May 10, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.