Jason Hill on the future of design education and three good current vehicles from Detroit

IMG_1512Jason Hill worked in Mercedes-Benz and Porsche design studios before forming his own company, Eleven LLC, an “eco-friendly design studio,” in 2003. Along with some major automakers, Mr. Hill’s clients have included the producers of airplanes, motorcoaches, and toys. His designs for solar-electric boats portend a type of watercraft that eliminates the noisy engine. Besides this work, he teaches transportation design at Art Center College of Design. On January 17, we had lunch in the school’s faculty dining room and he answered a few questions, some serious and others for fun.

Q. How many automotive design programs does the world have room for? A technical university in Michigan is starting a new program to emphasize the integration of engineering with design. They’re saying design students don’t have enough engineering.

A. That’s an interesting statement. The counter question is: How much do you need versus how much understanding and ability to relate with engineers do you need? So instead of being an engineer who can design, the designer, in my estimation, should be able to have the right respect and the ability to communicate as a team. This is design, that’s your thing. And this is engineering, that’s your thing. And together the sum is even better, instead of the traditional friction.

Q. You’re not predicting failure?

A. No, there’s an absolute need [not only] for that kind of curriculum but also for that product. Their product, as an institution, is a designer, and there’s a need for that.

Q. A sort of related question–I just saw that Ralph Gilles is saying ten years down the road there won’t be enough students applying for automotive design programs because they’re not interested in cars any more and there’s this measurable decline among young people who aren’t getting drivers’ licenses–they’d rather take public transit, and everything’s about their mobile device.

A. Kids are not stupid. They are interested in design. Every time you think, “Oh, cars are going away!” or this, you’ve got a boatload of students lined up to get into this school, to get into the transportation design program. A very creative student, recent graduate, grew up without a car. He’s a little bit older than your average student, but his experience was: Did not relate to automobiles. It was bicycles and public transportation. He came to learn how to design a car. Now he’s back to bicycles. But you see what I’m saying? He didn’t think he was interested in cars, but he was interested in design. He was able to do vehicles and then go back to his roots. So I think Art Center will have no problem attracting students to do automotive and transportation design.

Q. Would you say that evolving federal requirements for safety and efficiency standards are causing the automobile to be redesigned in a good way or is it a detrimental thing?

A. In general it’s a good way. You always need enough parameters so you don’t go completely crazy and end up with, for lack of a better term, an ugly or stupid product. Are there some instances, some rules that are a little bit like, this is not going to help? Yeah. But the majority are like, OK, that’s the hand you’re dealt. These are the ingredients. So each company is given the same parameters, those ingredients. Who can cook the best? That’s what it comes down to. And the chefs–including engineers, designers, and the marketing side–it’s a little bit like a competition. The rules are the same. What’s your best way to get there? As the FMVSS rules get stacked higher and higher, amazingly, we get more diversity in the product offerings. Right? Crossovers. You still have sports cars, still have sedans, minivans, pickups, SUVs. Now we have crossovers. You have to look at it that way–at least, I look at it that way: optimistically.

Q. In automobiles, where is the borderline between advanced design and overwrought styling?

A. The line between advanced and overwrought is one decided upon reflection. There is always good intention to advance or bring forward an automobile design. For me in particular, design is about what you leave out, now what you put into something. It is all about the “implied” line and form.

A. Name three products from Detroit that you really like.

A. The four-door Jeep Wrangler. It makes the two-door look cartoonish. The Lincoln MKZ as a step in the right direction (distinguished). I have to say the Lincoln MKT from purely a design perspective, but not sure how the marketplace is taking that vehicle. The MKT has a distinctive front and rear, as well as unique side glass profile, and it is a big step away from badge-engineering.

Q. Is the AMC Pacer beautiful or ugly?

A. It’s beautifully ugly. If you see one, you’re going to take notice. That’s kind of cool! And I’ll give you another one that has a little bit of that. I saw a Pinto the other day. Especially in today’s context, that thing looks kind of cool. It had a little bit of style, and it had this fastback. Not bad! Because you don’t remember a four-door sedan from that year.

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