Academy Italdesign – Why Walter de’Silva’s plan is a stroke of genius

Head of Volkswagen Group Design Walter de’Silva announced his retirement earlier this month, and his resignation from his appointment as President of Italdesign Giugiaro where he took over from Giorgetto Giugiaro on September 1 this year. Though he’s presided over the entire Volkswagen Group’s design empire – watching over 12 brands and 21 design centers – de’Silva’s achievements can be seen as a series of hits and misses over his 43-year-long career as a car designer.

De’Silva will certainly be fondly remembered for his work at Alfa Romeo, where he designed the 164 Proteo (1991) and Nuvola (1996) concepts as well as the production 156 (1997) and 147 (2000). He joined the VW Group in 1999, first as head of SEAT, where he oversaw the Salsa (2000) and Tango (2001) concept designs. Later, as head of the Audi Brand Group, de’Silva worked on the Nuvolari and Le Mans (2003) concepts as well as the Audi A6 (2004), second generation TT and the first generation R8 (2006) and A5 (2007) production cars. After taking on his role as VW Group head of design in 2007, de’Silva focused on the VW brand’s small cars – specifically the Up! range (designed by current Ferrari design director Flavio Manzoni), which, was pushed through to production with minimal changes.

But the seasoned designer was also responsible for overseeing the remake of the Lamborghini Miura proposal as well as the rather aptly named Lamborghini Egoista concept, which didn’t go over too smoothly. In our 2013 review of the supercar designed to celebrate Lamborghini’s 50th anniversary, contributor Leon Fitzpartick wrote: “Good design is thoughtful, relevant, resolved…necessary even. It can be as inspirational and outrageous as humanly possible, but the fundamentals have to be in place for this to be relevant — and the Egoista is far from relevant.”

Whilst overseeing design for a number of disparate brands within the VW Group product empire, de’Silva was a great thinker, specifically when it came to finding new ways to further his employer’s objectives. And even if the VW portfolio began to look quite similar whilst employing de’Silva’s rule of simplicity across all brands, it’s hard to argue with the products born under this direction, particularly with regards to surface refinement, which upped perceived quality levels for all brands.

During his tenure de’Silva also initiated many sponsored programs at European design universities looking to include or at least gain insight into how the next generation of car designers envisaged the future for VW Group products. At a press conference announcing his new role at Italdesign, de’Silva also laid out a plan to set up a new design school called the Academy Italdesign, which, at the time, was said to launch in 2016. Here’s why it’s a masterful stoke of genius.

Current Situation
It’s no secret that automotive design is an extremely competitive industry. But the competition starts well before designers start their first job.

At present, aspiring automotive designers are left to build up their own portfolios that they then submit to undergraduate design schools in hopes of being accepted into a design program. If they’re lucky, they gain entry into their first – or maybe their second or third – choice. They then take a series of courses, which are sometimes taught by people who have actually worked in the industry (sometimes not) and do the best that they can to amass a body of work that can show how creative they are at solving problems, their ability to innovate and, above all, their ability to convey this visually through a range of mediums. After a lengthy period of study (and sometimes an internship to see how things work in the real world), the next step is to find a job in the industry.

Due to the highly competitive nature of the industry (and perhaps the lack of suitable instruction at the schools) the students that can afford to choose to continue their education at a Masters level, enrolling in a handful of design schools that will give them a leg up on the other students vying for the same entry level position once they graduate. The Royal College of Art, Pforzheim University, Art Center College of Design and the College of Creative Studies (CCS) are just a few of the top tier schools to facilitate this, but there’s still no guarantee that there will be a job opportunity available at the end of that long road.

To ensure that the best possible candidate will come through the door and submit their portfolio for an open position, automakers have historically sent their own designers to scope out the situation. Sometimes this comes in the form of sponsored projects, which is a win-win situation for all involved: The school gets sponsorship money from the automaker, the student gains real world experience dealing with professionals and the automaker gains a fresh set of ideas they may have never thought of otherwise. De’Silva’s seen what it’s like to be on this side of the fence: he’s worked to sponsor the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) and other programs, some of which have proved worthwhile (and yielded acceptable results) and a flurry of others that haven’t.

