Opening design

Fred Wilson brags about his portfolio company, Buglabs, opening its redesign process with Ideo to the public — as well he should. Opening up makes sense especially for a company producing what is supposed to be open-source hardware. But it makes sense for any company in most any industry.

In What Would Google Do?, I argue that even automakers should open up design.

What if just one model from one brand were opened up to collaborative design? Once more, I don’t suggest that design should be a democracy. But shouldn’t design at least be a conversation? Designers can put their ideas on the web. Customers can make suggestions and discuss them. Designers can take the best ideas and adapt them, giving credit where it is due. I don’t imagine customers would collaborate on transmission or fuel- pump design—though a few might have great suggestions if given a chance. But they would have a lot to contribute on the passenger compartment, the look of the car, the features, and the options. They could even get involved in economic decisions: Would you be willing to give up power windows if it got you a less- expensive car or a nicer radio? This collaboration would invest customers in the product. It would build excitement. It would get the product talked about on the web and linked to and that would earn it Googlejuice. It could change the relationship of customers to the brand and that would change the brand itself. Imagine that: the collaborative community car—our car.

The entire chapter on on the Googlemobile is supposed to be run in Business Week later this month; I”ll link to it when it goes up.

I also argue in other chapters that there are many ways to open up. When Google puts out a beta – or when a journalist publishes an unfinished story and asks for help – it is a way to open up the design process.

  • tdc

    next time you jump into your hoop-d take a look at the speedometer. why is it the detroit3 build all their iron for the american mkt. to go 120, 140 even 200+mph?

    except for some montana territory, the highest speed limit i know of is 80.

    wouldn’t it curtail high speed pursuits?

    maybe save alot of fuel if everyone slowed down a bit?

    save a sh#tload of (mostly innocent) lives?

  • tdc


    go see gran torino w/ clint eastwood.

    the closing shot is of lakeshore drive– ‘front yard’ to most of the ford family.

  • PXLated

    Isn’t this like focus groups except on the net? The vast majority of focus grouped products fail, would you expect better with this? If so, why?

  • Matthew Drapkin

    Jeff-I am an investor in a company called local motors that is as close to what you describe as I have seen. It was started by a brilliant classmate of my mine from college. Let me know if you would be interested in speaking with him. He was recently profiled in some local boston papers.

  • The Big Three did this heavily with focus groups. You know what happened? The Aztek.

    When will tech people understand that the auto industry and the tech world are completely seperate entities that are mutually exclusive. This does not mean that this is an excuse for the stifling of innovation, but automakers will never be Google.

  • In any open design project the most important question to answer is, who’s involved?

    What do they know about the subject? How do they see it? Is their input valid? When done using certain suggestions will it work? Ugly facts trump beautiful ideas, remember that and you will go far.

  • Jeff,
    Great Post. I did not know about Buzz Machine until today but now you will be on my feed. (Matt, thanks for the shout out and the nice words, I caught this on my Google Alerts this am.) I am the co-founder and CEO of Local Motors, and we are in production of the first car in America built in a completely open process. Our Rally Fighter (first car) will be introduced this Fall. If you make it up to Wareham, MA (only 3.5 hrs away from NYC), I will give you a tour and intro you to the team. Check out our site and you will see that we have learned a fair amount about beautiful cars and building them in an open process. We let designers design and community be the judge, NOT the other way around. I respect comments by Derek and Alan, they are oft-heard fears/misunderstandings. I would wager that they have not seen what we have done. We don’t crowdsource parts of a car as much as we crowdsource designers complete inspirations. We also are fiercely protective of those inspirations to see that they live into the final product. The result is a beautiful product with incredible attraction. Come check it out. and It look forward to the article in Business Week and the book.

  • Jeff,
    I am looking forward to reading WWGD, which is to be delivered from (the shipment to Japan much cheaper than from

  • Jeff,

    I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and I’ve especially enjoyed reading your insight on Google. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it or not, but TechCrunch had an interesting post late yesterday that uses the testimonies of former Google employees to dissolve the perception that working for the innovator is an all-is-rosy utopia:

  • Jeff,

    I thought about your post today, and have come up with another counter-argument. Cars are fairly “open” as it is. Don’t believe me? Think of the hot-rodders and import tuners who take ordinary Ford and Hondas and turn them into wild, flame-spitting, candy painted street machines. Not exactly the same thing as what you posted, but similar to an extent. My response is hosted at my blog.

