Although he is ostensibly in Detroit for the purposes of the world premiere
of the Passat CC, Klaus Bischoff, head of Volkswagen Design (Wolfsburg, Germany), shares some observations about the approach that he and his colleagues at Volkswagen design take when developing new products, particularly in light of prevailing societal and environmental issues, issues that seem to have melded in many instances.
Bischoff says that efficiency is "something deep in our hearts and design culture." He explains, "For everything we do, we ask: Is this a necessity?" There is nothing that is extraneous. "The cleaner, the purer the concept is, the longer it lasts."
What's more, the cleaner the concept is, the more evident it is: "We don't need fancy lines, ornaments, and styling. It becomes self-explaining." And in this regard, he references what has become a touchstone of design of late, the Apple iPod. But he makes a point that is important as regards why the iPod resonates so well not only among consumers, but among the design community: "The absence of design features is making it an icon." It's not that there is no design to the iPod, but that the execution has such clarity of purpose that it resonates unlike the multitudinous other MP3 players that are competing in the market.
Another reference Bischoff makes is to the Bauhaus School founded by German architect Walter Gropius in the second decade of the 20th century. "A functional design," he says, "is a Bauhaus design. Functionality is at the core of the product." But he admits, "True Bauhaus is very boxy. We have to bend the rules to meet the demands of today." And he confesses, "Sometimes you need a bit of-I hate the word-decoration. Some chrome details or lines to give it the ‘luxury' feeling."
But the efficient is a basis to the work they do at VW design: "It all begins with the architecture of the product. You need the proportions right. If you make mistakes on the proportions, you need a lot of styling. We work on the proportions."
Bischoff says, "Our aim is to design products that are available throughout the world that are clearly VW. A clean, sober, design approach and perfect proportions."
There is a certain striving for simplicity. He references the Up! concept that was unveiled at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show: "We work at making things as simple as possible, but not so simple that they lack personality." He suggests that the Up!, which has nothing extraneous, is a good example: "People love it. There is no decoration at all. Nothing without a reason." Yet it evidently has the basics right. "The Passat CC," he maintains, "is another example of this philosophy, but for a completely different set of customers."
There are also environmental considerations to this approach. "We as designers always think of future scenarios. We are fully aware of the environmental demands and questions that are coming up more and more." He says that VW designers take into account weight reduction, better fuel consumption, and aerodynamic aspects in order to create environmentally efficient vehicles.
And, yes, cost is a concern, too. "This is something that gives us a lot of headaches," he admits. Bischoff says, "During the past few years, our cars grew more expensive; now we are working to bring this back." He says that the approach is to work with "our colleagues from all departments of our company to get the best results in the end." But he makes the point that the VW method is to have the best technical content, the best design, then to address the cost: "If we can't make it happen, then we don't do it."
While there seems to be an increasing intersection between runway fashion and driveway design, Bischoff says that there are some significant differences between what the typical couture designer does and what an automotive designer should do. "Clearly, there is some type of influence, but fashion designers are working from year to year-next year you need a new collection or you are dead. Car designers are aiming at periods three to four years ahead of the time of making." Not only are they creating designs that won't be executed in sheet metal for that period of time, their designs also have several years of production and several years beyond that in use. "We follow completely different rhythms," he says.
Whereas some people talk about the value of producing new vehicle designs at a faster pace, Bischoff is not convinced that this is necessarily a good thing. "If we did it more quickly, then the cars wouldn't be as nice, and they wouldn't last as long." He explains that when they develop a design in the studio, they see it every day for nearly a two-year period. They see it, change it, optimize it, improve it. They work to achieve the best results. "People don't buy cars every couple of months," he points out. So taking time is important.