Interviewed in Zagreb on 18 October 2013
As the Director of Design at Peugeot, Gilles Vidal is one of the most prominent designers in the world today. He runs a team of about two hundred designers and modellers, and he is personally responsible for the design of each Peugeot product. Peugeot and Citroën are part of the psa Group owned by the Peugeot family. After graduating from the Art Center College of Design at Vevey, Switzerland, Vidal started his career at Citroën in 1996, and moved up to the position of head designer for concept cars. In 2009, he moved on to the same position in Peugeot, and one year later he was promoted to the Director of Design of Peugeot cars. As an exterior designer at Citroën, he worked at C3 projects (first generation), C3 Pluriel, C2, and Picasso (first generation), while his guidance led to the development of the concepts for Osmose, C-Cactus, and C-Metisse. Under his command, Peugeot saw the origin of bb1, sr1, hx1 and the Onyx concept, as well as the series models 208, 2008, and 308. After bb1, Jean-Pierre Ploué, Director of Design of the psa Group, assigned him to come up with a new design for Peugeot. Vidal reinterpreted the whole brand, from the logo to the front bumper, lights, windows, silhouette… Peugeot can thank Pininfarina from Turin, the best automobile design studio in the world, for its visual identity; Pininfarina designed all Peugeots from the 1960s to the beginning of this century.
ORIS: Where do you find inspiration?
Vidal: Car designers find inspiration everywhere but in cars – we focus on cars out of love, not for ideas. When we talk to fashion designers, architects or furniture designers, we hear that they follow our work and they praise us, and we also follow and praise their work: that’s the circle of inspiration. A designer is like a sponge, absorbing everything around him and bringing something innovative to life with their creativity and feeling, something relevant for the future, and adapted to its purpose and the society.
ORIS: How do you define the future of Peugeot? Do you follow trends?
Vidal: A brand, especially an automobile brand, cannot change constantly. We have to build a strategy and define what we want to be in 20 years. I will not be here in 20 years, but Peugeot will, and we have to know today where we want to be because it will be easier to make it happen. Little by little, we will introduce elements, details, steer the brand towards the goal. A brand has to have a global long-term aim. Our aim is to design the next model, but it also extends further, to a long-term vision and ambition. Naturally, in terms of aesthetics and style, the design has to serve the function and innovation of the direction we wish to pursue. For example, when we create a more effective car by constructing a new engine, or a lighter car by introducing a new type of material, we want to express it in its appearance, aesthetics, volume, and proportions. It is a complex global project that we deal with daily.
ORIS: How is it possible to predict what will be best for Peugeot in 2045? It is an awfully long time.
Vidal: Of course we don’t know what cars will look like then. A model spends approximately seven years on the market, so for us it is thinking three generations ahead. What we can say is how societies around the world will evolve, how global organizations will change, how the economy will change, etc. Based on that, we predict the needs of personal mobility. Naturally, we don’t know what aesthetic standards will be present in 20 years, but we can, for example, say that we want to be better than Porsche, that we want to produce less models, only sports models, etc. That direction is clearly not the best strategy for Peugeot, but we could say that in 20 years we want to be the best mass producer of cars and compete with premium brands. We could say that we want to have a unique position – to provide greater quality than the premium segment, but to be more affordable and offer design that is more exciting. In order to achieve that, we need technology – engines, gear-boxes, alternative fuel that we may not have now and that we need to develop. We are experimenting with hybrid air engines; we have a 208 with a co2 emission of only 46 g/km, but with relatively high strength. It could be one of the methods to achieve that goal.
ORIS: How do you envision personal mobility in 20 years? Will most drivers rent rather than buy cars?
Vidal: Car renting will definitely see great progress. Those will not be classic rentals; it will be a matter of flexibility. We live at a time when younger generations want instant solutions. They do not want to be tied to anything – they just want to get a service when they need it. They do not want two-year mobile phone subscriptions that they cannot cancel. They want to throw their mobile phones the next morning and get another one. We live in a disposable culture – not in the sense of garbage disposal because new generations care about the environment and have good morals, but there is this element of rejection. Young people want to satisfy their needs, impulses, and desires immediately: I want that today! It can be a sport coupé for the weekend, a scooter for the rest of the week, a delivery vehicle to help a friend move into a new apartment on a Saturday morning. This is just one path because older generations will still be alive. In the next five decades we will have to offer various options for several generations until we move onto something entirely new that will completely rid us of the format we know today.
