Car designers are learning to think like product managers

“What excites me is the car (car), not the means of transportation (automobile). The automobile is the tool we use to solve problems, and the car is an extension of the human self… It is sculpture and art. We (car designers) Working with clay, just like Michelangelo.”

In 2007, one of the most famous and unique car designers of that era, Chris Bangle, the vice president of BMW design at the time, gave a TED talk called “Great Cars are Great Art” . The above remarks are his opening remarks.

Chris Bangor described the typical state of car designers—they are artists, and they don’t need to consider the product functions of the car, but are only responsible for creating beautiful works; they are an outlier in the huge organization of a car company, and the concept car designed is in production In the process, engineers and financial experts who are proficient in calculation will gradually become mediocre.

Now, whether it is the good or the bad side of the above state, everything about car design has changed. Behind the changes, the fundamental driving force is the two biggest technological trends in the automotive industry—smart and electric.

The impact of these two trends on the business model of the automotive industry has been discussed a lot. The design is a more realistic entry point, helping ordinary people to intuitively feel the changes that the automotive industry is going through.

Starting with electric vehicles, the definition of “beauty” in automotive products has changed. The number one “destroyer” in this regard is Tesla. The Cybertruck, an electric pickup truck that is expected to be mass-produced in 2022, does not conform to any classic design theory—its appearance is futuristic, just like a truck prepared for Tesla CEO Musk’s landing on Mars one day—but many people do just that Moved by its design.

“The difference in design style between Tesla’s Cybertruck and traditional cars is like rock and symphony.” Sun Zhaozhi, who has been engaged in car design for many years, told CBN Magazine.

The electric-powered interior design focuses on the interactive experience of the smart LCD screen.

Not only the appearance, Tesla also subverted the traditional in-car hardware design. It replaced the center console with a dozen buttons with a huge LCD screen. On Model 3, it simply canceled all the front row configuration, leaving only a small screen.

Under the influence of Tesla, smart electric vehicles are quickly separated from traditional cars in design. Various new technologies at the software and hardware level have greatly broadened the imagination space at the design level and promoted a major change in the global automotive industry’s competitive landscape in the dimension of “good-looking models”.

The car design that makes people’s eyes shine is no longer like Bangor’s era, only from the hands of luxury car brands. Start-up companies, especially the new generation of electric vehicle brands in China, also have the opportunity to lead the trend of automotive design.

The changes in the pattern under technological opportunities have fundamentally changed the basic logic of the career of automotive design. The car designer is no longer only responsible for the appearance of the car, but has to think deeply about the specific scenes of the future travel life to complete the system design of the car. Just being an artist can no longer meet the needs of this profession in the future. Automotive designers have to learn to think like a product manager, value user experience, and must have both design and IT capabilities.

The appearance design of Xiaopeng P7 has referenced many sci-fi works.

Technology expands the design space
Traditional car design must first consider the engine and gearbox. Their location, size, and weight, to a large extent, draw a red line for the appearance of the car. Electric vehicles do not have an engine and a gearbox, and the size of the motor is much smaller. The battery pack, which accounts for a large proportion of the entire vehicle, is also a flat cube, which allows designers to draw the entire vehicle’s shape more freely.

The lamp position is one of the key points in the design of electric vehicles. Because there is no engine and no need to burn oxygen, all electric vehicles such as Tesla Model 3 and Xiaopeng P7 have eliminated the air intake grille. This makes the front face of electric vehicles more concise, complete, and visually more than gasoline vehicles. Close to the aesthetic style of an “electronic product”.

The space saved makes the lamp design easier to use. Therefore, more and more models have adopted penetrating headlights. The eye-catching, sharp lines will remind people of the images in science fiction works. Zhang Lihua, the styling design director of Xiaopeng Motors, said that before designing the second production car, the P7, he and his colleagues used many science fiction works, such as “Robocop”, “Star Wars”, and “Tony War”.

Some brands that have released new cars but have not yet delivered them, such as Gaohe and Zhiji, have gone further in the design of car lights. They greatly expand the area of ​​LED headlights, customize the lights, change different shapes, and even transmit information.

