Frank Stephenson is car designer with an exceptional resume that includes working at BMW where he penned the 2001 Mini, Maserati where he designed the MC12, Ferrari where he worked on the F430, and Fiat where he almost saved the company with the Fiat 500.
Since heading up McLaren Automotive design department in 2008, he has shown us the first road car to be born out of the car making arm of the F1 company, the MP4-12C, and has hinted at where he intends to go with the marque’s future direction: an exclusive portfolio of high-performance cars that aim to challenge Ferrari, Lamborghini and co. Design Talks caught up with the designer to discuss car interiors…
Design Talks . How does design impact on driver behaviour?
Frank Stephenson . Helping drivers behave better is definitely part of our responsibility. We are always looking for ways to improve the experience – and the best way to do this is by making your product easy to use. If having a simple, well designed interior means the driver is more focused and therefore driving better, that’s ideal because they can get more from the car.
DT . What is McLaren’s approach?
FS . The interface between driver and vehicle should be as seamless as possible, with minimal impact or distraction, allowing for good driver behaviour. Our interfaces are designed based on input from the world’s top test and racing drivers and our F1 resources. The driver should be totally focused on the ever changing road or race track environments.
DT . How do you achieve the best ergonomically designed interface?
FS . You have to immerse yourself in the driver environment. As designers we have to understand the uncompromised McLaren driving requirements to make the interface simple, clear and efficient.
We achieve this by using seating bucks. Seating bucks are full size models of the interior where the controls are laid out and positioned to find the optimum locations – similar to the way you lay out your desk at home, with the most important and frequently used items closest to hand.
Once the layout is determined, a visual hierarchy can be set up. This can be done using any or a combination of the following: colour, light, material and input method (mechanical or touch sensitive – hidden until required).
The controls of the driver environment, whether they be mechanical, touch or voice activated, have to be at the drivers ‘fingertips’, without distracting but only enhancing the extreme driving experience.
DT . The car’s dashboard seems to be increasingly taking inspiration from trends within the world of electronic gadgets and devices, but who is leading this trend?
FS . Consumer drive is leading the car companies to use interfaces that are modelled on the latest wave of innovative electronic gadgets. Consumers want well designed and simple interfaces that are logical and easy to use; people today prefer not to read instruction manuals.
DT . Do customers more easily accept an interior that is modern and uses high tech material than they would of the exterior sculpture of the car?
FS . Yes. I believe this is due to the personal electronics we use in our daily lives. Personal electronics and product design have a very fast evolution, every few months they become faster, smaller, lighter and simpler to use.
The car industry cannot respond as quickly due to our product life cycles being up to six years, so when technologies make it into our cars, people are usually already familiar with them; and this is why we are more accepting of high tech interfaces in our cars.
In terms of accepting high tech interior materials, this is down to the interior not being as highly visible in the same way the exterior of a car is. With the exterior people can judge your taste or lack of it. This is why people are often more conservative when it comes to choosing the exterior look and colour.
DT. Do you see general interior design trends emerging within the car industry?
FS . I think the general trend within the car industry is definitely the ‘less is more’ design philosophy. The challenge for the mainstream industry is, however, designing their own interface to be brand specific.
Other key future trends in the automotive industry will be the minimisation of size and weight, improving packaging efficiency. High tech organic and synthetic materials will replace traditional materials such as leather and wood, opening up a wider selection of finishes for highly customised interiors.
DT. How far can a brand like McLaren Automotive push the boundaries of automotive design?
FS . We push it to the edge of the edge! McLaren is all about innovation and cutting edge technology. We use our F1 expertise and resources to ensure that we stay at the forefront of supercar design. Our challenge is to apply the relevant technologies in a way that enhances the complete driving experience.
DT . Do you see the interior of the next generation of cars, especially zero-emission ones, becoming increasingly high tech and digital in outlook?
FS . Yes, a lot of the latest show cars are very high tech in this respect. I think as an industry and as individual brands we have to do what suits our target customers.
For some brands, a combination of touch sensitive and voice activated controls, along with digital displays, will be the answer. In supercars aimed at enthusiasts the interactive element of mechanical feedback will still be very important and highly valued, after all we’re still talking about emotional and mechanical products.
DT . With the future driverless car, when the vehicle almost becomes a gadget, how far can all this be pushed?
FS . The technology already exists to enable the driver to become the passenger. In the future – if the autonomous car takes off – I can imagine that they will have almost no visual interface.
Perhaps the car will be able to read your thoughts and body language, body temperature and so on – adapting the interior environment by using colour, smell, sound, light and touch to suit your preferences.
Read more on the McLaren 12C design and on a recent student competition with a Turin design school to for a hybrid McLaren concept for 2020. Also read my interview with Frank Stephenson regarding the new Foster designed McLaren Production Centre here.
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