The design process

Half past eight in the morning in Weissach. It could be any normal small town in southern Germany, with a church and butcher’s shop on the village square, surrounded by gently rolling hills and golden fields of wheat – if it were not for the Porsche prototypes covered with camouflage film that visitors encounter on the country road leading to the town. Porsche has had its Development Centre here since 1971, in the middle of idyllic countryside and just 25 kilometres from the main factory in Zuffenhausen. All new series production models are created in Weissach – from the first sketch, through scale models up to development of new engines, chassis and near-production prototypes, which are evaluated on test rigs, in wind tunnels and on the in-house test track. The distances between the individual departments are short and there is an intense exchange of information between the employees. Even the proximity to motorsport can be taken literally at Porsche: the Porsche Motorsport Centre in the neighbouring village of Flacht, where the brand’s race cars are produced, is just a few hundred metres away. When the wind is blowing in the right direction, the sound of race engines acts as a soundtrack for the designers, model builders and engineers during their work.

“The Swabian down-to-earth mentality and the absolute avant-garde exist side-by-side quite naturally here,” says Michael Mauer. He joined Porsche as Chief Designer in 2004 – and quite clearly feels at home in Weissach. It is here that he and his team designed the Porsche Panamera and Macan, further developed the Cayenne, laid down a sporting milestone with the 918 Spyder, and re-invented the 911 twice with both the 991 and 992 generations. The product identity – the brand look of Porsche as we know it – has its origins in his pen. The designs from the Porsche Design Studio repeatedly receive major international awards, and Michael Mauer is considered to be one of the most influential designers of our times. While jurors and journalists might ask him about the evolution of the 911 or the silhouettes of the latest production models, his thoughts are usually already somewhere completely different. Like in the future ...

This is because, unlike many other brands, Porsche relies on special teams for ideas and visions in the design depatment. Their task is to experiment as freely as possible and to explore the future of mobility in journeys of the mind. There is therefore now a unique opportunity to visit Michael Mauer in this self-designed tomorrow’s world, to examine some of the concept studies from the secret design archive, and to talk to him in the holy halls of the Design Studio about the power of visionary thinking, courage for innovation and the car of the future. And naturally about Weissach – the Silicon Valley of the automotive industry.

“Porsche intentionally has just a single design studio – located in close proximity to development and production,” says Michael Mauer. “Weissach is our epicentre. Instead of opening advanced design studios in the distant metropolises of North America and Asia, our designers come from all over the world to Porsche in Weissach. They come to the heart of the brand, amid the fields and forests, in order to create the latest production sports cars and automotive visions. After all, Silicon Valley remained true to its location.” Mauer managed a design studio in Tokyo in the 1990s and knows all about home advantage. As a result, he has created a studio that is among the absolute dream locations for all automotive designers. More than 120 designers, experts in interiors, exteriors, colours and materials, model builders, modellers and study engineers work here. The halls are airy and bright, and diffused daylight enters through tall glass walls made of frosted glass. The designers work calmly with great concentration on astonishingly realistic clay models. There is a friendly and respectful atmosphere between them and towards their boss. Outside, an engine is started with a hoarse roar. Knowing looks are exchanged, with the quiet confidence of experts as a still-secret model name goes around.

“The bond of the designers to the Porsche brand – and really everything that makes it what it is – is very strong in Weissach. With every sketch they are working on, the designers can vividly imagine how the prototype will at one point drive round the test track here,” explains Michael Mauer, as he leads us past a row of covered scale models that are waiting their turn in the studio hallways like in a Hollywood production. “At the same time, the designers here enjoy maximum freedom and can give their creativity free rein. This dynamic space is something very special.” The variety of models on which the designers work is also considerable. In the morning you work on the details of a derivative for the Porsche Macan, and then spend the afternoon developing a vision for 2050. There is a constant interplay between evolution and revolution. “Achieving this balance keeps the designers awake and creative – and ensures maximum exchange of information between the projects. In this way, visionary design can actually influence the work on series production products in a perpetual creative cycle.”

Of course, there are only few distractions in Weissach. It is only at the famous summer parties, where an “Art Car” is also sometimes spontaneously produced, that a little of the Californian Coachella Festival Spirit can sometimes be experienced in the back courtyards of the Development Centre. But anyone who is searching for inspiration in the design process and urgently wants to take a closer look at the air intakes of a 917 simply gets in their car and pays a quick visit to the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen. You are also bound to meet the specialists from engine development, body construction and the motorsport department at lunch in the canteen, if not before. As a result, the visions that are conceived and developed at Porsche usually keep at least one wheel grounded in reality. Because however crazy they may be, there is nevertheless often still a style reference to the rich history of the brand or a technological link to current motorsport. These links give even the most experimental concept studies a unique style and character and mean that they have great relevance for the brand. They are not interchangeable.

