Royal College of Art preps designers for expanded role

  • 29-Jan-2013 01:52 EST
Harrow Prof  Dale Harrow 3.jpg

Professor Dale Harrow, the RCA’s Head of Vehicle Design, says: “Now it is feasible for a designer to join a company, produce a sketch on day one, and it will go through!”

“There are no international barriers for students wishing to become automotive designers,” said Professor Dale Harrow, Head of Vehicle Design at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA). “And design is broadening and moving upwards in both intellectual and business terms, with many designers reaching Board level. Peter Schreyer (who as Chief Designer helped revamp the Audi brand in the 1990s) recently became the first designer to be appointed a President of Kia Motors Corp.”

A German by birth and a former RCA student, Schreyer is also the first non-Korean in the company’s history to hold such a title.

The RCA’s vehicle-design students are all post-graduates, many with degrees in engineering, design, business, or fine art. They may have worked as product designers and wish to change course or have held positions within the auto industry and aim to expand their capabilities and experience to meet the complex challenges that creating vehicles present. The average age of RCA applicants is 28.

At one time, the vast majority would have been male, but not so today, reveals Harrow. “We have an increasing number of female applicants; they don’t want just to concentrate on color and trim—some are ‘hard-edged’ designers. Companies are increasingly employing them; they bring a different aesthetic and knowledge to the business and I believe it is a growing trend.”

Advanced vehicle design also offers two other elements that may attract students, said Harrow. One is media exposure and the resultant public appreciation of their work. “Another is to move beyond that to become a celebrity, to be recognized as the creator of a product or concept,” he continued. “A few years ago, the work of only a very few vehicle designers was widely acknowledged. Now, with the growth of the car design business over the past decade, some have reputations that extend across the world.”

While car design has been increasingly driven by environmental and safety issues, and the resultant legislation that these generate, it is essential for designers to appreciate the wider horizon, Harrow says, “for example, the demographic of an ageing population. I am particularly interested in carrying out design research, and we have been actively recruiting Ph.D. level students to bring something new to the disciplines. Recently, one of our students made a presentation to a very senior German OEM designer who said it was the first time a design student had demonstrated an ability to compete on intellectual terms with the company’s top engineers, almost all of whom had a doctorate. Vehicle design is moving upwards in intellectual terms.”

The RCA is very much about stretching imagination and vision, not simply extrapolating on current design. “We can’t replicate the manufacturing environment and we would be daft to try to,” said Harrow. “Certainly we try to push our students to acquire the immediate skills for them to work in their chosen profession, but we also try to give them a vision of what is going to happen in their career—and that means over a period of 30 or 40 years—and the sort of things that might impact them.”

Looking back 30 years from the present, Harrow said ecological issues were not then regarded as being of any importance. Now their importance can hardly be overemphasized: “It is the same with battery technology, future engineering technology, lightweight materials structures, and new materials. Also, what the consumers will be like, what they will expect, and even who they will be. In the late 1980s, who could have predicted that China would open up to become a very significant vehicle market.”

For these reasons, RCA students are pushed to become “adventurous” in what they do. But isn’t there a danger of moving into highly unlikely, far-fetched sci-fi territory? “No—we can always dial it back!” Harrow said. “Very often in the auto industry, design studios look for fresh design graduates to re-energize creative work, to bring inspirational new ideas. It is very much what GM Design Vice President Harley J. Earl was doing in the 1940s and 1950s with very advanced concepts such as the LeSabre. If you are going to inspire a company to invest enormous amounts of money, dreaming is important!”

The expectation of a designer joining an OEM, Tier 1 supplier, or consultancy is now considerably higher than it once was. Says Harrow: “That expectation is to ‘deliver’ straight away. In times past, a designer might be seated in a corner and told to start working on part of a door. This was seen as a way of developing confidence. But now it is feasible for a designer to join a company, produce a sketch on day one, and it will go through! We have had graduates that have done exactly that, and then given responsibility for taking it forward; that is not the exception it once was. The rate of vehicles going through design studios now is phenomenal, and we have seen fantastic design and engineering work coming together.”

However, with the complexity of modern road vehicle design, some designers will specialize, concentrating on such areas as exterior lighting or interior architecture, something that is of particular importance for Audi. “A very high level of knowledge is needed to do these things well,” said Harrow.

A difficulty facing some companies (Harrow named Jaguar, Audi, and Bentley as examples) is the difficulty of doing anything too different. “The expectation by the end user has been so defined and refined that it is very hard to make a major change in case it goes wrong and is not accepted; there is a fear of upsetting the company’s financial applecart. The Jaguar F-Type is not as advanced as perhaps most people would have liked, but I’m sure it is pitched exactly right for the market and will be very successful. However, it’s not the blinding design flash of an E-Type.”

But he hopes new technology and electric vehicles (EVs) may see manufacturers becoming less rigid about design processes. The emergence of the financially hugely important Chinese market is also very influential. So of Western models being adapted to Chinese needs, the situation could even be vice versa, believes Harrow.

The RCA, though, is looking still further ahead. An example was a recent project collaboration between the college and Audi. Called Natural Audi, it was an initiative to create new carbon-neutral mobility concepts inspired by the natural world. Students’ designs embraced technologies, materials, markets, and infrastructure. The word “natural” was an open, no-limits brief. The project was widened to embrace not only vehicle design students but also those involved in other disciplines including textiles.

The result has seen some interesting but very esoteric solutions in the evolution of mobility in an environmentally conscious world. Students introduced into their designs such things as magnetic levitation, adaptive skin (changing its appearance according to ambient conditions), bespoke clothing suit to connect driver and vehicle, transformable interiors for passengers of different ages or for those who wish to be driven autonomously or drive themselves, and a fabric upper exterior surface using electrical stimulation to open and close eye-like holes to change the driving modes.

If most of this sounds a shade unlikely and far-fetched, that’s just what Harrow wants to hear. “Take it to the limit” is RCA’s vehicle design philosophy. Harley Earl would have approved.

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