Insider: Beyond Borders

Of all the objects in the world, the box has to be the most complex and perplexing.

Of all the objects in the world, the box has to be the most complex and perplexing. While it keeps everything within it safe, secure and protected from the outside elements, it also manages to stave off potential positive influences and ideas, at least if we’re talking about the box that most of us have in our minds, the one that limits our imagination. When a colleague of mine told me he went to a leading design conference that was attended by software, medical and electronics companies, I was intrigued and at the same time appalled because in the same breath he said there wasn’t a single designer representing the domestic auto industry. That’s right: the industry where design can make or break a multi-billion dollar company, cause the loss of thousands of jobs and mortally wound communities, was not even present. Could it be they already know more than those in the conference center? Doubtful, since GM and Ford continue to lose market share and produce such mediocre product designs as the Ford Five Hundred, Mercury Milan and Pontiac Cobalt—I mean G5.

When are our auto industry leaders going to get it? The world does not revolve around auto design anymore, especially when Apple comes up with such hot hits as the iPod, Motorola creates waves with its Razr phone and Microsoft sends tongues wagging with the design of its Xbox 360. It’s time for Detroit to think outside its proverbial box and pay attention to what’s happening outside the borders surrounded by Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and the state lines of Indiana and Ohio. As a top transportation designer outside of the auto industry recently told me, “Detroit isn’t much of a barometer anymore, as opposed to what Germany or Japan is doing. Where are the Harley Earl’s?” I wish I knew.

Sure, we are seeing a few groundbreaking designs starting to percolate from the wombs of Detroit, but there still seems to be the sense of wanting to “play it safe” so as not to upset the apple cart. The Detroit design community needs to step outside of the confines of Motown and get a close-up and personal glimpse of what’s happening in the rest of the world. Which is why I have to tip my hat to Ford’s Mark Fields, who was recently reported to have told his company’s designers to break the rules and devise bold designs, as opposed to oversized Passats and edgier Mazda6s. If he were really bold, he’d send Ford’s top designer packing and hire someone who has some real ingenuity.

The fact is Detroit cannot play defense anymore when it comes to design. The industry that used to set the trends for fashion and consumer goods now finds itself the not-so-fast-follower. That’s a shame and everyone in the upper ranks of the auto industry must give designers the freedom to escape their borders and get creative before we lose the remaining talented individuals to other industries and competitors willing to provide that freedom.