My Dad has only really taught me one thing. Fortunately that one thing is how to think. He also only ever showed me one thing too, but that thing is that anything is achievable with the right attitude.
Time and time again, he has demonstrated that by combining these two things, anything is possible. He’s won countless accolades for his books, lectures and product designs. He’s built and sold a successful business. He’s managed to extract 40+ mpg from a vintage Jaguar XJS “with a few modifications”. He didn’t just encourage me to aim high - he took me up in his Enstrom and gave me the controls.
He is, and always will be, my biggest inspiration, and I’m lucky that he’s there to keep reminding me of those two simple things.
Happy Father’s Day.
I always start a piece of work by scribbling it down on paper. This wee sketch went on to become a series of slides that show pretty much everything you need to know about estimating, risk management and contingency planning for digital design projects, using NASA’s Cone of Uncertainty and some other basic techniques.
Leafing through an old copy of Car Magazine I came across an interview with Gordon Murray, the designer of what is generally accepted to be the greatest supercar ever created, the McLaren F1. Such is the staggering performance and quality of the car that even now, almost 20 years after its debut, it is still unsurpassed. The Bugatti Veyron has a higher top speed, but for all-round desirability the “Big Mac” is still the one.
In the interview, journalist Ben Oliver presents Murray with three theories on just what it was about him and his approach that led to such a timeless, astonishing result. I’ve shared an extract from the article below. The most striking thing about his approach is how similar it is to those who have created other iconic, superlative products. It’s hard to read this and not see parallels with Leo Fender’s approach to creating the Stratocaster; Sidney Camm’s approach to the Hurricane or more recently, the opinions voiced by Jobs, Ive and co. in Cupertino. Without futher ado:
…On the F1 (Gordon Murray) is in agreement with us and pretty much everyone else that it’s the best there’s ever been. We’ve come up with a few theories on why that is.
Our first is that the car is so pure and resolved only because McLaren Cars was created from scratch to build the F1 with no bureaucracy, and because Murray had both a complete vision in his head and the authority to implement it. He agrees.
“Few times in the history of the motor car has one person been given so much freedom. And I don’t just mean the car. I picked the plants and pictures for the factory, hired all the people, set out the parts numbering system, designed the owners handbook with paintings rather than photographs. I did everything and controlled everything, right down to the race programme…there was nobody else anyone had to go to in the company. I looked at every cheque. The way the car turned out was a combination of my absolutely direct, fanatical vision for purity and weight, mixed with the way the project was carried out.”
This brings us onto our second theory, concerning the way he worked with a small and talented group. Building a car, we suggest, is a bit like making a movie or an album; a creative effort, but a collaborative one, and you only get a good result if the atmosphere’s right. He agrees, but doesn’t claim to have great management skills; the key was his use of a pencil.
“The F1 was undoubtedly the last car on the planet to be drawn by hand. Everything: in the gearbox every shaft, gear, synchromesh cone and casting was drawn. I love drawing. I don’t have a computer here and I still draw everything by hand. When you’re sitting in front of a CAD screen you’re alone, but when you draw a car you can all be involved in the process. We had a five and half metre drawing board and every morning we stood around it and made sure our vision wasn’t compromised in any way.
Everybody saw the whole car; nobody was compmartmentalised. That’s certainly the last time that’s ever going to happen. It’s the way we did Formula 1 cars but with the road car it has never really been talked about. Communication is what made that car, together with leadership and a vision you stuck to.
Our third theory is that the McLaren succeeded because Murray worked from the correct first principles. Unlike Ferdinand Piech with the Veyron, he never set a target for power or top speed that had to be achieved even if it risked compromising driver appeal, Murray’s single guiding light. He simply set out to build the best driver’s car possible, and accepted whatever performance resulted.
“People say we set out to make the fastest car in the world, but we didn’t. I originally wanted around 450bhp, and it was only the genius of Paul Rosche at BMW that gave us 630bhp. The only time we discussed top speed was towards the end when we were working out the gearing…A 0-60 time was never a target, for example, but engine response and drivability were…
We never had a budget for how much the production car should cost the customer; that would have forced us to compromise, as every car is compromised by its price. But to get the first running prototype cost us just £8.5 million, including building the factory. VW will never fully admit to how much they spent on the Veyron, but it was many hundreds of millions.”
In summary: A small, highly skilled team, working in a bullshit free environment to execute one person’s vision, where that person has absolute authority and is intimately involved in the minutae of the project. Totally open communication, with everybody understanding the product as a whole, rather than sitting in silos; and decision-making guided by a solid understanding of first principles. Not only does this lead to a great result - it’s also a more cost effective way of working.
There’s one line I’d like to repeat: “Communication is what made that car, together with leadership and a vision you stuck to.” As a summary of what it takes to build a great product, that’s almost as unbeatable as the car to which he refers.
This video shows blues guitarist Matt Schofield in action, but it’s really there just for fun. The point of this post is to share this quote from an interview with him in Guitarist Magazine back in December 2010, in response to the question “Can you sum up what guitar playing means to you.”
“It means everything to me - it’s my entire world and I’d go crazy if I was unable to play. I rationalise this life like this: if we have to travel constantly, eat food we don’t necessarily want to eat, be away from home and stay in hotels we don’t want to stay at, then that’s the stuff we get paid for. We’d be playing music anyway. It keeps the music more pure if I look at it that way. We don’t get paid for the two hours we get to play each night - we get through all the other stuff and the music is the reward.”
This sums up exactly my feelings about working in design, and is a very healthy attitude to take into any creative profession, where many struggle to reconcile their own desires to produce great work with the inevitable commercial pressures and pragmatisms of day-to-day life “in business”.
In an average week I spend a full 24 hours in transit either on the train, underground, aeroplane or just waiting around. I spend at least a couple of hours a day in meetings (many of which aren’t helpful), and I also lose a lot of time in admin. Some projects are more about disaster recovery than doing something great, and sometimes, albeit quite rarely, I have to work with people who are unpleasant. Those are the things I get paid for. My reward is that every now and then I get to sit for a whole day in my studio and design something cool; which is something I’d be doing anyway.