Climbing in through the window

We met with Patrick in a nice restaurant in the 16th district of Paris. Our original plan was to explore his life as a designer, but as we talked, it became obvious that in addition to that, we were also exploring the life of design itself.

I am grateful. I am in a position now to do only things that I like and that really interest me. When I retired from Renault in 2009, many people asked me what I would do next. Most people say that retirement is something that you have to plan and prepare for, but I didn’t prepare anything. I just didn’t have any time. But it is working out well.

As a designer, I am currently working on five separate projects and the 25th major project of my naval design career – collaborating on a luxury yacht design. I have also co-founded and help to run a design school in Nice in southern France called The Sustainable Design School (SDS). I am involved in exciting projects in Africa and Asia as well. I am actually quite busy, in a very satisfying way. Each day, I wake up looking forward to seeing what will happen next.

The world is changing fast. The role of design is changing. And I see that even my view of myself is changing. Change is literally everywhere, and instead of passively waiting for change to happen to me, the trick is to be actively part of shaping the change. That is what design is: actively forming things, whether physical objects, or processes, or systems, or ideas, or experiences.

I am curious about all kinds of things. How does something work? Why is it that way?

What I love above everything else is exploring, investigating, learning. I am curious about all kinds of things. How does something work? Why is it that way? Could it be different? I have had that curiosity my whole life, and it has had a significant impact on my career. Now I am free to let my curiosity take me to places and experiences that I never would have expected or imagined.

You know, there are different ways to enter a room. Most people use the door. But if you want a completely different perspective, try climbing in through the window. All of a sudden, things that you never noticed or thought of before become very important. Especially now, when technical disciplines have become so specialized, it is important for a designer to deliberately change perspective, and to be exposed to completely different worlds and experiences. Sometimes a leader needs to force that kind of change. It is just too easy and tempting for people to stay in their comfortable little boxes.

I like to think of the various disciplines and types of knowledge not as different boxes that are separated from each other by high, insurmountable walls, but rather as little towns and villages that are separated from each other by gently rolling hills. Each one of those villages has its own fascinating culture and its own unique way of doing things. All we have to do is stroll over the hills for a visit and spend time with the people there. Who knows what you will learn from them, or what they might learn from you? That is really the story of my life and of my career, in terms of what I have pursued for myself, and also what I have offered to those around me.

One of the ways I pushed that at Renault was through a program called Trend Missions. Four times a year, we would take a team of designers to visit other design teams and design shows from completely different industries. We would visit fashion shows in Milan, furniture makers in Scandinavia, product designers in Asia, etc. After each trip, the designers would produce a presentation that would be distributed throughout the whole company to let everyone else share in the discoveries – “This is where we were and this is what we saw.” These trips forced our designers to get out and open their eyes and their hearts to new ideas. Without that, I feared we would just copy what our competition was doing.

…as soon as you start playing “Follow the Leader” and you’re getting your design ideas from what the competition is doing, and not from what you know your actual customers need, you might as well try designing your way into the future by looking in the rearview mirror.

That’s actually a criticism I have about the automobile industry in general right now. I know that there are trends and patterns in every industry that look like waves, with periods of high creativity and innovation followed by periods of low creativity and minuscule movements. Right now, it seems to me that very few automotive companies are willing to take big steps, and from my perspective, most are primarily interested in avoiding risk.

To put it bluntly, as soon as you start playing “Follow the Leader” and you’re getting your design ideas from what the competition is doing, and not from what you know your actual customers need, you might as well try designing your way into the future by looking in the rearview mirror. I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of change on the horizon for the automotive industry, far from it. I just wonder who will be driving that change. I notice that Google and Apple, and of course Tesla, are all examples of companies that have strolled over those hills I mentioned, and they seem to like what they see. Of course, that might not end well for incumbent manufacturers, whether that’s in automotive, healthcare, or any other industry for that matter.

My co-founding friends, designer and educator Maurille Larivière, naval architect Marc Van Petegem and myself are preparing for this at the Sustainable Design School in the way that we select students, in the way that we select faculty and in the way that we design and deliver the entire learning experience. When we started, I thought that I would never recover the money that I had invested, and I was fine with that because I really wanted to see the school become a reality. It turns out we are actually doing okay financially, so that has been a very pleasant surprise. It shows that there is a general recognition that things could be done better in the world, and that design can provide some of the answers.

