Uber good design

According to the Oxford Dictionaries design is “A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.” This is absolutely true and most likely more or less the definition of design as understood by many.

The title of this column is designed, more about that later. This website is designed, the font used to write this piece is designed, and in the case of a magazine, the ink applied to the paper and even the paper itself is designed. The chair you are sitting in whilst reading is designed, its fabrics, its plastics, its structure. Many debates have been held and decisions made on both the holistic object as a whole and the details down to the fibre.

Design is getting more complex. In the old days styling and engineering a car, for instance, was done by one person, perhaps two. Now large teams of highly skilled individuals, all experts on different specific design specialisms, apply their unique blend of science and art to the project in order to make the final product. And this example is only highlighting interior and exterior design, not all the high tech engineering that needs to be developed to go underneath the beautifully crafted surfaces.

But design is so much more than what meets the eye, especially today. Design is everywhere, everything is designed. Design is getting increasingly multi-layered, multi-faceted and interdisciplinary.

More and more important in the world of design is the deep understanding of the subject: design ethnography. From the Greek ethnos ‘people’, ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. To establish good design it is absolutely key to explore cultural phenomena, to research and observe society from the point of view of the subject, the user. The questions asked before the design is started are more important than anything else.

You might wonder what the relevance of all this is for you in the taxi trade?

It is absolutely huge. Paramount.

The title of this column must have caught your eye. Regardless of your point of view on Uber, these four letters now mean the world in international taxi business. Just the word Uber alone might have been the reason for you to start reading. This title was designed to do just that.

So, what is uber good design –yes, without capital– or in other words super good design? Good design, whether it is an office chair, a taxi app, taxi service or taxi vehicle, consists of many ingredients. Like a dish in a Michelin-Starred restaurant all ingredients need to be added just right. Proper design can make or break your very business. Let me illustrate my statement with a real life example from the taxi world. An example of good design, on many different levels. A project very well executed. So well executed it is known around the world:The London Taxi.

No taxi vehicle is recognised more than the London Black Cab. If the ochre roof light drives around the corner on a rainy evening in a dark London street tourists, business people or locals, everybody knows: ‘I will be fine, these drivers can be trusted.’ That is the power of design.

And the hymn does not stop there. The vehicle itself, as a usable product, is designed solely for that goal – it is purpose-built. The London taxi fleet is the only one in the world that is fully accessible to disabled people. Not a couple of the London taxis are accessible, no, all of them. Another important design term is key to that success: inclusive design. It applies an understanding of customer diversity to the design of mainstream products. Designing with this larger user group in mind -old, young, wheelchair-bound, abled-bodied, partly sighted, fully blind, arthritis patient, drunk teenager, busy business man- will better satisfy the needs of more people using the product.

The world is not standing still though. It is moving faster than ever. So is the taxi world and the world of design. The London taxi was unbeatable and had a monopoly for 30 years. The design was left largely unchanged. But a stagnation like that often means decline. All was well for the forerunner of The London Taxi Company, the manufacturer of the London black cab, until Mercedes-Benz brought the Vito Taxi to the market. Based on the Vito van that taxi is not as inclusively designed as the traditional London taxi models, but it provides a driver environment far superior to that of the old London cab. Nissan is also working on a van-derivative taxi with the NV200. Karsan, the Turkish manufacturer that presented Concept V1 for the New York taxi market a few years ago, is now working on a purpose-built taxi for London. Designed from the ground up, much like the original London taxi, this is going to be a very inclusive vehicle for both drivers and passengers alike.

This example is one of many places where the taxi world is meeting the world of design. Clearly, both are not standing still.

Uber looks like a successful disruptor of the traditional and sometimes too conservative taxi market. What Amazon did for home shopping, streaming services like Netflix do to traditional TV channels, Uber might do to the taxi world.

Changes have to be made. Most likely also to your product, your service. Did you ever try your service from the customer point of view? How easy is it to get hold of your company via the phone or the internet? What is the experience of the service through different channels, at different times of the day? How do customers find you in the first place and could this be better? What is the perceived quality of your business?

Let me put the main question out there. One that harks back to the title one last time. Something designers would refer to as a design provocation:

Is Uber smarter than you?

Niels van Roij 

• Form doesn’t always follow function: one of the most-used taxi models wasn’t designed as a taxi. 


Niels van Roij Design

is a London based award-winning design studio that has completed automotive, product, film and research projects. The team of highly skilled designers work for a wide variation of clients. Delivering interdisciplinary productions and projects, using advanced technology and sophisticated creative processes from concept generation to final execution.

Niels van Roij (30) is a visiting tutor and lecturer for different academies and universities worldwide. Niels’ work was featured internationally, amongst others, in the London Transport Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Van Roij is currently part of a team working on the inclusively designed ‘Future London Taxi: re-imagining the London icon’-project at the Royal College of Art for car-maker Karsan.