For a designer, few tasks are more challenging than redesigning an icon. Especially, if the task involves retaining the icon’s original dimensions. With the new smart, Michael Gebhardt – responsible for the smart exterior design – managed to square this particular circle.
Two different timescales apply to designers: the present, as reflected by the calendar. And a fixed point in time that may be five, seven, or ten years away. The latter timeline shapes all of the designer’s thoughts and creations. Take the smart design studio at Böblingen, where designers have been living and breathing the spirit of 2015 for the past semi-decade, while head designer Michael Gebhardt and his team already work in 2020. These two distinct timelines only intersect at one point and moment: The very first time the designer spots his work on the street.
smart magazine: Mr. Gebhardt, you and your team have spent five years designing the new smart. How did it feel to see the first finished model after such a long process?
Michael Gebhardt: It was really exciting and a great feeling. All of us have invested plenty of work, time, ambition, and sweat. After the world premiere last summer in Berlin we took to the streets in the new smart. To see people stop, turn around, look, and smile once they realize this is the new smart, that’s a key moment for any car designer.
smart magazine: The car has been treated to a completely revamped design. How long does this whole process take, from first sketch to final model?
Gebhardt: That’s not easy to say. It all starts with the kick-off phase. How do we want the new smart to look and handle? How long should it be? What functions should the car offer? Together with our team, we try to come up with a wide range of different concepts and themes: Our initial aim was a very broad spectrum of ideas, that we narrowed down in several steps.
smart magazine: What was the leading idea for the exterior design features?
Gebhardt: Size was paramount: It was important that the smart does not exceed 2.69 meters in length. At the same time, technology has become ever more complex over the past few years: more cables, more electronics, and more digital technology. For these reasons, and across all classes, other cars keep getting bigger. So we are very proud that we managed to stick to these set dimensions. The smart fortwo has a turning circle of less than seven meters. That’s something you need to know to understand the incredible driving specs of this car.
A good day for Michael Gebhardt starts at his first floor desk and ends on the ground floor of the Böblingen design studios – with clay-encrusted fingers from working on a 1:4 model. It is here that the computer-generated shapes come alive and, once adjusted for recommendations by smart design teams from three continents, even translate to life-size clay models.
smart magazine: smart design is a part of Daimler Design and works besides the German headquarter with the Mercedes Benz Advanced Design Studios in Italy, China, and the USA, among others. How does such a collaboration work in practice?
Gebhardt: Each and every one of us wants to build a car we can identify with. Our design department is set up globally and of course, designing the smart we also benefit from our international advanced design studios: In Italy, people are traditionally extremely well-versed in fashion, style, and materials, while designers in China tend to have a more focused approach to future traffic solutions. Chinese mega cities are characterized by intense traffic and busy streets, so China’s demands on future urban mobility obviously differ from those in Germany. In the end, it is about creating a perfect urban concept that works anywhere around the globe.
smart magazine: How would you describe the smart design philosophy?
Gebhardt: We tend to use the term “fun-ctional design.” Beyond functionality, the design also encompasses the idea of “fun.” We pursue a dual approach: On the one hand, there is the functional “brain factor,“ on the other hand, the emotional “heart factor.“ Take the tridion safety cell. While it ensures the passengers’ safety, it also doubles as a significant design element. The result is a modular concept centered on the tridion cell, supplemented by integrated body panels. This particular shape is recognizable from afar – just like the way you can immediately identify a zebra in the wild.
smart magazine: How do you deal with criticism?
Gebhardt: If I got offended by criticism – whether face-to-face or online – I would be in the wrong job. A lot of the time, however, people criticize a car without ever having seen or experienced it live. Most people forget that the smart fortwo is a mere 2.69 meters long. At first glance, photos might not reveal its true potential: it’s miraculous use of space, how its revolutionary proportions compare to other cars, or its many exciting design details. It’s okay if the smart polarizes. It is different and a little rebellious.
smart magazine: Work on the new smart started five years ago. Do you already have its successor on file?
Gebhardt: (laughs) We are always working on tomorrow’s car. But I am sure you will understand that I cannot reveal too much about what’s coming up at this time.
All the photos, incl. the header image: Daimler AG