In keeping with our conviction that there is power in differences, at SDS we deliberately alternate traditional classroom learning with practical, hands-on project work, where we partner with leading companies and organizations to solve real business problems. A recent example (that also happens to be one of the projects that I am free to speak about) is a project that Hermès brought to us. In their production process, they generate a significant amount of high-end leather scrap material for which they wanted to find a commercial use. This started out as a small project and has grown into something much larger, as we designed more and more solutions to meet the challenge. Hermès seems delighted with the results and our students are also delighted with the opportunity.

Another example (that unfortunately I’m not allowed to share a lot about) is for Renault, where we are continuing to work on a mobility project in India that includes vehicles, but also designing the entire system and the associated services needed to make the whole idea a reality. Design is much more than making things look pretty.

The list of projects that our student teams are working on is very diverse, and almost all of them require a multi-dimensional approach in order to design a viable solution. That’s why the diversity of our student body is so important. Our students arrive with very different experiences and interests. Most are designers, but we also have many students who approach questions from a financial perspective, or from an engineering perspective, or from a marketing perspective. And that diversity is important in the classroom, and especially when they find themselves working on a project together as part of a student team. Another aspect of diversity that we are deliberate about designing into the project teams is combining senior students with juniors. In all this, we’re trying to mirror corporate life.

The trick is to get the whole team, with their different disciplines and perspectives, united around working towards a shared goal. One exercise that supports that is what we call “collective drawing”. SDS is a design school, so regardless of what kind of artistic abilities our students bring with them, we make sure that they leave the program with real drawing skills. Everyone can learn to draw, and we believe being able to communicate visually is an essential skill.

Our collective drawing exercises take that idea a step further. In collective drawing, our students are assigned to teams and one person starts drawing an object. After five minutes or so, there is a forced rotation and the next person on the team takes over the drawing, and so on, rotating every five minutes. This is a critical exercise because it makes a number of key truths readily apparent, such as: the importance of the first stroke on the paper; that every person is unique and has a unique perspective; that teamwork and communication is difficult (but rewarding); that the sum can be much greater than the parts (not always, though!). It is wonderful to compare the final interpretations of the different teams with each other, to see how these different truths work themselves out in practice, and also how they establish themselves over and over again.

We like forcing students to work both on paper and digitally, because the medium has such a strong influence on the approach, process, and outcome of a design project. This is another important example of how we consciously use differences to improve design and final outcomes. There are strengths and weaknesses to designing digitally compared to designing on paper. One of the most obvious is that, when working with paper, the designer needs to already have a basic idea of what the scope of the final drawing will be before placing the first mark on the paper. Where you start determines where you can end. When working digitally, the designer has more freedom in that regard, because he can just extend the digital canvas if he needs more space.

The historical requirements of this particular market have shaped how things are done today.

I believe all of these different aspects of diversity are important for the development of an effective designer. I see it in my own life and career, and even today I still consciously choose to pursue opportunities that will maximize my exposure to different experiences. This is even true in my private life: I live 15 days in Paris and 15 days in Cassis in the south of France. I choose to do this so I can constantly switch surroundings and change the views I see out the window and on the street. On top of that, I choose conference and consulting opportunities based on their geographic location, on the topics and industries represented, and on what kinds of new experiences I expect to have there. I am constantly pushing myself into new areas, to explore things I didn’t really know about before. And when that happens, and I find myself doing something completely new that I’ve never done, I try to arrive with a great naïveté and openness and basically just ask a lot of silly questions, which is kind of my specialty.

I brought this curiosity with me when I recently had the privilege of working with the space branch of Airbus. Because of the nature of that industry, the things they focus on are often completely different from those I was used to focusing on in the automobile industry. They have an astonishing attention to detail, measuring some specifications even to the millionth of a millimeter! At the same time, they are stuck in such rigid boxes in certain areas that introducing change or even just a different perspective in one of those areas can seem almost impossible.

I am also experiencing some of that in my new activities in the world of boat design. The historical requirements of the boat market have shaped how things are done today. When you only make a small number of boats each year, and each is highly customized for the individual buyer, there is naturally less emphasis on scalable, reproducible systems and processes, and more emphasis on art and craft. In that respect, I think the boat industry can learn a lot from the car industry, and that has been one of the areas where I think I have really been able to help: how to create scalable, reproducible systems and processes. On the other hand, I have been really impressed with how early the boat industry adopted CAD technology in the design process compared to most branches of the car industry. That also has historical reasons – it’s just not feasible to create full-scale models of large boats the way it is done for cars. Digital design tools were quickly identified as ideal solutions in the boat industry.

My invitation to start designing boats came about in an interesting and unexpected way. The CEO of Outremer Yachting specifically wanted a designer from outside of the boat industry to help breathe new life into the product line. Probably, he was already primed to look outside the industry because he himself had come to the boating industry from elsewhere, from The Boston Consulting Group actually. His choice of communication channels was also interesting, in that he reached out to me over LinkedIn.

