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Imagining the Unimagined Is Job 1 for Studio's Futurists

November 07, 2001|John O'Dell

Alec Bernstein doesn't see plying his trade inside a car company's design studio as unusual. After all, he said, "our job is to imagine things that don't exist." And an advanced communications group is something that doesn't exist at most automotive design studios.

"It's unusual now, but it won't be soon," said Bernstein, sitting in an office that looks like a recording studio.

The unit was started several years ago to help designers at BMW's Designworks/USA unit in Newbury Park explain their work internally.

"We were a response to the incredible complexity of product development," Bernstein said. "But in this new world of ours, we are shifting from explaining how to make things to helping come up with what things to make."

One of the first products of the group's think tank function is a light-emitting diode, or LED, display that augments the audible signals in BMW's parking distance warning system.

Instead of building a physical unit for testing, Bernstein's crew used computer animation and motion graphics software to create 50 iterations, arriving at a final design in virtual reality in far less time than it would take to work with actual products.

Like the rest of Designworks, the advanced communications unit also works for outside clients. Notably, it has developed several CD-ROMs that athletic footwear maker Adidas uses to help market its new Kobe Bryant line of shoes.

But the principal client is BMW.

'They work on very advanced concepts, on interior layout, information availability issues, ergonomics, and then they bring these ideas to us" for possible inclusion in design projects for BMW, said Adrian Van Hooydonk, Designworks' president.

Bernstein's team uses film, music and computer animation as its principal tools of communication.

"A picture is worth a thousand words, so we give them a thousand pictures," he said, showing a 10-minute clip of BMW's X-Coupe concept driving through a mountainous environment--with no voice-over, just an intense music track--to illustrate his point.

The clip was used internally at BMW to help generate a visceral understanding of the car's design elements.

"They've helped me explain designs that I did," Van Hooydonk said. "They are here, they can see all the processes, and I have to spend a lot less time explaining to them what I'm trying to communicate. And they are very, very good at organizing and presenting our thoughts and ideas" to others in the company.

"We get a lot of themes to develop," Bernstein said. "We might work up 50 different developments in a six-month period, then we pick two or three that look promising and we go to work."

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