September 2014

It is the 50th anniversary of my starting as a design student at the RCA.

What are design schools for and do we need ‘MA’ degrees, and why have I quit the Vehicle Design department at the Royal College of Art?
About five hundred years ago painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and sculptors like Donatello and Leonardo’s master Verrocchio would take on apprentices to work with them on important commissions from wealthy clients. That way the young people would learn the craft from a master and often become major figures in art or design themselves. The earliest art and design colleges grew out of this system, young people who showed a talent whilst at school had the opportunity to develop their skills under teachers who believed in sharing knowledge and experience. Believing in the concept of education has always been important. Whilst Germany’s Bauhaus colleges were of great influence in the 1920s and ‘30s, the high point of design education was possibly in the late 1960s and 1970s. Colleges in France had gone through the turmoil of the student protest movement and were reinventing themselves. In America, both in New England and California 'Pop Art', new music and the desire to escape from the horrors of the Vietnam War gave the creative arts a new momentum; art and design were 'cool' and new. In Britain, after the grim austerity of the 1950s, there was an explosion of creativity. Sculptors, painters, illustrators and designers became household names, many of those students came from the Royal College of Art in London. Under the inspired leadership of Sir Robin Darwin there was a complete freedom of expression, a feeling that all the different disciplines were of equal value and an 'open door' structure to the College that allowed the students to interact across all the departments.
    I am concerned that art and design schools have become businesses where students have become 'the product' , tutors are 'production managers' and the colleges are run by a CEO and a CFO (chief financial officer). Coded door locks, the taking of student attendance in a ‘register’, limited access magnetic security passes and an unspoken hierarchy among students where some schools are considered more valid than others (Vehicle Design at the RCA ranks very low), are making all those stimulating exchanges of idea a thing of the past. As class numbers increase valuable one-to-one tutorials become almost impossible to organize, overcrowded studios and too few tutors mean that many students are working from their apartments thereby missing out on the conversations and interactions that are at the heart of learning.
    The setting up of MA, or post-graduate courses has unfortunately become a big money earner for Colleges and Universities. In some places an MA can be awarded after just one year of expensive study. Because of the structure of almost all BA courses, and the large numbers of students enrolled, it is an unfortunate fact that many of those students are under-trained. The MA courses have therefore become no more than ‘finishing schools’ where the skills that should have been acquired earlier are eventually developed, remedial drawing should not be part of any MA course!
   What should a modern art and design school look like? Earlier this year I took part in the Zagreb Design Week, an event organized by good friend Daniel Tomicic, the venue was a very large open space within an imaginatively restored historic building. Inside this space were areas for workshops, seminars, lectures and small discussion groups. There were no doors, no key-card locks and no registers. A small restaurant and bar kept students around until well after midnight. The atmosphere was wonderfully stimulating, I was a lecturer on stage, part of an audience for great presentations, involved in small portfolio review workshops, contributor to group discussions, chairman of question and answer sessions with a number of well know and totally honest designers on our panel, and in the evenings was able to watch a fashion show or ride a brilliant electric scooter, designed by a participant in the event.
    If one looks at the internet as a (sometimes unreliable) source of learning opportunities, there are no doors or locks between disciplines, there is no hierarchy of the relevance of certain studies over others, there is only the sharing of knowledge. And that is why the Zagreb event felt like what a new model for design education could be like.
    Maybe a four year course; the first year would be totally exploratory with introductions to all the design disciplines before considering a route to follow. The following years would develop design skills, critical analysis, verbal and visual communication, experience of working with other designers from other disciplines, the history and cultural context of design, and college wide conversations about design. Both workshop and digital skills would be studied but the idea and not the execution would be the important output. At the end of the course a degree certificate would not be the most important thing, (I know students care about their parents being proud of their achievement and a piece of paper signifies that success), but it’s the portfolio of work that is the most important thing. A ‘Practitioner of Design’ could be the award, or maybe ‘Designer’ is enough. Some people like ‘being a designer’ and others just like designing. This imaginary school would be for those who love design.
   Oh yes, and why have I quit the Vehicle Design department at the Royal College of Art? Simple, it no longer represents all those values that I feel are a fundamental part of design education.

 August 2014

Where is the light coming from?

