Learning from Singer

This factory tour is incredibly interesting, for three reasons.

First, the Porsche 911 reimagined by Singer Vehicle Design. It’s beautiful and seductive and I just want to jump in one and back it into corners. It’s an exemplary instance of the right group of people doing something absolutely to the hilt and beyond. Singer’s mantra “Everything is Important” shines through on every detail of the car and its production process. It’s so rare to come across an object designed and produced without regard to cost, and it’s instructive to observe how that mindset shapes the finished product and the way the market receives it. (Spoiler: as revealed toward the end of the video, they don’t have to engage in any traditional go-to-market activities in order to sell these Porsches; demand is so high that they’re going to cap production lest Singer inadvertently jump the shark.)

Roman Mars exhorts us to Always Read the Plaque; in much the same way here at metacool HQ we endeavor to Always Take the Factory Tour. Always. In this case, Singer’s factory is a fascinating mix of industrial recycling (upcycling) center, Saville Row backroom, and aerospace carbon fiber fabrication skunkworks. So perhaps the second notable thing about this video is what it can teach us about organizational culture. Now, culture is about what you do and how people behave as opposed to what you say you do and how you hope people behave. And there’s no place in an organization more oriented toward the doing of things than a manufacturing line. It’s literally where the things that customers pay for are produced. From that standpoint, what we witness on the tour reveals so much of what makes Singer tick. This is no slick tour of Singer produced by a PR agency — it’s just CEO Mazen Fawaz taking us on an unscripted stroll around the building. A telling moment in the tour happens at the 1:35 mark where Mazen informs us that each incoming “donor” Porsche 964 gets dismantled offsite because doing so under this roof would be too messy. Not an obvious choice to make from a business perspective: more complex, likely more expensive. But, with that operating decision in mind, look at the gleaming white floors of the Singer factory as evidence that what the CEO says, what actually happens in the factory (or doesn’t, in the case of incoming car processing), and the stated company mantra are all in alignment. Everything is in fact important at Singer, and is executed upon as such.

Third, Quadrant Four and the future of objects whose value is rooted in the fact that they are singularly designed to evoke certain types of strong emotions. Eight years ago, at the behest of Reilly Brennan’s Future of Transportation forum, we discussed the forking of the 20th century conception of the automobile. Simply put, four radically different types of vehicles result from this fork in the road, the most interesting of which is called Quadrant Four. Per that 2015 essay:

Internal Combustion-powered cars as the new Patek Philippe watch—more complex and less capable than their solid-state cousins, but a visceral thrill as well as a status symbol for those who choose to display their money this way. The recent run-up in prices of vintage Porsches is evidence that non-autonomous cars with manual transmissions and gas motors are already being priced in anticipation of this scenario—the thrill of driving a complex machine fast will become a rarefied luxury experience. Here cars really will be like horses, a pastime of enthusiasts, with dedicated spaces for frolicking. 

Singer, the vehicles it creates, and all of its commercial success represent an existence proof for the idea of Quadrant Four. On paper, a reimagined Porsche 911 rolling out of the Singer factory is not quantifiably a better automobile than the brand new 992 you might spy on your local dealer’s lot. The newer 911 is faster, more economical, cleaner, safer. But for many people, a Singer is an infinitely more interesting (and therefore valuable) car — a car being the antithesis of a computerized, close-to-perfection auto-mobile. As Porsche from Singer is something you want to fall in love with, much as you would a horse, a mechanical watch, an old house, or any other analog object.

Isn’t that the point of creating great stuff? Making things that people can love?

“What is Design?”, by Bill Moggridge

This lecture by the late Bill Moggridge is seven years old today. I remember watching it just after it was published, and just saw it again today. Believe it or not, I came across it as I was searching for something else, and today just happens to be its anniversary.

It’s a fabulous talk — I hope you can find the time to listen to Bill’s thoughts, and to get a sense of the man and his nuanced and deep knowledge of the design process, as well as his wonderful sense of humor.

Bill’s talk provides a wonderful answer to the question embedded in its title.

Watching it today, I realize how much of the future visions Bill showed in 2010 (i.e., the Intel mobility video) have come to be a part of quotidien life.

A Conversation With Michael Dearing

I typically don’t go around trumpeting the arrival my latest pod episode to friends and family. Everyone is busy with their own thing, and I figure that if they’re going to listen to it, they’re going to find their own way to it. Human nature being what it is, they’re not likely to establish a listening habit just because I’m reminding them that HEY, I JUST POURED MY SOUL INTO MAKING THIS LATEST RECORDING.

