Toyota and Innovation by Design

by Matthew E May

Scion Exile Concept Sketch

by Matthew E May

I’m fortunate enough to count car designer Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s CALTY Design Research, among my board of muses. CALTY (California+Toyota) is one of Toyota’s most influential design centers, located in Newport Beach, CA.

CALTY is involved in nearly all of Toyota’s major vehicle design programs. According to Kevin, Toyota wants constant movement forward, and design plays an enormous role in that effort. Design is the face of innovation. He has a few rules for the road warriors in his company that have now become mantra.

Rule #1: Balance Today and Tomorrow. “People can’t tell you what they want in the future,” says Kevin. “But they know what they want now. You have to balance creativity with market acceptability. You have to push the envelope and be progressive, but you can’t get too far out there, because customers won’t understand. Your design has to evoke something familiar or emotional while at the same time offering something new and unfamiliar.” He adds, “You have to avoid a strict design bias and remember who you’re designing for. You can’t be selfish, you must focus outward, and on the problem you’re trying to solve for customers.”

Rule #2: Keep it Real and Resonant. Kevin will tell you that “there’s a sense of urgency to make design count, to resonate with the buyer.” He believes you can never stand still. The customer is always moving, changing, and if you’re not out there all the time trying to understand the functional and emotional needs of consumers, your design will simply fall flat.

Rule #3: Blend Creativity and Competition. “We take creative contribution very seriously,” Kevin notes. “It’s part of every performance review and looked at closely from an evaluation perspective. We work as team, but it’s always overlaid with intense competition for the winning ideas. For every design, we have a number of smaller teams in the hunt. To make creativity flow and give people the freedom to think, we’ve removed much of the layering that other organizations have. Hierarchy stifles innovation, and we need open and honest disagreement about every idea. Every idea counts!” In fact, all of Toyota’s studios compete against each other to win the business; in other words, complacency is minimized by treating internal design centers as arms-length vendor-partners.

Here’s a thought: send a link to this blog to the folks at the United States of General Motors. I think they need the insight.


Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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