Compared with the appearance, the electric vehicle has a greater change in the interior environment of the car. Its core is intelligence-first of all, the ever-increasing and larger LCD screen. The Ideal ONE uses 4 screens in the front row, the first of Zhiji cars. The car uses an LCD screen that runs through the entire front compartment and can be raised and lowered. The “selling point” of traditional car interior design is usually the use of some precious decorative wood or leather seats, while the interior design of electric cars focuses on the experience of these smart LCD screens.

Behind this screen, technical conditions such as electronic architecture, smart chips, 4G communication (soon to be 5G), and voice recognition are inseparable from the increasingly mature technology to support electric vehicles to obtain an interactive experience like a smartphone.

As car software systems can control more and more functions, and more and more applications are launched in car versions, the intelligent interactive experience between consumers and cars may be better than on mobile phones. Whether the “mobile phone holder” can be eliminated is considered to be an important difference between smart electric vehicles and traditional cars.

In addition to design improvements driven by technological progress, the design of domestic pure electric vehicles also generally presents a “luxury” trend. The price of their sedan version is generally more than 200,000 yuan, similar in size to the C-class sedan, and the price of SUV is 300,000 or even more than 400,000 yuan. In order to match this price, car manufacturers use more elements that are unique to traditional luxury cars in the design, such as the body lines are more streamlined and more like concept cars; the configuration used to be only on the million yuan “supercar”. You can see the scissor door, the driver’s seat that can automatically move when you open and close the door; the door that is automatically unlocked when the owner approaches, and the charging interface cover that automatically opens.

These designs can actually be realized on fuel vehicles, and the technology is also very mature, but consumers have to pay more for this. The reason why they can intensively appear in domestic pure electric vehicles is related to the ambitions of local companies in electric vehicles.

Design to help the brand’s high-end strategy
Start-up companies and self-owned brand companies with low product positioning are willing to spend so much effort on the design of electric vehicles in order to achieve the brand upgrade that they have been looking forward to.

Local auto brands have upgraded their fuel vehicle product lines. Even if they use too high a configuration and a styling close to that of a luxury car, they cannot easily break consumers’ inherent impression of the low-end brands. They set a ceiling on the price of this brand in their hearts, so it is difficult to be persuaded to pay for the luxury configuration.

This is why in the past, even the C-class sedan models of local independent brands were difficult to sell for more than 200,000 yuan. Models of the same level of the joint venture brand are priced between 350,000 yuan and 700,000 yuan.

Mark the “Black Crystal” of BYD Global Design Center and the interior of the design center.

Faced with the new market of electric vehicles, consumers will be more open-minded. Due to the high cost of battery packs, electric vehicles of the same level are objectively more expensive than fuel vehicles, which also makes consumers more accepting of high prices.

Therefore, when local companies launch electric cars, they often start a new brand and configure the design and quality of luxury cars to have the opportunity to break through the price ceiling of the original brand.

The strategy of local electric vehicle brands striving for high-end is very similar to the current strategy of smart phone manufacturers-only by using high-end product lines to raise the price ceiling, can they have a chance to be among the high, medium and low-end models in the entire product system. Open enough space for configuration and price adjustment.

With the heavy responsibility of shaping the brand image, the status of “good design” in the research and development of electric vehicles is being promoted.

The charging port of BYD Han adds an atmosphere light.

BYD Han’s main driver’s side rearview mirror is loaded with an NFC sensing area, and the car key function is integrated into the mobile phone App.

“Since we said that the core competitiveness is intelligent and autonomous driving, the appearance should also make consumers feel smart and cool.” Zhang Lihua told China Business News magazine that as long as it is a design that can significantly achieve this goal , The company is willing to bear more costs, and from the perspective of styling design, “we must put more effort into what users perceive.”

The past practice of automobile companies is to first set a cost limit for a model, and then break it down into each component, resulting in the design creativity of many concept cars will eventually be erased due to cost. Today, an important change in car design is the introduction of more variables to evaluate the comprehensive value that each component can create. For example, if the headlights adopt cool penetrating lines, the cost may exceed expectations. However, automobile companies consider the comprehensive value of this design-it is not only used for lighting, but also can highlight the high-end image of the product and increase consumption. The recognition of the brand by the readers, then this account is worth the money.

