The human side of automotive design
Since 2003, Andreas Wlasak, Group Industrial Design VP, has coordinated global industrial design activities in Seating and Interiors at Faurecia. Now, he also leads the design thinking behind the Group’s Cockpit of the Future strategy. Prior to the spread of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown in much of Europe and North America, Andreas Wlasak shared his experience of evolutions in design in the automotive industry, and the changing role of the designer.
What evolution have you seen in the role of a designer at Faurecia?
The complexity of today’s automotive design is driving our industry to open up and work more collaboratively. That means moving from rigid specifications that are translated into product design to more upstream discussions around mobility experiences. And that gives a truly strategic role to designers. Global companies like Faurecia are seen as a source of insight on trends (societal and technological, amongst others) as well as a source of experience in vehicle interiors, advanced concepts and integration.
Designers are now finally empowered to think about the globality of the cockpit environment and the user experiences it can provide. Overall, the design discipline has been able to make a huge step over the past decade from a pure ‘make-it-less-ugly’ service to a strategic role in shaping our future product and service offer. Being a truly international Group, we’re able to offer customers access to our global design network whether our teams are in Japan, China, India, the United States or in Europe, to discuss and develop the latest in design thinking and doing.
How do you explore trends, especially consumer needs and expectations?
You have to be genuinely curious to keep up with the challenges of future mobility. Inspiration comes from a wide range of sources: other industries, social evolutions, science, conferences or exhibitions that look at different physical and digital worlds (home, office, leisure etc.) to simply observing life around you. We’re constantly exploring everything, from human values, psychology, perception to technology and materials. This can lead to clever details like adapting an air filtration system into an anti-virus sanitizing feature or a flat-stitching technique from the world of sportswear to enhance seating comfort.
As important as curiosity is empathy. That means putting yourself in the shoes of a user. Only then you can be passionate about the product you design – to make it as simple as possible and as complex as necessary. Designers always contextualize and think a level up. For example, when designing a seat lever, we’re thinking about the seat. In designing seats, we’re thinking about the full car interior. To imagine cabin interiors, we’re picturing the mobility environment outside.
Consumer insight at Faurecia involves a mix of surveys, in-depth research, social media listening and even watching the ways people interact. That helps us design technologies that adapt to humans, bringing natural user interfaces (think multimodal) that reflect the instinctive, everyday ways we move and communicate – with our eyes, voice, gesture and touch.
User experience (UX) testing is built in at every step from ideation, feature prioritization to the product development process. For us, it’s important to take a scientific approach – considering cultural profiles, user perceptions, cognitive load as well as technology acceptation. There’s an enormous difference between design in theory and evaluating how it is lived and used.
How does this shape Faurecia’s Cockpit of the Future vision?
A designer is someone who understands function, ergonomy, UX, cost and technical and industrial feasibility. Our starting point is always ‘what do I really want?’, even if it means reformulating the need or pain point. Beyond the powerful triangle of business-user-technology, design is also about creating desirability: a ‘wanna-have’ product, feature or experience.
Our Trenza HMI started life in a block-like quad view. A simple adjustment, angling a vertical line, humanizes the design. Then we allowed users to freely adjust the size of different windows by simply moving their finger around the screen and personalize their content and settings. This freedom creates a desire to play and interact. That’s designing for purpose and pleasure.
Space is increasingly limited to integrate ever more features. The trick is to make functions visible or interactive only when and where you need them. For example, a wood surface that only displays icons when your hand comes near. Controls integrated into the armrest fabric of a seat. Haptic feedback so you know that a command has been actioned. Lighting that confirms a change in driving mode. Technology that delights and surprises – like our morphing instrument panel. In reshaping the panel surface and repositioning the display, it creates a new interaction with the screen content and controls as well as an immersive cinematic experience. It’s all about bringing an element of digital magic to our design!
We focus on carefully identifying the purpose - or pain point to be addressed - rather than solving problems that nobody has. Our strength is in developing solutions or demonstrators where customers can feel and live the experience, validate it in real use situations and ensure that it is technically feasible.
A good example is our e-mirror (replacing conventional exterior mirrors with cameras and displays) which is quite a disruptive technology. We explored the ideal positioning of the screen inside the cockpit by measuring people’s reactions through user testing at our design center in Germany. Here again, the designer plays important role in finding the right compromise between pure design, UX, architectural constraints, cost implications, and engineering and integration.
Faurecia’s Cockpit of the Future is a user-oriented vision, focused on creating system solutions and their relevant techno bricks that are tested and validated. Design plays a central role in ensuring we support OEMs to turn their brand or UX ambition from concept to reality.