That’s overstating it a bit, but for me, compared to writing words on a screen/page, speaking into a microphone represents a markedly higher level of personal commitment, involvement, and vulnerability. You can edit an audio track, but your voice is your voice, and it’s challenging to read pre-written stuff on the air — it only sounds right when it’s done wholly or partially off-the-cuff. If writing is close to the iterative, drawn-out process of designing something, then podding is akin to the real-time dynamic of playing jazz saxophone

Having said all of that, here’s my latest pod episode, one I think you will like:

Michael is the founder of Harrison Metal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he did a ton of remarkable things before launching Harrison Metal, too. Michael and I met over ten years ago when he helped out as an “Industry Coach” for the Creating Infectious Action class which Bob Sutton and I used to teach at the Stanford d.school. He subsequently became a Consulting Associate Professor at the d.school, and it was fun to be on the faculty there together.

I am a big fan of Michael’s character and intellect, from which it follows that I am also a big fan of his feed on the Twitter. For this pod, we use that as a launchpad to talk about venture mechanics, gross margin, the clocks in Greenwich, modern capitalism, organizational life, why Harrison Metal is called Harrison Metal, and how a certain type of aquatic mammal will inherit the earth.

With the release of each new pod over the past year (save for one), I’ve consistently felt like the latest one is my favorite one ever. Ferry Porsche once said something similar, that his favorite Porsche was the one yet to be designed. My favorite pod is actually the next one to be recorded: I learn so much making these, I listen to other people’s work and learn from it, and I try to roll whatever insights I’ve had into our next recording. So it’s safe to say that this episode is by far my favorite one until we record another one.

But who knows? — perhaps this is the high water mark. Let’s ask the dolphins.


The New Yorker, Om Malik, Porsche, Apple, etc..

Porsche Paddock by Diego Rodriguez

A week or so ago Om Malik asked me for my thoughts on the design history of Porsche and how it might relate to that of Apple. I sent him some links to some good articles about Porsche design (including this interview I did with Porsche’s Michael Mauer), as well as to some of Karl Ludvigsen’s remarkable books on Porsche. A few days later Om contacted me for a quote about Apple and Porsche, which I duly supplied.

All of this came together in a wonderful essay he wrote for The New Yorker titled Apple, Samsung, and Good Design — Inside and Out.  Here’s an excerpt:

In 1947, Porsche began work on its 356. In many ways it was like the original iPhone. It wasn’t perfect. It was underpowered. But it was streamlined and aerodynamic. From the 356 to the 911, a distinctive marriage of form, function, design, and brand ruled every design. It became the core around which Porsche was built.

Porsche’s and Apple’s design philosophies are similar. Much like the 356, the original iPhone was about defining a foundation for the future. It was different from other phones on the market—it made a rectangular touchscreen the main way to interact, displacing buttons and keypads. Now the iPhone is the essence of a phone.

The MacBook, the iPad, and the iPhone are all a study in constant refinement. Sure, there are product designs that leave us scratching our heads—having a USB-C charging port on one laptop and something else on another, for example—but place the first iPhone next to the latest one and you can see their common language. The same goes for the iPad and the MacBook.

“Families of aspirational products share a strong design language—the code which describes how they look, feel, and function. Like a thriving spoken tongue, a vibrant design language is shaped by where it’s been, yet it also evolves by appropriating new bits from contemporary culture,” Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO, a San Francisco-based design studio, said. “This is the case with Apple, where you can clearly see design elements from the original PowerBook in the iPhone 7.”

These are obviously topics which I loved thinking about, and it was a pleasure to appear in Om’s piece.

Good stuff!

photo credit: me


What Will You Drive in 2025?

metacool IDEO Cody

It’s very likely that the cars we drive in 2025 won’t feel anything like those we use today. Over the next few years, all the technological, legal, and societal factors required for viable self-driving cars are likely to fall into place. By 2025, autonomous vehicles may very well be the norm in many cities and highways around the world.*

As the duty for driving shifts from humans to computers, our shared definition of what a car is will undergo a radical transformation. When you think about it, the modern automobile still hews closely to a design template set by the Ford Model T: four wheels, a gasoline engine, some forward-facing seats, and a steering wheel for the driver. By 2025 that monolithic automotive design paradigm will fork to create multiple new branches on the family tree, each representing a new species of car. Some will be fully robotic, others will not. Some will be powered by batteries or fuel cells. Some will be for active driving, but most will be designed passive ridership.

