Friday, September 11, 2009

In Praise of Amateurs

The entire staff of San Diego, California design firm NDI, Inc., ventured out into the bright sunlight in the company courtyard to view the latest full-scale model of a new automobile code-named “Cocoon.” As NDI CEO Jerry Hirshberg noted, “Under the midday sun, every undulation and nuance of the Cocoon was thrown into mercilessly high relief, helping to throw critical attention on it.” All of the designers, who had worked non-stop for months on the project, stood nearby to listen to the comments offered by the rest of the staff. The remarks were underwhelming. “Not bad at all” said one person, and “Much improved since the last show” said another. The tepid remarks failed to mask their lack of exuberance for the new car.

Cathy Wu, an executive secretary born in China, and educated in Japan and England, stood quietly sipping her tea and listening to the comments of others. Finally she raised her voice and said, “Well, it just looks fat, dumb, and ugly to me!” The designers were stunned by her comments and the review meeting quickly broke up. Deeply chagrined, the designers returned to their studios to meet and discuss the comments and consider possible re-designs. Some months later, when the new car was unveiled at the Tokyo International Automobile Show, it was a major hit with media and consumers alike. Every member of the NDI design team pointed to the comments of Cathy Wu as the origin of the new and remarkably successful design.

As British design icon James Dyson said, “You are just as likely to solve a problem by being unconventional and determined as by being brilliant. And if you can’t be unconventional, be obtuse. Be deliberately obtuse, because there are 5 billion people out there thinking in train tracks, and thinking that they have been taught to think.” Listen carefully to amateurs. Their sometimes obtuse observations may ultimately spell the difference between failure and success for your innovative ideas.

Dr. Gary Oster
Regent University
School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship


Innovation, leadership, corporate communications, compensatory behavior, design


Dyson, J. (2003). Against the odds. New York: Texere.
Hirshberg, J. (1998). The creative priority. New York: HarperBusiness.