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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

#RCAFutureAuto Seminar 2: The role of the vehicle designer – where is it headed?

The second in the Royal College of Art’s Future Vehicle panel series, titled The role of the vehicle designer – where is it headed?, presented an opportunity to answer a question as perplexing to those already working in the industry as those wanting to gain entrée. As has been previously established in this series, the industry is in a state of flux and as old business models and market requirements change, so must the designer. But how?

Head of vehicle design at the RCA, Dale Harrow, suggested automotive designers need to get a better grip on how to operate outside of the secret garden of the design studio, integrating skills in “strategy, conceptual understanding and communication” to develop more satisfying products. By way of example, he discussed BMW’s 2007 collaboration with the University of  East London and the Social Issues Research Centre, The Secret Life of Cars, that saw designers working with ethnographers to better understand the consumer’s relationship with their car.

The Tata Nano. Not a "car with nothing, but a motorcycle with everything" according to Pratap Bose

Pratap Bose, of Tata Motors and RCA alumni, emphasised the need for designers to be willing to travel widely and work within different cultural frameworks, noting that the development programme for his latest vehicle saw designers travelling from the UK to France and on to Korea and India.

Bose also echoed Harrow in his call for designers to think strategically about the products they envision, noting that Tata’s succes to date has resulted from identifying and designing for market segments that more established car makers have either failed to see or ignored.

RCA PhD candidate Louise Kiesling drew links between her previous experience in the fashion industry to illustrate how technology has had both positive and negative impacts on designers.

Trendstop.com, and example of the web helping automotive designers with research

She hailed social media as a boon for designers, not only for facilitating the trend research that feeds their work but for also gauging public reaction to their output, establishing new modes of market research.

Kiesling warned, however, that developing and experiencing design through virtual channels still has it’s challenges, especially when assessing form or using trim materials appropriately.

In discussing research she has conducted with Tier 1 and 2 suppliers in Europe, she said suppliers had told her that “vehicle designers don’t understand materials anymore [or have] the craftsmanship knowledge”. A response to the drag-and-drop nature of material application in CAD programmes, Kiesling stressed that automotive designers need to develop meaningful relationships with suppliers and their materials.

Finally, Kenny Schachter,  art dealer and commissioner of the Zaha Hadid-designed Z-Car, envisioned a future where the lines between automotive design and art become increasingly (and deliberately) blurred.

David Hockney's BMW 850i Art Car. Schachter wonders why manufacturers haven't capitalised on the art car phenomenon.

It was an idea that, initially, appeared tangential at best. But as Schachter went on, it became clear that in a world that becomes increasingly hostile to the car as an everyday tool, perhaps redemption could be found in concertedly elevating the car to the plane of collectable art object, paving the way for a more progressive industry less reliant on volume and “lowest common denominator” design.

From a collection of talks that provided no direct answers to the question posed by the chairman, there was, none-the-less, an overall theme in evidence. It was clear, in the minds of the panelists, that car designers will no longer be able to shelter within the hallowed halls of their design studios. New political, social and cultural contexts are demanding a new approach to vehicle design, an approach that is more connected, more social and more empathetic to the changing needs of the world at large and designers will have little choice but to embrace the change.

Category: Design Education, Design Strategy

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5 Responses

  1. Brian Driggs says:

    I love Schacter’s thought on elevating the car to more of a collectible form of artistic expression; away from lowest common denominator, volume-created apathy. That’s why we have so many bland, uninteresting automotive appliances on the market these days. Remember when concept cars were the realization of the imaginations of people passionate about building the next greatest thing on four wheels? Today, it seems more like who can bring the next four wheeled toaster over to market the fastest. Imagine if the brightest designers were to apply this artistic mentality to efficient mass transit. Imagine if transportation which made sense for non-enthusiasts was actually visually appealing.

    While I’m dreaming, I’d like a 57 Alfa Giulia to tell me a story about the good old days…

  2. Drew says:

    I must admit, it kind of blindsided me and at first I thought “What on earth is he talking about!?”, especially when he started talking about architect and industrial designer-designed cars which, by and large, have been the stuff of jokes in the industry. It’s funny you mention automotive toasters; Schachter, in his talk, referred to the Toyota Prius – surely the very definition of appliance-as-car – as “the automotive equivalent of cod liver oil. Or an orthopaedic shoe. It’s almost as if they create this car as if it’s the automotive equivalent of something that’s good for you – “here, have it, let me shove this medicine down your throat””.

    No matter that he was preaching to the converted, he added that one only need to look to “how well the classic car market has performed in the face of the recession, I think this is almost certainly a reaction against the homogenised design of contemporary vehicles… [and] a lack of imagination and determination on the part of the auto industry”.

    Indeed, it’s pretty telling that myself and most of my friends who work in the industry either drive old cars or would prefer to if running costs in Europe weren’t such an issue.

  3. Massimo says:

    As much as designers, would like to be at the top of the supply chain of ideas creation, concept generation and definition, etc… they simply aren’t.

    Why? Because designers in car manufacturing very occasionally have chance to make their own ideas alive (and this is not necessarily a bad things), and even more often are not considered the guys to talk to.

    Before there is Engineering, then Marketing, Product Planning, after Legal, Sales, Ads, and so on.

    Only at that point, at a closer to end than it look to appear in any “workflow process”, there is the Design (and the Designer).

    And even in companies where design, form language, was/is pretty well considered (BMW) you simply got to ask Mr. Bangle (which you know well) the struggle and the challenge that he has put up with to do the “right things”.

    You mentioned yourself, is the automotive industry is in a state of flux with old business model.

    Changing the world is possible only by brush strokes??

    Some of the automotive designers around the world would love to take on the responsibility, but probably most don’t.

    IT IS very CORRECT the comment: Guys start to operate outside of the secret garden of “YOUR forbidden city – design studio”.

    It is like saying: Get a LIFE, a real life made of responsibilities”.

    And that’s why Board of Directors very often do not even bother talking with designers.

    by the way Tata Nano: Not a car with nothing, but a motorcycle with everything.

    That is simple bul—-t marketing…adverts stuff.
    It reminds me VW ads: “with Scirocco Diesel we have not made Scirocco worst, we improved Diesel”.

    Crap: If you want a bike, you buy a bike!

    Nano is simply a cheap car, at zero profit for the company; at least till they don’t make 5.5 million of them…

  4. […] coming to our attention during a panel discussion on the future of the automotive designer (Kenny thinks the increasing impracticality of cars will see them elevated to objects of cultural […]

  5. […] coming to our attention during a panel discussion on the future of the automotive designer (Kenny thinks the increasing impracticality of cars will see them elevated to objects of […]

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