So self-driving cars present a fork in the road, and we need to take it. Here’s the design opportunity: if we proceed thoughtfully and with some deliberation, this branching of the automotive tree could increase our access to high-quality mobility while making it a better experience, too.

What would this branching look like? Former BMW design chief Chris Bangle can help here. In a design conversation that he and I shared a few years ago, he articulated a nuanced distinction between “cars” and “auto-mobiles”. A “car” is an emotionally evocative machine such as the Jaguar E-Type. An “auto-mobile” serves up utilitarian transportation with a minimum of fuss, such as the anonymous (but competent) sedan I rented at the airport last week. Whether or not it’s a “car” or an “auto-mobile” that gets created depends on the point-of-view of its designers.

To further explore the idea of branching the car, let’s explore the quadrants created when we overlay two axes: on the horizontal, the point-of-view behind a car’s design, and on the vertical the degree to which it can drive autonomously:

Here’s a brief discussion of what’s happening in each of these four quadrants:

metacool four quadrants of future mobility

Quadrant One: Human + Utilitarian

post-fork opportunity: None. Auto-mobiles in this category will eventually cease to exist as human drivers become uneconomical for routine activities.
examples: present-day taxis, UPS trucks

Quadrant Two: Self-Driving + Utilitarian

post-fork opportunity: Big gains for the likes of UPS and Uber, as robotic delivery auto-mobiles carry goods with higher levels of efficiency and utilization. Also, a better commuter experience: individual passenger auto-mobile pods become akin to public transportation, with shared or societal ownership.
examples: Cody the Mule, Google self-driving car prototypes

Quadrant Three: Self-Driving + Emotional

post-fork opportunity: The $100,000,000,000 question: what exactly is a car that’s as fabulous as a Mandarin Oriental lobby but willing to drive us anywhere we want to go? Massive innovation opportunities to be had here—we can’t yet imagine the experiences created by these types of cars.
examples: None extant today, though the remarkable Porsche Mission E concept provides a small glimpse of this future. Given their highly emotive designs, I wouldn’t be surprised if people want to own (or lease) these living rooms on wheels.

Quadrant Four: Human + Emotional

post-fork opportunity: Internal Combustion-powered cars as the new Patek Philippe watch—more complex and less capable than their solid-state cousins, but a visceral thrill as well as a status symbol for those who choose to display their money this way. The recent run-up in prices of vintage Porsches is evidence that non-autonomous cars with manual transmissions and gas motors are already being priced in anticipation of this scenario—the thrill of driving a complex machine fast will become a rarefied luxury experience. Here cars really will be like horses, a pastime of enthusiasts, with dedicated spaces for frolicking. Might regulations evolve to exempt future Quadrant 4 designs from mainstream crash tests and insurance guidelines? Could be.
examples: a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, the Goodwood Revival

So when this happens, we may have an automotive tree with three distinct branches: Quadrants 2, 3, and 4. Once we fork the car, Quadrant 1 ceases to be a typology of car you’d see on the street. The emergence of the other three automotive species has interesting implications for purveyors and consumers of mobility in 2025.

Today’s automakers still market a dream that smells like Quadrant 4, but as a viable business proposition, this market will radically contract. Simply put, many of us will cease to buy cars that we ever expect to drive. Current auto manufacturers could, however, take their marketing and design savvy and go create emotionally rich mobility experiences for Quadrant 3, and we may buy those instead. This isn’t to say that Quadrant 4 won’t be a lucrative place to do business, but it may the sole hunting grounds of storied marques the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Lotus, whose bonafides were established in the heroic age of car racing.

There’s enormous value to be claimed by new entrants into this forked mobility market. If Quadrant 3 is about the experience you have riding in your car (as opposed to driving it), brands such as Virgin and Disney now have a right to play as purveyors of mobility. Because it’s difficult to teach elephants new dance steps, it may be easier for a customer experience-focused brand like Apple to be successful in this quadrant than to take a car company and make it act as a service or software creator would. And with their emphasis on achieving efficiencies of scope and scale through the control of comprehensive data sets, organizations such as Amazon and Alibaba could dominate the landscape of Quadrant 2.
With change comes great opportunity. It’s high time to branch the car, and to start creating exciting new directions for the future.


