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The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation To Work In Your Business

The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation To Work In Your Business

by Jerry Hirshberg

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How does your company define creativity? Or doescreativity define your company? In this remarkable book, Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International (NDI), distills his experience as leader of the world's hotbed of automotive innovation and reveals his strategy for designing an organization around creativity.

In The Creative


How does your company define creativity? Or doescreativity define your company? In this remarkable book, Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International (NDI), distills his experience as leader of the world's hotbed of automotive innovation and reveals his strategy for designing an organization around creativity.

In The Creative Priority Hirshberg weaves together enlightening real-world anecdotes with the story of NDI's genesis to illustrate eleven interlocking strategies that came to define NDI's creative priority. Richly illustrated with NDI's elegant designs and sketched, The Creative Priority is at once a compelling narrative, a rich store of hands-on experience, and a grab bag of breakthrough insights that can help your business perform its most vital function.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The deliberate hiring of two people with opposing ideas, while blurring the boundaries of job responsibilityand drawing creative solutions from the resulting abrasionwas the modus operandi of SOP at Nissan Design International, the San Diego think-and-show shop set up in 1979 by Japan's Nissan automaker and led by the author of this enlightening story of international business collaboration. A manifesto against hidebound design methods he encountered earlier at General Motors and a call for creativity as "the principal role of business," Hirshberg's book is replete with creative and cultural anecdotes: a secretary turns a project around by saying the model "looks fat, dumb and ugly"; the boss takes everyone to a movie on a day when all creative urges seem dead; executives from Japanwho'd rather be "best" than "first"politely reject an early Infiniti J30 design because the grille's "mouth is frowning" and its eyes (headlights) are "squinty." Hirshberg's case for open and even contentious creativity strains credulity at times (collaborative "cheating" is encouraged) but in the main is convincing. Apparently with corporate Nissan's agreement, NDI has taken on outside commissions, designing everything from children's furniture to a yacht. Photos. (Feb.)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

NDI was born in an atmosphere rife with abrasion. One culture had joined another for help in an area in which it was particularly uncomfortable: the breaking of traditions. A varied group of disciplines had been gathered closely together, each with its own aspirations for what the enterprise might become. I'd left a familiar, comfortable relationship with an established corporation to help found a new entity with strangers in an unfamiliar setting. And from Detroit's perspective, I was seen as having joined "the enemy," switching sides in an economic war between America and Japan. Clearly, this was not going to be a serene retreat for quiet meditation.

Friction between individuals and groups is typically thought of as something harmful. And it usually is. It generates heat and discomfort, disrupts interactions, and can destroy relationships. Between a couple it can lead to divorce. Between countries it can lead to war. Within corporations it can distort and disrupt communication and ruin cohesiveness. Businesses of all types spend considerable time and money trying to reduce or eliminate it. In human terms, it is surely one of the most plentiful and volatile sources of energy on the planet.

While the early years at NDI were disruptive and chafing, however, they were also exciting and explosively fertile. And since creative output was critical, we needed to find ways to reduce the friction without destroying the very ingredients that might be essential to the vibrancy of the process; without, in other words, disrupting our disruptiveness. Multiple disciplines in the same studio, fights over what radio stations to listen to, divergentperceptions of appropriate work hours, modes of dress, codes of behavior, even what was perceived as quality work . . . all of this I saw as a rich and yeasty opportunity for a kind of friction I wanted to turn into light rather than heat. The uneasiness in my stomach and the fireworks in my brain told me there was some vital connection between the abrasiveness itself and original thinking. If we could grasp this connection, we would be tapping into a vast reservoir of creative energy.

The room was tense as a group of Japanese engineers and planners confronted a team of American designers across a drawing-

littered conference table. The vehicle we had been laboring on for almost a year, the first-generation Nissan Pathfinder, was in its concluding developmental phase and was bristling with challenging innovations and new forms. It was to mark Nissan's first entry into the emerging off-road SUV (sport utility vehicle) market in America.

To the Japanese at the time, the imagined uses and romantic appeal of this sport/utility hybrid appeared nearly incomprehensible. The forms of the existing American versions seemed terribly bold, even rude to their eyes. And the very notion of wanting to go "off-road," of spontaneously breaking with the pack, simply turning off a legally marked driving pathway to explore unmarked territory on an impulse was unthinkable to this eminently law-abiding people. To the engineers, among the most cautious of a well-guarded population, the whole project felt uncomfortably Western, as in the Wild West, and very alien.

