When Porsche’s chief designer Michael Mauer creates the style language for tomorrow, he first considers the day after tomorrow. From there, he heads back to our tomorrow.
Back to the Future
At Porsche, we first think very far ahead and then return to the near future, to tomorrow— chief designer Michael Mauer refers to this as “forecasting” and “backcasting.”
What will a designer think of tomorrow? He’ll think about tomorrow. There’s a lot of truth in that. It’s a designer’s job to look beyond the here and now towards the future—more or less constantly. That becomes a designer’s inner being. If you take a meticulous look at how designers think, you will even find that they are not exactly living in the present, but are basically one step ahead—comparable to what lawyers call the “fictitious second,” let’s call it the “aesthetic second” of the designer. It is still worth a designer’s while to know the shapes of the past and to have analyzed their effects, but his or her orientation is forward-looking. That’s true in general, and particularly for the stylists of the automobile industry.
This special aesthetic second, as the pacesetter of the present, is of course not enough to draw a future Porsche 911 that will only hit the road four or five years later. So how do designers recognize what will constitute contemporary lines tomorrow?
It’s less myth than mechanics—it’s not the kiss of the muse that creates formal fascination in the future, but a leap in time. As the American psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz so aptly put it, “The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us.” In order to be able to show tomorrow, a designer thus needs to travel to the day after tomorrow.
The day after tomorrow
The day after tomorrow, an era that lies at least thirty years in the future, is attained in the mind of the designer by looking at developments and considering how these—taken to an extreme conclusion—could shape the day after tomorrow. Perfect 3-D holograms, for example, that could make it possible to travel any distance in the blink of an eye. Or tiny megamotors with infinite free energy at their disposal and an efficiency of over 99 percent.
To span this enormous leap in time, a technique known as “radicalization of the imagination” is used. It’s not a question of being just a bit of a visionary; you have to be unrestrained, absolutist, a radical. Doug Chiang, head designer of Star Wars, uses this mechanism to perfection. That’s how he’s able to think his way into the galactic world of Luke Skywalker.
Once we reach the day after tomorrow, it will be a versatile space of possibilities. A space that can show designers radical visions of a future present. Images are created, changed priorities become visible, and ideals can be reevaluated. What we today think of as having no alternative may be gone by the day after tomorrow. And, what’s more, these visits to the day after tomorrow also change those who undertake the journey. As Grosz points out, traveling through time changes the traveler, too. And it’s this change that is the goal. It gives us new perspectives on how we use things—such as cars, cell phones, or money. Enriched with this knowledge, the designer can now travel farther and back at the same time: into tomorrow.
“The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we're creating, that in turn creates us.” Stephen Grosz
Aware of where the Porsche brand will stand in a distant future, designers then turn their sights to the near future: tomorrow. By now, they ought to be very familiar with tomorrow. Tomorrow should now feel like home compared to the faraway scenery of the day after.
In order to do their job and move from the visionary to the concrete—in other words, to define the very concrete shape that will fit perfectly into the brand image and the evolutionary spirit of the times in four to six years’ time—Porsche designers need to become lateral and longitudinal thinkers. This means first ensuring the logical continuation of what already exists and shaping what is beautiful into what is perfect. But just when they have created the highest degree of visual perfection from today’s point of view, designers break this by adding a precisely composed dissonance. I call it the “Claudia Schiffer paradox.”
Near-perfect beauty was embodied for many years by the Chanel model Claudia Schiffer. Almost tiringly beautiful, indeed. That’s why we designers also add a contradiction to our perfect ideal. In Schiffer’s case, maybe it would have been a little gap between the teeth. It’s contrast that makes charisma: perfection plus contradiction.
A good designer can do this quite intuitively—because designers often think far in advance, but never in a straight line. Their thinking has to be turbulent.