*  It could very well take longer than a decade for all the pieces of the puzzle to get sorted out, so I’m using 2025 here just for the sake of argument. A decade implies two or three product cycles for the auto industry, but is a lifetime when it comes to digital devices, which live on an accelerated schedule dictated by Moore’s Law. So while it’s not wise to predict the exact timing of the changes we’ll see in the automotive landscape, the shifts I describe above do seem inevitable. Plus, the year 2025 makes for a headline that rhymes.

Many thanks to Piper Loyd for creating the 2×2 graphic above.

Back to the Future with MARTY!


Today is Back to the Future Day! But via some Silicon Valley-enabled time travel, I celebrated it a bit early at a special Revs Program at Stanford unveiling held last evening. It was the debut of MARTY, an electric, self-driving DeLorean designed to execute gnarly drifts.

Yes, you read that right: a flux-motivated DeLorean DMC-12 that not only drives itself, but likes to get as sideways as Jeff Zwart zooming up Pikes Peak:

Dr. Emmett Brown would be so proud!

MARTY—a delightful acronym which stands for Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control—is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of Stanford innovators. Professor Chris Gerdes of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research led a team of students who took a stock, gas-powered DeLorean and transformed it into MARTY. Along the way, they created almost everything from scratch, from the code guiding MARTY through the world to the rollcage protecting its passengers to a new suspension design meant to help keep those spinning tires connected to the tarmac. Their industry partner for this adventure was Renovo Motors, creators of some incredibly exciting new electric vehicle technologies.

Why go through all of this trouble to enable an old hunk of British fiberglass and stainless steel to run and weave with the effortless grace of Raheem Sterling? Here’s what Professor Gerdes has to say about the vision behind the project:

We want to design automated vehicles that can take any action necessary to avoid an accident. The laws of physics will limit what the car can do, but we think the software should be capable of any possible maneuver within those limits. MARTY is another step in this direction, thanks to the passion and hard work of our students.

From a strictly rational point of view, the team didn’t need to start with a DeLorean. But it provided a fun way to go on this learning journey, one that has a higher purpose around safety and the future of transportation.


Last night’s Revs Program event featured two individuals who went on that quest for knowledge, Stanford students Jonathan Goh and Shannon McClintock. They were there to represent the larger team of students who put in thousands of hours bringing MARTY to life. I found their story of learning by doing deeply inspiring; it was all about plunging head-first into an incredibly complex problem, and succeeding via a process of enlightened trial and error. Professor Gerdes best summed up the spirit of the evening with this powerful statement about what makes for a transformative educational experience:

Unless you’ve built it and broken it, you really don’t understand it.

Powerful words to live by for innovators everywhere.

On that note, over the next few weeks I’ll be writing here about future innovation opportunities created by the advent of autonomous cars. What I love about MARTY is how it takes the premise of the autonomous automobile—whose narrative has heretofore been dominated by stories of appliance-like conveyance experiences between points A and B—and injects a whole new point of view about dynamism and perhaps even just some plain old fun. What might our future be like if we choose to create self-driving cars with positive emotions as a design priority?

Robotic doughnuts, anyone?


images & videos courtesy of Stanford University

Bloated? Confused? Lost? How to Avoid the Taco Time Trap

So many outrageous layers of carbs and fats in that “taco”! More guacamolito sauce, please!

But seriously, how many things in your life suffer from what I call the Taco Town Trap? Think of all the needlessly bloated and complex products and services we encounter each day. I’m talking about smartphone operating systems with more features than any of us will ever grok. Or cars with automatic fragrance dispensers. And for all you US citizens in LinkedIn land, need I mention the fried-taco-crepe-wrapped-in-a-Chicago-pizza set of income tax forms we struggle to fill out each April?

Thankfully, there’s a relatively straightforward way to bypass the Taco Town Trap: have a Point of View. It’s a concept from the literary world, and it’s also one that we use liberally at the Stanford d.school, where we reduce it down to the shorthand of “POV”. In fact, here’s the format we use when we’re teaching students how to formulate a POV:

Point of View:

[ a human ] needs to [ the human’s need ] because of [ your insight ]

A Point of View is simply a statement about what really matters. And by omission, what does not. As you’re creating something new—or going back to update something already in play—your POV is your bedrock, a touchstone to go back to over and over to assess whether that new feature is really a good idea. Throughout the challenging process of making decisions about what to create, it makes it easy to say “yes” or “no”. As it turns out, life gets a lot simpler when you can feel good about “no” being a complete sentence. And the results are generally much, much better.