There are two important observations for me here. First, I notice the strategy of going outside of the expected and familiar to gain new insights and new energy for the company or project. My former boss at Renault, Carlos Ghosn, also followed that strategy when he tasked me with selecting my own successor. His charge to me was to bring someone on board from outside, someone who had an unusual background, rather than just another car guy, to take over design. The second observation is to notice how technology has transformed the way relationship networks are created and maintained. We are in touch with each other because of LinkedIn, which is maybe a small example, but this ability to source and form a team of people with exactly the skills needed for a particular project allows us to respond to market opportunities now with a speed and simplicity that just wasn’t possible before.

This ability to easily network globally led me to one of the most satisfying projects I have been involved in recently. I am currently working on the Mobius vehicle project in Africa, and our collaboration has been almost entirely virtual. Mobius is a great example of human-centered design and embodies a lot of the ideas that we have been discussing. The goal of the project is to create a vehicle that meets the needs of the target market, which are quite different from the needs in Europe or America. At a high level, the specifications include: large cargo capacity, the ability to travel rough roads, very low maintenance cost and even lower purchase cost. This is definitely not a super car project. Frankly, I’m not so interested in those anymore. Who needs another super car? But this Mobius project is a chance to really improve people’s lives, at least in Africa, the primary target market.

Our Mobius team members are located on every continent. I haven’t even met that many of them in real life. And yet, we’ve managed to design a great vehicle together. It’s remarkable what kind of collaboration is possible now. I believe the ability to harness distributed genius to work together towards a common goal is where the opportunity for the future is. And that genius doesn’t need to have the traditional credentials that used to serve as shortcuts for evaluating ability and creativity and expertise, like university degrees or job titles. Today, opportunities are identified fluidly, teams form quickly and organically around those opportunities, and a person’s output, not their credentials, determine if they get a spot on the team or not.

Personally, I am still on a crusade to see design and designers promoted to leadership roles….

I’m sure that a lot of the exciting projects currently being realized in that manner would never even be considered by the R&D departments of large multinational corporations. The business case wouldn’t appear compelling enough, or the idea itself might seem crazy. But I’m also sure that when you tap into someone’s passion and that person is stirred to contribute, and joins other people who share the same passion, amazing things happen. From now on, this is where we will see new innovations coming from, and if I were looking to invest, I’d figure out a way to invest there.

I have a good example of the kind of project I’m talking about. Corentin de Chatelperron is a member of the advisory board at the school, and he is currently spending a lot of time on a very creative boat project he’s leading in Bangladesh. Before I go on, you need to know that Bangladesh is the jute capital of the world. Most of us recognize jute as the material that potato sacks are made out of, and also the stiff, rough backs of carpets. Anyway, after a series of devastating typhoons hit Bangladesh, Corentin travelled there with an NGO humanitarian relief team, co-founded by the famous naval architect Marc Van Petegem, to help rebuild the boat fleets that were destroyed in the storms. He was working in the shipyard, building and repairing boats, and when he looked across the river he could see a large jute mill on the other side.

Now the name “Corentin de Chatelperron” has a very aristocratic ring to it, doesn’t it? But here he had a very non-aristocratic idea: would it be possible to replace fiberglass (the expensive but universally accepted material for ship hulls) with locally sourced jute? He kept looking across the river at the jute mill, and the idea wouldn’t let him go.

So, Corentin started experimenting with jute. What happened next is a great story, and it is a story that is still developing. As we speak, Corentin is proving the seaworthiness of his idea by sailing a jute-hulled boat clear around the world. In America, he might be called a garage inventor, and in India, the project might be viewed as an example of Jugaad. It could also be considered as an example of applying a design thinking approach. The label is not as important to me as the process and the results. I find it really exciting.

Personally, I am still on a crusade to see design and designers promoted to leadership roles in the world as well as in corporate org charts, so that both the more mathematically oriented left-brainers and the more design oriented right-brainers have influence and authority. We need both sides of the brain to function properly. I was able to accomplish that at Renault, seeing design get a seat on the board. I count that as one of my main accomplishments during my time there.

Considering the resources and the vision of people like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, and of companies like Google and Apple, and their apparent commitment to something close to Jugaad, let’s call it frugal engineering, I see big changes on the horizon for all kinds of established industries. I think my own journey, from designing cars to designing educational experiences and boats, is the future. And when whole companies start regularly making similar journeys (which we are already beginning to see happen), it’s clear that there is a lot of change on the horizon. And designers will be giving shape to that change.