Breaking the Mould

Visionary ‘concept cars’ can provoke strong reactions, but truly iconic design should survive the test of time. So claims Andrew Dyson, design manager at Chrysler. Nick Carson tracked him down to find that even the dreamiest of cars start life as a humble sketch.

It’s taken decades to put the risk factor back into car design, shedding the stereotype of the box-shaped one-size-fits-all ‘world car’ of the 1970s. But classic design doesn’t happen automatically; before any stunningly rendered computerised models see the light of day you need someone with a vision, and the talent to express it. “Computer technology is only as good as the people operating it,” Dyson points out. “Ideas are generated by sketching.”

Inspirational surroundings
Before anything gets down on paper you need a source of inspiration, and personal pride shouldn’t get in the way: if another manufacturer does something right, there’s no shame in having a look. “We were into retro design,” he recalls: “The PT Cruiser and Prowler were inspired by the Hotrods of the past. But we’re no longer focussed on particular cars; we’re projecting our image into the future.”

Architecture is a common muse: your surroundings, Dyson believes, are pivotal to the style of car you create. Ironically, the Chrysler building – an icon of 1930s design, itself inspired by Chrysler cars – helped shape the vision of the company’s latest revelation, the Crossfire. “The art-deco style used in Detroit is expressive, using refined shapes,” Dyson enthuses. “This suits our current image: we need to be over-expressive to show we’re an American company, but on a palatable level. It must be wild, but not outlandish – in good taste, in other words – to be successful internationally.”

Creating timelessness

Artistic movements come and go but great design, he argues, should never lose its edge. “On a personal level I prefer designs that survive long-term, so that when you show them to people years down the line they still like them,” he explains. “I dislike trend-setting cars that lose their style. Iconic designs are good when they come out and remain good: I always question things that are designed purely for the sake of raising eyebrows.”

This is not to say that a car shouldn’t cause a stir: as Chrysler’s head of design Trevor Creed, also from the Midlands, has said, the worst possible response to a new car is bored indifference. “You have to be slightly shocked by something,” Dyson proposes, “otherwise when it reaches production it will not be on target.”

Design psychology
Hitting the right note with everyone seems an impossible challenge, but the visceral appeal of a ‘dream car’ boils down to basic aesthetics. “The way a car looks is an emotional thing. The eye is drawn to something it finds attractive and drawn away from something it doesn’t. For some, function is beautiful, hence the success of the pick-up in the US. They’re icons in their own right: cool-looking because of what they do. But the two cross-link no end: you need cars at whatever level that are still attractive to you.”

The compulsive attraction many feel towards their personal ‘dream car’ is as highly individual as a dream itself, according to Dyson. “When you dream about something, you have a vision that’s unique to you,” he explains. “With a show car it’s not always important that it works; it can still create a subjective emotional effect. All cars start as a vision, like a dream on paper: you then need to make it a reality.”

Sketchbook to showroom

Some designers use computers to develop that initial sketch, but a white screen is essentially no different from a blank sheet of paper. “You use all the resources you can get; it’s not important what method you use,” Dyson insists. “Computers are not necessarily better; but they can improve communication.”

The 2D sketch must then be translated into 3D before the final surface is rendered using high-end CAD software such as CATIA and Alias Studio. The pinpoint-accurate mathematical curves that define the vehicle’s shape are tweaked to perfection, before the real hands-on work begins on a one-fifth actual size model.

An aluminium core is built up using wood and Styrofoam, and a 50mm deep shell of clay is literally hand sculpted to achieve the desired effect. Concurrently every individual component and interior detail needs to be lab tested and adjusted accordingly, while a process known as Design Quality Assurance attempts to keep the designer’s original vision alive amongst the flood of technical considerations before it reaches the manufacturing stage.

Sense and sensibility

“Design is a creative activity, so you must have an emotional connection to it,” Dyson advises. “But it can be frustrating: you need to make designs personal and fit them to what the company is looking for. People will often mess them around, and you need to get used to it,” he warns. “Every single day you are challenged by others that your vision can’t be done in the way you want it. It’s important at this stage to make a conscious decision, and either consider alternatives or fight for what you know is the best solution.”

To be successful then, you can’t afford to become too attached to your design. “You must connect with the emotional side and step back and think logically,” is Dyson’s recommendation. “Natural talent will always shine through in creating a design and getting it chosen, but unfortunately there are talented people in the industry without the business sense to get any further.”

No cutting corners

The car design industry is fiercely competitive and to reach the top, he insists, there are no short cuts: “You will certainly need a BA at least in industrial, product or automotive design; possibly a Masters.” But while professional training is unavoidable, a fresh approach should not be stifled by years of design theory: “Too much history can inhibit your creative judgement,” he concludes.

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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