At first glance, it seems like an odd scenario: a group of Indianapolis architects attending an auto show in Detroit so they can hear an Ohio guy talk about golf clubs.
As convoluted as that seems, though, the trip makes perfect sense when you understand its purpose. We went to hear people talk about design and how it can define a product, brand or company.
The event we attended was the AutoWeek Design Forum, presented as a part of the 2008 North American International Auto Show. But don't be fooled by the name. This wasn't a bunch of motorheads comparing notes on concept cars, or car designers sketching new headlights. It was a diverse audience of professionals from a range of industries, all sharing the belief that design has the power to move people and markets.
And if they didn't believe that when they got there, they learned as soon as Paul Kolada spoke. The founder of Columbus, Ohio-based Priority Designs, Kolada has had a hand in product and brand development for top companies including Lowe's, Adidas and American Standard. In Detroit, he talked mostly about TaylorMade Golf.
In 1999, TaylorMade asked Priority Designs to help revive its sagging brand. The golf equipment maker had slumped to a distant third place in its industry, in part because its products had lost their luster among golfers. But TaylorMade didn't ask Priority to look simply at its woods and irons. It allowed the design firm to delve into the entire TaylorMade brand. Priority helped design everything from the shape and technology of club heads to retail displays and promotional items. It helped make innovation a part of the TaylorMade brand, and to make TaylorMade the hottest brand in golf.
What did that mean for TaylorMade? A 375-percent increase in sales since 1999. Did design do all that? Not single-handedly, but if you ask the people at Taylor-Made what drove the firm's growth from $300 million to $1 billion, they're quick to point to the impact of allowing design to have an influence beyond its normal realm.
But Kolada wasn't the only one telling this kind of story. We did hear from auto designers, including Troy Trepanier, president of custom car company Rad Rides by Troy-who talked about how the passion for design drives his industry-as well as one unlikely production-car designer, Larry Wood.
Wood has spent four decades designing what is arguably the hottest car brand of all time: Hot Wheels. The goal in the early days was simple, Wood said: Design a car that would be appealing to boys, simple to produce and marketable at $1. The designers delivered what has become the world's top-selling toy by volume. Some 5 million Hot Wheels cars are manufactured each week. They're still simple to produce, and they still sell for $1.
Of course, when Hot Wheels cars were introduced in 1968, cars that could shoot that quickly down a strip of orange track seemed pretty impressive. What's remarkable is that the cars have maintained their popularity in a world of video games, computers and cell phones. The people at Mattel credit good design.
My point? Design, once considered by many businesspeople as simply a tool for making things pretty, has claimed a bigger role, and the companies that realize this are the ones making the biggest strides forward.
The message in the marketplace is clear: Design matters-not just in "illustrating" a brand or making a product look nice, but in helping define a brand, and by delivering where it matters most to businesspeople: on the bottom line.
That's why the pilgrimage to the auto show made sense-because design makes sense. Or, more specifically, dollars and cents.
White is a principal at AXIS Architecture + Interiors.