Efficiency is one of the cornerstones on which the designer's work is based. Together with Roberto Giolito, head of the Heritage department, we explore the importance of placing the user at the centre of the creative design process. And not just in the automotive sector. From the Downtown and Multipla cars to the Zippo lighter and Telecaster guitar, we outline the intrinsic role of functionality, alongside that of aesthetics.
When it comes to design, there is a risk of underestimating the importance of efficiency, in favour of focusing more on aesthetics. What is your opinion on this?
Design is intended to bring the product into contact with its user and effectively meet the requirements for functionality, economy and usability. In other words, if the concept of efficiency is not put at the centre of this process, it cannot be called design in the strictest sense. Contrary to general belief, design has nothing to do with art and creativity unless these two concepts are understood as being just two of its component ingredients. Design is intrinsically linked to mass production and consumer society. More than other disciplines, it arises from the public's needs, their more or less explicit demands, to which it endeavours to respond. The car is one of the industrial products that best clarifies what is meant by design. The first objective that it must meet is to be functional for its intended user.
The importance of design is also evidenced by the fact that within the HUB, which is the multifunctional space that houses Heritage, there is a section called Style Marks. Exhibited within this section are cars produced over a period of more than 60 years. What do they all have in common?
They are some of the milestones in the history of automotive design, cars which, due to their characteristics and personality, effectively encapsulated the identity of their respective brands. These are cars that have become indelibly imprinted on the collective imagination, cars that over time have become true benchmarks in the field of automotive design. Returning to the subject of efficiency, the common thread connecting all the models on display here is the ability of the original project to reconcile technical needs with the design of the car body. This happens thanks to the interaction between product, formal values and user behaviour. The contribution and aesthetic awareness of the great Turin-based coachbuilders was decisive in maintaining this precarious balance. They are models from different eras but, united by an aesthetic and technological relevance, they demonstrate that the word “style” actually alludes to a more sophisticated expression of design that looks ahead towards innovation, while at the same time bearing witness to its own time.
In your direct experience, are there any models that you find particularly interesting, due to the way in which they resolve issues relating to the concept of efficiency?
If I think of what we could call the “efficient approach”, two models come to mind, models which were created with particular attention paid to the needs of habitability and use. Thanks to the innovative solutions identified during their design, the FIAT Downtown and the Multipla can certainly be useful in giving substance to the concept of efficiency.
Starting from the end of the 1960s, the two main guidelines that informed FIAT's research and experimentation activity, and which oriented the work of its Research Centre, were the introduction of new materials—particularly plastics—for vehicle production, and the development of a series of tests, prototypes and protocols for improving safety. These two guidelines were soon followed by the introduction of a third, aimed at identifying solutions for more efficient mobility and coping with the problems of increasingly congested roads. The FIAT Downtown (presented at the 1993 Geneva Motor Show - Ed.) was designed for this very purpose. First, in designing this electric concept car, we worked with the aim of reducing dimensions without compromising on interior comfort. To ensure the best possible habitability for its size (the Downtown is 2.5 m long and less than 1.5 m wide), the solution we identified was to place the driver in a central position. This gave the two rear-seat occupants room to stretch their legs and a view unimpeded by head restraints. Another winning solution in this regard was to incorporate a portion of the floor (which in this case was totally flat) so that the driver could enter and exit the vehicle without stooping unnecessarily. In addition, the large windshield afforded all three occupants excellent visibility. In practice, the FIAT Downtown was a saloon with the dimensions of a city car, an ideal solution for tackling the ever-increasing problem of city traffic. It can be said that by combining practicality and efficiency, the Downtown prototype foreshadowed a new type of urban mobility that was brought to completion a few years later, for example by the Smart car.