ORIS: What new types of vehicles can we expect today?
Vidal: In terms of individual solutions, everyone wants flexibility. Today you can choose among a bicycle, a bicycle with a power assist motor, a scooter, a large scooter, a powerful motorcycle – from the smallest to the biggest, but there are many gaps in the offer as well. What is between a small car and a large scooter? That is why we launched the bb1 concept car. What is between a small scooter and a bicycle with a power assist motor? There are two large gaps right there. There are some vehicles that fill the gaps, like Renault Twizy. Even though all of them have major drawbacks, there are definitely interesting as experiments. This market will be much larger in the future. We could spend two hours just talking about new niches that will appear in the future. You can predict possible futures and choose one of them for your development.
ORIS: Crossovers are a response to the new needs of today.
Vidal: Yes, family cars with four or five seats have growingly become crossovers. People do not want minivans anymore because they are not attractive despite their convenience. People buy them because they need them, not because they want them. A crossover and an suv serve the same purpose, but they can make you fall in love with them, they are desirable.
ORIS: Is it true that people do not like cars any more?
Vidal: Some people do not like cars, and it has become an important issue. Young people, naturally, see the car as a handy means of transportation, but also as a noisy polluter because it undoubtedly is. However, most people need their own means of transportation. People who do not like cars typically live and work in the centre of town, commute by bus, subway, bike. They only see the downsides of cars because they do not need them. They voice their opinion and that is why people write about it. However, driving a car is definitely not the main cause of pollution – there are at least ten bigger polluters.
ORIS: Including cows.
Vidal: Including cows. Automobile pollution is interesting because it will force everyone – car manufacturers and everyone else – to rethink the way cars function in urban areas and the way we design city cars. That is probably why everyone is rushing to develop hybrid and electric cars because sooner or later – better sooner than later – we have to find a solution for those problems, so this initiative is not bad.
ORIS: Does that mean that we will see architects, urban developers, and car manufacturers cooperate in constructing new types of roads and parking spaces in the future?
Vidal: I hope so. We often conduct such projects with students. The last example was our cooperation with Strate Collège, when we worked on a new global system of personal mobility. In practice it is much more complex. I dream of the day when we sit down with the French government and discuss this. They would not want to discuss it with us only – they would include Citroën and Renault. There is no sense in developing the system for France alone because it would have to be applied in many countries, so you see how the organizing process becomes more complex, you see the potential problems in bringing it to life. Only when we get the chance to talk about it openly will we be able to suggest a new concept of personal mobility. This concept would not fit into the existing standards of homologation, and we would have to create a new system of homologizing maximum speed, weight, size… It is hard to develop a new form of personal mobility when you have legislative limitations in which the systems of the future do not fit.
ORIS: I like the way you use the term personal mobility instead of the word car. Does that mean that in the future you will be a designer of mobility rather than a designer of cars?
Vidal: Of course. We at Peugeot have already set course in that direction. We have just launched a hybrid bicycle ae21 with a cargo box in the middle. It is just the latest addition to a whole spectrum of products, ranging from bicycles to vans, including sport coupés, small city cars, scooters, etc.
ORIS: People start increasingly communicating with cars by using computers. Can computers and applications help the car become as attractive as tablets and mobile phones? How much can you influence infotainment and hmi (Human Machine Interface)?
