'Indian designers will understand our market:' Pratap Bose

Pratap Bose, Chief Design and Creative Officer of M&M Auto and Farm Sector discusses the role of creativity, technology, and customer expectations in automotive design with Autocar India.

By Renuka Kirpalani, Autocar India calendar 11 Jan 2024 Views icon20577 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
'Indian designers will understand our market:' Pratap Bose

During the COVID-19 lockdown period, our sister publication Autocar India prepared a series of videos for young people who wrote to them inquiring how one can be a part of the automotive industry’s most cherished side of the business — designing. The series aimed to address the interests of young individuals aspiring to join the automotive industry. One of the episodes featured Pratap Bose, the Chief Design and Creative Officer, Auto and Farm Sector, Mahindra and Mahindra, who shared his thoughts and insights on automotive design and offered guidance on how one could pursue a career as an automotive designer. We recently caught up with him again.

At the time when you went to design school, there were fewer design schools. How did things happen then?

We have as much responsibility to create new design work as we do in ensuring that the design and the education ecosystem is ready for the challenges of today and tomorrow. In the 90s, when I was studying design, automotive design wasn't even a specialty. Today it is.

Does a decline in quality come with proliferation and growth in numbers?

I think we are at this real tipping point where if we create too many designers or too many automotive designers, quality will suffer. We are seeing that. So, it's a very tricky balancing act between industry, education and students of course and it's something that we must address in this country.

Where do you think the academic gaps are?

I'm sure that colleges want to address the fact that there are different fields out there. I remember having Commerce, Science or Arts and we could not expand our careers beyond that. Now there are many alternatives to choose from and this is great.

How is an automotive designer perceived these days?

If I put it simplistically, automotive design today is still seen as a very glamorous profession. It is seen as making a couple of very fancy glossy sketches and it's also very exterior design driven. I’ll admit that there are moments of glory when we are presenting our cars to the world. But that's the tip of the iceberg. Below that are the things that people don't see — the intense amount of dedication, hard work, passion and staying power that you need to really put something like this, or indeed any product, into production.

How diversified is the automotive design profession?

Quite a lot. The outside world doesn’t see the number of professionals that are involved in creating automotive design. What they also don't see is the number and diversity of design professionals. We have exterior and interior designers, clay and digital modellers, modelling managers, programme managers and HMI designers.

Your opinion on the proliferation of design schools?

I know there are some commercial pressures to increase student numbers, but they should also look at what the industry needs.

For an aspirant, what would the starting point be?

I get a lot of messages from students who say, ‘Sir, I am in the second or third year of engineering and I really want to be an automotive designer. So, should I switch now?’ The first thing I tell them is, please be a great engineer rather than an average or a poor designer.

While the entry barrier is very high for an aspiring automotive designer in what we call the traditional exterior or interior design, there are other areas to explore. So, if you are a brilliant mechanical engineer, for example, we have a function in design called studio engineering. It sits in-between our technical engineering and design teams. Sometimes we will say, look, we want the door to open this way, engineers will say maybe it's not possible and the studio engineer will try and find the way to do it. It's a great place to be in and we don't find enough people.

How different is the automotive design scene now?

It's not like the 1970s and 1960s where you had a carrozzeria (coach builders) who would draft the design of a car, and someone would go and make it. Cars were constructed with traditionally hand beaten panels in those days.

Can new technologies and traditional skills co-exist?

A lot of people think that with the arrival of CAD, CAM, traditional skills like clay modelling will disappear. I remember in the early days we would hire and train clay sculptors who would make murtis (idols) because they had that artistic ability.

Although it looks like large surfaces, nobody realises the kind of finesse that actually goes into this detailing work. In the computer modelling area, there are actually lots of people who are coming from the gaming world.

Why isn't there more focus on automotive design in India?

We are the third or fourth largest automotive market in the world. Yet, we have only a handful (probably three) real OEM level studios in India for passenger vehicles. On the two-wheeler side, including start-ups, I would say that there are another three or four. I reckon 10-12 end-to-end studios exist that can offer sketches to a Class A surface release. That's incredible, as we have the largest manufacturers for OEMs globally here in our market and very few of them have acknowledged or established a design presence.

It may sound counter-intuitive, for one OEM to tell other OEMs to please come and open design studios in India, because it's highly competitive. But that's the only way the profession can grow. Think, why do you have such an evolved design ecosystem in Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy or the UK?

