The Making of Motorcycles series asks the Where, What and Why questions to reveal just how people come together to imagine, engineer and design the most amazing vehicles in the world. In part 2 we take the design brief, the bare outline of a new motorcycle idea fleshed out by marketing and product planning, and attempt to give the bike form. Enter the designers.
From the lofty studios in trendy neighbourhoods descend the pencil-wielding army of artist/engineers who comb the pages of expensive architecture and lifestyle magazines to bring you the style of the motorcycle of tomorrow.
This is the art of industrial design. A process so wildly misunderstood by our modern consumer driven society it beggars belief. It all starts with a sketchpad, some excitement and none of the cliches you’d expect.
Act One : Chopping The Line
My social nightmare happened in the year 2000 in Amsterdam. I had just started working at Yamaha’s design department, GK, and was enjoying my new life. Invited to a big expat party by a friend, I was making the rounds when a pretty girl I was talking to asked me what I did for a living.
“I design motorcycles for Yamaha” I told her, proudly.
She arched her eyebrows in the universal expression of surprise, paused a moment, then suddenly broke into a smile. “Oh! Like those guys on TV!” Her voice rising with excitement. “Like American Chopper. Those guys are cool.” She said.
“No.” My expression betrayed my disappointment. “Nothing like American Chopper.”
I struggled for a moment, deciding whether or not to explain that I was a professional industrial designer, and that no one at Yamaha or GK would weld an axe to a catalogue cruiser frame as some homage to firefighters; that none of our shirts had the sleeves ripped off; and that the only time anyone ever threw objects at coworkers was during the company baseball game.
“Actually, I’m more of an artist” I continued, thinking fast. “I come into an office and sketch motorcycles all day.” She seemed to like that answer, and so did I.
I am a designer. That means that when I am not drinking a double espresso at a desk inside my stark white studio space, I’m attending a product launch party in a trendy, post-industrial part of town with all my creative friends. I wear black religiously, read Monocle daily, and make the pilgrimage to the TED talks annually. I wear a $5 thrift shop Timex watch for irony.
This is the designer stereotype of course. Elitist. Aloof. Out-of-touch with the real world. This may certainly be true in some fashion and interior decorating circles, but rarely in product design. It can’t be. Mass producing merchandise for consumers demands intimate understanding of what those consumers want, and that necessitates earthly empathy.
Motorcycle designers are, by and large, a pretty earthly bunch. They are given a design brief, and paired with engineers, have to create a product that will actually work within the narrow confines of a corporate fiscal reality. There simply isn’t much room for artsy rebellion or prima donna antics.
The Art of the Motorcycle
As covered in Part 1, a new motorcycle starts off as a series of technical specifications and market requirements. The next step is the designer’s job, to give a set of words, figures and charts a physical form. This is perhaps the most creative aspect of new product development, the place to explore as many possibilities that fit a given design brief as time allows.
Now there is a very significant difference between design, and styling. Many engineers dismiss designers as nothing more than stylists, makeup artists who dress up machines designed, they believe, by them. This is indisputable in many cases, such as consumer electronics. But with motorcycles it is not the case at all.
Motorcycles are not enclosed objects like consumer electronics or cars. That means that while you do get to cover a lot of what’s inside with the body shapes of the fuel tank, seat, various covers and fairings, a good part of the motorcycle’s mechanics, its bones, are still visible. And they must not only function, but look good together too.
To craft a motorcycle that is appreciated by the motorcycle community, there has to be a balance between styling and design; between the pure emotion and artistry of the sculpted body parts and the raw machine components that make it go. When a motorcycle has too much styling, it usually gets panned as silly and inauthentic. When there isn’t enough, then it’s labelled as “thrown together”.
Either is a recipe for commercial failure. Good motorcycle design, certainly great motorcycle design, is when a bike looks like it was designed but the raw brutality of the engine, chassis and other mechanical bits poke through just enough and in all the right places; like smooth skin and toned muscles visible from well-fitted clothes on a beautiful person.
That is a pretty challenging expression to describe verbally, so how do you make that happen physically? How do you marry that philosophy with the practical aspects of making a motorcycle concept that can be communicated to other people without words? The answer lies in the mother of all arts: drawing.
