Following last month's successful DMI Conference: Designing the Next Economy in Madrid, the Design Management Institute's flagship event will make its way its stateside next month in Santa Monica, California, from June 17–19. In anticipation of three-day event, we had the chance to catch up with Javier Verdura, Director of Product Design & Project Management at Tesla Motors, who will be conversing with Laurenz Schaeffer, President of BMW Designworks, on the Convergence of Transportation, Technology and Tools for Living. Check out his thoughts and insight into working with Elon Musk, autonomous cars, his goals at Tesla and the future of the company as a whole.
Tesla made headlines last week for paying off a $465m government loan ten years ahead of schedule. Obviously, the company's success is attributable to any number of factors, but to what degree was this an investment in design or, more broadly, innovation? Or alternately, do you think that good design is a worthy investment (whether the funding is public or private)?
'Good design' has been proven to be one of the smartest investments a company can make. Companies that invest in design as a core function and as a fundamental business strategy experience undisputed ROI (Return on Innovation). Companies like Apple, P&G, Nike, Target and Tesla to name a few, use design as the foundation of their business strategy. Design is what differentiates their products from the competition; well-designed products make customers' lives better, and it keeps them coming back to the brand (i.e. brand loyalty). Good design can be directly responsible for increased market share, in many cases proving to be a better investment over ad spend. Design and innovation is not just about styling and wow factor. Good design must incorporate proper ergonomics for improved usability, flawless functionality and just as importantly, a well-designed product must be manufactured at a cost that supports a profitable business case. You could have the best design in the world, but if you can't sell it for a profit, it is just art. Design must be at the core of any business model that wants to stand a chance of breaking through any given category, be it transportation, consumer electronics, packaging, etc.
You've been practicing (and teaching) industrial design for over two decades now. What convinced you to accept this opportunity at Tesla in the first place? What are your goals and ultimate aspirations for the company?
Taking this position at this stage in my career with a start-up automotive company was definitely a big decision. Three main factors made this an easy decision in the final analysis: First, Elon Musk. He is one of the most innovative thinkers of our time, his drive and determination is contagious, having the opportunity to work directly with someone who will be looked upon in history books as a pioneer and thought leader in transportation (Tesla, SpaceX), a steward for the ecological improvement of our planet (Solar City, Tesla) and an e-commerce pioneer (PayPal) is invaluable. Secondly, chief designer Franz von Holzhausen, is the best designer I know—having the opportunity to work with him day in and day out influenced my decision greatly. Lastly, the Model S was conceived with the mission to design and manufacture the best car in the world. Not just the best electric car, the best car. That vision was brought to fruition and it has been validated by countless awards and reviews by the most respected publications and organizations. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of an organization that can accomplish so much in such a short amount of time.
My goal is to make the Tesla brand a household name, and I want to accomplish this by designing products that meet our customers' expectations of our brand: Premium look and feel, flawless functionality and an aesthetic that is contemporary, elegant and timeless.
What is your day-to-day routine like? How big is the design team at Tesla? How closely do you work with Elon Musk?
Day to day activities vary greatly, there is no routine, we are working on at least a dozen projects simultaneously and at different stages of the design process. There are many design reviews, brainstorm sessions, project kick-offs, supplier meetings, etc.
The Design Studio in LA is made up of ˜90 Designers, engineers, digital modelers, clay modelers and prototypers/fabricators... all of whom share a palpable enthusiasm and drive to continuously outdo themselves.
We (Design leadership) meet with Elon once a week to review the status of the most pressing projects. He is very engaged in the design process, and he has an amazing eye for detail and his opinion is greatly respected by the design team. Not very typical for a CEO, but then again, he is not your typical CEO.
Regarding infrastructure, it seems to me that widespread adoption of electric automobiles is predicated on the existence reliable network of charing stations in place—i.e. it's a chicken and egg situation. As a timely example, New York City's bikeshare system had been delayed for over a year before dozens of docking stations started popping up overnight (looking at the map of locations, it's obvious that Citibike is aiming for a minimum threshold of density at launch, as opposed to widespread distribution.) Is infrastructure a consideration for the design team, or is that outside of your jurisdiction?
The Supercharger network is paramount to the success of not only Tesla, but the success of electric mobility as a whole. With the use of proprietary and innovative charging technology, we can dispel the misconception that electric cars are inconvenient, or not "for everyday use." This is a common barrier for purchase. So the charging infrastructure is actually an extremely effective sales tool, our investment in charging infrastructure is in fact an investment in our sales infrastructure. Design is very much involved in Supercharging, we must design compelling charging stations that meet our brand values, are distinctive and functional.
Our goal in the next year or two is to create a charging network that will allow Tesla drivers to travel cross-country on the power of the sun, for zero energy cost. This model is already in place in California and the eastern seaboard. Our customers are routinely driving from San Diego to the Bay Area without spending a dime on energy costs. Our East Coast customers are doing the same from Washington, D.C., to Boston.
Charging technology is only going to improve with time. Charging times will decrease significantly and range will increase accordingly. In the very near future, the argument that internal combustion automobiles are more convenient than electric vehicles will be a moot point. You will be able to arrive at a charging station with an empty battery and drive off with a full charge faster than you can fill up a gas tank.
Besides electric vehicles, what are other potential areas of innovation within both the automobile industry and transportation as a whole?
I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you... probably the biggest innovation in the automobile industry besides EV's is self-driving/autopilot cars. By making drivers obsolete, we will be able to eliminate human error, thus, accidents and fatalities will be greatly reduced. Traffic jams and congestion could be a thing of the past.
Core77 is a proud sponsor of the DMI Conference: Designing the Next Economy—see the full details here.