As mentioned above, in some cases – such as Art Center in particular — actual car designers working in the industry teach courses. Clearly these are the best and hardest programs to get into. Everyone wants to get into those for obvious reasons as they stand to gain the most from these instructors’ professional experience. But at the end of the period of study there’s no guarantee that the student will end up working at the company that his or her instructor is employed by. So an Audi designer will sometimes teach a student that will take the skills he’s gained under that designer’s leadership and brings them to Honda. While that might be good for the student, it’s no good for the automaker.

The companies are already so worried about confidentiality and proprietary issues that too many instances of students ‘defecting’ may lead them to reevaluate whether it’s worthwhile to allow a member of their staff to teach the vocation and impart their knowledge to the next generation, at which point everybody will lose out.

In order to circumvent this unfavorable outcome, some carmakers choose to employ a designer straight out of school or an internship, let them get their feet wet and dry them off behind their ears and then foot the bill and sponsor them at an institution for higher learning. It’s a gamble for the automaker, but if they’re on the fence it’s something they might consider to ensure that they don’t lose talent to a competitor. In reality though, this practice was more common in the past than in recent times. While Jaguar’s head of design Ian Callum was fortunate enough to have Ford sponsor him through his RCA course, in more than a decade visiting and writing about design schools and students I’ve only ever met two designers with similar good fortune.

How Academy Italdesign Works
De’Silva’s no spring chicken. He’s seen what it takes to sponsor student projects (as head of design he’s no doubt had to sign off on that part of his budget), watched as projects yielded interesting results for the future of the brand in question and seen students develop others that fell short of expectation or go into directions he probably wished they’d steered clear of. Given his years of experience in both the industry and working with design schools, de’Silva was supposed to be personally involved in the running of the school, at least until he retired in what was, at the time, projected to be fours years time, give or take.

De’Silva’s vision for the future school won’t change any of the design education steps outlined above. Prospective designers would still need to apply to schools, be admitted, work hard and prove themselves. What would change is what happens after that designer has demonstrable skills learned from having been exposed to practices in the industry. If it still pans out, masters level programs — especially the more recently established ones at Art Center and CCS — should really be worried right about now.

De’Silva’s plan was to have an internal faculty consisting of existing Volkswagen Group designers and some independent professionals teach students at the Academy Italdesign. Presumably students would pay tuition — just as they would to any other academic institution — and the fees would make their way back in to the school, which would effectively pay for itself. Any additional profit would be funneled into the Group’s already deep pockets.

“We will choose the best graduates, with an initial work experience, worldwide,” De’Silva said at the time of the announcement of Academy Italdesign. “We will have an internal faculty, one that will come from Audi and some independent professionals. We want to make it unique, the best school in the world.”

This means that Volkswagen won’t be spending money on sponsorship – of school projects or individuals – and, as an added bonus, all of their projects could be kept under wraps internally until the Group decided to explore a particular project for a new vehicle program (kind of like what Giugiaro used to do with his proposals. As the legend goes, it is said he would pull out projects he hadn’t sold and pass the design on to the next automaker that came through the door requesting his services.)

As logically expected, after the students complete a period of study the Volkswagen Group will then have their pick of the designers they wish to employ and, crucially, for which brand. I can hear the instructor deliberations now: “Well I’ve taught Mike for a semester and I think he’s Ducati material, but Brad would be perfect for Bentley!” It could also sound something like this: “SEAT’s going to start to ramp up on new product and the brand needs some fresh blood, who would you recommend?” You get the idea…

“It will be a great school, very important internationally, but also to Turin,” de’Silva told assembled press in Turin in September. “Being innovative means doing the training.”

Given his years of experience in both the industry and working with design schools, de’Silva personal involvement in the running of the new Academy Italdesign would have been vital. Who knows, maybe de’Silva’s longtime friend Giorgetto could have also made an appearance.

Unfortunately the plan for Academy Italdesign is now uncertain at best. Based on recent happenings within the VW Group following the well-publicized ‘dieselgate’ fallout, a proposed €100m investment into a new design center has subsequently been put on hold. This will probably also be the fate of Academy Italdesign, which is a shame. But if it were to push through as de’Silva intended, it would surely be a remarkable feat for the Group and an initiative to add to de’Silva’s list of successful achievements.


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