Vidal: It is a complex issue. Driving is the driver’s main concern. If you have passengers, they might be interested in infotainment. The 308 model, for example, has a large screen that encompasses many functions. I am not talking about infotainment, but about shortcuts to managing car functions. The difference compared to consumer electronics is that the screen has to endure temperatures of up to 70°C when it is parked outside in the heat and up to do −40°C in the winter, and it has to be resistant to hundreds of kilometres of vibrations, so this is a completely different story. We have to make two things. First, we have to integrate the systems into cars as quickly as possible and be aware that they will always be a bit slower and less impressive than consumer electronics because they have to be robust. The second thing is connecting mobile phones and tablets with the car computer. We are trying to solve that with an application, but it is hard to design a Peugeot app that can be used on all mobile phones and tablets.
ORIS: What does the Peugeot Design Lab do?
Vidal: For 85–90% of the time the lab designs for external partners, the rest of the time it designs for Peugeot brands. They design all our bicycles and small products. We are currently working with 16 or 17 companies outside the Group. From planes and boats to household appliances and sporting goods.
ORIS: Do you also head the Peugeot Design Lab and scooter design?
Vidal: I run the Peugeot Design Lab, but not the scooters. Scooters are technically manufactured by another company in the south of France. For us it is the same company that deals with mobility design. For now we cooperate only occasionally, but in the future we will cooperate much more.
ORIS: What is the difference between a car designer and a car stylist?
Vidal: That is a tricky question. These terms are perceived differently from language to language and from country to country. In France a stylist (styliste) is a specialist in industrial aesthetics, which is similar or identical to a designer. Design is not only about aesthetics – design is creating a good object. Some cars are designer objects, other cars are style objects. A car is designed if it contains innovation related to aesthetics. If you have a car that does not bring any technical innovation, it is a style object, even though it can visually be very fresh and imaginative. There is nothing wrong with that. For me the universal definition would be that design is a reflection of function, innovation, and aesthetics on which creative artists, engineers and marketers work together. Style is just a new layer over something already known.
ORIS: Since you do not design the body of the car nor the technical elements, are you a designer or a stylist?
Vidal: It depends on the project. For example, the interior of Peugeot 308 is designed because we created a whole new ergonomics and geometry of the cockpit, even though there are no technological innovations. We first decided to reorganize the dashboard, put in a smaller steering wheel, and improve ergonomics; only after that did we start to think about style. Shapes, lines, and aesthetics emphasize technical changes, and that is an act of design. If we had only formed nice lines and new shapes, it would have been an instance of style.
ORIS: Is it possible to design the exterior or are the limitations of aerodynamics, safety, and homologation too big?
Vidal: I think that designing the exterior would mean creating a new silhouette. For example, Peugeot bb1 and Citroën ds5 are examples of design because they bring a new shape of the body, a new function. The ds5 has a minivan silhouette, but it is lowered to give a sport vibe.
ORIS: Peugeot rcz also has a new silhouette.
Vidal: The rcz is somewhere in between design and style. In this case, innovation is expressed in the experience of the object. It is a classic 2+2 coupé with an innovative silhouette. Looking laterally, the arch of the roof drops drastically and diverts attention from the big, compact volume it is placed on. This smart trick enhanced volume dynamics and the general appeal of the rcz. We could write a book about it. But then there is the question about what beauty actually is, which makes it even more complicated.
ORIS: Do car designers find inspiration in contemporary art? Lancia Stratos 0 Bertone by Marcello Gandini was designed in four dimensions – while it is not moving, it looks as if it is in great speed; Chris Bangle’s bmw’s from the last century look as if they’ve been inspired by the futuristic sculptures of Umberto Boccioni...
Vidal: Style can be inspired by shapes and surfaces from history, while design is inspired by ideas from contemporary art. Spin Paintings by Damien Hirst deal with the centrifugal force. The end result is impressive, with beautiful colours and effects, but the basic idea is not the result but the process of creating by using forces of physics. If you start from that, you can get very interesting results in car design. I do not know if that is the right path for us, but it would be interesting to do research with Damien Hirst as the starting point and see where it takes us. Hirst is not the only one; we can find a dozen contemporary artists and wonder where that would take us.
ORIS: Do you do things like that?
