When I was young, or let’s say younger, as an impetuous designer I believed that all the world needed was more courage, more audacity and more design. There I have to stop, I’m not talking about designing stiletto shaped toothbrushes and uncomfortable sofas, but about real design, the one that really counts, that creates and innovates, the one whose origins stems in the Bauhaus and nowhere else. Well I would include all those that followed on, people like Victor Papanek and his pioneering advocacy for a socially and ecologically more responsible design, his book «Design for the Real World, Human Ecology and Social Change» is still so relevant today, even if it was peripheral when it was published in 1971…
I’m talking about design that thinks about people, about empathy, about social needs, design that does not necessarily dream up the ultimate solution, but simply comes up with something better than whatever existed till then…for you see I was fortunate to have studied under a professor in the last years of his incredibly long career, a certain Naum Slutzky, who was himself a young 23 years old professor at the Bauhaus in Weimar.
But then I went into the automobile industry, something my old mentor Naum Slutzky would not have approved, he who had as a bête noire a certain Raymond Loewy, the father of streamlined locomotives and pencil sharpeners (editor’s note: American Industrial Design ‘When style and desire complement function’ Loewy). But so it was, and quickly my raison d’être changed to only retain what was still within my sphere of palpable influence, my scope, to fight for audacity and a certain approach towards innovation, be it related to product as well as organization. I was involved with so many projects in the various companies I worked for, in various parts of the world, and I have to admit that I did not always respect the engagement that I had set myself as a young man, I worked exclusively on automotive products be they cars, light commercial vehicles, trucks, buses, agricultural tractors, bikes, scooters and odd wheel machines, in an industry not governed in the early seventies by social responsibility.
I made the sombre calculation that, all in all, I have been associated with the production of something like 60 million vehicles. Can you imagine that? this is the equivalent of a bumper to bumper single lane traffic jam that would measure 247,200,000 Km, that is to say 6,168 times around the earth, or if in a 3 lane traffic jam, that’s still would be a whopping 2,056 times around our long suffering planet. As years came and went I felt for ever more concerned with the machine that had been unleashed. I still loved it, but I increasingly hated the superficiality associated with designing ego boosters, with pre-Viagra equivalents to the famous blue pill…
Being ‘collectively’ different
But I continued to soldier on in love with the short circuit perspective of being ahead, of being what I thought could be classified as innovative, namely what I had accepted for choice of a better definition, as being different…
Concurrently, as time has gone by, as experience has marked me by it’s imprint, I’ve noted how we have moved, step by step, from solitary to collective genius. I’ve also experienced over and over again, how important leadership is, and that it is more important to teach people how to go fishing rather than supply them with a daily ration of fish.”
And so my career was marked by a few products like a rather innovative truck, the Ford Cargo, then the Ford Sierra, and of course the Renault Twingo, Kangoo, Espace, Scénic, Avantime and others…
Some were not so successful but, as a respected American journalist, Robert Cumberford, once wrote about my overall contribution to the wealth of the companies I had worked for, he said that, all in all, it had been an overwhelmingly positive record. Nevertheless I did have my downs, even if my previous boss and CEO, Louis Schweitzer, said that it was thanks to the success of a vehicle that I championed, the Scénic, that Renault bought a majority share in Nissan, yes my record is not spotless white, far from it, but it does have some high peaks…
Fighting for an innovative identity (Twingo)
Years went by, projects came and went, most of the more ambitious products were the result of extraordinary battles of «US against THEM», every project resembled the previous one, each one a struggle… Heads against heads, knuckles against knuckles, fighting the system that had expressed itself through the head of Engineering, to which the entity Styling as it then was known, reported to. When asked what was the role of the Styling Department in the organization he replied : «To dress up the hunchback», meaning : just putting a nice superficial skin on an ill proportioned, bizarre looking concept.
If you think the original Twingo looked so right, don’t even think that it was a consensual project, it was not. It even got to the point that I had to make a desperate appeal to save the design from the greymen who wanted a «me too» product, I sent a note to the then CEO of the company, Raymond Lévy, with the following message : « I think the biggest risk for the company is not to take any risks, I ask you to make a choice for an instinctive design rather than extinctive marketing». Raymond Lévy replied «Totally agree, go ahead!»