There's a concentration of creative studios in China as the Chinese government has mandated that if you were entering the Chinese market you had to establish a local R&D. These were some things they did which has led to an explosion of good Chinese brands helped by talented designers. We need to open this up to other OEMs.

We've had some very good Indian designers who have managed to go abroad and work in some of the best companies in the past seven or eight years. But the reverse hasn't happened. I feel there's a lack of awareness of the levels of creativity and skills.

There is also a lack of experience because it's a young profession in India, but there's no lack of creativity. I believe Indian designers will understand our market the best. We have seen many missteps by not only global OEMs, but Indian OEMs too. We don't get every product right, but I think if we have more Indian designers or some talent in that (local) market or designers from that market, you are more likely to create a more successful product.

All OEMs have design studios in Brazil because it's a big market. So that's a space where I hope we make a dent. I think design is getting more important because of this whole transition to EVs.

What is the role of design in the future likely to be?

When I say design, I don't only mean exterior and interior. I mean the functional part of it as well. Design is going to probably be the differentiator between manufacturers in the long term. I believe a lot is going to rest with the design head and with the design department of a company.

Design is truly one of those disciplines that show the most creativity under immense pressure. I think new areas like aerodynamics, safety legislation — all these come together to literally shape what you're going to see in the future.

Which are the design areas that will flourish?

There are two upcoming areas which are promising. One is, of course, electrification and that covers all manufacturers and it comes with its unique set of challenges. I think design flourishes when the challenges are the most severe. The other one is emerging autonomous technologies where you don't need a steering wheel or when you don't need to look out to make sure that your car won't crash into another car. What will car design look like then? That is an area where I would love for students to try and start exploring. Artificial intelligence is taking away a lot of jobs but what effect will it have in automotive design in the future?

How do you marry new and traditional technologies in design?

I have been tracking some sort of AI generated design for the last 18 odd months, and I must say the progress that's been made is phenomenal. However, you still need to create or convert a picture generated by AI into a real product. You still need that entire process, and you also need to test it. These days, technology allows for more efficient simulation, reducing the need for extensive real-world testing.

Typically, AI will generate 1,500 to 2,000 images in two minutes. You must be able to judge what is appropriate to your brand or what your customer needs. We judge sketches from the designers who will make hundreds of renderings and then we pick one or two to end up in a final product. It's a combination of many minds coming together.

I would say please use AI as a tool only to sharpen or test the sense of judgment. That is, what would work and what wouldn't. That's the skill you will need when you are working on an assignment.

When softwares like Photoshop came, everyone said markers would disappear. But they didn't. When CAD and CAM came, everyone said clay models would disappear. They didn't either and the combination (traditional and new technologies) is very powerful. Earlier it used to take us four weeks to even set up a clay model. We can do it in days now.

Can we talk a little about concept cars?

As someone in design, the way I look at it is that when we do a concept car, it's a bit like the trailer of a film. The trailer gives you a taste of what's going to come in the film. So (what happens) if you see the trailer and the film is completely different? Let’s say the trailer is like a romantic story and the film is a sci-fi intergalactic war. That disconnect is just something that people don't get. I always like the trailer to be directly linked to the film.

We can go from a clean sheet of paper to engineering in 24 months. This is something we could never dream of earlier. We can only do this because we brought in technology at the right points and are using them the right way to speed up the process of automotive design and automotive development. You can do a lot more simulation now. For example, earlier you would drive for millions of miles. You can do it for a lot less now with simulation software.

When we showed the five concepts in Bainbury or in South Africa, I told the team that you have the creative freedom to explore. At the same time, please make something that is believable because when we do this product we don't want to disappoint the customer.

For any project, there's a huge amount of investment that goes into a new product. So we have a responsibility to the company because we want to show a vision of the future. And that's where a concept car comes in. But we also have a responsibility to the customer. They should realise that in a couple of years, Mahindra is going to produce this thing and we'll be able to drive it. You build that into their dream.

When we did the Thar.e concept SUV, for example, we were overwhelmed with the number of messages that came in as response. One guy said I'm going to sell my house to buy this car. I am quoting verbatim. This is how much it means to people.

Now, if we launch a possible Thar.e in the future and it looks nothing like the concept, you can imagine how disappointed this gentleman will be. That's something we don't want to happen.

This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's December 15, 2023 issue.

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