Vidal: We do it occasionally; I am not talking about Hirst, but about other contemporary artists, and we achieve results that we would not have achieved any other way. It is very interesting to find paths, to search for analytical and intuitive processes. Sometimes you just instinctively express ideas and also come to interesting results. It is fascinating to find new ways of pondering upon old topics. Sometimes you come across stupid answers, sometimes you come across smart ones. At the beginning of cooperation with the clients of the Peugeot Design Lab, we tell them that we want to get to know them, but not too much, because that way we are able to offer them something they would not think of on their own. If we know too much about them, we cannot work for them, we are no longer innovative. Mark Twain once said: They did not know it was impossible so they did it.
ORIS: What new materials will we see in the automobile industry?
Vidal: There are many of them. Onyx used recycled newspaper for its interior. We are preparing a concept that will introduce plenty of innovation, similar to Onyx. We are thinking about switching from carbon fibres to an eco-friendly material of similar features. We are experimenting with volcanic rock fibres.
ORIS: Who finds new materials?
Vidal: Designers! For concepts it is simple because they are unique and not limited by serial production. When we want to introduce a new material into serial production, then it gets complicated. We discuss it with engineers and suppliers to build the industrial process together.
ORIS: Where do you find new ideas and information?
Vidal: We surf the Internet, go to fairs – the Milan furniture fair Salone del Mobile, the sema tuning fair in Las Vegas, various highly specialized fairs offering new materials…
ORIS: The idea for the rcz originated during sema.
Vidal: I was not with Peugeot at the time, but a team of Peugeot’s designers saw a pick-up at sema that was shorter, with a cabin moved to the front, and it inspired them to change the proportions of the coupé. All coupés have a cabin moved to the back. The idea of the rcz was to create a new silhouette by placing the cabin in the middle and adding a trunk, which is normally small in 2+2 coupés. The first identity was purely aesthetic, but it also became practical. I once drove an rcz carrying two bicycles and full equipment for 500 km from Paris, which is fantastic for that type of car.
ORIS: After a hundred years of automobile design, have we already seen everything or is it possible to create real innovation?
Vidal: I think it is possible. You can even create something revolutionary. We based the bb1 on new technology and created a new silhouette, but it is not even a small revolution. Once serial vehicles are manufactured using 3D printers and stereolithography, the freedom of shape will be endless. Now we have to create a mould for everything, and there are great limitations.
ORIS: How much can 3D printing and other new technologies reduce the series while maintaining profitability?
Vidal: We would have to start with special series where elements that were created by 3D printing would be affordable, but still expensive. In time, technology will become cheaper and faster, so we will be able to expand its use. The first car with all led lights was the Audi R8 in 2007. The high cost of led diodes could work only with an expensive car, and it was the only car that was done by good engineers who could make it possible. Every car has led lights today. The 308 even has them as part of standard equipment.
ORIS: Today parking led lights are part of the brand’s identity. Is that a problem considering the fact that there are less possible types of lights than there are brands? led lights on the 208 are positioned the same way they are in Mercedes cars.
Vidal: That is a very good question. Peugeot is the only brand whose lights remind us of an eye with an eyebrow. If something reminds someone of another brand, it is their problem. During the day you see the front bumper, which brands are recognized by, and at night the head lights give identity to the car. It is true that many cars will look alike once everyone has led lights. The law additionally limits differences in parking lights. The aim and pride of each brand is to be different, so there will be a way.
ORIS: The automobile market is conservative. Are buyers the biggest obstacle to the revolution of design?
Vidal: There are several obstacles. The first is the brand itself. How far do we dare to go? Are we afraid that we might scare the buyers off? The company is the first filter.
ORIS: You are a French company, so you push the limits of car design.
Vidal: That is true! However, buying a car is the biggest life purchase after buying a house. When they buy, people think about selling the car one day so they want to buy something conservative. A car is also an expression of your personality. By buying an eccentric car, you express your eccentricity. There are a lot of people who do not want to be perceived as eccentric. Those are things that marketing departments are aware of and the things they suggest. The aim of producing is to sell a product. It is bad if the car does not sell. You need to find a healthy balance, create a car that might not be as innovative as it could be, but we are French and we have to push limits!