How to design with a balance of “optimism and realism”

Partner and Executive Director

Smart Design is a New York and London-based agency that’s tackled one heck of a project: designing the city’s “taxi of tomorrow.” We wanted to find out what it’s like working on such a mammoth task that develops over years – how to stay positive, keep the momentum up and make sure the design’s execution is spot on. The agency’s managing partner Richard Whitehall reveals that it’s all about “optimism and realism”

Every time a designer puts something new into the world, it takes an element of faith – that our expert instincts are correct, and that the dozens of tiny unknowns that stand between concept and product will resolve successfully. Running a profitable business, on the other hand, demands constant vigilance towards every potential source of failure. This division of labour, between Optimism and Realism, is something that permeates many creative industries.

Because of this, it’s tempting to view the design process as cleaving neatly in two, and to hand creative control of the project to the bean counters once the exploratory work is done. But in the 36 years that Smart Design has brought new products into the world, we’ve found this siloed approach to be consistently wrong. Instead, we’ve learned that early conceptual stages benefit from a dose of Realism, and that it’s useful to keep an Optimist or two around for the nuts and bolts.

Smart’s entry into the NYC Taxi of Tomorrow competition is a good example of this dynamic in play. Reimagining the iconic NYC yellow cab was a thrilling project with huge potential impact, but it presented daunting challenges. Making a taxi requires a carmaker after all, and carmakers rarely share designers’ enthusiasm for throwing out existing ideas and starting fresh: industry proposals we received ranged from a slightly modified stock Nissan to a Ford Sedan painted yellow. Involving some of our more business-oriented members during concept generation helped incorporate the perspective of the auto industry into our thinking, which ultimately freed up the team to find better solutions within those constraints.

Seeing the project through to effective completion, though, took buckets of optimism. There are endless obstacles to getting a new taxi onto the road, including inevitable pushback from manufacturers, drivers and taxpayers. It’s an experience that can derail the best design concepts, and it’s also where the ongoing involvement of designers—committed to the project vision and comfortable with failure and iteration—makes all the difference. Optimistic creatives kept the spark of the original design intent alive, while pushing ahead with a pilot version of the taxi, which was eventually embraced by both passengers and drivers, sparking enough demand to move the project forward. A positive outlook also made it easier to take advantage of small opportunities for improvement in the taxi’s design during production ramp-up.

As of today, more than a decade after project kick-off, dozens of Smart-designed cabs are on the road in New York City, picking up fares and offering a dramatically improved rider experience, which helps keep the yellow cab competitive in the age of Uber.

This strategy works for a lot more than taxis. Through hundreds of successful projects, designers at Smart have found it’s more sensible to think of the Optimist/Realist relationship as a gradual transition than a sharp break. Every design team is multidisciplinary, but we take this mix a step further, bringing business strategists and manufacturing experts in on early brainstorms, and running production updates past the original design researchers and creative directors as market launch looms.

The end result, as with so many silo-busting efforts, is a more realistic end product that still manages to hold onto the ideals that gave it form. In design, as in business, it’s important to let the most qualified people take the lead in any given phase of a project. But especially in a creative endeavour, letting Optimists and Realists both have their say throughout makes for a better outcome than either could achieve alone.