Elon Musk is doing right by design. In a recent interview on Y Combinator (often called the world's No. 1 startup incubator), Musk explained that he spends 80 percent of his time on engineering and design, developing next-generation products. He is what I call a designers' CEO.
Musk's optimism in the face of great odds (SpaceX, the company he founded "to revolutionize space technology," had a 10 percent chance of success at the onset); his belief that beauty is as important as the usefulness of products (from the Tesla door handles to his more recent aspiration to bring aesthetics to SolarCity tiles); his strong sense of empathy with others (feeling for every parent who ever put a child's seats into a minivan, which led to Tesla's falcon wing doors); and the humanity with which he goes after what designers call "wicked problems" (e.g. multiplanetary habitation) make him, if not a designer, a rare and much welcome enabler of ground-breaking design.
Here's what makes Musk a "designful" leader:
1. Proximity to creativity
Do you know of any other CEO today that can say they spend 80 percent of their time developing the next generation of products? Musk spends half a day each week at the Tesla design studio, sitting next to Tesla's chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen. There is an intentional physical closeness, a proximity to creativity, that is missing in most large corporations. Musk literally rubs elbows with design, which gives him a visceral sense of the problem solving and allows him to partake in the creativity that goes on in the design studio.
2. Having an eye
When Musk started SpaceX, he learned how to build rockets from scratch. He has a similar approach to developing an eye for good design, educating himself visually. He has a mental bank of visual references to help him understand what he's looking for in a design and how to communicate it to the design team. It is this eye that Musk uses to discern beauty.
Musk uses this to distinguish his company from competitors, transforming ugly products into things of beauty--from electric cars (Tesla) to home batteries (Powerwall) to solar tiles (this is in progress at the recently acquired SolarCity).
3. Lead, not follow
Great design takes guts. You're imagining the future based on what you know today, and that requires vision, intuition, inspiration, and leaps of faith in the face of serious risk of failure. Musk joins a small group of people with singular visions of what the world needs, and is not afraid to lead us there. Steve Jobs belongs in that group. As does mid-century pioneer George Nelson, designer and author. What Nelson wrote for the Herman Miller catalogue, as quoted in Ralph Caplan's book, The Design of Herman Miller, can speak for all three men:
You decide what you will make. Herman Miller has never done any market research or any pretesting of its products to determine what the market "will accept." If designer and management like a solution to a particular furniture problem, it is put into production. There is no attempt to conform to the so-called norms of "public taste," nor any special faith in the methods used to evaluate the "buying public."
4. Understanding humans
Perhaps what most makes Musk a designers' CEO is his capacity for empathy. Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and feel their pain, is design's guiding principle. Everything that Musk does, from creating affordable solar energy to founding the Boring Company to bring cities closer to each other, he does because he cares deeply about people. Musk is an advocate for people and aims to remove longstanding obstacles from our lives using design and engineering.
His approach reminds me of something Marty Neumeier talks about in his book The Designful Company: "For businesses to bottle the kind of experiences that focus minds and intoxicate hearts, they'll need to do more than HIRE designers. They'll need to BE designers."
If you know more design enablers, I would love to hear from you about who they are and their qualities. We, designers and our customers, need more of them.
Design the life you love!