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Profiles: Something Cool From Canada

Powersport equipment design requires flowing, edgy forms, an understanding of the role of the rider, and a multi-disciplinary team, says BRP’s Etienne Guay.

The overall design of a piece of powersport equipment—whether a personal watercraft, snowmobile, or ATV—depends on attention to detail. Etienne Guay, Design Director, Roadster and Snowmobile, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP; www.brp.com; Valcourt, Quebec) never worked in the auto industry, or designed a vehicle other than one meant for recreation. Yet, his eight years designing some of the clothing and accessories available for BRP vehicles and their owners, developing the look of Ski-Doo snowmobiles, and overseeing the creation of the unique Can-Am Spyder, has made him certain this opinion is true. “Unlike automobiles, which are large mono-volumes with large surfaces on which you can express your design theme, powersports demands that you be more sculptural and deconstructed. Every part, including the visible mechanical parts or the shape of the voids, must convey the same theme,” he declares.

The task is made more difficult by the fact that—unlike a car or truck—the rider and passenger sit on the vehicle, not in it. This makes the ergonomic package a big part of the styling theme. In motorcycle terms, it can range from the upright stance of a cruiser style motorcycle to the leaned forward, knees-on-elbows gesture of a sports bike to the middle ground sport-touring seating position. Each alters the viewer’s perceptions and expectations of the vehicle. “You want to feel the ‘symbiosis’ with the machine when you ride it, but you also don’t want the rider’s print on the vehicle to fight the lines,” Guay explains. “That’s a real challenge when you consider that you must accommodate everyone from a 5th percentile female to a 95th percentile male without altering the semantics of the design language.”

Rather than wait for a market or segment to emerge, BRP holds an annual design forum that goes beyond the regular discussion of how the company’s design language should evolve from generation to generation and segment to segment. It’s where products like the Spyder are born. However, even such a radical departure must adhere to a set of rules. “The overall feeling of our products,” says Guay, “is built on positive curves, and if there are any negative curves in the design, they are always there to support a stronger positive shape.” In addition, a strong “down line” from tail to nose is used to suggest motion while supporting the rider, and is the other main element found in all BRP products, even its boats. “That tells the customer it is a BRP product first, and whatever the sub-brand is second,” says Guay. These basic themes are revisited each year in a corporate review so that vehicle design is always with, or slightly ahead of, consumer taste and expectations. Says Guay: “That way we never get stale.”

Including what Guay refers to as “the CAD guys and the modelers,” BRP’s design staff encompasses just 55 people across four divisions. (They are: Roadster and Snowmobile, ATV and Advanced Concepts, Water Products, and Color, Graphics and Accessories, which also handles the design work for Johnson, Evinrude, Lynx, and Rotax.) It’s a far cry from Guay’s early years when the University of Montreal grad set up a design consultancy that he ran for 10 years, designing everything from toys to health and fitness products for medium-size companies in Quebec and the Eastern U.S. Realizing he never had a real boss—and, therefore, never knew his true worth—he quit to join a company that specialized in the turnkey design, development, and distribution of plastic consumer products (e.g., lawn and garden items, toys) for third party brands. After four years getting to know more about plastic parts than he cares to admit, he jumped at the chance to join BRP. “There’s a bit more passion here,” he deadpans, “than in designing lawn chairs.”

Two things have increased interest in BRP with design students recently. The first is, of course, the Spyder which Guay says appeals to car-focused Art Center and CCS grads in large part because it is an on-road vehicle. The second is the realization that Design, Manufacturing, and Engineering have equal status within the organization and work in a triad arrangement where give-and-take is more important than ultimate control. In addition, Design starts the ideation process two months before its official start, on average, and spends a further six months developing the design to the point where they deliver the final clay model to Engineering. The team then follows the design through to production, with members pulled off to other programs as the project winds down. “Working together is central to what we do,” he says, “and there are no referees. Ideas and opinions can come from any of the team members, which forces you to keep an open mind and the communication flowing.” And while Guay says vehicles like the Spyder, prove that “something cool can come from Canada,” it is the process that guarantees this will continue.
 

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