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Profiles:Bridging the Gap Between Concept and Production

Chrysler’s Dan Zimmerman has a reputation for producing texturally complex concept car interiors. Now he’s taking that experience to the production side.

Dan Zimmerman is a designer in Chrysler’s Product Design Office. There’s nothing unusual there. What is somewhat out of the ordinary is that the outgoing 30-something male with wavy hair and a ready smile has had a number of temporary titles, the most recent of which is: Dodge Demon Principle Interior Designer, and a portfolio of interior design work extending back through concepts like the 2004 Jeep Rescue, 2005 Jeep Hurricane, and the Jeep used in the movie Tomb Raider II. He also worked on the exterior of the 2008 Jeep Liberty. The assignments have been so many and varied Zimmerman says—only half kidding—“My family has a hard time trying to keep up with the projects I’m working on.” Then again, he says, that’s because: “Design at Chrysler is run more like it would be at a product design firm. You have your hands in everything, including naming the vehicle. You feel like you’ve missed something if you’re not in the office for even one day.”

A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art (www.cia.edu), Zimmerman is a Detroit native with a strong, but indirect, connection to cars. “Dad was a chemist, though he did own a Dodge Challenger at one point, but both of my grandfathers had shops and my uncle used to race,” he says. “From them I learned to paint, fabricate, lay fiberglass, and do sheetmetal work and welding.” And while it would be easy to dismiss this as a background worthy of an advanced shop class graduate, Zimmerman says its true value—other than learning what it takes to build a vehicle—was to give him a strong feel and respect for materials and textures. At this point in history, he says, that is a very important value, indeed.

“Right now, the world is in flux, and everything is an influence on design. That includes sustainability, the way components are made, and all of the underlying features beyond a pretty design,” he says intently. “So you have to think about where all of this is coming from, what’s driving it, and what new technologies are available.” It is a subconscious level of design, he says, that must impart its value to the consumer through tactile, visual, or other clues that lets them know that the vehicle, the way it’s put together, and the materials that are used to build it were intelligently chosen. It’s also why his interest extends beyond the auto industry. “We keep tabs on the world of product design and technology, and watch the worlds of fashion, materials, shoes, etc.,” he says simply. “On concept cars we can pour out that knowledge more quickly, whereas you have to align the organization with materials, costs, durability, recyclability, and a whole host of other concerns before it hits the production line.” Often, that concept car interior loses something in translation to production as concerns about sustainability, color diffusion, UV stability, and the like overshadow the fact that a particular material looks good. “You don’t want that customer coming back in a year complaining that the dash faded or that your new material tore or cracked,” says Zimmerman. “Sometimes you have to compromise. The trick is in keeping that compromise as invisible as possible.”

Compromise wasn’t part of the vocabulary for the Dodge Demon for the simple fact that its debut was scheduled for the 2007 Geneva Auto Show and not Detroit. Launching an elemental sports car concept in the heart of Europe—the spiritual home of this vehicle type—was a move both calculated and chilling. “I spent a lot of time looking at the European product. I looked at Peugeot, Renault, Citroen—you name it. I even looked at Ferrari because it was humbling to be introducing this car in the European arena.” It didn’t take long before the European automakers looked back. According to Zimmerman, they were especially interested in how the embossed vinyl played off the gloss carbon fiber seat shells and brushed aluminum textures, how this matched with the stitched vinyl covering the outer rim of the steering wheel and the instrument panel, and whether the instrument panel would be traditional or minimalist (It’s both).

What he took away from this—and his other concept—projects is the need for a complete understanding of the problem, and a group dedicated to finding the right solution. “You create a vocabulary in your head, a brand philosophy for aesthetics, that you apply to the techniques and technologies you see,” he says before ticking off the things necessary to make this happen. “You have to understand the process and what goes on behind the outer surface, and for this you need to work with engineers who can relate to that because you don’t want to have to do their jobs, too.” Together, they must push the boundaries of what’s possible until, “you’re told why it can’t be done, but what is possible.” It is a drive Zimmerman says he can’t help but follow, and one he’s in the midst of applying to his next project, the interior of the 2011 Dodge Charger. “We’ve tried to do more with less,” he says of Chrysler’s current interior offerings, “but now we have management’s total buy-in to really hang it out there.” And it’s the mischievous smile that lets you know he’s not kidding as he says: “The gloves are off.” 

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