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Aston Martin

Henrik Fisker on Aston Martin, Ford, and general Automotive Design: Part 2
By Andrew Gardner
Jan 15, 2005, 22:36 PST
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Henrik's fabulous convertiblae design; he is eagerly awaiting his personal DB9. Photo courtesy Aston Martin


With the Mexican polka still blaring, and after a quick “everything ok, amigos?” from our kind waiter, we continue our conversation with Henrik in the realm of his duties in Ford’s Irvine, CA Advance Design Studio:

MSC: With younger designers, part of your activities over here in Irvine, do you see different characteristics as to how these designers are evolving through the design process?

HF: Yes. I think one of the questions you gave me in writing was “what’s the difference?” and “what’s more fun?” [designing versus overseeing other designers] And I have to be honest and say I prefer designing a car, rather than managing people. And I think this is the nature of all designers. I would say most designers probably feel that they are good, and they have talent, and they like to express themselves through design.

However, the nature of the [car] business is that, to do a career, and to have a large impact on the company, you need to move up where you are working with more people and teams of people. And there’s always a point in your career where you feel you want to have a bit more impact in the company than just always competing with your one design. So by taking a position where you are in charge of, say, 55 people, as designers you get the opportunity to influence the company.

As a designer, it is also very satisfying to deliver a lot of designs – you might not yourself sketch every design, but you go down, and you discuss it, and you direct the other designers in a way that you feel is right. And one thing that I look to work with my designers on is to open up there eyes to some of the things that took me years to learn; if I can tell them much quicker, why should they take years to learn it? It might be little details, like: “hey, you know, from my experience, if you do this type of line, you always run into trouble there and here,” or “the car will look much better if you create the wheel arches this way, by shaping it that way…” or whatever it is.

And I think I pay a lot of attention to details, and it’s something that a lot of younger designers don’t do in the beginning because you want the big, overall shape to be really cool. But you always have to think about the details. I think specifically now, where all designers are becoming better and better, the details today are not only applied, they are part of the design. If you don’t think about those details in the beginning, and you want to apply them later, a lot of times it might not work as well. These are things I can talk to my designers about.


Photo courtesy Aston Martin


We spend a lot of time on the side section of the car, and see how it looks. We can put two cars side by side, and see one has a side section that is very curved, and one has a side section that is very flat, and that we tune a lot, because that gives the car tension, it determines how fat or lean it looks, how it sits on the ground.

You determine how the light catches it, where you want the light to break off and give a highlight, and where do you want that light to run on the side of the car – that we spend a lot of time on, and that is something I like to work a lot with the younger designers on. And we go over sketches, and on some of them I’ll say, “That’s a great idea, why don’t we take it to show our people in Detroit.”


Photo courtesy Aston Martin


MSC: While we are on the subject of light, and the lines of the car, how much do you let the following influence your design: materials, colors, and shadow?

HF: You really have to separate interior and exterior design. In exterior design, for the overall shape, material doesn’t make a difference. You can make a car body out of fiberglass or of metal, or whatever material you choose, and that doesn’t really affect the overall shape of the car. Except in the case of mass production, with certain curves, you have to ask the question “should we make that out of plastic or out of metal;” there will be costs, and an issue of how easy it is to produce. But really, material doesn’t influence my design in the beginning, and not color either.

When we do models – or really any car company in the world, I think I can say – we will do them in silver, because that is the best color to view a form. The one thing that does play a huge role in exterior design is lights and shadows – how the light hits the car, and the resulting shadows of the car. That determines how you view the sculpture, and it also determines the lightness of the car. You can make a car look lower, more massive, or strong, or tough – you can make it a lot of things depending on how you sculpture the car.


This interior definitely inspires that "Whoa, this is amazing!" reaction. Photo courtesy Aston Martin.


