Editor Colleen Watson O’Reilly interviews Bruce Thomson about his work as an industrial designer and teacher.


rnamentum: Could you talk a bit about the relationship between form and function in designing a car today?

BRUCE THOMSON: In the design process the car is treated as what it is, a vehicle, with specific variances. Is it an a, b, c, d, e or f class (sub-compact, compact, etc.)? Of course this is then passed through the brand filter of the company having it designed. It seems obvious to say that it is treated as a “vehicle” but it is important to say so, because, although one can draw myriad parallels and metaphors with regard to the design or in the design, the ultimate purpose is the safe and effective movement of people. This, however, is rarely enough to sell a vehicle so designers try to build aspirational elements into the vehicle hoping that consumers will be seduced. So in that respect the aspirational design features of a pick-up truck will be remarkably different from those of a sports car. This is probably the most important element to consider here. When a design is successful, form does follow function. The Series 1 Jaguar E Type was not a particularly cheap car to run, was quite dangerous to drive, especially by today’s standards, and was acknowledged to be very unreliable. However, it is regarded as a design classic because, important as those issues are, they were trumped by what people wanted from a sports car: a remarkably sexy and quick “look,” raw power and prestige.

Ornamentum: Where and how does a designer get ideas for a new model?
BRUCE THOMSON:To try to answer your question less generally, a vehicle is, from the designer’s standpoint, thought of as a skin. The designing of a car is almost an exercise in anthropomorphism; the body of the car is effectively a skin stretched over working mechanicals that are better hidden and kept out of harm’s way by this skin. The designer is given a “body type” (a rough chassis size) with which to work, and then embarks upon the process of expressing some design intent depending upon the requirements of the vehicle. It is at this point that the designer will sometimes refer to other work in order to stimulate the design process, drawing form inspiration from the architecture of Calatrava perhaps, or if the designer is looking at an interior, borrowing ideas from furniture styles and arrangements. I recall a designer working on a car aimed at middle-aged American men and how he subtly mimicked the stitching that one finds on a baseball in his leather interior.

Ornamentum: Can you describe the role of an industrial designer as part of a team that works on cars? Are different people responsible for interior design, exterior design, the mechanics and technology? What happens first, or does everyone work together?
BRUCE THOMSON:In today’s world, most designers are very much part of a team. The design is handled by a chief designer who oversees the work. Designers are given basic “types,” such as the classes mentioned above, and the work is then taken and grafted onto or into the vehicle. This is why design sketches are often different from the final result. They include exaggerations that would not work in the production environment. Designers usually choose to develop either the interior or the exterior, but they are always in conversation with the other ‘team’ in order to keep the design “whole.” The chief designer’s job is in part managing communication between teams. Car design moves so quickly these days, from the drafting table to the production line, that almost everything is going on at once. It used to be that a designer could be hired by a company, do some design work, and have several vehicles to their name — Marcello Gandini, Uwe Bahnsen or Ferdinand Porsche come to mind. These days everyone works in a sort of isolation, with the disparate parts being combined by a group of professionals hired for that purpose. I worked on some interiors at Ford, but the “colour and trim” department looked after fabrics, colour, materials, etc. They talked to me, of course, and I to them, in order to ensure a good fit of design, colour and material. Then, when the design was approved, I would have to join with the computer and clay modelers to ensure the correct adaption of my (our) ideas.

Ornamentum:What has most drastically changed recently in the field of car design, in terms of technology, aesthetics, and other factors? Hybrid and electric cars and consumer tastes and trends come to mind.
BRUCE THOMSON:Several things have changed. One is the speed with which new cars are pumped out. In the past a completely new model could take years to develop. Now they are sometimes wrapped up in nine months. But I don’t think that is really what you’re asking. Trends are what this is about, and trends are largely driven by public taste and new technology. As for public taste, if I could answer that one simply, I’d be a very rich man, but in general, public taste is generated by what is most necessary. In the 1950s and 60s, conspicuous consumption was the driver and the cars that were popular in North America at least, and to some extent in Europe, were large and flashy, with loads of chrome and elements inspired by the jet and space age. Today, cars are slowly getting smaller and design is being driven by new developments in safety. Take, for example, the pillars that support the roof, front, middle and back. In the 70s designers strove to make them look thin as wire, now they are thick as pipe. Why? Better structural stability, but more importantly, to fit curtain airbags and the like. In technology, LED lights come to mind from both an interior and exterior perspective, and of course affordability and sustainability. With the increasing price of gas and the recognition that oil is a finite resource, we need to change our priorities.

Ornamentum: Can you explain what you mean by a concept car? What might an electric car look like? What should it look like?
BRUCE THOMSON: This is for designers to think about and the public to decide. Despite this, electric cars and hybrids today differ very little from their traditionally desirable cousins. Another salutary lesson is that designers originally put the engine at the front of the car because, when one looks at a horse and buggy, that is where the horse is. In other words, as we strive to imagine the future, we drag along a great deal of the past.
The most drastic change though, from a design point of view I would argue, is what we see as aspirational; thus, all the aforementioned fins on the cars in the 50s, trying to look like planes and later space ships. Today we are no longer in love with the future and seem to prefer the past. Many of the most successful cars are now retro-designs: the BMW Mini, the new Volkswagen Beetle, the new Fiat 500, etc. All these models were designed to evoke the past.

Ornamentum: Could you tell me more about the idea behind concept cars, something I know you yourself have worked on?
BRUCE THOMSON: A concept car is generally a teaser, produced to suggest new directions. These cars are taken to auto shows to provoke public response in the hopes of testing the water, but also to determine whether or not your design direction is heading the right way. Sometimes concept cars are full-scale models with no engines, other times they are a new body grafted onto an old platform, and sometimes they are simply prototypes. Occasionally they are publicity stunts, as when Chrysler built the Chrysler Tomahawk, a motorcycle which they were almost certainly never going to produce, but it created a great deal of buzz around their product. Concept cars are designed to excite consumers about the brand and to draw them into the showroom, essentially an attempt to define the ‘brand.’ If you want to get an idea of concept cars here are a few examples: Ford GT90, Jaguar C-X75, Peugeot EX1, or for an interesting interior, the Peugeot HX1.

Bruce Thomson is an industrial designer with an MA in vehicle design from the Royal College of Art in London, UK. He teaches at Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.

Mazda Taiki concept car,