How to arrive at a strong POV? It’s not difficult or mysterious. You need to get out from behind your desk and get yourself out in the world. Experience things firsthand. Listen to real people. Feel things, deeply. Use all of that to formulate your Point of View, and then test it with people by showing them prototypes of your vision so that they can feel it, too.

At the end of the day, it’s a confidence thing. When we don’t know which way is up, our instinct is to throw everything in, including the kitchen sink, a tote bag, and a few gordita shells. That’s the safe and easy path. But having a Point of View means making trade-offs and subtracting the inessential. Listen to everything, but do only what is right. The resulting focus is incredibly attractive; if you track down the origins of all the remarkable products, services, movies, music, and books that you love, I guarantee you’ll find a crystal clear POV at their origin. My list of POV all-stars includes Duke Ellington, the Palm V, Chuck Taylor shoes, the Porsche 356, and The Big Lebowski.

When it comes to the Taco Town Trap, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pouring guacamolito sauce on your mountain of a taco. You just need to know why it’s there!

Thoughts from the Bits + Blocks Lab

metacool IDEO Bits + Blocks Lab

This past summer we created something called the Bits + Blocks Lab, focused on the blockchain. We’ve been working on it since December of 2014, so I’ve learned quite a bit about Bitcoin and the blockchain.

But this is not a post about the blockchain. One of our summer interns, Shuya Gong, who worked in the lab on a design team, wrote a great piece about the insights her summer gave her into the innovation process. I won’t publish the entire thing here, but here’s a link to a post I made on my LinkedIn Influencer page.

Here’s an overview of Shuya’s seven insights on innovating:

  1. Don’t Get Ready, Get Started
  2. Fail Early and Often
  3. Have the Creative Confidence to Design New Worlds
  4. Innovation Loves Urgency
  5. KYC
  6. Work With Your Friends
  7. Choose to be Inspired


Profits and Validity, the Validity of Profits

I came across this stunner of a Peter Drucker quote earlier this week:

Profit is not the purpose of a business, it’s the test of its validity.

There are two ways to take this, both of which are important topics of conversation for anyone involved in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life.

First is the sense that making money is not the measure of a business, but is rather a measure of how you do business. Profit is not the motive, it is output of an equation.

This interpretation easily takes on a slight moral tinge, however, and does force us to ask questions about various types of business operations and the profits they create. When it comes to entities such as hedge funds (or at least the ones that actually make money), does the end justify the means? Are they more valid than others due to the extreme magnitude of profits that they generate? At a personal level, I made a decision a long time ago that I would rather be part of a business organization that treated everyone involved—customers, employees, business partners, society, the planet—exceptionally well over one that didn’t, even if the consequence of doing so was a diminished financial return. I believe what we should aspire to is a business that constantly seeks ever higher levels of validity, where the the standard of what is valid is defined as activities which increase the happiness and well-being of all those directly and indirectly involved. A business that creates wealth in this way provides for those under its roof without harming those who live outside of it.

My second interpretation of Drucker’s saying comes from the worldview of venture design. Just as you don’t feed a puppy the kind or quantity of food you provide to a mature dog, so it is that a startup requires a different standard of care and feeding than does an endup. Too much money or resources or people too early can, ironically, cause your nascent venture to crash. It’s a lot easier to scale something once you have a deep understanding of what its value drivers are. Before that point, giving it all the things it desires is actually bad for it, as all of those extra people and resources require attention of their own, which distracts the entire endeavor from figuring out the existential question of what it is and what it should be.

In that light, I’m quite fond of Clay Christensen’s notion of being impatient for profit and patient for growth: in the early days of a venture, we should be striving for profitability as a way to ascertain whether we’re creating real value out in the world. If you believe that ventures are designed (as I do), and that constraints fuel creativity, then agreeing upon profitability as a hard constraint will help the people growing the new venture to focus—really focus—on understanding the key drivers of value creation: creating new experiences that bring value to a person’s life, and differentiating that experience from all other alternatives in a way that’s authentic and memorable. A business that’s profitable AND whose customers love what it does is a valid one.

Both interpretations of Drucker’s aphorism work well together, actually: profits alone are not enough, nor is providing the perfect product or service if it can’t sustain itself, and by extension, the people who create it and the society they live in.

I’m thinking out loud here, so would love to hear what other people think.