In the past, BYD’s impression of the industry was not good at design, and most models were actually priced below 200,000 yuan. BYD Han, launched in 2020, has sold more than 10,000 vehicles per month at an average transaction price of more than 260,000 yuan for three consecutive months as of February this year.

People found that BYD Han EV’s mass-produced car is not much different from the concept model unveiled in 2019 in terms of styling, and the lines of the vehicle are almost completely retained.

This means that the Han EV adopts a more advanced processing technology to fulfill this styling. It is not difficult for local Chinese auto brands to come up with a beautiful concept car, but every time it reaches the mass production stage, the car is always changed beyond recognition. The wind resistance coefficient of BYD Han EV reaches 0.233, which ranks among the top electric vehicles in the world. In fact, for designers, it is not difficult to draw a perfect drawing with a drag coefficient as low as possible. The difficult thing is to turn it into reality in the next development process. To this end, BYD spent more resources on wind tunnel tests, and finally let the design plan to land.

Many consumers who bought BYD Han EV were originally owners of “joint-venture compact cars”. In the past, they would not consider BYD if they switched cars, but Han EV gave them a “reborn” feeling.

“Originally, I was planning to buy a Tesla Mo del 3, but Han’s appearance, interior, and space are too luxurious, and I never thought it was BYD.” Tang Shu is such a car owner. However, as soon as she bought the car, she removed the “BYD” logo on the rear of the car.

Hiring foreign big-name designers is a routine operation for Chinese companies to quickly reverse product design quality and enhance brand image, not only in the automotive industry, but also in the fields of commercial real estate and consumer electronics. However, whether big-name designers can really help the brand depends on whether they have gained sufficient authority and status within the company.

Since 2016, BYD has successively hired well-known designers from Audi, Mercedes-Benz and other companies to form a new design team. In 2019, it also established a beautiful design headquarters for them, using the ideas of the design director.

BYD founder Wang Chuanfu said when the design headquarters was completed that design and technology were listed as BYD’s two core competitiveness. The design director can directly communicate with the company’s management and make quick decisions. Young designers can work in a more relaxed and free environment. Because the company has a large number of electric vehicle product plans, their designs have a better chance of being adopted instead of just stopping on the drawings.

The design team of the start-up company is also enjoying a similar working status. Zhang Lihua said that in order for a good design to finally land, the “geeks” in the design team must first be accommodated. “There are many designers in the team, maybe they are very creative but the execution is average, or the situation is reversed. They are all valuable. What we have to do is to let them play their strengths without worrying about their shortcomings. This requires A corporate atmosphere of equality and trust in professionals.”

The person in charge of the design team cannot direct the designers like the boss, but give them more freedom to polish their work, and sometimes encourage the designers to stick to their design concepts.

In 2017, when Xiaopeng Motors reviewed the styling design of P7, it gave the company management, internal employees, seed users, etc., four design schemes. Most people don’t like the version that finally became a production car, and prefer the other one because it is relatively stable and more like the car that was running on the street at that time. However, the design team still insisted on its choice, believing that the advanced design at the time would be the mainstream consumer aesthetics three years later. After repeated communication, the minority’s suggestions were retained.

“Design should penetrate the entire R&D process.” A number of interviewed automotive design practitioners all expressed the same view on China Business News. This is Apple’s design philosophy, and the new generation of car designers think that it is also the most worthy of reference in the automotive industry.

When the designer feels that he can’t just be an early part of the car’s R&D series circuit, but should work with other departments to accompany the complete process of the birth of a car. The nature of the job and the requirements for the designer’s professional ability All are changing accordingly.

Designers are no longer just “sculptors”
In the past, students who chose to major in automotive design at the university level were basically divided into two directions, appearance design and interior design, and some schools also had special color design. The students trained in this sort of classification can often draw good-looking drawings and are quickly qualified for the work of the design department of a large company, but it can no longer meet the new needs.

Now, the related majors offered by some top design schools have been updated to the direction of “Mobility Design” (Mobility Design). In 2016, the Royal College of Art established the Intelligent Mobility Design Centre. The subject of this profession is to study from the beginning what the future of social mobility will look like, what the car should look like, and why it looks like this. .

A sculptor like Bangor who only cares about aesthetics is no longer sufficient to deal with the changing automotive industry. Designers have to be like a product manager, thinking about the most basic issues from the user’s point of view.