Although to our eyes we had fashioned a rather civilized, urbane variant of the genre, to Japanese eyes the forms NDI had modeled appeared audacious and rough-hewn. The fenders swelled with highly characterized "bulging triceps" around each wheel. Inspired by the protective structure of the roll bar jutting up from behind the front seats of jeeps and other military vehicles in the event of rollover on extremely rough surfaces, the Pathfinder integrated this extra bracing into the very skin of the vehicle itself. The diagonal struts strengthening the body pillar behind the front door framed the unusual triangular vent windows that appeared behind the front-door glass in the two-door version, and that provided badly needed ventilation for the rear passenger compartment.

Understandably, the Japanese planners and engineers wanted to grasp as much as possible of the thinking behind this challenging new design. By being even more thorough than usual, they provided themselves with some badly needed feelings of security and confidence in their task. Meanwhile, the American staff felt intuitively certain they had gotten hold of a truly fresh and appropriate interpretation for this kind of car and were eager to see it realized.

Each side was pushing hard and the groups had reached an impasse on the resolution of a variety of difficult issues. The project was running late due to a growing, almost obsessive need on the part of the Japanese to restudy, research, and refine every detail. In a moment of frustration at the meeting I said, "Gentlemen, aspects of this design are truly new, and if we don't get it to market soon, we simply won't be first!"

The shukan (project leader) leaned forward, somewhat agitated, and responded, "But Hirshberg-san, we were thinking about being best!"

There was an abrupt, suspended silence. The Americans looked at the Japanese, then each other, and no one moved to fill the silence or bridge the gap. What had been laid bare, exposed in its purest form, were two inarguable, fundamentally alien points of view embedded deeply in each of these cultures.

Some dawning instinct urged me to step back from the moment rather than debate "first" versus "best." I thanked the Japanese for sharing their concerns and suggested that the meeting be concluded at that point. Each group left with these dual polarities nagging and pulling at each other, like the flip-flopping images in a reversible figure/ground illusion, neither prevailing for long and nearly impossible to perceive simultaneously. In the ensuing days and weeks, however, the Japanese moved with dispatch to resolve the remaining issues while the Americans refined their concepts, double-checking every new aspect with painstaking thoroughness. Neither gave up its principal goal, but each now more fully comprehended the concerns and motivations of the other. With subtle but profoundly broadened ends in mind, the vehicle concluded in a reasonably brief period of time, all innovations included and questions fully resolved.

What People are Saying About This

Betty Edwards
This is a terrific book! Jerry Hirshberg demystifies creativity with twelve practical strategies for making creativity central to any endeavor, from running a business to facing life's challenges. The book is infused with candid humor, clear thinking, a mind-set nothing short of revolutionary.

Meet the Author

In 1980, Jerry Hirshberg ended a 16-year stint as an executive designer at General Motors, where he headed design for Pontiac and Buick, and accepted the position of founding director and eventually President of Nissan Design International, Inc. This unique corporate hybrid has become a creative hotbed of automotive innovation, producing such cutting edge designs as the first Nissan Pathfinder, Altima, Maxima, Pulsar NX and Quest minivan, the Infiniti J30 and the Mercury Villager for Ford. Along the way, owing to an intriguing fixture of the agreement he forged between NDI and Nissan, Hirshberg's team also designs computer concepts for Apple and Motorola, golf clubs for Taylor Made (including the famed 'Bubble Burner'), medical instruments, ski-boots, yachts and pre-school daycare furniture for an international list of clients.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939, Mr. Hirshberg has spent a lifetime dealing with the creative process. Along with being a designer, he is a consummate painter and classical musician. He scored one of his earliest creative successes with the rock-and-roll hit 'Sparkling Blue,' adopting the stage name Jerry Paul, and was the occasional opening act for such singers as Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. He studied Mechanical Engineering at Ohio State University and graduated with honors in Design from the Cleveland Institute of Art, with further study in Europe on a Mary C. Page Fellowship.

He has served on the Board of Trustees for the Cleveland Institute of Art, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Board of Advisors for the Graduate School for Pacific and International Studies at UCSD and the Mayor's Growth Management Task Force for San Diego. He has been a member of the Design Arts Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and was a member of a select group of the country's leading designers invited to Little Rock, Arkansas to consider the implications of Design for the American economy. He chaired the national IDEA Awards program co-sponsored by Business Week and the Industrial Design Society of America, of which he has served as a national director.

Mr. Hirshberg has lectured at such universities as Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and Brown, many of which now teach the principles he and his colleagues developed at NDI. He has also addressed a broad variety of professional organizations and audiences worldwide, and has been the subject of several documentary films and television specials in Europe, for PBS in America, and for British television. He speaks on a wide variety of subjects ranging from design and automobiles to public art and creativity in business. He has even addressed the application of his ideas on creative thinking to leading police departments.

The father of sons Eric, a graphic design and advertising executive, and Glen, a writer and teacher, he works and lives with his wife Linda, a Ph.D. Clinical and Organizational Psychologist and President of Applied Behavioral Systems, in Del Mar, California.

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