Opposites Attract

Sometimes the right person for the job is two people. So argues auto designer Jerry Hirshberg, whose world-renowned studio hires people in pairs to spark “creative abrasion.”

When Tom Semple starts to design a new car, he clears away all traces of earlier projects. He relishes the freedom of a blank sheet of paper. He might glance at some engineering specs or a marketing report. But what he’s searching for is artistic intuition: design means inventing entirely new forms. When Allan Flowers starts to design a new car, he worries about nuts and bolts – literally. He conducts a methodical assessment of potential components and materials, of schedules and priorities. For Flowers, form follows function: design means understanding how things work.


Don’t let the differences fool you. Semple, 53, and Flowers, 56, work in the same organization. In fact, they’ve worked on the same projects for 18 years. They were hired as a pair – not in spite of their differences but because of them. They are one of two-dozen odd couples creating vehicles of the future at Nissan Design International (NDI), the influential studio based in La Jolla, California.

Jerry Hirshberg, NDI’s founder and president, calls this practice “hiring in divergent pairs.” When it comes to creativity, he argues, the best person for the job is often two people – people who see the world in utterly different ways. “I believe in creative abrasion,” says Hirshberg, 58, who began his career nearly 35 years ago as a “paid renegade” for General Motors. “And I mean abrasion. We have titans in their fields going at each other: ‘I’m sorry, I see the project this way. The way you’re approaching it is just absurd.’ That friction can produce wonderful creative sparks.”

Those sparks have been flying at NDI for nearly 20 years. Hirshberg left GM in 1979 to create Nissan’s first design studio in the United States. Since then his organization has produced a stream of trend-setting innovations, including the Pathfinder sport utility vehicle, the Infiniti series, and the Mercury Villager minivan. More than 4 million cars designed by NDI are on the road today. The shop has won countless awards. Hirshberg is recognized as a design visionary. And he’s about to publish a book, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovation in the Real World (Harper- Business, February 1998), about his approach to creativity.

That approach begins with his creative ideas about hiring. And like most new ideas, “hiring in divergent pairs” began by accident. After Nissan recruited him from GM, Hirshberg had to find great designers to join him. Semple and Flowers, both of whom had worked for Hirshberg in Detroit, agreed to join the new venture — which was about the only thing they did agree on. “They were spectacularly gifted but utterly different,” Hirshberg says. “They were from different solar systems.”

That creative tension quickly began paying dividends. The pair’s first big project in the early ’80s was to design a killer-looking light truck that would not only wow Nissan’s leadership in Tokyo but also win over the mass market in the United States. Semple dreamed up a truck with a muscular body reminiscent of the sports cars of that era. Flowers created a more rational prototype. The Nissan brass chose Semple’s design. But the truck that rolled o/ the assembly line incorporated a key component of Flowers’s design in its truck bed.

“Bringing these two together created an immediate vitality, a crackling intensity,” Hirshberg says. “Each approached a project with utterly different priorities and workstyles. The pairing was so successful that we said, ‘Let’s keep doing this.'”


Hiring in divergent pairs has become an organizing principle at NDI, whose staff has grown to 50 design professionals. Why hire two when one might do? Hirshberg argues that hiring in pairs expands the talent pool from which a company can draw. Recently, NDI hired Mersedeh Nourbakhsh, 30, an eyeglass designer for Liz Claiborne Optics. Given that background, considering her as a car designer was a stretch for NDI. But Hirshberg and his colleagues liked the freshness of her design work and her quiet self-confidence. They were willing to bring her on — as long as she was hired alongside a candidate with more traditional skills. Enter Robert Bauer, 26, an enthusiastic Ford designer who lived and breathed cars — a “pure car guy” in Detroit jargon.

NDI’s corporate buddy system has an impact beyond the creativity of each pair. One divergent pair sets o/ sparks; 25 pairs create an organization with unlimited potential for creative collisions. Of course, collisions don’t happen automatically — even in the auto business. That’s why NDI designers are invited to roam freely about the studios, to forage through the concepts, notes, and sketches of their colleagues, and to incorporate those elements into their own designs.

But what about the costs of conflict? Doesn’t creative abrasion wear people down? Quite the opposite, Hirshberg argues. NDI’s designers, modelers, and engineers “get a kick out of the pairings because they feel valued for their own quirks,” he says. “They see that the boss doesn’t just tolerate divergence — he courts it. So they feel free to be themselves.”

But Hirshberg also has a warning: “You need to have a pretty secure sense of self when a person working on the same project as you has an entirely different set of priorities. The folks we’re hiring share almost nothing — except a deep belief in their own way and their own passion. This place is not for the weak-kneed.”