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Ford versus Tesla: design thinking and the return to work

May 12, 2020, 11:57 AM UTC
The transformational Ford assembly line is redesigned by the pandemic (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)
ullstein bild via Getty Images

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On Monday, Detroit’s Big Three automakers will restart production lines shut down in March amid the spreading coronavirus outbreak. The agreement to reopen comes after weeks of haggling—among the companies, the United Auto Workers, Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature, and the state’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer.

The standoff was politically charged. But executives at the Big Three—GM, Ford, and Fiat-Chrysler—eventually persuaded union leaders that it could take steps to minimize the risk of infection on the job.

As they return, workers at Big Three factories will receive extensive health screening. They’ll be provided with masks and face shields or safety glasses, required to stand six feet apart, sanitize their hands. In some cases, employee workstations will be separated with clear plastic panels. Tools and equipment will be sanitized each shift. Ford is reportedly testing electronic wristbands that detect and alert workers when they are within six feet of someone else.

Design consultants, both internal and external, have been actively involved in thinking through these new ways of working. As I noted in this space two weeks ago, Ford CEO Jim Hackett is an ardent advocate of “design thinking,” an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes empathy and putting the needs of users first.

Iain Roberts, chief operating officer at IDEO, the global design consultancy that developed the design thinking approach and works closely with Ford, stresses designers can’t just dream up solutions in isolation. The key, he argues, is to engage stakeholders to devise solutions everyone understands, accepts, and is willing to implement. That’s a message I’ve heard from many designers over the past several weeks in return-to-work discussions.

“Ramping up internal communications is vitally important, including regular sharing of information about the company’s evolving knowledge of the crisis and how it is using that knowledge to protect employees and the organization,” declare consultants at McKinsey in a recent report on manufacturing in the COVID crisis. “The best communication is two-way, with managers answering questions and engaging in an open dialogue with employees at all levels.”

“You have to build trust,” says Adam Cutler, a top designer at IBM, which also champions the design thinking approach. “People don’t want decisions handed down to them. You have to give them the space to tell you what they’re feeling.”

And then there’s Elon Musk. In trying to restart production lines at Tesla’s sole U.S. plant in Fremont, California, the electric carmaker’s founder has engaged in a different kind of dialogue—one that’s not exactly from the design thinking playbook.

On Monday, without any consultation or approval from the state, Tesla ordered the plant’s 10,000 employees back to work. Musk has been a vocal critic of pandemic-related lockdowns, which he has called “fascist,” and argued that measures taken to combat the virus will prove more destructive than the infection.

The previous weekend, the headstrong CEO filed a federal lawsuit against Alameda County, which has ordered the plant closed as a non-essential business. For good measure, he threatened to move the factory to another state. In reopening, Tesla has announced a plan to ensure worker safety at the factory, including many measures similar to those being rolled out by the Big Three.

“We are taking the time we need to get our personnel properly trained before they begin work and all employees must complete an online video training before returning to work at any Tesla facility,” the company said, noting the prevention measures at its California plant are modeled on steps it has taken at its Shanghai Gigafactory.

It’s unclear whether those measures will be sufficient to reassure the plant’s workers. Tesla is the only large U.S. automaker that isn’t unionized. Vox reports that Musk has employed a host of different tactics to stop workers from joining the UAW. The Tesla founder’s latest pledge to stand with his workers may not put them at ease.

“I will be on the line with everyone else,” Musk tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

Clay Chandler


A preview of Twitter's less-assertive flag for controversial coronavirus content. Source: Twitter

Learn more 

Twitter rolled out a new policy for how it flags and, in some cases, obscures tweets “containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19.”At its most basic, the system inserts a link that tells users to “Get the facts about COVID-19” and directs them to either a Twitter-run info page or a third party site.

Spot the dog

In scenes that prequel a Black Mirror dystopia, the Singaporean government deployed Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot, Spot, to patrol one of the city’s public parks. The yellow quadruped broadcasts reminders on social distancing while signs tell visitors not to interfere with the robot’s work.

Go your own way

Speaking of Black Mirror: in 2018 the near-future sci-fi series developed a Choose Your Own Adventure format film for Netflix, called Bandersnatch. It wasn’t the first take on interactive TV—Netflix itself was already developing similar concepts for kids—but Bandersnatch was perhaps the most ambitious. Today, the Tina Fey comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt launched an interactive film on Netflix, too. Will the novelty catch on?

Take to the streets

Transport for London (TfL) anticipates cycling in the UK capital could increase ten-fold once lockdown is over as the Mayor’s office seeks to reduce public transport usage. TfL announced last week it would fast-track a “transformation of London roads,” widening pavements and building new cycling routes to allow for social distancing. Other cities are pivoting towards pedestrians, too. Here’s a good read on how public space in the new world might look.


Last week I shared with you the Micrashell semi-hazmat for socializing during the pandemic. Continuing the trend: here’s an inflatable, cantilevered face shield that leaves space for food and drink (and, presumably, COVID-19) to enter your mouth; and a retro-futuristic space helmet that bubbles around your head.


May: An extremely pertinent conference on the integration of technology and healthcare due to convene in Manchester, UK, next week has been postponed until after the summer. The Lodz Design Festival, also scheduled for next week, has been postponed until November.


June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped back event online this year, with the core public programme moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which starts June 16, has gone digital too. Also, London Fashion Week: Men’s would have walked June 12-14. Instead, it will sit online.


Ongoing: Virtual Design Festival, a collaborative effort from Dezeen, Dutch Design Week and Design Indaba continues to exhibit work from a global roster of designers; the Serpentine Gallery has taken Cao Fei’s Blueprints exhibition online.


“I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to….We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood...And, most important, that we need each other.”

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl writes in The Atlantic, yearning for the time when concerts can return. Grohl’s not wrong: the prolonged isolation of the pandemic is taking its toll on people’s mental health, and a slew of start-ups have risen to address that silent crisis, but people need to connect for real.

Fortune’s David Meyer reports live performances are already coming back to life in Europe. Concerts under the cloud of coronavirus, however, don’t look the same. Performers need to maintain social distance on stage, audiences are dancing in the confines of their own cars, and the organizers are still figuring out the economics of it. But all those layers of constraint are creating “new avenues for creativity.”


This week's edition of BxD was edited by Eamon Barrett. Email him at