Designers, like painters and illustrators, use the effects of light to show the form of objects that they are depicting. This control of the light can be used to emphasize an emotional feeling that the artist is attempting to show us. This is the same for designers, they do not just want to show the shape of a vehicle but also to give that same feeling of emotion that they hope their work will imply.
Many years ago when I was working as a design consultant for Alpine Renault, in Dieppe, I was often struck by the quality of the light in this ancient town on the coast of Northern France. Dieppe faces North so, during the day, the sun shone down the narrow streets leading to the sea, leaving the main streets in shade. An English painter called Walter Sickert (1860-1942), lived and worked in Dieppe and his use of light was based on the effects he saw in the town. Even his interior pictures show this technique.
An American painter, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is best known for his great paintings of boats and the sea (see Inspiration section of this site). Since painting, like designing, is more about looking at the World than looking at the paper, looking at the effect of light on boats can cause one to move away from the normal methods of seeing the light as something that shines over your left shoulder directly on to the object facing you. Winslow Homer had a very modern eye for these effects, it’s hard to believe that the painting shown here was completed in around 1903!
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was an American painter whose most famous picture is ‘Nighthawks’ a moody night time image where the light on the surrounding buildings comes from the inside of an all-night café. His ‘House by the railroad’ has the light coming from behind the building at the center of the picture.
More recently the American hyper-realist movement’s most famous painter Richard Estes, perfected a painting style that uses reflected light and images that are behind the viewer in an incredibly complicated technique that makes you realize how clever our brain is at only seeing those thing that we want to see. Richard Estes makes us see everything.
The best of automotive illustrators use this method to grab our attention, they depict the source of light as coming from somewhere that we would not usually expect, with dramatic effect. The master of this style is California-based Tom Fritz, his paintings of early hot rod cars, often with a setting sun behind the car, are as atmospheric as any traditional Dutch pictures. Looking carefully at one of his finest works it is interesting to see that the setting sun is actually painted pale blue, making it look unbelievably bright against the orange and blacks in the body of the picture (see Inspiration section of this site).
Sid Meade is another who was very creative in his ‘direction of the light’ that illuminates his futuristic designs. And, of course, my favorite automotive illustrators Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufmann used the positioning of the light source to bring vibrant life to their great Pontiac paintings, they never missed a creative trick. Most recently it is well worth a look at some of, Italian designer, Mauricio Cavalheiro’s work.
The point is that we are not only using design drawings to simply show the shape of a piece work, we are also hoping to engage the viewer (maybe the boss) in our vision of the emotion of our proposal. So many tools are now available to us, and so many creative examples of the use of light can been found that there is no excuse for the ‘light over the left shoulder on to the face of the object’ method of illustration.

July 2014

Stan Mott
Cartoonist, round the World go-kartist, car builder, illustrator, bad taste satirist and eccentric, Stan Mott describes his life as:
"Well, I escaped Flint, Michigan at an early age, owned 50-percent interest in a Cragar flathead A-bone roadster at 12, ran at El Mirage at 15, had first automotive cartoons published in Rosetta Timing Association's program in 1948. Went to Art Center College, developed a sense of humor working in World's Greatest Rolling Clown Show (GM Styling Section). Then worked as fry cook, mercenary, airline pilot, art director of Road and Track magazine, farmer, Wall Street broker, poet. Drove a go kart around the world, became an Alpine guide, did freelance art work and smuggled. Helped found Automobili Cyclops SpA and hold position of propaganda minister in perpetuity. Now working philanthropically to solve moral situations in Southern Mediterranean waters for the U.N."
Not surprisingly Mott refuses to talk about his relationship with the CIA, arctic exploration or his stint as a human cannon ball.
He did indeed drive a go-kart around the world; I have included some images from that trip as well as a whole bunch of his cartoons that give an idea of his extraordinary creativity.
For example Mott proposed a personal aircraft carrier for an impossibly wealthy Oil Sheik. The Sheik was always seasick, so the carrier rolls on the dry ground, while the seaplanes land on its deck filled with water. Some sharks were provided to keep the waters free of Russian scuba diving spies.
The whole point of Mott’s humor is that it is very complex, highly political and critical of most things excessive. Therefore when he designed and built his own motorcar it was in no way excessive! Mott invented the Cyclops Car Company, made numerous sketches of the little car on the production line, on the Monte Carlo Rally and even at le Mans. In fact the Cyclops was wonderfully simple, had an enormous amount of charm and actually worked, you can buy a book telling you how to build your own version. I have it in the workshop!

