Ready to take a trip? Today we discuss possible futures and automotive design with Design Field Trip’s editor, Christopher Butt.
Design was once characterised as “the dress of thought,” an elegant phrase and one at least as applicable to the automobile as any other form of styled product. Yet today, the dress which clothes our vehicles all too often suggests thoughts of a less edifying nature. But can anything be done to arrest this trend? Having recently launched his latest venture, Design Field Trip, we ask Hamburg-based design commentator, critic and writer, Christopher Butt, about his hopes to alter the conversation.
Driven to Write: Readers of DTW will most likely be sufficiently familiar with your writing both here and on your own website, for you not to require an introduction. Your website, Auto-Didakt came about in 2016 and if I may say, was always as inspiring to behold as it was enlightening to read. Now that you have paused it, do you regard Auto-Didakt as having achieved its ambitions?
Christopher Butt: “They were quite different from what was achieved. When I launched Auto-Didakt, I was targeting readers interested in car design history. However, I soon discovered a latent hunger for critical reporting on contemporary automotive design – particularly and that’s what surprised me most – among car designers themselves.
So while I never abandoned historical topics, it became more relevant as a voice analysing current automotive design issues. Over the course of three years, a network of design professionals and writers was formed – one which illustrated the limits of Auto-Didakt, because all I could provide there were my own views.
That led me to form the germ of a new idea: to provide a platform not just for myself, but other learned voices to share their experiences, impressions and thoughts on the subject of car design and beyond. A place where, say, Patrick le Quément can explain not only how and why it was such a struggle to get the blue oval logo onto Fords in the 1970s, but also share his opinion on today’s outsized grille designs.
Given this critical point in time, I felt compelled to try and create a forum I couldn’t find elsewhere, as I believe automotive design can only benefit from a critical medium reporting upon it – which is decidedly different from the musings of a solo writer.
DTW: Given the challenges facing carmakers anno: 2021, where in your view does automotive design fit within a business model which is becoming more tech-laden, commodified and less humanistic?
CB: “Car design could be quite a bit more cultured than it is currently. Quite a lot of it is intentionally aimed at appealing to the baser human instincts, which sells cars right now, but poses questions as to which side of history the automobile wants to be on – does it really want to be considered an inherently reactionary device? Shouldn’t the automobile evolve in a meaningfully progressive way?
Even if engineers and chemists managed to make batteries ever lighter and more compact, a great many companies would voluntarily choose to make the cars into which they’re fitted appear tank-like, overwhelming and aggressive, rather than graceful, modest and possibly elegant. This is a cultural issue, which isn’t addressed in any meaningful way, because ‘car people’ and ‘non-car people’ don’t talk to one another.”
DTW: As you’d probably agree, good work only comes about from a robust creative brief. But surely it’s less likely that designers will benefit from the correct guidance if senior management remain mired in what might be crudely termed ‘legacy thinking’ – are enough of the current Senior Design leaders engaged with the required mindset?
CB: “The most capable designer’s talents are worthless if their chief designer fails to appreciate them. Likewise, even the most able chief designer is always at the mercy of the CEO. In this context, both designers and management need to reconsider the role of design.
Designers need to be open to interact with engineers, rather than fostering any folkloristic ‘artist vs craftsman’ animosities – if they want to truly redesign the automobile, rather than merely change its clothes. Simultaneously, management needs to take design seriously enough to allow designers more leeway than to simply make an existing product more attractive.
So generally speaking, yes. I believe mindsets need to change everywhere. Starting with the reporting on automotive/ mobility design. Which is one reason why Design Field Trip has come into being”.
DTW: So, regarding Design Field Trip (DFT): Perhaps you can give me a little background to how it came about, why you adopted this name and your aims and ambitions for it?
CB: “The name was a direct consequence of not wanting to restrict the website to matters solely automotive. I want to feature stories that are about creativity and craftsmanship, sometimes with only the most abstract connection to the car industry – like a forthcoming article on a world-class TV commercials director who is changed course and is now baking and selling outstanding sourdough bread. Generally speaking, this trip is supposed to take designers beyond their habitats and interested laymen right into the realm of design – both automotive and beyond.
That may sound like a contradiction, but is devised in order to prevent DFT from acting as yet another echo chamber: this isn’t the space for designers to wax lyrical about themselves, their employer and their line of work. It’s intended to be a space for debate. True progress isn’t possible without debate.”