It is the same as when you are photographing people. You can make a person look really skinny, with a long, thin face, depending on how the light is – or you can make them look very fat. We try to control that. Of course, you can only control it to a degree. It is very important that we always do full scale models and do them outside in natural light, because that is real life.

There are two types of light which we consider: there is natural light and shadow, and then there is what we call highlights, which is what we use to make sure a surface does what we want it to do, and that it is correct in our view. We have long, thin rows of neon lights in the modeling studio. We model the car, then we either put foil on it or we wet it down, and then you can see these highlights running, and if the highlights wobble, then you know the surface is wobbling. Then you need to fill the surface in a little bit; that is a very long process. You need very good clay modelers to do that final work. You can do some of it virtually, but you always need to mill the design out, and then you have hand modelers check the form and again, change it.

Any time you change a surface, it has an impact – it’s like a domino effect. That line or that form ends up somewhere, in the front or the rear, or in the top or the bottom. This is why it takes a lot of time to make the final surfaces of the car.


Photo courtesy Aston Martin


Sometimes you will change it again, if you add some detail – even some cut lines. What many people know is that if you look at some cars, the trunk or the hood are lower [than the adjacent body panel] by a half a millimeter, so we don’t get what we call the “letterbox effect,” where when you look at a cut line, you can see in through it. On some cars, you can see a pronounced letterbox effect, and you just accept it as part of the design line. Those are the two things you work on with the exterior, along with lines and graphics.

On the interior, color and material are very important. There, you are thinking about whether a component is a soft part or a hard part – that obviously makes a difference. Then you think about what type of materials you want to integrate into this interior. If you are doing an Aston Martin, you know you want to integrate wood. I thought a lot about how to integrate the wood and not make it look like an appliqué, like it’s just glued on at the last moment. The same with metal parts – we wanted to use metal in the right places. And we knew we were going to use carpet in certain areas, and there’s the question of how far do you take the carpet.


Photo courtesy Aston Martin


One of the things I wanted to change – which is just a detail, really – is that I wanted to get away from having carpet on the doors. I felt it was really ridiculous to have carpet on the doors, just because a lot of people kick the door. I thought, “this is an Aston Martin, this is a high quality car, and the interior is like an expensive leather couch.” You don’t put a carpet patch on an expensive Italian leather couch at home because somebody might kick it. You clean it after, or you make sure they don’t kick it. So, there is no carpet on the doors of the DB9. This was an important thing to take out.

You do think about these things; some of them are obvious, and some of them are not so obvious. But one of the things you want to achieve, I think, is when you do the focus groups or when you have people looking at cars, you want to achieve that the first gut feel from a person is that when they look at the outside or the inside of the car, the person says: “wow, this car is beautiful.” And I think the pure beauty is slightly more with the exterior.

I think with the interior, it is more important to achieve a reaction like “wow, I like being here, it feels really good. I like all the details.” In the interior, you might pick out more details which are beautiful, but immediately when you see it you should be impressed with the quality. In the past, I think there was a tendency to do really “swoopy” interiors, so that you get sort of the same feeling as the exterior, like “wow, this thing is sexy!” But I think that it is hard to make an interior sexy in the same way that an exterior shape is sexy. What you really want to achieve with an interior is that you get in and you feel good. Then you start looking at the details and you say “wow that’s amazing! Whoa, this is amazing!” With the exterior, we will never get away from the goal reaction of “wow, this is beautiful. It attracts me.”

Of course, there are several levels of that. It makes a big difference whether you are considering a sports car or a sedan or a station wagon or a minivan or a compact car – there are several levels of that wow effect. If you are realistic, I think you have to say the “wow, it’s beautiful” effect goes in a slightly different direction depending on what car it is. You might achieve that “wow” effect with some sort of dramatic design that does not achieve beauty. You know when you are working on the car that, based on the proportions of the car, it’s impossible to create a real “wow” effect in terms of beauty.

