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The new Land Rover Defender is a case study in modernizing classic design

March 10, 2020, 6:22 PM UTC

How do you modernize a classic?

Raymond Loewy, one of the 20th century’s most successful designers, would offer consumers a product that was new, but not too new. Loewy called his theory MAYA, short for “most advanced yet acceptable.” In his 2017 book Hitmakers, Atlantic editor Derek Thompson summarizes the idea: If you want to sell something surprising, make it familiar; to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

Designers at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) faced a very practical test of that theory several years ago, when the company decided to resurrect the Defender, the four-wheel drive workhorse that’s defined the brand for generations. JLR unveiled a radically redesigned version of the Defender at the Frankfurt motor show in September. The new model, which takes a star turn in this trailer for the new James Bond movie No Time to Die, is scheduled to go on sale globally this spring.

Not everyone is pleased, but the auto press seems to like it

More than 2 million Defenders have been built since the original Land Rover Series 1 debuted in 1948. They’re big, boxy, nearly indestructible gas guzzlers. Rechristened as the Defender in 1990, an estimated 80% are still on the road. The retro design has amassed a kind of cult following; the vehicle of choice for Britain’s military, it’s beloved by ordinary farmers as well as Winston Churchill, Sean Connery, and the Queen.

A reluctance to evolve was part of what made the Defender so cool—and almost did it in.

The new Defenders (there are two models) are unabashedly modern. They come with heated seats, smart LED headlamps, and a matrix of computers, cameras, and electronic sensors. Prices will start at around $50,000 and run up to $81,000 for the most expensive package. In a press release, Land Rover’s chief design officer Gerry McGovern described the new Defender as “respectful of the past but not harnessed by it.”

But in a recent interview with GearPatrol, McGovern went further, essentially dismissing Loewy’s incremental approach—and the oft-heard assertion that designers must defer to what customers say they want. The whole interview is well worth reading, but here’s my favorite bit:

“I don’t get people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, could you make it more retrospective?’ I don’t get marketing coming up to me saying, could you do this, could you do that? I’m the spiritual leader for the brand. I define what that vision is, and my team executes it … Design is a discipline, and somebody who just criticizes design and looks at design, they’re not experts. I’ve spent my whole life designing stuff.”

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

University Campus UTEC Lima by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.
Courtesy of Iwan Baan

Architecture’s highest honor. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the founders of Grafton Architects in Dublin, won this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize for their approach to community-oriented buildings. Of 46 laureates, they are the fourth and fifth women to win the prize.

Surveillance state, but make it transparent. To assuage concerns around privacy, Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs is experimenting with public signage to inform pedestrians of where and how their data is being collected. Much of smart city infrastructure is invisible; new iconography could help citizens grok what’s at play.

AI is not neutral. Inspired by the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Human Rights Centered Design methodology outlines the privacy and sovereignty that tech should afford Internet users. Designers developing AI-powered technology can look to these standards to make ethical decisions.

Democracy error 404. Another Tuesday, another failed piece of voting technology. Last time it was the disastrously designed Iowa caucus app. This time Los Angeles’s new voting machines—meant to make elections more accessible—experienced glitches and kept spitting paper ballots back out.

Designed to last. Fashion designer Gabriela Hearst stopped by the Time Sensitive podcast and offered a new definition for luxury fashion, based on sustainability: “Luxury takes a deeper knowledge into how the product is made … it has to have a longstanding durability.”

Pastel, sans serif, and filled with plants. What does the pervasiveness of the millennial aesthetic among companies such as Casper, Glossier, and Thinx tell us about their consumers? “If you simultaneously can’t afford any frills and can’t afford any failure, you end up with millennial design,” The Cut’s Molly Fischer writes.


March 19: John Maeda will release his Design in Tech report. Visit Maeda’s YouTube channel to watch.

April 1: Deadline to enter the Core77 Design Awards.

April 3-5: Offset will hold its conference in Dublin.

April 14-17: Design Thinking 2020 will be held in Austin. The theme is “Beyond Design: Moving from Practice to Transformation.” John Maeda will give a keynote.

April 17: Deadline to enter Fast Company’s 2020 Innovation by Design Awards.


Mindless consumption is going out of style, according to a report from Ziba Design. Faced with an uncertain economy and news about climate disaster, consumers want to spend wiser and lessen their impact on the environment. Ziba’s report says that 88% of consumers surveyed want brands to help them make these changes, signaling business opportunity for companies. With that in mind, Ziba describes three ways these companies can speak to people:

  • Practice “subtraction,” such as selling products recycled from ocean plastics, 
  • Enable the daily rituals involved in group meals or skincare routines, and 
  • Help consumers form good habits with cleverly-designed products. 


“The architecture of justice”

What is the designer’s role in bringing about restorative justice? Architect Deanna Van Buren’s career orbits around that question. Through her firm Designing Justice/Designing Spaces, Van Buren designs physical spaces to help rehabilitate those who’ve been incarcerated. At Restore Oakland, for instance, sunny rooms with mid-century modern furniture host conflict resolution sessions as a prison alternative. In Atlanta, Van Buren is currently at work converting a closed detention center into an “equity center” where formerly incarcerated people can seek job placement or take financial literacy classes.

In her pursuit to “rethink the architecture of justice,” as The New York Times recently put it, Van Buren hopes to rewire a system that has disproportionately targeted communities of color and invent places where those perpetrators and victims can open up together and make peace. Some of that therapy is hard to imagine in a typical prison setting, with metal bars, concrete floors, and little to no privacy. Van Buren’s buildings give people space to lessen the emotional weight they carry.

Van Buren’s work is key to the movement to end mass incarceration. “People have always been like, ‘Oh, so you’re designing better prisons?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m saying we don’t do them,’ ” she recently said on Legal Talk Network. Instead, she works with community activists and lawyers to convince cities to embrace centers for healing. “Restorative justice is a powerful tool … there are a bunch of judges I know who are like, ‘Yeah, I want more tools.’ We’re finding that restorative justice works best in cases of severe violence, and that survivors of violence prefer restorative justice to incarceration because they actually feel safer.”


Design in the time of coronavirus

“Often in companies, up to 90 per cent of all goods are made in China from oil-derived substances such as plastic and polyester. We will soon see shelves empty of shoes, phones, clothes and even toothpaste … We will be in a position of having a blank page for a new beginning because lots of companies and money will be wiped out in the process of slowing down. Redirecting and restarting will require a lot of insight and audacity to build a new economy with other values and ways of handling production, transport, distribution and retail.”

— Dutch forecaster Li Edelkoort, reflecting on how the coronavirus might reset our consumption habits, in an interview with Dezeen founder Marcus Fairs. (She conducted her interview via email, while self-quarantined, after attending last month’s Design Indaba in Cape Town.)