DTW: So how is the debate progressing, from your perspective?
CB: ” DFT isn’t intended to establish some new gospel, but act as a forum. In that sense, I sincerely hope that eventually, a culture of debate along similar lines to that of Driven to Write’s will develop. So far, a disappointment for me is a lack of comment and hence debate in the wake of articles being published. This is due, to a considerable extent, to many readers being car design professionals, who are hesitant to voice their opinions in public. They might write me a message instead, if they know me personally, but it’s early days.
DTW: Have you aimed DFT specifically at the industry, or the design-curious?
CB: “DFT covers the industry, of which it takes notice, but we cater to anyone with an interest in automotive design. This wider reach should, I hope, also have the side effect of sharpening interested individuals’ critical faculties, making them more discerning observers, users and customers in the process.”
DTW: But surely, if mindsets are to be altered at a fundamental level, it must be also be something that a senior manager or automotive CEO might want to read as well? How can you get the message out to them?
CB: “I’m painfully aware that this might sound haughty, but as in every area of life, education is at the root of understanding and hence forming learned opinions. DFT aims to facilitate this education. Take Sketching Thoughts, a monthly column by Fabio Filippini, who is Pininfarina’s former Chief Creative Officer. Fabio is among the most thoughtful and intelligent people in this sector, and has chosen DFT to share his insights, experiences and thoughts with the wider world. This, if I may say so, is a privilege not just for me, as editor, but for every reader.”
DTW: Speaking of design leaders, there is a common misconception around who is ultimately responsible for design decisions in car companies. Can you elaborate as to where the buck stops?
CB: “It’s quite simple: no chief designer can single-handedly put a design into production. He (regrettably they are all male for the time being), always needs to have at least the CEO by his side. This is one of the main reasons why excellent designers don’t necessarily make for good chief designers. Just because you’ve created an outstanding car exterior doesn’t mean you have what it takes to guide and inspire a team and can sell their work to the executive board.
Intriguingly, it’s the smaller manufacturers who come up with the clearer, more distinctive design these days. What they have in common is not just that relatively little energy and effort is wasted on matters of internal politics, but that their capable chief designers have an excellent rapport with the respective chief executive.”
DTW: Do you think that companies who are designing to a higher standard are being sufficiently rewarded for their efforts? Because upon appearances, the carmakers who are not doing good work (and we all know who they are) do not appear to be suffering in material terms. Brand of course is always a factor, but would you agree that collectively, we are becoming resistant to elegance?
CB: “That’s a hen & egg scenario, isn’t it? People allegedly don’t care for elegance anymore. Then again, which elegant cars are they being presented with, anyway? Only two come to mind: The Mazda 3 saloon is a quietly elegant car. The Ferrari Roma is fundamentally elegant. The former comes from a brand not widely accepted as a standard bearer of style and will therefore, I fear, remain largely unnoticed. The Ferrari, however, stands a chance at reintroducing certain classical values that have been mostly forgotten in recent years. I’d certainly love for that to have some visual ‘trickle-down’ effect.
These two examples illustrate that the old adage about reputations being hard won and easily lost don’t apply in the automotive realm. Ferrari hadn’t made a truly pretty car in quite a while before the Roma arrived, whereas Mazda’s design output has been above average for some time. But one is a racy Italian icon, whereas the other sold the equivalent of beige anoraks two decades ago. That’s the power of brand, for better or worse.”
DTW: Notwithstanding the current public health restrictions, or the wholesale struggle across the industry to make sense of new realities, you appear upbeat about the future of the motor car – sufficiently so to start a business venture at what could be construed as the worst possible time. Are you mad, reckless or simply a hopeless optimist?
CB: “DFT was set up last summer, just as several automotive publishers were announcing redundancies. That admittedly led to some soul-searching on my part. But many of the automotive media’s issues in particular are home-grown: chumming up to the industry has led to shallow content, which in turn has resulted in reader apathy. However, there are other exemplars proving that it is indeed the dead fish that go with the flow. These publications acted as role models to me. Additionally, my partners were strongly convinced that DFT could make a difference.”
So, at a time when actually getting out and about remains as frustratingly constrained as ever, when our perspectives have shrunken and we could all benefit from a little by way of edification, there is at least one kind of trip we can all take.
Christopher Butt is an occasional contributor to Driven to Write. Read Christopher’s pieces here