If you work on a minivan or a compact car where 5 people have to fit in with luggage, you are not going to get those super sleek proportions that you want. You might achieve that “wow” effect with some graphics: a good example is the VW Beetle, or the Mini. Both of those have different “wow” effects. The Mini has more beauty, because they created the right proportions – it is low and has a wide stance. The Beetle got more of its “wow” effect from those amazing graphics, which are so different from any other car that you just go “wow.” It is so different but it is also comfortable, for many people. The Mini was not so beautiful either, but it has that strong, low stance, and gives you the feeling that you want to jump in and go speeding around in it. With most small cars, you think, “eh, I have to get into that thing? Alright, fine. It’s gonna be un-fun,” and you have to convince yourself to get in. The Mini is attractive, and you just have to convince yourself it is worth it to deal with the small space.


Photo courtesy Aston Martin


MSC: Obviously proportion is important; all designers talk about this. But that sort of characteristic seems to be especially important to you in getting the right demeanor of the car; discuss challenges of desired proportions versus function.

HF: Yes, we do work on that; to be honest, on most cars, you do have to consider that you want to fit people and luggage. When we go to the end of the scale with Aston Martin, we want to fit people and luggage, but we definitely don't ever have to fit five people. When you go to the opposite end of the scale, where you do have to look at [fitting multiple people], it is a different task, and you have to realize that obviously there will be some sort of compromise; you need to have a different sort of design elements.

But, I will also say that I think one of the dangers in this pursuit of perfect space is kind of like a house. The natural thing when you move between houses is you always want a bigger house - not for everybody, but I think for a lot of people. And I think we get to a point where you buy the next bigger house and you realize, "well, it's not really that much better. It's nice to have all this space, but it's not really more cozy, it's not more nice to be here, it takes a lot longer to clean up...” It doesn't mean that it's a better house just because it's bigger. I think the interior space of a car is the same.

The natural thing, for most people, is if you ask them "do you want a bigger car," they'll say, "Yeah, I'd like a bigger car, I'd like a bigger space." Nobody's gonna say, "Yeah, I can deal with a slightly narrower car, I can handle a bit less shoulder room."

But I think reality is that if you make a truly beautiful car that maybe has the compromise that it is slightly smaller inside, people will understand and accept that. People will buy that car, because they realize, "wow that really is more beautiful, I really do like it more, and I'm buying it because of that." And that's why sports cars are still so much in demand - it definitely is not because of the interior space. That's clear.

I mean, why is the Mini selling so well? It has got the worst interior space in its class. It's because people are starting to say, "you know what, I am tired of having an ugly car with a lot of space. I want a good looking car and I'm willing to sacrifice for it."

Why are women wearing high-heeled shoes? Why aren’t they wearing sneakers all the time? Well, because they look better in high-heeled shoes. They are willing to sacrifice that they are unable to run, and it’s not so easy to walk. And I think those elements you cannot define in a written form and make a law out of it and make everybody follow along. It’s just intuition. It’s really difficult for many car companies because it’s the last thing they haven’t cracked, because there is no formula for that. It’s about intuition, and it’s about daring, and it’s about taking a chance. That’s that last thing that makes the difference between which car is going to have success and which is not.

This is something, of course, where the leaders in the companies have to take a chance, a risk – sometimes even trusting other people and their gut feel. They might have to trust the designer or somebody else who is saying, “well, I can’t explain why, but I just know it is going to work.” That’s how I was with the AMV8. I was asked, “you know, you have to sell more [Aston Martins] than ever, how do you know this is going to sell?” I said, “I just know; this is a good design. I just know.” What can you say? There is not a formula for that. You can make a formula for what is an economical engine, and you can test it and say, “Yes, that is an economical engine.” But you can’t do that with a design.




Got all that? Hungry for more? Great! Henrik finishes up the final third of this interview telling us about his favorites – favorite design he did, favorite design by another individual, and favorite design era (to which he gives a surprising answer).

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