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Do you need to be eccentric to be a great designer?

In 1908, Henry Ford changed the world starting with the USA. He didn’t invent the car but turned the production of the car on its head and in the process transformed transportation and manufacturing. In my new book, The Future of Extraordinary Design, I talk about the humble products which users regularly vote the most important and influential and why they love them. I don’t talk about Ford, but his Model T Ford certainly fits the bill. And like so many other famous designers and inventors, the guy was quite a free thinker both morally and logistically. Which begs the question – do you need to be a little eccentric to be a great designer?

When Ford changed the world

Lee Iacocca began his career at Ford in the 1940s and rubbed shoulders with Ford every day. In he recollections, he wrote,“The boss was a genius. He was an eccentric. He was no prince in his social attitudes and his politics but Henry Ford’s impact in history is almost unbelievable.”, What Iacocca may be referring to is Ford’s admiration of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitism, an uncomfortable truth which keeps raising its head in articles on the manufacturer. But he may also be referring to the single act, which for some time made him the most despised man on Wall Street. 

In 1914, Ford doubled the wages of every man who worked for him. Thousands of production workers saw their daily pay skyrocket from $2.38 to $5. Captains of industry attacked him in the papers. They argued that by paying a wage significantly above the industry norm, Ford was putting the whole American enterprise in jeopardy.

Of course, this wasn’t an act of charity. Ford was looking after his own interests. Staff turnover was huge in the auto industry, and every time a new factory opened up, workers with a little experience found they were in great demand and could bargain at the new premises for a better wage. Ford nipped this problem in the bud, ensuring his experienced employees stayed at Ford Motors, meaning less money spent on training periods. It also meant his competitors couldn’t steal his methods and employee experiences. 

In today’s highly charged political climate it can be hard to separate a person into good parts and bad parts and may even be dangerous to do so. Giving someone with no moral compass the power to make changes is decidedly a bad idea but Ford wasn’t a politician, he was a car manufacturer. He became powerful, but he wasn’t a populist or a leader. He thought and expressed some ideas that people today would find abhorrent – and he did things then which were criticized, which we admire today. His failings do detract from our admiration for him but it doesn’t change what he did within the auto industry. No one is going to be anti-private car ownership because of Ford’s anti-Sematic views. In the end, the easiest label to attach to him is ‘eccentric’. But haven’t we heard this description bounded around before? 

Other famous thinkers such as Albert Einstein were also considered very eccentric. Einstein wore the same suit every day to reduce the number of decisions he’d need to make. He wanted to save his brainpower for his work – and it seemed to work. Before him there was Pythagoras, yes he came up with his theorem but he also devised his own religion with two primary tenets, firstly that souls are reincarnated, and secondly that beans are evil! And Tesla, “the man who invented the 20th century,” was also adamant that round things were very bad. He refused to touch anything round, which made for obvious hurdles in his day to day life. 

All this begs the question – do people like this, the eccentrics, have a better ability to think outside the box? The evidence would seem to suggest it does but I would argue, in a word – no. As the statisticians say, correlation is not causation. You don’t have to be eccentric to think outside the box. It’s something every designer can do as long as they set their mind to it.

And maybe Ford wasn’t eccentric after all 

Ford’s Model T was released in 1908 to great fanfare. The car was elegantly simple and most surprisingly, it was largely affordable too. Today, many of us forget that the first production line car (as almost all cars today are production line made) was actually affordable to the people who made it. Ford dismissed industry advice that told him to market his product to the rich. It was a decision that would make him rich. His vision also helped create a middle class in the U.S., one in which workers could live in suburbs because they had cars to drive to work and once they lived in the suburbs they wanted a second car too. 

As Iacocca noted, “Ford introduced industrial mass production, but what really mattered to him was mass consumption. He figured that if he paid his factory workers a real living wage and produced more cars in less time for less money, everyone would buy them … it was a virtuous circle, and he was the ringmaster.” 

So perhaps it’s time we stopped using the umbrella term of eccentricity to explain good design thinking. We all have the ability to achieve the kind of design successes as Ford did and we don’t need to see his bad side as part and parcel of his genius.  

Blog post written by Nik Parekh

Nik Parekh

Nik is a design and strategy professional dedicated to championing community-driven design over human-centered design. He advocates taking the fifty-thousand-foot view approach, stepping back and looking at the whole picture to deliver a holistic and sustainable solution.

In the last decade, he’s worked with many clients large and small across a range of industries, from banking to food platforms, and with big names such as Samsung, Delta, and Chase. An engaged public speaker and mentor, Nik has been writing articles on the subject of service design for several years.

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