How does one define good design? What are the characteristics of a brand or product that make it stand out amongst its competitors? How do companies learn from one another? We will examine these questions as we look at two automotive brands, Tesla’s Model Sand Toyota’s Prius, and how they have both imitated and deviated from one another in their respective approaches to leading the emerging electric vehicle market. In advance of our analysis of both companies, it is important to note that both have had a drastic impact on bringing this technology to the forefront of the North American automotive landscape. These two brands were chosen because I feel that design is a critical component to their success in a newer market. In other words, it is probably much more important for designers at Tesla and Toyota to correctly answer the questions listed above compared to long-term competitors such as Coke and Pepsi.
Steve Jobs once said this about design: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” If you think about this quote from Job’s perspective as the founder of Apple, we as consumers never really knew how much we needed an iPhone until Jobs created it. If one thinks back to the flip-phone days, consumers were happy with the ability to simply talk and text on their mobile phone. Jobs knew what consumers wanted (streaming music, mobile internet, etc.) even before the consumers did; this happened to be a critical component to Apple’s success. While Jobs obviously made sure the iPhone (amongst other Apple products) looked and felt superior, he was also concerned with the capabilities the product offered customers. This quote really resonates because no matter how visually or physically appealing a product may be, it must also work just as effectively.
Toyota began selling the first generation of Prius in North America in 2001 and has followed with 5 additional generations since. Visually speaking, Toyota executives wanted the Prius (Latin term for “to go before”) interior platform to be the foundation of many other future Toyota sedan designs including the Corolla, Celica, and Rav4. With each new generation release every 3 to 4 years, Toyota has added new features to make the vehicle brand more visually attractive to its North American customer base.
However, the biggest reason most people purchase the Prius is from an economic standpoint. The Prius comes at a relatively affordable rate (2018 Prius starting at $23K) compared with other vehicles in the Toyota lineup. Its lower price is a large result of the fact that Toyota uses cheaper, recyclable material to produce the lineup. Another benefit to the consumer is the fact that the Prius leverages its full hybrid electric technology to generate an estimated 50mpg in EPA Highway mileage. This is significantly higher than a traditional combustion engine vehicle and results in the consumer saving significant money in annual gas expenses. Finally, Toyota has historically leveraged the Prius’ historically low CO2 emissions as a major way to advertise the vehicle lineup to environmentally conscious consumers who represent a large portion of the Prius customer base.
After the success of the Prius among other hybrid vehicles, Elon Musk launched the Tesla Model S primarily in North America in June 2012. The Model S differed from the Prius in many ways, however the two biggest discrepancies were that it was full/mid-sized and fully electric. While the Prius has a new design each generation, the Model S has essentially had the same physical design but has had 18 different engine specifications since its inception. Physically speaking, the Model S leverages its fully electric powertrain to emphasize unique features such as a front and rear trunk and an enlarged front seat with space for an automated instrument panel.
In addition to the unique physical appeal of the Model S, Musk and Tesla focused on using advanced technology to differentiate from the Prius and other EV’s or Hybrids. In terms of technology innovation for the Model S, Musk said “We really designed the Model S to be a very sophisticated computer on wheels. Tesla is a software company as much as it is a hardware company.” Aside from the physical components of the Model S, the car boasts similar environmentally friendly benefits that the Prius has. It has been ranked as the most environmentally friendly car on the market for several studies over the years since it was first released. However, while the Tesla Model S receives up to 107mpg in EPA Highway mileage, the fuel savings do not account for the price differential compared with the Prius; the Model S ranges from $75K to over $130K. Because of this large price discrepancy, Tesla has recently released a new line called the Model 3 (priced starting at $49K) to be a closer competitor to the Prius market.
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Reexamining this quote, it becomes clear that Tesla kept these design principles in mind when developing the Model S. Toyota really changed the North American Automotive industry by introducing a Hybrid technology that hadn’t really been commercialized at a large scale previously. They focused primarily on the “how it works” piece and delivered an environmentally conscious vehicle that customers didn’t really know they needed until it arrived on the market. After starting Tesla, Musk replicated this “how it works” approach to commercialize the EV market but took design a step further by focusing on the “look and feel” aspect as well. As a result, both automotive brands have transformed a market that continues to emerge as technology advances. It is easy for one to think purely about visual appeal when thinking of design, but we mustn’t forget the importance of how things work as well.