frank stephenson knowledge project

Pushing the Limits of Car Design Innovation – Frank Stephenson, on The Knowledge Project, Hosted By Shane Parrish

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “Design is all about emotion” Frank Stephenson
    • As most cars look alike, a car’s design is one of the best ways to stand out and create an emotional connection with customers
  • “Designers aren’t wired to play it safe; they’re wired to take risks”  Frank Stephenson
  • Every car needs a design language—a brand recognition factor; a consumer should be able to look at a car and know which brand made it
  • Frank often turns to nature for design inspiration (the process of mimicking nature’s natural occurrences is known as biomimicry)
  • Do what you love
    • “If you’re doing something you love, you’re going to put that much more effort into it, and the rewards from doing well are a catalyst to do even better” – Frank Stephenson

Intro

  • Frank Stephenson (@EmotionalDesign) is a British-Spanish-American automobile designer, widely known for his design work at Mini, Ferrari, Maserati, Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, and McLaren
    • In the past, Motor Trend magazine referred to Frank as “one of most influential automotive designers of our time”
  •  Host: Shane Parrish (@ShaneAParrish)

Frank’s Time as a Professional Motocross Racer

  • Frank dropped out of school to become a professional motocross racer
    • “You learn a lot of things in racing that you would never learn in school” – Frank Stephenson
    • A large part of racing is the mental aspect: “If you’re not mentally prepared, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have; you probably won’t do that well in the end”Frank Stephenson
  • However, as Frank would rarely finish in the top three spots, his father encouraged him to do something else in which he could excel
    • Frank recalls his dad telling him, ”You’re good, but you’re not good enough, and good isn’t good enough” Frank Stephenson

How Frank Became a Car Designer

  • From his father, Frank learned about the technical world; from his mother, he gained an appreciation for the arts
    • As a kid, Frank spent most of his time drawing—his mother, often, had to kick him out of the house to make sure he got some fresh air
      • “I would draw for hours and hours on end. I loved colors; I loved shapes.”Frank Stephenson
  • Later in life, Frank worked at a body shop where he painted and modified cars. It was here Frank learned he could combine his two interests—cars and art—to become a car designer.
    • “I had this love of cars since I was about 10, and I spent many years drawing cars, not knowing that it was a profession or something you could do to earn money” Frank Stephenson
  • Wide-eyed and ambitioned, Frank found a college that trained car designers and applied
    • For background, there aren’t a lot of car designers in the world because car companies don’t need that many designers. It’s also very difficult to get through the 4-year car design program—Frank’s class started with 30 students but only finished with six.
  • After graduating, Frank got a job at Ford in their design department

Designers Love Exotic Car Companies

  • Designers are usually more respected at exotic car companies (compared to mass-production car companies)
    • Exotic/higher-end companies must stand out from the competition, so they encourage unique and innovative ideas from designers (one reason why designers dream of working at high-end car companies)
      • “Designers aren’t wired to play it safe; they’re wired to take risks”  Frank Stephenson
  • Engineers don’t typically like being pushed in innovative directions—it forces them to figure out something quickly that hasn’t been done before; they’d rather rely on past solutions and the current status quo to produce work they know won’t fail. This preference causes turmoil in many engineer/designer relationships.
    • The moment a car designer starts coming out with ideas that have yet to be developed, the engineer begins to fear they won’t be able to deliver
  • Car companies produce concept cars to show the world that they’re forward-thinking, even if they mostly produce standard vehicles

Design & Curiosity

  • “Design is all about emotion” Frank Stephenson
    • As most cars look alike, a car’s design is one of the best ways to stand out and create an emotional connection with customers
  • “Design is a combination of art and science … You have to blend the two together” – Frank Stephenson
  • Curiosity → Imagination → Creativity → Visionary → Execution 
    • “Curiosity is the most important thing when you speak about innovation—it makes you smarter. Sometimes, it’s considered more important than knowledge.”  Frank Stephenson
  • As a designer, if you play it safe, you risk staying stagnant—innovation is a must
  • An easy way to become more creative: simply combine different ideas
  • The best designs aren’t perfect; in fact, having imperfections makes them human
  • During Frank’s design process, he stays away from computers until absolutely necessary—too many designers rely on computers and have a hard time sketching their work

Frank Turns to Nature for Inspiration 

  • Beautiful designs are enduring —they never go out of fashion
  • Frank often turns to nature for design inspiration (the process of mimicking nature’s natural occurrences is known as biomimicry)
    • “I’m basically looking for the solutions that nature provides us with … When I look for inspiration, I look for things that make you feel comfortable—shapes that you feel comfortable with, and don’t jar or surprise you in a negative way.”  Frank Stephenson
      • “There’s nothing futuristic in nature; it’s all there. All we have to do is peel back the layers.”
        • Think about it: if something isn’t designed well in nature, it won’t last for long
  • While on vacation, Frank got the inspiration for the McLarens P1’s design from a sailfish
    • In true fashion, this led Frank to buy a sailfish, get it taxidermied, and have it shipped back to McLaren’s headquarters for scanning
      • His team applied the mathematics behind the sailfish’s scale to improve the P1’s air intake ducks, and the results were astounding!

Every Car Needs a Design Language

  • (AKA a brand recognition factor—a consumer should be able to look at a car and know which brand made it)
    • This is usually done through distinct features: the grille, headlights, door handles, etc.
    • Further: You want the cars within a family to be recognizable—everyone knows a Ferrari when they see one

Do What You Love

  • “If you’re doing something you love, you’re going to put that much more effort into it, and the rewards from doing well are a catalyst to do even better”Frank Stephenson
    • It’s a positive spiral: “The more successful I became, the more work I wanted to do; the more effort I put in, the happier I became”

Additional Notes

  • Frank believes autonomous planes will happen much sooner than autonomous cars
  • Every year, designers must deal with new car regulations that influence their designs
    • As cars become more autonomous, for instance, the design of a car’s interior will shift to more of an entertainment/work-focused environment
  • In the design world, you can’t stay with a current solution for too long; there’s tons of competition—it’s all about finding a better way
    • If you can’t find a way to adapt and change—to find a solution for any problem—you’re going to fall behind
Knowledge Project : , , , , , , ,
Notes By Alex Wiec

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