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Munich-based Lilium, the super-ambitious company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet and accompanying “air taxi” service, continues to hire top talent to make its vision a reality. The latest new recruitment is car design veteran Frank Stephenson, who has previously worked for Ferrari, Maserati and Mini, to name but a few.
Considered one of the world’s most renowned and influential car designers in recent times, 58-year-old Stephenson’s portfolio includes iconic designs such as the BMW X5, New MINI, Ferrari F430, Maserati MC12 and McLaren P1. Now he’s embarking on adding the Lilium jet to that list.
Officially starting next month, he’ll be tasked with recruiting an entirely new design team to shape both the interior and exterior of the jet itself, as well as a design language for the company’s wider infrastructure, including landing pads and departure lounges.
In a call with Stephenson yesterday morning, I got to ask him why he’s ditched Ferraris for flying taxis, what his new role will entail more specifically and to dig a little deeper into how he thinks about design and why good design really matters. A lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A follows.
TC: I don’t know a huge amount about designing cars, let alone designing cars that can fly. Designing a modern-day car involves a heck of a lot of people and designing something like the Lilium jet again involves a whole team of people. As head of design, how does your role fit into the larger machine of building a vehicle or “flying car?”
So if you have a Michelin-rated restaurant and you’ve got to feed 100 people, you’re going to have quite a few cooks in there and the waiters and everybody else to run the machine. But the chef, the guy that’s got the Michelin stars… gets all the credit for it. But it’s all the other guys doing the work for him and he’s basically overseeing it and he’s trying to keep everything moving along the right track. That’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I’m not probably your standard type of design director because I like to get in and cook and mix up the stuff too. I just have never been able to stop getting my hands dirty. I guess in that respect, the design directors come across often as prima donnas almost and sit back and watch the guys work and every now and then say he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But I am more of a hands-on type of director.
I like to build small teams. I don’t like huge teams because it takes a lot longer to get things done and the energy sometimes isn’t as strong with a big team as it is with a smaller team. You’ve got to work faster and much more focused and much more efficiently to get the amount of work done. So that sort of builds the steam up in the pressure cooker, but if you love design it’s absolutely the right temperature to be working at. You want to be under pressure to deliver great design. And typically if you think about a design too long, it gets watered down and loses that character, that pureness that you had at the beginning. So smaller teams tend to come up with better ideas I think, or more dramatic ideas, than huge companies with huge design teams.
I don’t set the brief because that comes from marketing, what product segment or what market segment the product should fit. So if they’re telling us to design a two-seater vehicle or a five-seater vehicle or whatever then that becomes the target of the design team to deliver in a certain time span. What I do is I meet with the marketing guys, I meet with engineering guys.
The engineering guys will lay out what we call a package, where all the critical components are for the vehicle. With a car it is typically “Where does the passenger and the driver sit? Where are the wheels and where is the engine and how much trunk or boot space are we going to have?” Things like that. And then I work around all those components with the aerodynamic engineers, suspension and everything.
What I have to do basically is get the team going with theme ideas and really innovative breakthrough ideas, because that’s what designers do. They don’t repeat stuff, they have to come up with stuff that basically moves the game forward. You’ve got to create within this design team a kind of awesome childlike creativity and emotion feeling. It takes a lot of brainstorming and inspiration. You sort of set the tone of that kind of atmosphere within design to get the designers going and then the mood gains momentum.
I’m very advanced in the way I think — I have to be because of the way design is geared, you do a lot of computer work — but I typically make sure that we all start pen on paper sketching, because that is really the only way to get a design or a spark out of your mind. If you go through a computer it loses the human… So I pretty much try to keep the design team on paper as long as possible.
The moment we come up with great ideas, we work with engineers. Typically I try to get engineers and designers working together in the same studio or very tightly together so there’s no loss of traction, and to make sure that what we’re doing can be made. We typically create scale models out of clay. We maybe do two, maybe three, different designs, and as those designs evolve one will get chosen as the favorite theme. That goes to full-scale. And then when this clay model is finally approved by engineering, and approved by finance, and approved by marketing, and approved by design, we will recommend that to the CEO and he’ll have a look at it if he hasn’t followed throughout the process, and then that product will become the model for prototyping and we’ll take molds off of it and create the real panels for the car and then it goes into production. Pretty much that’s it in a nutshell.
As a design director I have to control everything from the look to the color to the ergonomics to the feasibility of it. And then with Lilium the requirements will probably branch out over into what the Lilium port will look like that you access to get into your jet. So the whole kind of environment from an aesthetic or emotional point of view.
TC: Give me more of a sense of the relationship between design and engineering (or form and function)… Aren’t you somewhat constrained in your imagination by the science of flying?
No, that’s what a bad designer would tell you, “I’m constrained, that’s why the vehicle doesn’t look as good as it should.” But the fact is he’s getting paid the big bucks to make that thing look good and if he can’t make it look good he’s just not good enough. So there’s no excuse in my book for bad design or anything that looks bad. Absolutely no excuse. Anything can be made beautiful and should be made desirable, obviously.
We have to have constraints because safety and engineering require that. If we don’t have constraints then designers aren’t designers they’re just artists and they’re not doing the job. You can make a pretty picture but if it doesn’t work at the end of the day then you haven’t really designed anything, you’ve just drawn a pretty picture.
So in terms of constraints, yeah, but that is what makes the game so fun for a designer, that you’re working within rules and legislation and restrictions which make it a challenge. That’s why you get good-looking cars and other cars that don’t look as good. Like I said, if there is a beautiful small car, why aren’t all small cars beautiful? It’s a taste thing obviously. Some people like some designs, a lot of people like other designs. But good design is absolutely not subjective. There’s good design and bad design, and there are a lot of bad designs out there — not to knock them or criticize — but there are principles for good design that designers typically learn when they’re being educated. If you don’t apply those laws of good design then you’re not going to have a good design.
