Every entrepreneur tries to create something new. Even if it's just a slightly different way to solve an old problem, every entrepreneur hopes to put his or her individual stamp on a product, or service, or business. 

Yet trying to be innovative feels, at least for most people, almost impossible. Most of us don't have a "creativity switch" we can turn on whenever we need.

Now imagine you work for a major automobile manufacturer and you've just been told that all cars will to some degree be electrified by 2021 -- and it's your job to design exactly what that future will look like.

That's the challenge facing Karim Habib, Executive Design Director for INFINITI (the luxury division of Nissan), and his team of designers. 

I talked with Karim about the nature of practical design... and how people who don't feel they are particularly creative can come up with innovative ideas that not only appeal to customers... but also work.

You know your brief: All new INFINITI cars will be electrified by 2021. That creates opportunities and challenges. So where do you start? 

You're right. Looking at the future of cars in an electrified era, what that means for our customers... that gives our talented team the opportunity to look at every aspect of the car. And you're also right that the opportunity brings with it some challenges.

So where do we start? With the people who will drive our cars. New features and new designs are great, but what really matters is how you live with your car on a day-to-day basis. 

The expectation of what a car is and does has slowly evolved for the last hundred years. There's a strong legacy there. Customers have definite expectations customers in terms of what they know and want and expect from cars.

But the time is also not just technologically but sociologically right for something new. The demand for new experiences, for a new quality of life that a car can bring... it's there.

Yet you also can't go too "new." Attracting new customers can't involve the expense of losing long-time, loyal customers.

INFINITI is a relatively small brand. I like to think that means we're more nimble. We're more able to bring along the customers we have... and hopefully win new ones, too.

And keep in mind that's not a new challenge in the automotive industry or in any industry. Consistently striking that balance is the hallmark of a lasting brand.

As a designer, it's your job to come up with new things. How do you determine whether a design you create is one that other people will like, too? 

That's what drives us as designers. And of course that's an issue for anyone who is creative and wants to invent and to do new things.

First, you have to have a certain amount of personal conviction. but you can't stop there. Then you need to conduct deep, thorough research in terms of how the world around you is developing, to try to understand how permanent changes can evolve from current trends... and in a broader sense understand how the world will evolve.

And then layer in your customers, the people who will use your product.

If I had to do all that... I'd end up having no idea if my idea was any good.

(Laughs.) We tend to be convinced that what we do is great... but every good designer has a healthy dose of self-skepticism. Good designers have the ability to question themselves. 

That's the nature of practical design. Ultimately we want to see our designs out in the world. We want to see people use what we design, appreciate what we design... so it can never just be about what you think is great. 

I think that's where a small business owner has an advantage. You know your customers. You know your market. You know what they want and need. It's natural to balance that with your opinion. That makes it easy to step back and see things objectively.

What is the key to leading creative people?

Leading creative people involves striking a delicate balance. It's extremely important to let them roam free, to encourage them to be completely creative, to be irreverent regarding many of the rules that exist today... but you also have to find a way to bring things home.

More often than not, it can be more difficult to get the more creative people to deliver things at the right time. 

In the end, leading creative people is like leading any kind of team. Set goals and expectations, and then do your best to allow people to use their skills, experience, and creativity to solve those problems or meet those needs. 

You've created some really cool concept car designs where you get to use your imagination without limitations. How do you layer in the practical aspect? 

The practical side of design is the challenge and reward of industrial design. In a way that's the core of the profession: We design things that are meant to be built thousands of times. We need to design things that work within a system that allows mass replication.

Constraints are actually a great starting point: Having no limits or constraints can actually be paralyzing. (Laughs.)

Constraints are the perfect place to start your problem-solving process. Those challenges spur you on. Sometimes it's good to completely be artistic and poetic and dreamy, but at least for me and most of my colleagues in our profession, finding that balance is motivating and inspiring.

Earlier today we were planning a few creative workshops. We're a Japanese company. Some of us are Japanese, some are not. We're trying to understand the principles of some of the things we admire in Japan. Why were they created that way. What was the thought process? So we're going to Kyoto to learn about calligraphy. We're going to discuss photography with an architectural photographer.

We're here to be innovative and free and create beautiful things. And yes, that is the core of what we do. That's the core of what we do. But we also have to create things that are meant to be manufactured, and that result in a better product for our customers.

Say I want to be more creative or innovative. Tips?

The best place to start is with context: What and where. Do you want it to be on the market now, or a few years from now...? Imagine the context of where your product or service will be. 

For example, at INFINITI we've decided we're going to only build only electrified cars. That is what we're going to do, and we know when we're going to do it.

The reality is, we have to bring those cars to market... and there will be a lot of other cars that are also electrified. That fact automatically sets the bar higher.

So once you understand the context, you realize that "electrified" is not enough. We also have to extend the brand values of INFINITI. We also have to understand what customers will value. And what choices they will have. And the broader environment in which our cars will operate.

Place yourself in another world... and that will spark very different ideas and ways of thinking.

Placing yourself in a future context even more challenging, especially with cars, since autonomous driving, etc. will also be factors.

Absolutely. "Electrified" is a starting point. We're not gong to say, "Okay, instead of a gas engine... we'll just put in an electric motor and the rest of the car will stay the same."  We're mixing electrified with autonomous driving, with shared mobility... we get to help define the future of automobiles. 

Speaking of the future: The nature of automobile design and manufacturing cycles means that what you design today won't appear on the road for several years. Which also means for a long time, you won't know how people respond to what you've designed.

Keep in mind that three years down the line seems long... and it is long... but for the car building process, three years is actually quite quick.

As for how people respond, I can only speak for myself. How things are perceived definitely has an impact on me. I want to do things people like, things that work, things that are functional and appropriate and pleasing...

On the other hand, something I've experienced over the years that I find quite fascinating is that once that car is out... somehow it's not mine anymore. It takes on its own life. I see cars on the road I worked on years ago, cars that have been on the road for a while... and sometimes I don't realize it's something I worked on. (Laughs.)

It's nice when people like what you do, but the larger reality is that as designers we're fortunate to be credited with design... but those designs would be nothing without the army of people that model, engineer, product-plan, prototype, manufacture, market... every other step is just as important.

We do it all together.

I love that part of the business. Working with passionate, talented people doesn't just enrich the final product. It also adds to the experience and enriches my life.

Published on: Nov 13, 2018
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