Ferdinand A. Porsche, designer of the iconic 911 sports car, died yesterday at the age of 76. He was the grandson of the founder of the company, known to many by the nickname "Butzi". He was also one of my design heroes. A hero not only because he penned one of the most impressive car designs ever, but because he had a design philosophy that inspired my own. I'm mourning the loss of this design legend. Someday I want to own a nice black 911 and emerse myself in his philosophy every day, tough duty.
A true design legend at work shaping a future icon
The original Porsche 911 turned out to be such an immediate and lasting hit that the company never entertained replacing it with a new design. Instead, they managed the design through evolutionary refinement. Each new generation was intended to improve on the breed, rather than ignore the past. In spite of countless modifications, technology shifts, and governmental regulations, today's 911 is a clear descendant of the original design vision. A vision that has endured for nearly 50 years. There are few other cars that can boast of such an incredible legacy and cult following. Now in its seventh design generation, the car remains an icon of performance, engineering prowess, and pure sex appeal. Ferdinand was once quoted as saying “Design must be functional and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained.” I can relate to this.
When I took over the design management and leadership responsibility for ThinkPad, way back in 1995, I was immediately besieged with questions about what I was going to do with the design. Would I throw the black box design out and start over? After all, the design was three years old, wasn't it time for a new one? If I had been a design manager at one one of Detroit's big three auto manufacturers, I was probably a year or two late on starting over. I chose, however, to pattern my design approach after the 911 evolutionary refinement model. In the 1999 book, ThinkPad, A Different Shade of Blue, I describe this approach with great detail. Convincing others to follow this approach was initially less than easy, but that's a whole other story.
" Just as the Porsche design team slowly advanced its product, we did the same with ThinkPad. When you don't have an industrial design that is special, you can change it every year without impact. We knew that the initial ThinkPad design was something special." David Hill
A clear design lineage links the original ThinkPad with today's version. Thanks to Porsche for the inspiration.
Through ThinkPad, I hope I've paid appropriate homage to the design refinement model made so powerful by Ferdinand A. Porsche and his iconic 911. Nearly 20 years after the introduction of ThinkPad you can still trace the lineage to the original. I learned a lot from studying his approach to design and the cars he created. I believe that you can always learn from those who have gone before you. This quote, attributed to his grandfather, suggests that Butzi certainly did.
“Change is easy. Improvement is far more difficult” Dr. Ferdinand Porsche
Here's to another generation of design refinement that drives emotional desire, and to a remarkable designer who left such an enduring legacy. I wonder what time the Porsche dealership closes this evening?