Inspiration for good design comes from a lot of different sources, but if you’re looking at inspiration from trendy sources like fashion or other types of design that are in one day and out the next then you’re not gonna have a timeless design or an iconic design. Iconic designs are typically timeless designs, they last forever. Anything that was designed iconically 40 years ago will still look great 40 years in the future. The design is so good that it just lasts and lasts and lasts. It is hard to achieve that, but if you use the right type of mental design approach then it’s achievable.
I think designing cars is not harder or easier than designing an aircraft, it’s just making the absolutely best product you can make that works well. Typically if you design something that works very, very well it looks fantastic. If you design something that doesn’t work very well then the design doesn’t matter at the end of the day. One of the interesting things is people always say that form follows function. I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life because for me form equals function. If the product works well, it looks great. There’s nothing in the world that works fantastically well and looks awful, that combination doesn’t exist. Especially in nature. You look at all these beautiful animals and organisms in nature that work incredibly well, and therein lies the beauty of nature. Horses and cheetahs and all these amazing animals, nobody sat down and designed this amazing-looking animal. Evolution caused it to be absolutely fantastic at what it does, and through being fantastic at what it does, the result is the look, and that look is awesome. That same principle is how I feel about design. If you work very good with the engineers and you create optimized solutions, it’s very easy to make them look good, it’s almost inherent in that way.
TC: Regarding the Lilium jet… what is the main challenge in your mind of designing what is a new type of transportation?
My challenge — simply put — is to make the person who gets into the jet not want to get out of it. You know. Although he’s reached his destination he’ll want to do it again and again and again. The reason behind that is because all the new generations coming along after the old farts like us are basically looking for experiences. They’re not so much geared towards buying materialistic things. They love experiences. And that’s what Lilium is going to be offering, an experience and a service. And I see that as the future. For me it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to take something from scratch and develop it into a reality.
It’s always been a sort of science fiction, when you see The Jetsons, the cartoons and things… it’s like, one day, but not in my lifetime. Well, here’s news for the world, it’s coming before they know it and it’s going to be here very, very soon. And these things have to look as amazing as the technology that they’re bringing with them.
What I need to do is not just make it an incredible aesthetic joy to be in, but when you get inside one of these things you don’t want to get out of it. It’s going to be the experiences that you have when you’re inside this transportation device. If you could just take that situation of being inside a capsule, what would you want to occur there? You want to relax, you want to socialize, you want to work, you want to be entertained. All that is now incredibly possible.
I mean all the advances … where everything coming now is digital and so real that you can actually imagine something on the inside being the new wave of entertainment. So basically you’re in your private space, you get to turn it into a virtual world where you’re being transported from A to B or wherever your destination is. And within that space in time you’re in the ideal atmosphere. You’re not really sitting in a plane and just going along for the ride, which is what you do pretty much in a taxi. All the new materials that are coming about at the moment in terms of seats, flooring, lighting, buttons, displays, image projection, sounds and temperature control. You know all the things that we try to shoot into new cars as a next step for luxury, those are just going to become everyday things that are making the whole ride an incredible experience.
Regretfully they’ll be a lot shorter in duration because of the nature of the jet being you know very high-speed and all that. But it’s kind of like if you can imagine somebody who loves roller coasters they’re always at the end thinking “oh my gosh that was too quick, I want to do this thing again.” That is the kind of positive feeling you should have when you get out of the vehicle.
TC: I saw this documentary a while back that made the point that the world we live in is predominately designed by humans and therefore design can make or break our everyday experiences. As a designer, is it really difficult for you living in a world where, let’s face it, a lot of design is awful?
Some designers take it as a job. Other people just live it. And design is all about making the world a better place not a prettier place. That’s [just] a consequence of making it a better place, but making it a better place is what the end goal should be. It’s a shame that there aren’t more designers in the world thinking about making the world a better place.
TC: How did you get this job ? Did they come to you? Were you just like, “I’ve done cars, I want to do something new”?
It was fate, that thing when two separate paths suddenly collide. I think it was more like that. I’d left McLaren in November 2017, not because I was frustrated or anything like that but because I thought there was something bigger than just designing products that nobody really needs, they just desired and want. What was I doing, I was just clogging up the road networks even more and not making the world a better place, probably a more exciting place, but not socially better. And so I left with my ideas of starting my own design studio, which I’ve been sort of kicking off, in terms of how to improve the world, and then I heard about Lilium and Lilium contacted me.
It was just a match made in heaven. It met all my principles of working for an exciting and incredibly innovative company from the very beginning. To be able to establish a design department for them with a design DNA, a design language, the design team, the studio. Doing something for the future of humanity. Staying with transportation, but making it even better than it ever was. Making something science fiction reality.
TC: Are there any particular designers or designs that you can point to and say that designer or product has stood the test of time?
That’s really, really tough. I can tell you specific products for their aesthetic value but I think I have to go deeper than that because you know everybody admires different designers for different reasons. If you could put two guys together that would be da Vinci and Einstein. I mean da Vinci was probably the guy because he not only could paint and draw and all that but he was also an incredible engineer and he figured out how to make these things work and he wanted things to look great too. So if I could say one person for me it would be da Vinci more than anybody else just because the guy could paint, the guy could engineer. Anything he ever touched was absolutely amazing. He was doing flying machines way back too. I like his natural approach. I like people who are really in tune with nature because for me that’s the best inspiration we have. He came up with things that never existed before for the benefit of humanity. Pretty much. If he would have been that kind of guy today he would be the absolutely most awesome human being on earth. I’ve got tons of books on his works and him, and everything like that, just because he’s so inspiring to me.