Frank Stephenson, the designer of the Mini, now responsible for the Centre Style at FIAT, Lancia and Commercial Vehicles, opens SPDtalks!, a series of open lectures at SPD.

On Tuesday February 6th Frank Stephenson, since 2005 Head of Fiat, Lancia and LCV Design Center, met the audience of students and car design enthusiasts gathered at Scuola Politecnica di Design, that is currently running the 2006-2007 edition of its Master’s course in Transportation Design in collaboration with the most important automotive companies. His keynote speech opened the SPDtalks! lecture series, promoted until May 2007 in order to develop both product and communication design culture.

Frank Stephenson’s career is briefly described in his most noted successes:BMW X5, BMW Mini. After moving to Italy for Ferrari and Maserati, he has begun a promising, new season with FIAT, Lancia and LCV (Light Commercial Vehicles). This is what has captured the eye of the young designers in SPD in this opportunity to welcome and meet designer whose work and models are of world-class success.

Stephenson – born in Morocco, bearing an American passport, has worked mainly in Europe – a young 48-year old whose personality and magnetism easily seize the students and guests attention here at the school. His curriculum reflects his charisma with the success of his designs, some of which have become actual design icons. His talk reflects his particular creative approach: his hungry vision for design along with his passion, in this case for the car, his experience in creating with paper and pencil together with the zest for teamwork, side by side, with the designer and the model makers.

The creation of the new Mini was after a long internal process, particularly demanding, requiring fifteen models developed under the pressure of designing without the possibility to make any errors. This marked a turning point in his career and offered the occasion for unexpected tales – After a night of celebrating the end of the job, Stephenson and the model makers transformed Budweiser cans into an exhaust pipe that was missing from the model which had been presented to Chris Bangle that very morning 11 years ago. To quote Stephenson, the most interesting ideas are often the emergency solutions that bring unexpected high quality results. It is the same with short development deadlines that always turn out well (BMW X5, the new Bravo) adding that the first sketches are always the best.

The new Mini offered the opportunity to add a personal touch in retrodesign, often slippery ground for designers in search of inspiration. Stephenson believes in looking deeply at the brand and the model’s DNA but addressing and applying those to the future, translating the language of design into a new form. With the Mini Stephenson began designing the possible evolutions the original model had never had in 40 years – from 1959 to 1999 – this way attaining the final concept that marked the beginning of a new age projecting into the future. The same philosophy, permits, and is a guarantee for thenew FIAT 500 project, to be launched in September but already considering the Trepiùuno (3+1) concept: a key design for Fiat that challenges the Mini on the grounds of nostalgia, the Italian style and last but not least onpersonalization as foremost for great success.

Stephenson does not miss reminiscing about the development of the new Bravo where his love affair with FIAT began: a design realised in record time – in only 18 months compared to the 36 spent in Germany and the 24 in Japan. Through the help of many coffees, enthusiasm and determination, the Stephenson-style seems to go down well also in Turin where he divided his team into three competitive work groups. The research process is oriented in three different directions: water-fluid, air-lightness and earth as ground stability. The first proposals were presented after only three weeks. Then, transformation from sketch to model 1:1, another three weeks to put together the best ideas in an exciting and consistent design. «We were already sure about the result: when you work so quickly, there is no room for mistakes».

This philosophy for design created from discovery, innovation and emotion bonded together with a feeling for the history and brand value is extremely motivating for the SPD audience. Convinced of maintaining the equilibrium between form+function – an explicit component when producing a car – Stephenson emphasises the importance of correct market positioning and showing sensitivity towards the commercial strategies, the first things to consider before embarking on the actual design. From the point of view of a young designer, explained much clearer through his vision of the profession when he repetitively insists on passion: «design is subjective, passion does it» and reminds all of the need and the responsibility to infringe the rules. In the end, from a distinguished manager, repeating once again to the students to never lose sight of the ability to design: the computer helps but sketches are the basic language to communicate through design. And good design «can be described in a few lines».

Based on the notes by the students Jacek Peplowsky and Francesco Carbini