Expanding the horizons for the next generation of designers
John A. Larkin
“The next generation of designers will need not only to conceive of solutions to problems we already encounter — urban sprawl, for example, or sustainable modes of transportation —but also conceive of what the new problems might be,” says Alexander Klatt, the recently appointed MFA Chair of Transportation Design at the Detroit-based College for Creative Studies (CCS).
Prior to joining the college, Klatt was Vice President of Global Design at Fisker Automotive, where he led a world-class development team for the innovative Karma platform, which is among the world’s first luxury hybrid electric cars. “At CCS, I can focus on this new generation using real transportation projects,” Klatt explained in a CCS release which referred to the department’s longstanding relationships — encompassing project sponsorships, internships and employment — with automotive industry leaders. “Transportation design needs to focus on mobility issues to meet the evolving nature of people, their needs and the environment in which they live. I know there is a broad pool of diverse skill sets and experiences in companies and institutions around Detroit which make me believe the ‘evolution’ in transportation will blossom here.” As MFA Chair of Transportation Design at CCS, Klatt oversees the graduate curriculum in order to meet the highest industry standards. But in this new role he will also reinforce the department’s mission to educate successful designers who can think critically and strategically about transportation and innovate in response to current and future opportunities.
The MFA Chair works collaboratively with a number of departments across the college. In conjunction with the Deans of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies and the BFA Chair of Transportation, Klatt will build a cohesive strategic mission for the MFA Transportation Design department. He will work with Institutional Advancement and Career Services to expand the CCS network of industry relationships, project sponsorships, and internship and employment opportunities for students. Klatt will also lead the development and implementation of MFA-specific marketing and promotional strategies, summer programs, and workshops and courses for graduate students.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Klatt what are some of the challenges facing automotive designers today.
Klatt: For exterior designers the first challenge is to influence the proportions of an automobile for a specific brand because shared platforms often leave compromises in terms of desirable proportions. The second challenge for them is then to establish “new design” by primarily styling surfaces, graphics and details. For interior designers the challenge is to integrate more user interface components and to connect the driver in terms of a branded user experience without being distracted while driving. For color and material designers the challenge is to understand the preferences of customers in emerging markets and to convert those into successful new color and material choices which support on several sensual levels a specific brand identity.
AI: Tell us about your experiences designing hybrids – how different is it from designing a regular car?
Klatt: The propulsion and control components of electric vehicles and hybrids are different in dimensions and weight. Therefore, certain proportions could become better or worse. The Fisker Karma is a good example of how desirable proportions were achieved by integrating the battery in the center of the automobile. The result is a very low center of gravity to enhance driving dynamics, a wide stance with a stretched appearance in length by the long wheelbase and short overhangs. Typically the package engineers optimize “regular cars” with the focus on maximizing interior space and luggage compartment and the aerodynamic engineers focus on mono volume forms. In both cases the design of desirable “regular cars” becomes more and more difficult for the designers.
AI: What skills/expertise do automotive design students today need to have?
Klatt: Today’s automotive design students in the undergraduate and the graduate programs need to be fluent in the art of sketching their concepts and ideas on paper and on the computer as well as they have to be fluent in their craft to develop their three-dimensional form studies in industrial clay and mathematical surfaces and details on the computer. Students need to be able to identify target customers “wants and needs” for a specific vehicle of a specific brand focused on a specific market environment and convert those “wants and needs” into a desirable, proportioned and shaped form and silhouette with innovative functional details.
AI: How do you see the role of designer in the creation of automobiles?
Klatt: Traditionally the designer creates an automobile holistically from both the emotional and rational perspectives as the visionary. Of course, their role is not to engineer or to market the automobile, but to envision and conceptualize the product image and statement and develop the design holistically inside-out.
AI: How do you see your role in mentoring future automotive designers?
Klatt: For the future automotive designers I see the opportunity and duty to re-invent and re-imagine not only the automobile but also our transportation system, with personal cars, motorbikes and recreational vehicles we’d love to own and vehicles we will use and accept to share with others. My role will be to prepare and mentor the new generation of transportation designers by engaging them into problem understanding and problem-solving by applying primary and secondary research method, by showing them to visualize their thinking as mind maps, by brainstorming opportunities with interdisciplinary partners, by teaching the understanding of business implications and manufacturing opportunities as well as by experimenting with materials and forms and by prototyping functional concepts to understand and develop their feasibility. Just imagine what you would do while you’re robotically driven “for free” in your “co-designed” and “locally in nano materials grown” limitless propelled by air fuel cells automobile that you share with other people while you work or sleep?
AI: What new courses do you hope to introduce?
Klatt: In terms of “emotional research” courses, I believe designers need to understand the “need for speed.” Therefore we need to introduce opportunities for the students to “feel G-forces” in different vehicles from a sailing catamaran to a helicopter to a motorcycle. Then we need to create assignments to “perceive a brand with all six senses”. I believe we need to introduce experimentation with materials and forms and prototype functional concepts to understand their feasibility. In terms of “rational research” we do a lot today, but need to understand future manufacturing technologies better. This includes opportunities through Artificial Intelligence systems, to understand how multicopters fly and how car sharing is profitable.
AI: How would you like the relationship between industry and CSS further developing?
Klatt: I’d like to strengthen our very good relations to the “Big 3” automobile manufacturer in Michigan I believe we should establish more connections with entrepreneurial start-ups in the transportation sector, with innovative suppliers and international transportation manufacturers.