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DISRUPTIVE DESIGN

The Model T: The Unexpected Lessons Behind One of History's Biggest Design Marvels

The Model T wasn't the first car invented, but its revolutionary design helped Ford disrupt the entire automobile industry.
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Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that examines the lessons behind the most disruptive products in history through the lens of design.

As an entrepreneur, you've probably been advised multiple times during your career not to "reinvent the wheel" when designing products. 

While it is extremely rare for a company to revolutionize an entire industry with a new product, disruption does require a certain degree of reinvention, and it beings with design.

One of the first truly disruptive products to hit the U.S. market came in 1908 with Henry Ford's Model T. Though it was not Ford's first car--coming after Models A, C, N and S--and production only lasted 19 years, the T's streamlined design (and its now famous assembly line) transformed the automobile industry. It was the first mass-produced and affordably priced car in the U.S.

Here are three aspects of the Model T's design that helped it dominate the U.S. market, accounting for 40 percent of all American car sales at the height of its popularity:

Design with your customers in mind. 

Because Henry Ford grew up on a farm, he wanted the Model T to handle well even on bumpy, dirt roads. To achieve this, Ford designed a suspension system with a triangular configuration that allowed the front and rear axles to flex without damaging the engine.

Don't overlook what's going on behind the scenes.

While the assembly line had already been adopted for use in other industries, Ford was the first automobile manufacturer to combine precision components with continuously-moving assembly to build cars. By 1914, Ford was producing far more cars than any other company thanks to the assembly line.

Don't be afraid to go against the grain.

It might sound strange, but placing steering wheels on the left side of cars wasn't standard in the U.S. It was a design decision that changed the entire automobile industry--in spite of its seemingly odd ball nature. The success of the left-hand drive Model T led to a standardized layout in both the U.S. and Europe.

Even though the Model T wasn't the first automobile or even Ford's first automobile, its revolutionary design and manufacturing process disrupted the entire industry, eventually enabling Ford to drop the price from $850 in 1908 to less than $300 by 1925.

So next time someone tells you not to reinvent the wheel with your business, think long and hard before taking their advice. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jul 24, 2014

GRAHAM WINFREY

Graham Winfrey is a staff writer for Inc.com. He previously covered alternative investments at Private Equity International magazine, prior to which he worked at Business Insider and msnbc.com. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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