How to Shape the Future

In late August the students of the renowned Pforzheim Automotive MA degree course held their summer show…

Concept design by Min Byungyoon
Concept design by Min Byungyoon: sculptural expression

…it all looked lovely. I meant to write about this a bit sooner but other subjects demanded my time. However, the main points I wanted to make are still valid. I could easily have selected another degree show but this one is the excuse to make them as they are general to all design courses, I feel.

The first thing to keep in mind with the Pforzheim MA course is that it is one run very much with the needs of the car industry in mind. I understand Pforzheim works very closely with the car makers and many of their graduates quickly get jobs in industry. Evidently, the industry is satisfied with the course’s output.

Audi Flux concept by Ernst Martin Maurer
Audi Flux concept by Ernst Martin Maurer

Pforzheim graduates are highly skilled and produce the kind of work that demonstrates how readily they could be parachuted into a real job next Monday morning should the need arise. Speaking from experience, having done an MA in automotive design, I recognise how talented and competent these students are. In my own case I had two years to do what these students have probably taken five or six to achieve and looking back, I emerged from my course half-baked. I say that in order to put my comments in perspective.

Having taken a look at the concepts shown here I am impressed by the detailing of the designs and the very standard of the models, sketches and CAD visuals. Some of the details that struck me were the small vents on the Audi concept by Ernst Martin Maurer And Min Byungyoon’s concept showed some very dynamic forms and carefully handled sculpting.

What did cross my mind after looking at the eight projects was that I could see none of these vehicles being on the road in five years and, in my experience, trying to guess what will be desirable in 20 is nigh on impossible. Eoin Doyle has described elsewhere here the protracted and painful gestation of the Jaguar XJ40*. Trying to design a car is a process that is not unlike making chips (or “french fries”) in that you can’t make them very much in advance. That Jaguar started designing a car in the early 70s for launch in the early 80s was, to say the least, unfortunate. I would guess the first 70% of the time they spent was wasted.

The brand news cars we see on the roads now are the result of design work concluded between 24 and 36 months ago. The designers started the sketching up to 48 months ago, which is a rather long time. That lead time leaves a wide and tall window of opportunity for other vehicles to appear in the interim which make a later vehicle seem passé or irrelevant. In a nutshell, you can be leapfrogged.

Among the parameters are styling: how do you guess the far future? It is unavoidable that what you produce for production in 50 months is going to be based on what is acceptable at that point. In the meantime small random ideas appear that change the game; small trends become norms and what seemed normal when the design is signed off can become dated. Imagine the shame that some car designer felt when they produced a car with guttered windows only to find that the next year gutterless frames become so evidently the only acceptable solution. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Looking at these designs above I can see clearly students who are ready for work at GM, VW, Ford or Porsche with immediate effect. What I can’t see is anything so distinctive as to indicate this is where the next new thing is going to be coming from. Only the inputs from researchers, designers and managers at the car builders can provide the information that would combine with these students’ capabilities to produce the kinds of overall designs I would consider believable.

2013 concept by Michael Lastowski at Coventry University.
2013 concept by Michael Lastowski at Coventry University.

I have found some work from the 2013 Coventry MA automotive show which indicates this is something of a structural problem with automotive degree courses. The image I have picked from the year 2013 and the one from 2000 show the same kind of skills as the Pforzheim students display. Also apparent is that formlessness, and lack of particular problems to solve that makes real cars so much more interesting than student projects ever manage to be.

What the degree courses need is grist. I would suggest that the industry collaboration provides some more realistic constraints so as give the students something to work against or around. That they apparently don’t is why I feel the courses that I know of are not quite as good as the students lucky enough to take them.

Let’s keep an eye on these designs as you may see aspects of them in production in 60 months’ time. What you won’t see is anything very much like them overall.

2000 concept car by Andrew Moore at Coventry University
2000 concept car by Andrew Moore at Coventry University

What I get from this is that were I to be running a degree course, I’d be telling my students what Raymond Loewy thought a designer should provide, the most advanced yet acceptable. I’d also emphasise that the restrictions that face real designers aren’t an impediment to good design. Thus, throwing away all the packaging requirements doesn’t lead to very interesting shapes.

It tends to lead to the same amorphous forms that have characterised student work for a very long time: big wheels, elongated bodies and very low roofs. I’d much rather see designs that make a success of crash-test standards and the simple need for cars to be easy to get into and out of. Am I boring?

I wish all the students at Pforzheim the very best of luck in the future. They won’t need much as they are clearly very good at what they do.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

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