The Creative Priority
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The Creative Priority

Jerry Hirshberg

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eBook - ePub

The Creative Priority

Jerry Hirshberg

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About This Book

How does your company define creativity? Or doescreativity define your company? In this remarkable book, Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International (NDI), distills his experience as leader of the world's hotbed of automotive innovation and reveals his strategy for designing an organization around creativity.

In The Creative Priority Hirshberg weaves together enlightening real-world anecdotes with the story of NDI's genesis to illustrate eleven interlocking strategies that came to define NDI's creative priority. Richly illustrated with NDI's elegant designs and sketched, The Creative Priority is at once a compelling narrative, a rich store of hands-on experience, and a grab bag of breakthrough insights that can help your business perform its most vital function.

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The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
Neils Bohr1


Creative Abrasion

NDI was born in an atmosphere rife with abrasion. One culture had joined another for help in an area in which it was particularly uncomfortable: the breaking of traditions. A varied group of disciplines had been gathered closely together, each with its own aspirations for what the enterprise might become. I’d left a familiar, comfortable relationship with an established corporation to help found a new entity with strangers in an unfamiliar setting. And from Detroit’s perspective, I was seen as having joined “the enemy,” switching sides in an economic war between America and Japan. Clearly, this was not going to be a serene retreat for quiet meditation.
Friction between individuals and groups is typically thought of as something harmful. And it usually is. It generates heat and discomfort, disrupts interactions, and can destroy relationships. Between a couple it can lead to divorce. Between countries it can lead to war. Within corporations it can distort and disrupt communication and ruin cohesiveness. Businesses of all types spend considerable time and money trying to reduce or eliminate it. In human terms, it is surely one of the most plentiful and volatile sources of energy on the planet.
While the early years at NDI were disruptive and chafing, however, they were also exciting and explosively fertile. And since creative output was critical, we needed to find ways to reduce the friction without destroying the very ingredients that might be essential to the vibrancy of the process; without, in other words, disrupting our disruptiveness. Multiple disciplines in the same studio, fights over what radio stations to listen to, divergent perceptions of appropriate work hours, modes of dress, codes of behavior, even what was perceived as quality work…all of this I saw as a rich and yeasty opportunity for a kind of friction I wanted to turn into light rather than heat. The uneasiness in my stomach and the fireworks in my brain told me there was some vital connection between the abrasiveness itself and original thinking. If we could grasp this connection, we would be tapping into a vast reservoir of creative energy.
The room was tense as a group of Japanese engineers and planners confronted a team of American designers across a drawing-littered conference table. The vehicle we had been laboring on for almost a year, the first-generation Nissan Pathfinder, was in its concluding developmental phase and was bristling with challenging innovations and new forms. It was to mark Nissan’s first entry into the emerging off-road SUV (sport utility vehicle) market in America.
To the Japanese at the time, the imagined uses and romantic appeal of this sport/utility hybrid appeared nearly incomprehensible. The forms of the existing American versions seemed terribly bold, even rude to their eyes. And the very notion of wanting to go “off-road,” of spontaneously breaking with the pack, simply turning off a legally marked driving pathway to explore unmarked territory on an impulse was unthinkable to this eminently law-abiding people. To the engineers, among the most cautious of a well-guarded population, the whole project felt uncomfortably Western, as in the Wild West, and very alien.
Although to our eyes we had fashioned a rather civilized, urbane variant of the genre, to Japanese eyes the forms NDI had modeled appeared audacious and rough-hewn. The fenders swelled with highly characterized “bulging triceps” around each wheel. Inspired by the protective structure of the roll bar jutting up from behind the front seats of jeeps and other military vehicles in the event of rollover on extremely rough surfaces, the Pathfinder integrated this extra bracing into the very skin of the vehicle itself. The diagonal struts strengthening the body pillar behind the front door framed the unusual triangular vent windows that appeared behind the front-door glass in the two-door version, and that provided badly needed ventilation for the rear passenger compartment.
Pathfinder integrated roll bar, triangular vent window, and “bulging tricep” fender forms
Understandably, the Japanese planners and engineers wanted to grasp as much as possible of the thinking behind this challenging new design. By being even more thorough than usual, they provided themselves with some badly needed feelings of security and confidence in their task. Meanwhile, the American staff felt intuitively certain they had gotten hold of a truly fresh and appropriate interpretation for this kind of car and were eager to see it realized.
Each side was pushing hard and the groups had reached an impasse on the resolution of a variety of difficult issues. The project was running late due to a growing, almost obsessive need on the part of the Japanese to restudy, research, and refine every detail. In a moment of frustration at the meeting I said, “Gentlemen, aspects of this design are truly new, and if we don’t get it to market soon, we simply won’t be first!”