    • Modifying a product is not the same as designing that same product. You’re individualizing what you’ve bought, not working on something that might be sold once put into production.

      Modification takes time and money and resources. Not everybody has the time or the money or the resources. Not everybody wants to take the time or money or the resources.

      Offering suggestions, advice is easier. Leave it to another to test your proposal, and implement those that work. Company and customer working to produce what might have appeal to a wide range of people.

      You make your message clear, Mr. Kriendler; leave the initial work to the experts. But the experts don’t always know what the end user is looking for. While the end user doesn’t always know how best to implement his idea. Best is a partnership, with producer and consumer working together. I have more to say on this matter, but that will have to wait.

  • Jo

    Isnt that pretty much what brands doon this website here?

  • Great idea and post. Car companies should at least try out a heavily widgetized and user friendly ‘build your dream car’ site and then take the ideas that people put in there. It wouldn’t hurt, after all the dismal failures with focus groups listed above (Aztek, etc.).

  • Car companies did just that for years on end with countless focus groups.
    By doing that you get bland, milquetoast automobiles that are watered down thanks to their design-by-committee nature. Remember the Simpsons episode where Homer designs a car? It’s not far off from that, except unbearably bland and awful rather than outlandish and tacky.

    The best cars are always designed by people with passion and a single minded purpose. BMW- The Ultimate Driving Machine, Honda-Family cars designed by Formula 1 fanatics. Don’t even get me started on the enthusiast companies.

    Granted, there are good ways to get consumers involved in the design process. When Honda wanted to design a minivan, they went and interviewed people picking their kids up from school about what they wanted in a minivan. The first generation Odyssey flopped (though it was a good car), but the second and third generation models were a success.

    Ultimately, some things should be left to the pros. Cars are one of them.

    • DK,
      You can have all. Passion, Consumer involvement and Pros involved. We have found that there are many many more people outside of the industry with passion that runs even deeper than (or at least as deep as) those within it. This ratio of passion outside to passion inside is getting even more lop-sided as the auto economy worsens, and such out of work impassioned good people are just as useful to a process outside of a job as in one. What’s more, we are all honored to participate in great projects when our opinion is valued.

      We have also found that if you listen to customers directly and often with an open pipeline but a firm professional hand on the production tiller, that you can build a strong product together. (Customers lead -> Pro’s build and advise = Customers get a professional car that is what they asked for). Great equation and very different from (Marketers lead -> Pro’s build and advise = 50/50 chance that customer gets what they want, when they want, and in the right numbers).

      I agree that the current auto manufacturer OEM is not set up to use this customer feedback, and when it tries it is almost guaranteed to have an unbuildable or unprofitable car (not sure which is worse). Focus groups are not the same as an open pipeline of information set up to be part of the process on a two-way street. No one ever tried to educate the customer in a focus group. With open-car companies, the company can give back as much as it gets.

      The key is NOT applying the suggestions in this post to the current auto industry as it is conceived. Software did this transition, T-shirts did this, major drug companies did this with their most complex and expensive drugs, P&G did this with their most precious product lines. From expensive to cheap, and simple to complex, this revolution of the way to involve customers and to improve products is here.

      Since you have posted a couple of times on this thread, I must believe that you are one of the passionate ones. I am too. I hope you will take my response as one of an equally concerned enthusiast about the future of my most beloved pastime – cars (and beautiful ones at that).

  • Jeremy Hay

    I’m just a simpleminded journalist yet even I can see the value of opening up the editorial process to readers. So of course I started a blog at my newspaper. And, several weeks later, when the editors realized that, no, the blog was not just for election night, and that I had, in fact, continued to post, even while on vacation and several times about stories I was working on, they called me in to “help” me “shape” the blog. And, of course, when I said that one of the things I was most interested in doing was making the process more transparent, largely to involve readers in the process of my reporting, the first and literal words from my ME’s mouth were, “No, we don’t want to do that.” An hour later, that was still his position and within a week I entered a leave of absence that’s not over yet. How is it that even schmucks like me can see the utility — and the necessity — of breaking down the walls between reporters and readers, yet our fearless leaders, while struggling to right a sinking ship, can only erect barriers? Consider this a rant, please, rather than an informed comment on the post.

    • Jeremy Hay,

      Your question can be answered in three words, “They aint us.”