Sun Zhaozhi studied automotive interior design at a famous university in the UK and then became an automotive designer. In 2015, Sun Zhaozhi joined Xiaopeng Motors to be responsible for the interior design of the first mass-produced car. The actual design work quickly exceeded expectations—he needed to participate in a lot of early product definition work, and accepted that he was born in the Internet industry. The challenge of a colleague who understands car design: Why does this air outlet have to be designed like this? What is the reason behind it?

He had to start thinking about some questions that he didn’t need to think about in the past: Who is the user of this car, in which scenarios the user will use these functions, how the interior hardware design and the UI of the software system are combined… These thinking no longer It is entirely from an aesthetic point of view, but is more related to user experience.

Sun Zhaozhi’s next job allowed him to completely switch to this new way of working. He transformed into a product manager and chief experience designer, and participated in the research and development of Didi’s first customized online car D1. According to him, the core question of this job is what kind of car should be used in the travel scenario of online car-hailing. His design work has evolved into the so-called “travel design” category at this time.

The D1 finally released by Didi does not seem to have an overly stunning design, but there will be some “new things” in many details-there is a special “Didi button” next to the driver’s seat, allowing the driver to take orders directly; The door adopts a sliding design; the rear seat space can be adjusted. These designs are based on the use scenarios of online car-hailing.

Yu Jun, Didi’s senior product vice president,’s concept of “choosing” also affected Sun Zhaozhi. “In the early days, we gave this customized car a lot of requirements, high efficiency, ride experience, low cost…Finally, we came to the conclusion that if we had to cut down to only one, it should be low cost. Because this is a taxi-hailing user’s network The core demand for ride-hailing services.”

The career evolution of designer Sun Zhaozhi coincides with the changes in the connotation of car design.

After the D1 project, Sun Zhaozhi joined a few colleagues to start a business and established an independent automobile consulting company XIDLab (Xidian Design). On the homepage of the company’s official website, there is a line of self-definition: “Experience-driven car design studio”. The main customers of XID Lab come from local automobile companies. After seeing Didi and BYD’s cooperation attempts, they realized that the travel platform is likely to be the main customer of the automaker in the future.

From simple interior design to deep participation in the initial process of vehicle development, to redefining automotive products from the perspective of user experience, Sun Zhaozhi’s career history coincides with the transformation of the connotation of this job as an automotive designer. But he also admitted that China’s auto industry has not yet fully embraced this new job. For example, some traditional car manufacturers still believe that online car-hailing (or taxis) is just a “reduction (reduction of configuration) of existing models. “That’s it.

XID L ab can’t even find a fixed docking department in the traditional car factory. Sometimes it is the product planning department of the other party, sometimes it is the design center, and there is also the company’s strategic department. They even dealt with the “Internet Center” of an automobile company.

The design requirements put forward by automobile companies are also relatively traditional. Compared with XID Lab’s better product definition and design innovation capabilities, some customers are still more willing to pay for photo-level detailed renderings and physical prototype car models.

“In order for automobile companies to have product thinking, it is essentially an organizational structure. There must be a real authority responsible for this matter to participate in the core decision-making in all aspects of automobile research and development, manufacturing, and sales. But in traditional large companies, such reforms are obviously It’s difficult.” Sun Zhaozhi told the “China Business News” magazine.

Regardless of the advancement of styling or the innovation of car interior design, in Sun Zhaozhi’s view, even though the appearance of the current car has undergone tremendous changes, the design process in many cases only serves the function of driving. If you use the development process of the mobile phone industry to do By analogy, it is still in the era of “functional machines”, at most it has evolved to the Symbian system (Editor’s note: developed by Nokia, which is an early transitional version of the mobile intelligent operating system).

When the fully automated driving solution in the 5G communication environment is popularized and the driver’s seat disappears, the arrangement of the space in the car will be completely changed. At that time, car design needs to rethink what people want to do in this space.

The concept cars displayed at major auto shows in recent years have revealed a similar trend: their interior space is getting larger and larger, people no longer have to face one direction to sit securely, and the position of the seats can be adjusted flexibly. The screen has become bigger and more, and the voice has taken on a lot of interactive tasks… Turning this imagination into reality is the future task of car designers.