The shukan (project leader) leaned forward, somewhat agitated, and responded, “But Hirshberg-san, we were thinking about being best!”
There was an abrupt, suspended silence. The Americans looked at the Japanese, then each other, and no one moved to fill the silence or bridge the gap. What had been laid bare, exposed in its purest form, were two inarguable, fundamentally alien points of view embedded deeply in each of these cultures.
Some dawning instinct urged me to step back from the moment rather than debate “first” versus “best.” I thanked the Japanese for sharing their concerns and suggested that the meeting be concluded at that point. Each group left with these dual polarities nagging and pulling at each other, like the flip-flopping images in a reversible figure/ground illusion, neither prevailing for long and nearly impossible to perceive simultaneously. In the ensuing days and weeks, however, the Japanese moved with dispatch to resolve the remaining issues while the Americans refined their concepts, double-checking every new aspect with painstaking thoroughness. Neither gave up its principal goal, but each now more fully comprehended the concerns and motivations of the other. With subtle but profoundly broadened ends in mind, the vehicle concluded in a reasonably brief period of time, all innovations included and questions fully resolved.
Perhaps the most novel and all-encompassing management and interaction process to emerge from prioritizing creativity, I called this concept creative abrasion. It evolved from an understanding of innovative thinking best described by the scientist/educator/ writer Arthur Koestler as “the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated skills or matrices of thought.”1 And it grew out of an urgent need to deal with an atmosphere of colliding cultures as well as the natural friction from the interaction of broadly varied personalities and viewpoints. Just as the creative fusion of ideas can occur by holding seemingly antithetical thoughts in the mind simultaneously, so creative collaboration between people can occur by an effort to retain conflicting cultural and disciplinary viewpoints in the mind without discarding or allowing either to dominate.
Conventional strategies to reduce friction by compromising, diluting, or aligning positions are the equivalent of getting all the parts in a system moving in the same direction. That’s a fine procedure for rowing a boat; not so fine for creating one. Creative abrasion recognizes the positive dimensions of friction, the requisite role it plays in making things go. Without it, engines would not work, a crucial source of heat and electricity would be eliminated, and relative motion across the surface of the planet would all but cease. Rather than trying to reduce the friction that naturally arises between people working together by diluting or compromising positions, creative abrasion calls for the development of leadership styles that focus on first identifying and then incorporating polarized viewpoints. In doing so, the probabilities for unexpected juxtapositions are sharply increased, as are the levels of mutual understanding. The irony is that out of a process keyed on abrasiveness, a corporate culture of heightened sensitivity and harmony is achieved.
Of course, not all abrasive situations have creative potential, and the process is a learned skill. After hearing about this concept at a meeting at NDI, a group of executives from Salomon, the great French ski equipment manufacturer, attempted to apply it. When they returned to San Diego from France a few months later for a design review of the ski boot concepts we were developing for them, one of the vice presidents said, “Well, we have the abrasion part down pat!”
Recognizing, marking, and transforming pregnant moments of friction and collision into opportunities for breakthroughs are the work of creative abrasion. One event leaps to mind as a dramatic example of this work, since it resulted in a design that became a visual expression of the process itself.
Contentious meetings are always more interesting than smooth, efficient ones, but they generally produce little more than heat, sour stomachs, and good gossip. One such meeting occurred at the Los Angeles headquarters for Nissan Sales and Marketing. About a dozen top planning, engineering, marketing, and sales executives from Japan and America had gathered to discuss long-range plans for the product lineup in this country. I was the sole design representative, and happy to be included. In laying out guidelines and underlying assumptions, the statement was made that “all inexpensive entry-level vehicles should be generic in character.” Highly distinctive, innovative design, it was further assumed, should be reserved for pricier offerings. This amounted to saying that anyone interested in a cost-effective purchase was somehow devoid of taste or discrimination. I saw red, but contained myself verbally, if not through body language. “Why do we assume that to be the case?” I asked. “It’s self-evident,” was the reply. “Not to me, but I won’t argue this point in your language.” I intended to come back to the next meeting, to be held a few months hence, with a rebuttal in design terms.
The meeting had provided a powerful source of abrasion with a set of assumptions that simply “rubbed me the wrong way.” Each discipline and culture brought its own viewpoints and priorities to the table. The engineers tended to think of design as something added to a product. Less of it, surely, would reduce the cost of an entry-level vehicle. The marketers and planners at the time thought of design as existing in stratified levels, consistent with the way they’d conceptualized the market, with the undifferentiated masses at the bottom ascending up through the ranks to the highly differentiated elite at the top. Hence, such needlessly pricey and trivial concepts as “designer” jeans, homes, and cars. And the Japanese, with their even more stratified society, had traditionally equated inexpensive, mass-market products with ordinary, commonplace design. To the designer, who perhaps naively believes every product has its own inherent truth, some soul to be expressed, these are confining, even threatening words.
