McCracken suggests that Lutz, to disastrous effect, let his personal emotions and story get in the way of understanding those of of GM customers. Lest we forget, this is the man that in the midst of the post-Inconvenient Truth environmental zeitgeist, declared global warming “…a total crock of shit.”.

Head over to McCracken’s blog to read the full piece, including an idea (one that I heartily support) about how the disconnect could have been avoided and why GM’s future, no matter what the courts have in store, looks bleak even after Maximum Bob’s departure.

Post script: My choice for Detroit Chief Cultural Officer? Freeman Thomas.

[Source: Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit now, 2009. Glenn Hunter, GM’s Lutz On Hybrids, Global Warming And Cars As Art, 2008] [Image: Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

Filed under: Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, , , , , , , , , ,

Lost in Translation: The Running Joke

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As I’ve stated before, having to rely on Google Translate can provide some pretty humorous moments in my daily web trawl.

The latest piece of translatory tomfoolery comes courtesy of Der Spiegel and the butt of the joke is that that braying, wounded beast General Motors and their new partner in Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, Segway.

The headline of the article is Der fahrende Witz which translates as The Running Joke.

It’s a harsh blow – one of a few on the tubes yesterday – to the new partnership which proposes a 2-seater Segway as an urban mobility solution (head over to Re*Move for more in-depth coverage of the product itself). Sadly, however, it neatly sums up GM’s PR probleme du jour: they can’t do anything right.

From the sidelining of Saab – the European brand with arguably the best claim to a progressive eco image -, rocking up to congress in the company jet, the soporific Volt launch schedule and even the cancelling of the EV-1 project (which is coming back to bite them in the bum as a reminder of how GM “hates” innovation and panders to the oil companies), there is such an air of desperate ignorance that when GM does get something right, it’s now seen as nothing more than a cynical attempt to polish the turd that is their corporate image. Travesties like the Terrain only add insult to injury.

Well P.U.M.A is one initiative we shouldn’t kick while GM is down. Even if it does smell (just a little) of a desperate “Here’s one we prepared earlier!” manoeuvre, GM needs to be roundly applauded for proposing such a decidedly non-car solution to urban transport. However, as my mate Joe points out, success will hinge on P.U.M.A’s implementation as a service, not a product.

So three cheers to GM for fighting on and leveraging innovation as a way out of this funk and let’s give them whatever encouragement they need to become a sustainable mobility provider.

Head over to Re*Move for the complete run-down and in-depth analysis.

[Cheers to BonBon for the tip] [Image: Segway]

Filed under: Design Strategy, Eco, Lost in Translaton, 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.