June 2014

The Google autonomous, or ‘self driving car’
Funny thing, when in May 2014 you went to ‘Google Images’ and typed in either ‘Autonomous’ or ‘self driving car’ you got just a couple of pictures. Type in VW Golf and you probably get around a million. You can watch the video but not examine the car, this is a great pity since it is well worth closer inspection. Is this Google being very restrictive with its personal information, I wonder?
Without doubt we will have autonomous cars in the near future, most automotive design students are happy to sketch ideas for how these little machines might look. The autonomous car can liberate the elderly, physically handicapped or partially sighted by giving them the same freedoms as the majority of the public and that has to be a great thing. So will they look like the Google prototype, and will users like that look?
What we have been allowed to see so far is a rather unsophisticated and naïvely detailed little two-seat car. It is inoffensive in the extreme, with a rather forlorn and apologetic style. The body overhangs the wheels in a way that makes it look rather unstable and the form appears to lack substance, whilst the derivative treatment of the lower sills suggest an immature vision of automotive forms. But the passengers in the Google video, mostly older people or people for whom driving is a stressful experience were clearly taken with the looks, ‘It’s so cute’, being typical of the responses. The concept of just sitting there and doing something else rather than driving, suggests a passive approach to life, which I find rather sad. Is this a car for people who don’t like cars? The is nothing wrong with cute, nothing wrong with small, nothing wrong with efficient but everything wrong with weak design.
 When Fiat started sketching the admittedly ‘retro’ new 500 their studio produced some simple little cars that, whilst being derivative (or having regard for their history’) were good cute. I have put one on this weeks blog plus a cool little sketch of a ‘cute’ small car from Jonathan Carrier and someone’s idea for how a new Smart Car might look. This car doesn’t need to look like a Ford Mustang or a Camaro but it does need to suggest that Google’s vision for future transportation is an attractive one that we will all want to buy into, and that will require a new design language.

May 2014

Baron Margo: Inspiration and a big smile
The first problem with being a design student these days is that the pressure is on TO GET A JOB.

The second problem is that no one is sure how to do that. The suggestion from teachers is to fit yourself to what the industry wants, if you want to work for VW draw Volkswagens. But VW has a whole lot of designers who can already draw Golfs and Polos in their sleep, what difference will you, the student, make?

What the best design studio chiefs want is to see work they never saw before that shows how the mind and soul of the designer works. Some of the most creative designers may decide that industry is not for them and that using the automobile as a ‘blank canvas’ on which to impose their personality is what they really want to do. Some people think that this turns cars in to art, but actually it is still design, and that is fine with me.

Such is the pressure on young designers to get their portfolio together that they miss out on what a rich and varied world car design can be. Hands up those who have heard of Baron Margo! Margo is a Florida born, but Los Angeles based, artist/designer who builds his own fantastic machines, anything from robots to spacecraft to boats, and of course cars, which he drives on the roads of California. When he is asked where his inspiration comes from he will say “from everywhere”, there is a bit of Steam Punk, a bit of Jules Verne and a lot of Margo. The great thing is that the workmanship is fantastic, the engineering works properly and the look is very different – and he is a car designer – how cool is that?
Baron Margo is a prolific Los Angeles artist whose unique metalworks include robots, spacecrafts, whimiscal metal creatures as well as concept metal cars, boats, planes and trains. Born in Florida, if you ask him, he says he's lived in L.A. "Foreva". When asked what inspires him to create his unique brand of fantasy-meets-reality he will tell you, "Everything"! though he will concede his second favorite artist (second only to himself!) is Dali. Not one to mince words he is always quick with an answer that usually throws everyone off guard. When asked about his upbringing he will tell you it was "Normal", though there is nothing normal about the man or his amazing creations. His collection of Art Cars is a collaboration with great fabricators and his keen eye that was inspired by his belief that the automobiles of today should be more futuristic and imaginative than they are. When cruising around town these always draw A LOT of attention.

When asked by curious on-lookers, "What is that?" His reply would be, "Just your everyday, average rocket ship!" Well we should all be so lucky. Anyone who has a glimpse into "Baron's World" usually walks away with a little inspiration and a big smile.

April 2014

A quick phone call to Bernie changed the graphic identity for the 1983 Brabham BT 52 and BT 52b

I had been designing the graphic identity for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team for both the cars and everything from clothing to trucks and pit equipment for a number of years.

