Virtual Yacht Design, Virtual Insanity? Adapting to Designing in a Pandemic

The vehicle and mobility design space is not exclusive to four-wheeled contraptions. While Form Trends’ pages generally focus on vehicles with wheels, there are quite a few industrial design projects that don’t have any, and these new forms of mobility will be increasingly developed in the coming years. Multidisciplinary designer Alexander McDiarmid, dubbed ‘L’Enfant Terrible of Yacht Design’, examines the virtual creation process in this first of a series of articles on yacht design.

Stefan Sielaff, former Design Director at Bentley Motors and soon to be Executive VP of Geely Design, recently said: “I have developed a working design philosophy that serves me well. I strive for timelessness, an aesthetic that is about ‘less’ rather than ‘more’, and in complex times like these, a design that is clean and clear.”

Clarity of Thought

Aleander McDiarmid Design - STUDIO 1
Inside the studios of Alexander McDiarmid Design

I’m sure you all know the original ‘Less is more’ quote from the ethos of Dieter Rams. The intent of the original was good but some 50 years later it has been used to excuse a lot of mediocrity. Besides, I have always been a bigger fan of Raymond Loewy’s MAYA principle (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) as it relates to the end-user better and is more aspirational.

Yet, if designers insist on talking about the form things take without an understanding of the larger business challenges, let alone how something is to be manufactured, then they will forever be relegated to talking about the superficial. This seems to be a continual plague (excuse the pun) of design today.

Nonetheless, clarity of thought for a designer – especially in these challenging and disruptive times –is now ever more required, and in this disruption lies opportunity. Change, after all, is what designers do best. But spare a thought for the current cohort of young design student minds stuck in their digs and halls of residence. How have they had to adapt and change?

IWANA 87m yacht by Alexander McDiarmid Design

I clearly remember graduating in economic uncertainty and hearing a phrase along the lines of “I wouldn’t want to be a design student/graduating design student now”. What did they mean? I was, after all, part of the Class of Y2K, full of aspiration, and everything was going to be just great!

The last time I read that phrase was during the global recession of 2009-2013 in media interviews with various design legends. I’ll be honest, up until very recently I still shared that mentality, I wouldn’t want to be a design student or the Class of COVID-19.

The Younger Cohort

Last summer I received an email from a university friend who is now a senior transportation design lecturer at our old alma mater, Coventry University. He explained how classes are now mostly online with some campus teaching when permitted, a lot of extra organization, and how conjuring up new levels of motivation for the students was needed daily.

Astralis Air _The Astralis ClubB747-400 Livery and INTERIOR longitudinal section drawing
Astralis Club B747-400 Livery and interior longitudinal section drawing by Alexander McDiarmid Design

“Alex, our students need motivating. Could we ask you for a short presentation of your work during the introductory weeks, mostly car design students but a couple of boat people?” they said. Happy to help I fired back, an honor to be asked to prepare and present virtually to Year 1 & 2 Automotive and Transport Design students.

As I cast my mind back to the various visiting design lecturers during my time as a student, one has always stood out. Peter Horbury delivered his brilliant ‘Horse and Carriage’ lecture that was not only an inspiration but the power he invoked to motivate was quite extraordinary that day. At the same time, I recalled various engineering, materials, and manufacturing theory lectures. A presentation needs to inspire and motivate and hopefully not induce any extra fatigue! I knew the presentation had to be visual, with as few written words as possible.

AirbusCorporate Helicopters
Airbus Corporate Helicopters by Alexander McDiarmid Design

What was scheduled for 45 minutes turned into over two and half hours of reminiscing, inspiration and where to find it, motivation, show and tell, questions, and laughter. The latter was very much welcomed too. I had only expected a few students to attend and as I watched the Zoom count get up to 25, pass 50 and then 100, we talked about my design journey over the past two decades right up to the present. Many well thought out questions followed and my initial thought of “I wouldn’t want to be a design student now” quickly passed. I saw a bright, international, motivated group, very adaptable and most certainly living up to their generational reputation that being ‘digital natives’.

Those who attended were mostly younger designers at the start of their studies and, although they still have much to learn, all were very keen to show their work afterwards as we critiqued together, gave some pointers and hopefully some good advice. It was great to see some familiar teaching faces from 20+ years ago and, according to the kind messages I received following, all loved it. I implore any design professional to share their professional experiences and offer their time like this.

Ghost Yachts - G250_80m
Ghost Yachts G250 80m by Alexander McDiarmid Design

One of the many questions that stood out; “Have you changed the way you design since the pandemic?” resonated with me. Simply put, yes and no, and – like many – we have made changes. Moving everything online has not been a real issue – save for connection and Internet speeds from time to time – but the real hurdle has been the lack of physical interaction between colleagues and clients. When you cannot see someone’s reaction or read their body language concerning your work you have no choice but to adapt. The thumb up/down emoji only works so far!

Heightened Senses

They say if you lose one sense the others are heightened. Never more so have we had to listen even more intently and interpret client design briefs, sometimes without a Zoom call, often with a third-party representative’s notes. We have adapted and tweaked certain ways of project working. A picture certainly does speak 1000 words and ever more so helps us communicate with clients be it a sketch or render.

Alexander McDiarmid Design for Ghost Yachts__7
Alexander McDiarmid Design for Ghost Yachts

This past year has been a formidable introduction to ‘virtual yacht design’ and continues to be rather unorthodox at times. Nonetheless, the results continue to be spectacular, simply put, because it’s a team effort, as always. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve designed via Direct Message before but never in this intensity.

As I sit here writing, I’m spinning a 3D yacht model around, reviewing profile sketches and technical specifications, all of which can be screengrabbed and shown for instant reaction and online discussion. But one element of the yacht design process is missing or at least very different for now.

‘Super Cruiser’ by Alexander McDiarmid Design

Just like car and vehicle design – architecture for that matter too – real yacht design is created from the inside out. The unrolling and spreading out of the large 2D General Arrangement (GA) drawings over tables; the team scribbling and sketching over the hull, the engine room and the deck plans; all of it is missing. This part of the initial design process along with that crucial human interaction is sorely lacking.

It’s part of our species makeup to be social and crucial for a creative design team. It not only triggers discussion and thought but allows for somebody’s passing comment about a previous project, a ‘what if’ moment, etc., all of which are not really present when presenting over Zoom. We miss being in an office and interacting with people in a creative environment. I look forward to a return to the studio as soon as possible.

Ghost Yachts - G250
Ghost Yachts G250 by Alexander McDiarmid Design

As Patrick le Quément once told me, “the design team will always find a way”, and as Chris Bangle once told me, “culture counts”. So too does a good coffee spot. This will all come back someday; some professions require a team to be together in a real environment. While at times it might feel as though you are ‘Tom Lincoln: automotive experimental designer / Lincoln Six-Echo’, we are not clones living and working in an isolated compound within a dystopian community, even though it may feel like it in complex times such as these.

I like to think the notion of ‘new normal’ means there’s actually no such thing as ‘normal’ anymore. All of this might just be a wake-up call and possibly a blessing in disguise as we move towards our design future, one that is simpler, kinder, and more sustainable. But one thing is certain, there is a lot to learn, adjust and adapt to. And that’s inherent within the process of design as well. It is only then that we can achieve clarity.


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