I hope you’re enjoying the holidays — I’m back in Tokyo with my wife’s family in an attempt to see how much of my mother-in-law’s homemade Indian food and Japanese cafe au laits I can cram into my body without exploding.
That came out more graphic than I was expecting.
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If things look a little different it’s because I switched email services – but rest assured, it’s still the same newsletter.
Only with a new name! I’m retiring the 100 for 100 moniker and 💯emoji in the subject line because out of all my Bonsai projects this is the primary outlet. So from now on, the newsletter will just be called Bonsai.
Last month Tesla finally debuted its latest vehicle, the Cybertruck. Elon Musk spent the weeks leading up to the event teasing the truck’s radical design:
Cybertruck doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen bouncing around the Internet. It’s closer to an armored personnel carrier from the future.
I rolled my eyes when I read Elon’s Tweet — a “futuristic armored personnel carrier” felt more like marketing hyperbole than reality. But he wasn’t lying!
A futuristic armored personnel carrier, indeed.
I’m impressed with the amount of creative ambition it must have taken to drag Cybertruck all the way from concept to reality. I can’t imagine Ford, Chevrolet, or any other manufacturer producing something as polarizing because novelty inherently breeds resistance.
That’s why bringing something fundamentally new into the world is so admirable — it requires both unrelenting vision and grit. You can’t be Picasso without being Picasso.
Actually, now that I mention it, looking at Cybertruck is sort of similar to taking in a Picasso painting. Like,
hey, that’s not what a truck is supposed to look like.
Regardless of whether I appreciate its look or feel, Cybertruck has redefined my understanding of what a “truck” is or can be, and for that reason alone it demands respect.
Redefining terms, or shaping lexicon, is exactly what UK designer and Yale graduate David Rudnick describes as the role of designers:
If I say a word to you that has a visual connotation — like “chair” — every one of you will have some chair that you picture in your head. That image, or that idea of what a chair is, will be different for all of you because it can only be built out of your own experiences. Maybe it’s the chair in your family’s house, or the one in your bedroom.
That “chair” is the noun, it’s a term. And what I call the “narrative” is the individual’s unique experience of the term.
This is what a designer does every time we put work in front of people: we are making a conscious intervention into their narratives. We are creating a moment in their history of something.
For better or for worse, Tesla designers have succeeded in creating a moment in my history of “truck.” Not by replacing my mental image of a “truck,” but by creating a new category for the term altogether. My definition has been expanded.
In this way, the Cybertruck reveal reminds me of the first iPhone launch. Steve Jobs anticipated that the concept of iPhone would break consumers’ understanding of the term “phone”. So to explain it, Jobs combined terms together.
In his keynote presentation he repeated one line over and over again:
“It’s a phone. It’s an iPod. It’s an internet communicator.”
The metaphor even extended to the software — the original iPhone’s music app was literally called “iPod.” The app icon wasn’t a music note but — you guessed it — a clickwheel iPod.
Choices like these are how designers make new things feel less intimidating. The familiarity created by referencing the past (even if its subtle) provides a contextual framework for understanding what, exactly, this newfangled thing is.
So what is Tesla saying with Cybertruck, the fully armored pickup that can accelerate faster than a Porsche and beat the Ford F-150 in a game of tug of war?
If I used Steve Jobs’ strategy and combined terms to explain how Cybertruck redefines “truck,” I’d say
It’s a truck. It’s a tank. It’s a sports car.
In other words, it’s a bro on four wheels. Maybe that’s why the Cybertruck feels like it was hallucinated into existence by the male gaze.
While I don’t know if Tesla designers were aware of this, I stumbled upon a strikingly similar concept vehicle from 1979 that was published in…wait for it… Penthouse magazine:
Inspiration or not, the DNA is similar.
Elon Musk did, however, cite two references as the primary inspiration for the Cybertruck design: the Blade Runner film and the car/submarine from the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.
As Elizabeth Bisley, co-curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s car design exhibition, explains in her Cybertruck critique:
Both films imagine the future of the car as a highly individualised and powerful technology. Rather than offering an alternative to existing designs, Musk pushes these ideas to newly dehumanised heights
As a result,
The truck seems the vehicular equivalent of a nuclear bomb shelter – privately-owned and designed for individual survival, in possibly dire conditions, outside of any cogent societal order.
This is the tragedy of Cybertruck — for all its inspirational futuristic qualities, the design is built on the premise of a hyper masculine dystopia. Cybertruck says “get in or die.”
But why? Couldn’t Cybertruck have been radical and hopeful?
At a TED Talk in 2017 (where else), Musk gave insight into his motivations:
“I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”
Besides its technological feats, I don’t know what about the Cybertruck is supposed to inspire optimism. Picturing the hundreds of thousands of preordered Cybertrucks on the road feels — as it was designed to — apocalyptic.
If Tesla’s Model S, 3, X, and Y reflect Musk’s desire for a better world here on earth (and teenage boy humor), Cybertruck reflects his core belief that Mars is the only viable long term option.
One month before the Cybertruck event, Volvo announced their surprisingly pragmatic vision for an entirely electric, more sustainable, safer future (the scent of Tesla’s influence was thick). At the event, Volvo debuted a new, all-electric XC40:
Unlike the Cybertruck, the XC40 embraces a future that’s both more hopeful and less patriarchal. From Volvo’s perspective, these ideals seem to be intrinsically linked.
The design of the XC40 will quickly be forgotten in history. It’s sensible, forward thinking, appealing, but not groundbreaking. It didn’t redefine my term for “SUV.”
Yet I’m hopeful that the XC40 will be more successful in defining the future than Cybertruck will be, and in ten years when I’m looking back at Tesla’s design I’ll still be able to say
hey, that’s not what a truck is supposed to look like.
Until next month,