Creative abrasion

Opposites Attract

This decade-old article by Fast Company’s Katharine Mieszkowski crackles with creative intensity and wisdom…

Sometimes the right person for the job is two people. So argues auto designer Jerry Hirshberg, whose world-renowned studio hires people in pairs to spark “creative abrasion.” 


When Tom Semple starts to design a new car, he clears away all traces of earlier projects. He relishes the freedom of a blank sheet of paper. He might glance at some engineering specs or a marketing report. But what he’s searching for is artistic intuition: design means inventing entirely new forms. When Allan Flowers starts to design a new car, he worries about nuts and bolts – literally. He conducts a methodical assessment of potential components and materials, of schedules and priorities. For Flowers, form follows function: design means understanding how things work.

Don’t let the differences fool you. Semple, 53, and Flowers, 56, work in the same organization. In fact, they’ve worked on the same projects for 18 years. They were hired as a pair – not in spite of their differences but because of them. They are one of two-dozen odd couples creating vehicles of the future at Nissan Design International (NDI), the influential studio based in La Jolla, California.

Jerry Hirshberg, NDI’s founder and president, calls this practice “hiring in divergent pairs.” When it comes to creativity, he argues, the best person for the job is often two people – people who see the world in utterly different ways. “I believe in creative abrasion,” says Hirshberg, 58, who began his career nearly 35 years ago as a “paid renegade” for General Motors. “And I mean abrasion. We have titans in their fields going at each other: ‘I’m sorry, I see the project this way. The way you’re approaching it is just absurd.’ That friction can produce wonderful creative sparks.”

Those sparks have been flying at NDI for nearly 20 years. Hirshberg left GM in 1979 to create Nissan’s first design studio in the United States. Since then his organization has produced a stream of trend-setting innovations, including the Pathfinder sport utility vehicle, the Infiniti series, and the Mercury Villager minivan. More than 4 million cars designed by NDI are on the road today. The shop has won countless awards. Hirshberg is recognized as a design visionary. And he’s about to publish a book, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovation in the Real World (Harper- Business, February 1998), about his approach to creativity.

That approach begins with his creative ideas about hiring. And like most new ideas, “hiring in divergent pairs” began by accident. After Nissan recruited him from GM, Hirshberg had to find great designers to join him. Semple and Flowers, both of whom had worked for Hirshberg in Detroit, agreed to join the new venture — which was about the only thing they did agree on. “They were spectacularly gifted but utterly different,” Hirshberg says. “They were from different solar systems.”

That creative tension quickly began paying dividends. The pair’s first big project in the early ’80s was to design a killer-looking light truck that would not only wow Nissan’s leadership in Tokyo but also win over the mass market in the United States. Semple dreamed up a truck with a muscular body reminiscent of the sports cars of that era. Flowers created a more rational prototype. The Nissan brass chose Semple’s design. But the truck that rolled o/ the assembly line incorporated a key component of Flowers’s design in its truck bed.

“Bringing these two together created an immediate vitality, a crackling intensity,” Hirshberg says. “Each approached a project with utterly different priorities and workstyles. The pairing was so successful that we said, ‘Let’s keep doing this.'”

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