Act Two : Lift Off
I was in the air, on my way home from a business trip. Seated by the window of another beat-up Alitalia DC-9, my mind was racing. I always enjoyed taking regional flights from Italy because you still walked up to your plane from the ground, getting a rare look at jets from up close. This excited my passion for aerospace design.
The DC-9 is ancient airliner from another era. Like most things from the 60’s, it looks as though it was designed to be slick and cool instead of practical or calculating. The passengers can enter from the usual door near the cockpit, or from an integrated air-stair that lowers from the tail. This allows you to climb into the cabin between its twin Pratt & Whitney turbofans, each large enough to contain a Harley Davidson Electraglide.
My imagination was filled with images of those monstrous jet engine nacelles, hanging off the rear of the fuselage, the gigantic boomerang shaped tail plane rising above. From the rear a DC-9 looked like a relative of the X-Wing fighter. Menacing and powerful but somehow still elegant.
All my notebooks were in my checked luggage, because I was expecting to relax to music for the duration of the flight home. But needing to express what I liked about DC-9, what I had just seen, made me yank the napkin out from under my tomato juice cup. I started drawing.
The first weeks of a design project can be the most intimidating, because it is much harder to begin with nothing than to start grounded with limitations. Most designers listen to music, spend time flipping through magazines and exploring products on store shelves, looking for inspiration. These days with the internet always a finger tap away, the world is literally at hand but that limitless data can be intimidating.
Every designer selects favourite images as a starting point. With motorcycles, these tend to be other motorcycles, fighter planes, sports cars, and rather sadly, photos of women’s bodies (there are precious few women motorcycle designers – in fifteen years I met just four). Pasted together on a wall or elaborately layered in Photoshop, they become the equivalent of office cubicle successories, egging designers on.
In a frontline design studio of a major manufacturer, the concept sketching phase can last a few weeks. During this time, nothing is off the table. Designers spend lots of time alone, inside their own heads and draw whatever comes to them. Raw shapes they like, inspired by things they’ve found in their research. Sometimes it’s specific motorcycle forms or profiles, based on the initial mechanical package or other bikes that are approximately similar.
Nothing is detailed, scaled, or finished. What is the panel separation line between the fuel tank and side panel? Are those passenger grips cast alloy or moulded into the plastic tail-piece? How many parts is that?
It is all deliberately unknown. The goal is to find a concept. A simple proportion, or visual language that is exciting enough to explore more deeply later.
Some brands have an extremely defined shape language that requires continuity. Think of KTM, and it is universally understood to be strong, crisp edges punctuated by unpainted, functional plastic mechanical components. Other brands, like Yamaha during my years with the organization, allowed each model to stand alone on the character of the designer or the uniqueness or its mechanical package.
The first sketch phase continues until the design studio manager (a very senior designer) forces a selection of three to five directions, which are then selected for presentation to the project committee who have to down select one for further development.
There are successive rounds of sketching, followed by further checks and refining, each reducing the scope of the concept from its open and infinite beginning, down an ever narrowing funnel until a final, or near final, concept is ready for approval. This presentation is done with dramatic looking, bold and colourful 2D artwork known in the business as renderings.
Act Three : My Own Private Idaho
It was very late. I had a deadline and had let myself back into the GK design studio after dinner to finish the concept renderings for the next presentation. Totally alone, I inserted a stack of CDs into the player, opened a can of Coke and tucked in to my vast felt-tip market set and a blank sheet.
Headphones on, I tapped my feet to the music, and submersed myself into the drawing. One by one I layered greys and dark blues onto the paper. Occasionally I outlined the details with a tiny black fine liner pen with a tip the size of a pin. I brushed on the main body colour, a flaming orange, and faded it out by smearing crushed pastel chalks with a baby wipe.
When the rendering was done, I taped it to a metal presentation wall at the back of the studio and stood there, staring at the shapes marked on the paper, tilting my head or squinting to blur out the details. The music being piped into my ears was now loud euro-electronic. I was wound up, pumped and happy with the renderings staring back at me.
Then a finger tapped me on the shoulder and I nearly jumped to the ceiling.
It was 7am, and the assistant to the office manager had arrived at work. I had pulled an all nighter and hadn’t even noticed the dawn creeping through the windows. That is what rendering does to you. Time flies when you are having fun.
