We lust after cars. Their branding is rooted in design, meant to be as emotionally appealing as it is about performance. That’s why one car immediately resonates with you more than another. You might not know the horsepower or gas mileage from the exterior, but you know if you like it.
That’s harder to replicate than it seems, even for those in the most cutting-edge industries. While Apple has built its brand around the company’s design language, few other tech companies have been able to follow its lead. This issue is faced by both new and established companies to varying degrees, and broadly illustrated by todays disrupters.
For too long, the technology world has looked at the automotive world as an inefficient backwater. But everyone can learn a lot from the seemingly staid, quietly revolutionary car industry.
First of all, you need to find an outstanding concept. Besides what emerges from the Google X innovation lab, few tech products are consistently used to showcase the leading edge of their platforms. There is no precedent of exhibiting innovation for the rest of the industry. Yet auto companies do this on a yearly basis with concept cars, such as Cadillac’s Elmiraj and Mercedes-Benz’s F 015 Luxury in Motion. While only a fraction of these make it to market, their purpose isn’t to inspire sales. Its to push an industry forward by igniting our imaginations.
Car culture is one of personalization, in which thousands of choices are available to develop one specific vehicle. Color, material, and finish options are endless. Contrast this with the majority of notebooks, phones, and other products in todays technology market: A few colors and storage capacities are generally all that’s offered.
Furthermore, cars aren’t disposable. They are not designed for obsolescence. Their intended average lifespan is 10 years--five times that of your phone and an entire industry exists to fix and preserve your car so it runs for as long as possible, eliminating capital and environmental waste.
Hand-built parts, such as interiors and seats, are common in cars. They make your car yours and allow ownership over a mass-produced object. Some tech designers are experimenting with this level of craftsmanship, but it remains to be seen whether the examples of the Lamborghini smartphones and the Apple Watch Edition collection will help usher customized technologies into more hands.
Finally, many car designers are integral to top management, recognized and celebrated as philosophers and brand ambassadors. Just take Kia president Peter Schreyeralso the company’s chief design officer. Designers are critical to the auto manufacturing process. They’re respected and given responsibility for powerful decisions. That’s a role that more tech companies should consider giving to their designers.
While many gadget makers start their product development with a core innovation, automakers lead with the continuation of a core experience. This is how, even at the same price point, you know a Lexus from a Mercedes, BMW, or Lincoln. By leading with a familiar feeling, rather than with new technology, automakers build long-lasting products and loyalty.
My firm is one of several that now seek to define new products by more than just their new features instead letting experience lead and technology follow. As designers, our next challenge will be pulling entire industries away from safe, cyclical product design and toward personalized, sustained objects.