Stimulating creativity with constraints (Logan)
Many years later Louis Schweitzer, the new visionary CEO of Renault, came up with what was to turn up to be a winning hand for the company and a real design challenge that brought back memories of my old professor Naum Slutzky..,Whilst on a visit to Russia, he was fascinated by the profusion of Lada’s, former Fiat 124 sold to Russia by Fiat the Italian manufacturer in exchange for quick rusting Soviet steel. It was a simple, functional, easy to service vehicle (fortunately, as it broke down a lot), he questioned his SVP responsible for sales and Marketing in that part of the world, Manuel Gomez, who accompanied him on this trip wanting to know all that had to be known on the subject of personal mobility in Eastern Europe, he was convinced on a hunch that what the developing world needed was a low cost car providing maximum space, simple yet safe, well built and reliable, economical and affordable… little did he know! He brought back his idea, and soon talked to me about it, I was stunned by the brilliance of the idea, but we were for a very long time, Manuel and I, the only 2 supporters of the project as Louis Schweitzer would later recall the story to Dan Vardie the Rumanian journalist who wrote a book on what was to become known as the Logan, the 5,000€ car.
When I launched the Logan Design brief, I sent out an invitation to whomever wanted to participate to the initial creative phase, in line with past practice. This had the merit of getting together a group of highly motivated designers. Taking into account the unknown attractively of a low-cost project I was unsure how many designers would turn up, two?, eight?, fifteen?, surely not… When I entered the briefing room I found it to be jam packed, all seats were taken, every space was filled by designers standing or seating on the floor. Charles Eames was so right when he said « Constraints can be the designers best friends». They all wanted to have a go, to take up the challenge of designing to cost, to use brains rather than brawn. To design with usage in mind, rather than just redistributing tinsel, effect rather than affect.
And just as the Design department began the project with a shared enthusiasm seldom witnessed, empowered by a mission, the same could not be found with our engineering colleagues who felt that being transfered to the Logan program was a sure sign that they had stumbled in their careers, it was lived as a put out to pastures. After all, who wanted to work on such a primitive concoction?
And so it was the designers with their enthusiasm for tackling constraints head on that generated so much enthusiasm that it soon caught up all those that worked on the project, be they designers, engineers, product planers, marketers, sociologists and ethnologists. Suddenly the designers were not fighting the engineers, but working so close with them to find an even better way of eliminating a stamping operation, reducing material cost, integrating several functions in one component, helping to identify potential carry across parts. The result was a very practical, functional design, if not a beauty as it suffered from very upright sides, resembling a commercial vehicle, the result of our will to reduce investment by sharing doors with the station wagon that was to lodge two 90 percentile adults in the third row of seats. It nevertheless not only answered the objectives that had been set for it, namely to respond to Eastern Europe’s needs for mobility, but it also caught the mood of a certain part of Western Europe tired of playing the game, of bigger is better and encore for more, a mood that was lying low, just below the horizon, ready to emerge when a sign would appear. Already in the late 80’s in Germany I recall the premise of that mood, in what was called : «Die neue Besheidenheit», the new modesty. The Logan was launched in the rest of Europe and became an instant success, Ten years later it has become the biggest profit maker of Renault and a world wide success.
Logan was also a trampoline for a far better working relationship that developed between all parties on future programs. We had learned to work together rather than in spite of each other, we had learned to better mix teams of men and women in multidisciplinary get togethers, away from home in our satellite Design centers. This is the way that the highly innovative Twizy project was born, we had moved from a phase of obtaining innovation by hitting heads together to a far more conclusive rubbing brains together.
(Editor’s note: “Creativity thrives on constraints” used to say Marissa at Google)
Breakthrough creativity, thinking systems beyond products (Twizy)
Twizy the innovative 4 wheel electric commuter became a test bed for an organizational revolution that led to the set up of an advanced development entity, at the fuzzy frontiers of many creative departments, clearly set up on the collaborative mood that existed in our satellite design centers, close to the IDEO model. Named LCI, or Laboratoire Collaboratif de l’Innovation (Collaborative Laboratory for Innovation) it’s first years have been marked by a renewed surge in highly creative, highly innovative projects, it worked!!
Give innovation a chance, by giving those that create an environment that is conducive of building trust, of freeing their spirits, of dreaming, banning the fear of failure, allowing people to continuously pick up the pieces and build something new, allowing them to rub their brains together and never forgetting that it is not by pulling on flowers that you make them grow faster.
Patrick le Quément is a world famous Car Designer. Patrick’s motto is: Design = Quality; as SVP Renault Corporate Design, his structural changes were to develop an independent and innovative formal language, turning Renault Design in an effective brand name.
Patrick is now working as independant Designer, and President of the Advisory Board “the Sustainable Design School”.