The Formula One rules were changed very late in 1982 for the 1983 season’s cars. The spectacular downforce generated by ‘skirted’ Grand Prix cars was causing very high cornering speeds, very high lateral ‘G’ loading and neck and spine injuries to the drivers, so ground effect was outlawed. The Brabham BT 52 was therefore designed in a very short time and I had little time to integrate the ‘Parmalat’ graphics. We went with a development of the 1982 scheme which looked OK in the workshops, but when I saw how the car looked on the track, particularly on TV during the North American races I realised that we had the balance of colours wrong, the car looked weak. I used to watch the Grand Prix on both a colour TV and a little black and white set. At that time most of the world that watched the races only had black and white TVs, and with that technology it looked particularly bad. So I phoned Bernie and said how I was not happy with how the cars looked, even though they were brilliantly fast. A revised version of the BT 52 was to be introduced at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. We reversed the whole colour scheme from that race on.

Not only did the car then look great but Nelson Piquet was crowned World Champion, a great year!

February 2014

Peter Stevens says there is always the opportunity to present a good design solution rather than an appalling one. The current crop of Formula 1 cars are, in the main, visual abominations, says Stevens, and this is totally unnecessary, and unacceptable.

Does it matter what Formula One cars look like? The short answer is yes; they are supposed to represent the pinnacle of contemporary engineering creativity and excellence. Formula One is a world-wide entertainment industry and a shop window for wealthy and high-profile, multinational companies to bring their products or services to the attention of millions. It is an enterprise that prides itself on being an attractive show. Unattractive cars undermine the entire Formula 1 brand. The FIA presents Formula 1 2014 as a forward-looking, ecologically responsible business, concerned with the efficient use of energy among its core values. But no-one could honestly say the appearance of the majority of 2014’s cars reinforces that message. That the new technologies required have created technical problems is fascinating, and, for sure, the rapid pace of development always seen in motor sport will quickly produce workable solutions.

We can expect the usual nonsense from the teams and the sport’s governing body, as those directly involved try to explain away the visual abominations: ‘The rule changes are there for reasons of safety’; ‘A winning car always looks beautiful’; ‘They look like this for aerodynamic reasons’; ‘The most efficient shapes are not always the best looking’. Not true, a bad piece of design will always be a bad piece of design and those who suggest that we will ‘get used to them’ are sublime optimists.

FIA’s group of well-paid rule makers seem to have been unable to foresee the consequences of their mandates. And it always defies belief when this kind of inability to think through the outcome of decisions occurs. The phenomenon is not particular to motor sport: it is common among those in power. But we all know that actions taken for one reason will often produce unsatisfactory results in other areas. The result of proposing a number of specifically defined cross-sections whose shape and position are mandated by the FIA, with no regard for the potential appearance of the cars, does little for Formula 1’s credibility as a premium experience.

Nevertheless, however short-sighted the rule makers, it is incumbent on the teams to do a professional job when developing a car within the regulations. There is always the opportunity to present a good design solution rather than an appalling one. Most Formula 1 teams use the same body surface development CAD tools, but when I look at 2014 Caterham, Ferrari, Toro Rosso or Red Bull cars, for example, I discern the work of under trained or insensitive engineers, with no understanding of the complexities of body surfacing, hiding behind the excuse of ‘aerodynamic requirements’.

2014’s nose shapes are the first and easiest things to criticize, but the developments of the shapes of engine covers are equally poor. So why is the McLaren MP4-29 engine cover so beautifully executed, whilst the Ferrari’s is so bad? That someone influential at McLaren has taste could well be the answer. As a senior Formula 1 aerodynamicist friend said to me, “We can only test what we can think of and with an engineering training we are not properly equipped to come up with aesthetically pleasing results, so we don’t understand how to make things look nice”.

“The great thing about the new rules is that because the nose of a Formula 1 car has little effect on aero performance we are getting such a variety of solutions, the cars can all look different”, so says one senior designer. In other words people are either choosing to produce these dreadful looking machines, or they are incapable of maintaining control over their surfaces. CAD programmes will join up the dots and the lines on the screen at the press of a button and five axis milling machines will cut the master model exactly as you have defined it. In the past, drawings would be passed to experienced pattern makers who would create a master model in wood, using their natural understanding of three dimensional forms. Beautiful cars would result. Modern ‘on-screen’ design is certainly an efficient way of integrating all the complex elements of a modern race car, but you can only see what it really looks like when it has been built. Today’s engineering training is totally screen-based, providing only virtual opportunities for interpreting and experiencing three dimensional form.

We are expected to endure 2014 shapes defined by an engineering CAD programme with limited surface development capabilities in the hands of pure rationalists. This is simply not good enough, the cars are not only an insult to the fans, they also carry with them the suggestion that the outcome of a more energy efficient future is that things must inevitably look bad; in other words the price to be paid for responsibility is bad design. This assumption is unacceptable.

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