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The Day I Developed Thick Skin

If you work in a creative field and care about what you do, then you have probably felt personally attacked when given harsh criticism. Handling criticism is an important part of learning and improving your craft. Like any other skill, the ability to take criticism (constructive or destructive) can be improved. If you learn to stop taking design criticism as a personal attack, your work and collaborations will improve and be more rewarding. One who takes criticism well is said to have thick skin. I developed thick skin almost entirely in one glorious dumpster fire of a design review back in the early 90’s.

Cup Holder King of Detroit     

I started my career out of engineering school at an automotive supplier, LDM Technologies. Our design group worked primarily on interior components for Ford Motor Company. I somehow got placed on project after project designing cup holders. I deprecatingly called myself the “Cup Holder King of Detroit” in reference to the movie scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where, wanting a table at a fancy restaurant, he pretends to be Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago. It drove me crazy that every layperson, upon learning what I was designing would immediately start their next sentence with “Oh, you want to know what I hate about my cup holder?” I often wished I was working on something less visible to drivers – like paint adhesion or fuel injectors. I was good at cup holders though, and in the early days, we got stuck trying to make overly complex articulating and folding cupholders because the car designers didn’t leave enough space for proper cup holders. One of my projects was for the Ford Mondeo also known as the Contour here in the US. It was the “World Car” because it had been designed in Europe and was going to be sold all over the world with slight modifications for local regulations and driver tastes. Well, our European counterparts could not see any good reason for a cup holder in a driving machine. So when the Contour came our way, along with softening the suspension to deal with Detroit-sized potholes, management decided it needed cup holders.

44 Ounce Dilemma     

LDM was manufacturing a clever but not very rugged cupholder that took the place of the pen holder the Europeans put in the center console. Yes, that’s right, in place of a pencil we were supposed to hold a 44 ounce Big Gulp. The existing cup holder could hold two small cups, but management wanted to hold the famed 7-11 Big Gulp. I was tasked with figuring out a new design that would fit in the space of a pencil holder. (Doing my part to fuel the obesity epidemic? Don’t you judge me.)


Image of the original articulated cup holder I was trying to improve. I failed.

Opie’s Golden Boy     

A little backstory is useful here just to get you into my frame of mind. I came to LDM, my first job outside the family business, after my junior year in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech University. After only 2 months into my internship, they offered me full time employment, a great salary, AND they paid for the rest of my tuition as I finished my degree while working. My boss George Opie threw me in over my head on projects which is the best way to learn. I worked like mad for George because I was learning at a dizzying pace and loved it. I worked enough Sundays and late nights to attain a sort of Golden Boy status. When Ford wanted to see new concepts to replace the existing cup holder in 3 weeks, I got the project.

I worked day and night to figure out a concept. I had to articulate the pieces like a Transformer so it would stow in the space of a pen holder and open to hold a Big Gulp. Once I had the mechanism figured out, my industrial design colleagues helped clean up the design so it was more ergonomic, user friendly and visually appealing. I was learning a new CAD program as well so I was in the office literally day and night for 3 weeks getting the design completed. We quickly fabricated a prototype for the review.

The British Invasion     

The Ford program manager was visiting from the UK so we would present our prototype directly to him at the Ford design studio in Dearborn. I had been there many times, but this would be my first time as the lead presenter of a design. This also would be the highest ranking Ford executive I’d ever met with. I don’t recall his name for certain (I want to say it was Phil) but I’ll never forget another name which I was about to learn. Our meeting was scheduled for 3pm so we got there early, were shown to a conference room and asked to wait. I set up our prototype, adjusted my tie and prepared myself mentally. All the exhausting hours were about to pay off.

After an hour of waiting, we were informed that prior meetings were taking longer than expected. After another hour, we were told that the delay was due to the unexpected visit from Richard Parry-Jones and that Phil was giving him an update on the entire car program. I was informed by my more experienced co-worker that Richard Perry-Jones was something like the number 2 or 3 man at Ford Europe so we were going to have to wait patiently. At 6pm, the entourage burst into the room. We were expecting to meet with the program manager and our Ford liaison, but instead we were greeted by at least 8 Ford executives including Mr. Parry-Jones himself. The two ranking executives seemed at least 4” taller than the other yes-men that followed. I knew the term “yes-men” but this was my first time seeing it in person. It seemed their job was to echo and rephrase anything one of the two executives said while nodding.

After they filled the room, we didn’t even take time for introductions. I began presenting my concept, and I was quite concerned about the durability of the prototype. In the early 90’s, 3D printed models were brittle and I knew that it would break easily. I think my first words were “now, this is an SLA model so you need to be care…” as I was saying this, I was literally pushed aside by a Ford executive who broke the model in about 5 seconds. A couple pieces of the cup holder were spring loaded so the springs shot across the table and then the articulating arms lie unopened. After I tried to describe how the cup holder was supposed to work (if it weren’t shattered) Richard Parry-Jones question to me was not about the broken arms, but rather the rotating open-close motion of the unit.
“How do you expect it to stay opened?” he asked me.
“A spring loaded detent.” I replied trying to maintain confidence.
He looked at me, obviously wondering who had put a 22 year old kid in charge of this design, and asked “Have you ever even done a detent before?” I had no response. I literally stood there with my mouth half open, and said nothing. I had in fact NOT done a detent before. The lashings continued another 15 minutes, the yes-men all parroting the bosses to validate their usefulness. I was pretty numb and just wanted to crawl under the table.
“It’s the son of its father.” said Phil referring to the fact that this design was no better than what they already had. In the years that followed, my colleagues would mockingly imitate those two phrases in their best English accent when they needed to knock me down a peg.

Aftermath and Growth     

After the Ford executives left, I was dumbstruck. My colleagues were embarrassed too, but I think they were really wondering if I would recover. I wondered the same. Was I cut out for this job? Could I handle that kind of abuse on a regular basis? My boss George didn’t let me mope about it, and I just muddled on. It took a while before I could really laugh at the experience, but I quickly realized it was unlikely I’d ever take a beating like that again. It helped me stop internalizing design criticism. Those Ford executives weren’t there that day to give me a beat down, they were just doing right by the Ford name. I certainly didn’t expect them to pass along a sub par product just to protect my fragile ego. It was solely about building better car, not about me personally. Do I recommend that you find yourself a team of experienced design executives to rip you apart in a design review? Yes. As they say in the military, “embrace the suck”. You’ll be better because of it.