Design and Evolution

Not exactly Darwinism, but an approach where change in process can reap benefits. Chris Chapman talks about how better designs can come to be.

Chris Chapman began to professionally design cars in 1989, when the Art Center grad took a position with the Isuzu Technical Center of America in Cerritos, California. He designed the what he describes as a “four-door gullwing SUV,” the Isuzu XU-1, which took the Best Concept award at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show. As a result of that, Chapman says, BMW hired him in 1994, during which time he worked both in the U.S. DesignworksUSA studio and BMW in Munich. While with BMW he worked on a number of vehicles, ranging from concepts like the X Coupe (2001) and the CS1 (2002), to new models of the X5, X3 and Z4.

In 2012 he joined the team at the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, California, where he is the senior chief designer.

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Although this ostensibly has nothing to do with automotive design, in 1972 two evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, proposed a variant approach to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rather that having a slow go through the ages, they suggested that there are cases when there is what they called “punctuated equilibrium.” That is, there would be rapid bursts of change.

Which is something like what Chapman says can occur during a vehicle design project. Just as in evolution it doesn’t always happen (not every species gets the bump), but when it does happen there can be profound, notable change.

Chapman explains that when a design project is initiated, there is a brief given that includes the expectations that are to be achieved when the project is complete. So the work commences.

This, in a sense, is like evolution: step by step there is work toward the end point. Chapman draws a line from the starting point to the project completion point: a smooth diagonal. The metrics of performance, quality, size, price, etc. are all hit at the end point of the line. Given the fact that during this time there is a lot of investment occurring, not just in design, but in engineering and even tooling, that can be a good thing.

Or not.

“The problem,” Chapman says, “is that along the line expectations can change.” Expectations of the market.

So one of the things that can be done to address that is putting together a second design team that enters the process at a later stage. This second team, Chapman explains, can see what has been accomplished by the original team, but then are able to look at what the requirements are, what the expectations are, what the environmental changes in the market are, and quite possibly come up with a new idea.

Think of this as a sudden spike in the smooth diagonal line.

Chapman says, “The original team and its work has to exist for the other design team to land on something else.”

And that “something else” can make all the difference.

“The first time I saw this happen was on the Z8,” he recalls.

The BMW designers had developed what was code-named the E51, a coupe. “It was a beautiful car, a roadster, what you would expect an expensive-looking two-door roadster from BMW to look like. It hit the target they’d established.” But there was another vehicle. Wolfgang Reitzle, who was the head of product development for BMW at the time, toured the design studio with Chris Bangle, then-design chief of BMW, and Henrik Fisker, who was in the advanced studio, who developed the design for the Z07, a 1997 concept vehicle. Reitzle, Chapman says, saw the Z07 and even though the E51 was well evolved, even though the company had made investments in design and engineering, even though there was pushback, Reitzle said that the E51 was not the vehicle that they were going to proceed with, but rather the Z07 was to become the E52, which became the Z8.

And Chapman says that there have been other examples of this, which he has been a part of. Needless to say, this can be somewhat jarring vis-à-vis the progress that is expected of programs. But he suggests that the results can be better than those that would otherwise be obtained.

Think of this as being an exclamation point in the notion of punctuated equilibrium.

If there is one thing that Hyundai has been known for over the past several years, it is for coming up with striking vehicle designs, whether it is for sedans or crossovers or three-door coupes (which is, in and of itself, somewhat unexpected). Arguably this acknowledgement of the unexpected, of the something else, can contribute a lot to achieving appealing designs.

 

 

SIDEBAR:

No “Russian Doll Syndrome” at Hyundai

Chis Chapman says that many companies take the approach where there should be what essentially amounts to small, medium and large versions of a single vehicle in order to achieve brand equity.

But the senior chief designer at the Hyundai Design Center says that that is not the approach that they’re taking. Rather, they are working to “create dynamic cars that are really interesting.”

That is, he acknowledges that there are companies that have signature elements that allow people to quickly identify the brand of the vehicles, but these are companies that have established themselves in the market over a long period of time.

What he says that he and his design colleagues at Hyundai are doing—whether they’re in California, Germany or South Korea—is developing vehicles that are “dynamic, eye-catching, desirable, challenging, and risk-taking.”

While designers often talk about having vehicles that people can immediately identify by looking in their rear-view mirrors, “We want people to cross the street to look at it.”

Glances are one thing. Long looks are something else entirely.

Yes, there are signature elements that they’re utilizing at Hyundai, such as the cascade grille, But he acknowledges that what is more important is to create a range of vehicles that exhibit more-than-expected levels of design and execution, a range that could be a Kona compact crossover at one end to a Palisade full-size at the other, an Accent to a Sonata.

In a way, this is a more-holistic approach, one that isn’t just predicated on a shape or a form of individual elements, but of the entire vehicle. Yes, there are the discrete cues (e.g., the grille or the positioning of the front lighting elements) but Chapman says that the Hyundai designers are working to create vehicle designs that aren’t taking the approach of the Russian matryoshka dolls, where there are a series of bigger to smaller designs of the same thing, but, rather, distinctive designs that are part of the same family but not fraternal twins, triplets. . .