By refusing to engage in a linear, across-the-table debate on the same plane of thought, however, I had forced the discussion to another plane; in this case a visual one. The potential had now increased for the abrading situation to “rub me the right way.”
Like many others, whenever I take a trip by car or leave ground in a plane, I experience mental liftoff. The minute I got into my car after the meeting to return to San Diego, I was suddenly alert to a host of images and visual metaphors that flashed into my mind, all ignited by the abrasive remarks of the discussion. For reasons I did not yet understand, two images that flickered onto my mental screen caught my immediate attention: a grasshopper and a Bell helicopter! A third image joined these two a split second later: a truck, surely (at the time) the most humble, generic, and “dumbed-down” of all entry-level products. All at once, the three images coalesced, and a vision of a truck unlike any I’d ever seen assembled itself. It was as if a sports car had been rear-ended by a careening, loose truck bed, the two gracelessly jammed together and looking for all the world like some kind of helicopter on wheels. I pulled off Route 405 at the next exit and crudely sketched the image on a legal pad before it evaporated from my mind.
When I returned to NDI, I gathered a group of engineers, modelers, and designers around and shared my experience of the meeting, the abrasion, and the rough sketch that it triggered. Everyone was appalled by the “entry-level” comment, and immediately attracted to the design rebuttal. Although we had a full slate of assigned projects at the time, an ad hoc team of anyone interested was assembled, and in less than two months a one-fourth-scale clay model was finished, along with engineering drawings showing how the vehicle could easily and cheaply be built using most of the components from our existing Hardbody trucks.
I eventually realized it was the blunt audacity of the abruptly joined forms of the grasshopper and helicopter that caused them to emerge from a lifetime file of stored images. These were humble things designed for clear purposes. Each of their separate parts expressed a discrete function with naked, unapologetic directness.
Original Gobi concept sketch by the author
This insect and insect-like thing constituted a pair of unmistakable and unforgettable icons.
A truck, too, is a humble thing with clear purposes. My original crude sketch identified it as an object with two clear functional zones: a forward box for carrying people; a rearward box for carrying things. So a helicopter-like, grasshoppery truck began to develop in the studios at NDI. But it was what the staff did with the concept that brought it to life.
Innovations erupted everywhere at once. A theme of bold juxtapositions of form and texture was carried throughout the vehicle. An egg-like, ovoid shell for passenger and driver was rudely intersected by a corrugated cargo bed, the doorcut undulating to further demarcate the line of intersection. Two pairs of storage pods were located beneath the bed; on the driver’s side they were labeled “stuff” and “things” on the passenger side, “odds” and “ends.” The interior was starkly divided into a driver’s cockpit and a more open, flexible passenger zone. The glove box became an easily detachable canvas carrying bag held in place by Velcro. The front grille was simply an area of perforated sheet metal, and the truck’s “face” smiled at the world years before Chrysler’s smiling Neon hit the road with a very similar face.
With the model painted in a variety of bold colors to further differentiate all the vehicle’s parts, I returned to the next meeting in L.A., and at its conclusion, dramatically undraped it. It was greeted with a chorus of surprised smiles and even applause. The president of Nissan at the time, Yukata Kume, a particularly bold, dynamic, and imaginative leader, happened to be present, and gave us the go-ahead to build a one-off running version—a roughly one-million-dollar commitment. He also instructed the marketing group to clinic the vehicle’s potential as an addition to the lineup. All this from a project that had not been assigned.
The truck was named the Gobi and was introduced at the Detroit International Auto Show in 1990. It traveled the international circuit for over three years, accruing countless awards and acclaim, including Car of the Show in Detroit, the Gold Medal from the Industrial Designers Society of America, and Time magazine’s Transportation Product of the Year in 1990. Several films about it were made, including a European documentary on its conception by the renowned filmmakers Eila Hershon and Roberto Guerra and released around the world in several languages.2
The vehicle was never mass-produced, however. The clinics had found, to no great surprise, that the design polarized opinion. Furthermore, the early nineties were a time of increasingly sensitive trade and economic issues between Japan and America, and it was not deemed a wise moment to expand the product line. Nevertheless, the Gobi was probably the single most impactful car Nissan never manufactured. Alex Taylor of Fortune magazine called it at the time the “finest unbuilt vehicle in the world.”
While disappointed the car was never released for sale, we were nonetheless gratified that the project introduced the language of design into the corporate strategy dialogue. It had a profound impact on the way Nissan (and other corporations) thought about trucks, entry-level vehicles, design, and the market.
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