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Last updated
24 Feb 1998

My Biggest Mistake: Guy Desbarats




MY BIG MISTAKE came in September 1983. I had just finished at the Royal College of Art, where I had been doing a joint engineering and design course after getting an engineering degree in Canada, and had recently started work at Sinclair Research.

My first job was to redesign the bodywork of what was to become the famous C5 electric car. I had been working on it for two to three months and went down from Cambridge to London to make a presentation to Sir Clive Sinclair. On the train going back to Cambridge, I put my portfolio case containing the final drawings in the gap between the seats and settled in for the journey. It was early autumn, when mornings begin to get dark, and as we approached the station I suddenly began to worry that I had forgotten to turn off my car's lights when I left it in the car park that day.

I became so preoccupied with worrying about this that I got off the train without my case. And I completely forgot about it for some two hours. It had been a long day. I had gone home and sat down with a drink before I realised I did not have the case. After a while I screwed up the courage to phone the managing director of Sinclair and tell him what had happened. Of course, my worst fears were only half as bad as his rage.

The police forces of eastern England and the transport police were alerted and I spent the next two days not knowing what would happen. After all, these were plans that could be sold for a lot of money to a rival company or to a newspaper. I was expecting to wake up one morning and find them printed on the cover of one of the tabloids.

In the end it worked out all right. The drawings were found in a ditch near Kings Lynn - soggy, but intact. Whoever had taken the case from the train had removed a scalpel and a roll of tape worth a few pounds, and left drawings that they evidently did not realise were worth much more. The joke is that a lot of people might think I would have done better not to be even associated with the C5. But in fact, having designed the body work has never been a problem professionally. It was the concept - which I was not involved in developing - that was the problem.

Indeed, it was quite the reverse. The time at Sinclair gave me a unique chance to apply everything I learned from the image end to the creative end. It was such a small team that you got involved in all aspects of the work -something I have since put to good use. It taught me that innovation is all about risk and how you manage it. And that visionary design is no good on its own; you must listen to consumers.

My blunder on the train was the only incident in my career that has caused me anxiety of that kind. It could have lost me my job. As a designer you are dealing with images that have a commercial significance. Having them fall into the wrong hands is a real and constant danger.

To this day I always have a last look round when I leave a train or aircraft.