More than a few years ago, Henry Ford II told me a story about walking through the Ford Motor design center and happening upon a clay model of what appeared to be some new car.
"Boy," he said. "I'm sure glad we're not going to produce that model. It's got to be the ugliest thing I've ever seen."
"But Mr. Ford," someone told him. "That's the new Ford Taurus."
Stop and think for a minute about what that car replaced: the Ford Granada. The Taurus went on to become the best-selling car in America for several years.
I can only imagine how much of a shock the Taurus must have been to anyone at Ford who had been selling the Granada, the Mercury Monarch or the Lincoln Versailles. The Taurus was a radical shift.
It took a lot of guts to introduce it, and Jack Telnack, the head of Ford design, deserved accolades, then and now.
There are three old theories about design that I've been updating.
1. A designer is only as good as his or her boss. Automotive designers can't do great work unless they have a boss who will give them the latitude to create great designs. If bosses expect mediocre work, that's what they'll get. And so will their customers.
2. If you like the new design, chances are the designer didn't go nearly far enough. Think back to that Taurus. If a design makes everyone happy, it probably is too bland. If it makes everyone a bit uncomfortable, you're headed in the right direction. Remember that design has to last for at least a decade from the time you first see it in clay. That is a lifetime. Frequently, it has to last even longer.
3. If you want someone to buy your car when he has been buying the other guy's car, you had better not produce a car that is "just as good." It must be at least 25 percent better and different to get your competitor's loyal buyer to change.
Consumers who have had a good experience with their automobile purchase don't have any reason to switch, unless the competition comes out with something that is so much better.
That's what the Japanese did during the 1980s and 1990s. Now they have the loyal customers.
We need more truly exciting designs that might make you uncomfortable. It's the only way to win new customers.