Presenting final renderings to the project committee is a big deal. At the best of times they are made up of only a few senior people who actually understand how motorcycles are made, how they work, and the market that buys them. Other times it’s one guy, the big boss of the client company. The worst case is a giant conference room full of attendees from all over a big corporation, each of whom are desperate to put their stamp on “the creative design process”.
Typically, final artwork was taped to, or projected on, a wall in a room large enough to allow committee members to stand and judge it from different distances. A lot has changed with the advent of cheap digital presentation tools like video animation software and virtual reality. Only available to the top automotive brands when I started out in 2000, they are completely ubiquitous today. Renderings are accompanied by films with music, computer simulations of the bike in motion, and allow complex brand and fabrication data to be communicated instantly.
Regardless, the committee makes its arguments and listens to the design team until inevitably some blowhard in love with their own voice starts consuming all the oxygen in the room, which is when an impasse usually occurs.
A handmade rendering, be it manual or digital, is a very loose and artistic interpretation of reality, thus open to highly subjective analysis. In most cases motorcycles are presented in side view (something I find absurd since only dogs and toddlers ever see motorcycles in straight side view), and a variety of perspective and close up shots. Designers go to great pains to stylize the drawings themselves in order to illicit an emotional response from the viewer.
An industrial design rendering is thus art and business proposal at once. A very kinky combination of left and right brain information that can totally divide an audience. The goal is to communicate design ideas with enough detail to eliminate doubt, but not so clearly as to close the door on future refinement.
Act Four : Please Allow Me to Politely Tell You What You Like
I was into the final concept presentation with the committee, and was nearly at wit’s end. We had met four times to close the design ideation phase, but always there were doubts; always objections. The working group was frustrated, and my boss was nervous because the project was now weeks behind schedule because the committee could not make a selection. I was under a lot of pressure.
The morning of the presentation, I sat at my desk in the studio looking at three all new final concept renderings. I hated them. I hated the project. Most of all I hated the thought of getting into my suit and doing the same song and dance as before, trying to convince the committee that this time I had found the zenith of this project’s design theme.
The only concept rendering I loved was one that had been rejected a week earlier. I pulled it out and compared it to the new ones and remained convinced: the rejected concept was fresher, easier to justify from a production standpoint and really answered the design brief. I strongly believed in it.
So I went to my computer, changed the colours of the rejected concept, printed it onto the same presentation template as the new ones but I made it 10% larger. Not so you’d notice consciously, but bigger none the less. I also bumped up the brightness and saturation a touch. Of the new concept renderings, I selected the two I liked least, faded them out by 10% and reprinted them.
Three hours later the committee unanimously approved the concept rendering they had rejected a week earlier. The project leader remarked how “it really popped” off the page. No kidding.
Approving a design concept for the next step in the Making of Motorcycles, and realizing a prototype, is not a decision to be made lightly. By this point, engineering has been hard at work making preliminary calculations on the basic layout, and hundreds of hours have been spent on finding a suitable visual package. Serious money has already gone in, but it will take exponentially more to go forward.
Taking a motorcycle design from two to three dimensions reveals many ugly realities not evident in renderings or sketches. Those subtle lines that look so sweet on the fairing? Turns out they may not fit on the mechanical skeleton at full-scale. That clean, punchy rear wheel area? The exhaust supplier just called to say that the new regulations will enlarge the end can by 30%. And so on.
When a motorcycle designer puts down the rendering markers or the digital stylus, it does not conclude the creative process, just ends the easy going free for all.
The really hard work is still ahead, and no pretentious behaviour or quantity of espresso is going to help the designers as they take on their arch nemesis : the engineers.
Coming up next in Episode 3 of The Making of Motorcycles : Layout
Engineers are usually credited with motorcycle design, because they are usually the project leaders. Behind the calculations and years of rational discipline lies a kid that used to draw motorcycles with rockets on them. And this is the person deciding the fundamental technical design.
Most good engineers are part artist, and the most creative gravitate to motorcycles and aeroplanes. Sure that exhaust header could go down and under like every other bike, but that wouldn’t be sexy.
Layout : where engineers design the machine within and when worlds collide as they merge reality with the design team.
About the author
Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a seasoned motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.