Back to tomorrow

A basic question to the Chief Designer: why are visions so important for Porsche? “There are two possibilities for continuing to develop as a brand,” says Michael Mauer. “Either you improve your products from the present, that is to say by evolution, step-by-step. However, it is difficult to be really innovative in this process. Or you give free rein to your creativity. The idea is to let your thoughts jump to the day after tomorrow, and to then move back from there to tomorrow.” What products could you build in 15, 20 or 30 years? This great vision is the starting point for a process of derivation: the designers move back through time and think about what preliminary stages of a vision could be realised in ten or five years with the available technology. In designer speak, this is known as forecasting and backcasting. “My theory is that it is possible to be much more innovative and modern in this way.”

A sideways look at the Porsche Vision 960 Turismo. The shining silver prototype was initially developed in the Design Studio as an experimental study of a super sports car with four doors and a rear-mounted engine. However, in the end it served as a blueprint for the brand’s first all-electric model. “A Porsche Taycan would look different today if it had started out as a series production project for an electric car. The whole Porsche design language would not have developed like it has if we did not have such freedoms.” Sometimes a project takes an unexpected turn or leads via detours to a destination that you could not have imagined at the start of the creative process. The Chief Designer is sometimes also presented with a fascinating idea for which he cannot currently see a use. Then, months or even years later, the idea resurfaces from the depths of his subconscious mind – as a solution for a quite different problem or as something that can be used for a completely new technology.

As customers and external observers, we tend to see every new production car as a perfect whole, a harmonious ensemble, just like we also see a successful film, an award-winning book or a hit album as a compelling masterpiece without any alternative. The development work inside the creative black box usually remains hidden from our sight. But not even the Porsche 911 came into being as an inspired design on a blank piece of paper. Instead, the development history of the brand icon can be described instead as a complex process of trial and error, during which many more things were tried out and discarded than pursued. You just have to take a look at the Metallic Green Porsche 754 T7, which was designed by F.A. Porsche and his team in 1960 as a preliminary stage of the first Porsche 911. Then you understand that the creation of an automotive masterpiece is often preceded by a long search for the perfect proportions, the ideal lines and the complete overall package.

“When it comes to the visions we develop, it is not about bringing every car to the road. Instead, it is more a question of establishing creative space and a relationship with the future,” says Michael Mauer when describing the design process. “Building such a relationship is a really hard task that changes both me and my way of thinking. If my thoughts have been in the future, my view of the present is also changed.” And then? “A future vision can be drawn quickly. But the challenge is to give the idea a concrete form step-by-step and to establish the link to the present day.” So how do visions influence production cars? How does science fiction become tangible reality? “All series production projects have a clearly defined rhythm and they have to be completed in a certain number of months. If you can make use of ideas and concept studies in these processes, series products automatically become more innovative. In this way you keep the design language of your products and also the team fresh, and you create a collection of ideas that can be used when needed.” And the further development of the brand and portfolio strategy would also be inconceivable without specific ideas about where Porsche could be in 10, 15 or 20 years.

Something that appears logical is anything but a matter of course – for most visions from Porsche’s extensive research programme, it is not possible to forecast whether and how they will influence series production. So why spend time exploring the distant future when market surveys show exactly what customers want today? “Developing a new series production model is a laborious process. Without visions, cars that won’t appear for another five years are based on today’s design language,” explains Michael Mauer. “Instead of setting new trends with innovations, you would simply be standing still.”

Because the technological and social changes in our times are taking place at a tremendous pace. This means that it is essential for a successful car manufacturer like Porsche to anticipate the developments in the area of mobility with new ideas. It is necessary to change the usual way of seeing things and launch new products that set trends instead of following them. This requires a willingness to take risks, entrepreneurial courage – and above all trust in the visionaries who are experimenting on behalf of the brand and exploring the future.

With Chairman of the Executive Board Oliver Blume, Michael Mauer has convinced his most important supporter to provide the Design department with corresponding freedoms and to invest in research – and in return be rewarded with ideas and innovations. These are the foundation for tomorrow’s products. “To a certain extent I always also wanted to use the budget to showcase particularly crazy ideas. Ideas where you may at first perhaps shake your head and ask yourself whether that really can be a Porsche.” Michael Mauer values the freedom to playfully question the traditions and conventions of the brand. Internal discussions are often initiated and the central values of Porsche are repeatedly redefined as a result.

The combination of free-thinking entrepreneur and avant-garde designer that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive established as a recipe for success for the tech scene in Silicon Valley, California, also seems to offer a considerable opportunity for renewal for the automotive industry. “It paints a positive picture of a CEO and the relationship to his Chief Designer if he has the trust to grant the designer and his team such creative freedom,” admits Michael Mauer. “To allow this, a CEO must also be a visionary.”

From the first drawing to the drivable prototype

Some of the visions that we see on our tour are sketches or scale models. In contrast, other cars are astonishingly close to production versions, and seem to be just waiting to get out onto the road. Michael Mauer differentiates between the various categories of projects on which he and his team are working. On the one hand, there are the derivatives of successful production models such as the Porsche 911, the Macan or the 718 Cayman, where the development potential is explored ever further with variations. There may also be a safari version with offroad capability, or a purist Bergspyder based on a historic predecessor: fascinating cars that can be produced as limited special series – or body variants that are simply a good fit for the brand portfolio. The requirements specification for these models is usually very precise: it must be possible to realise the variations in the next five years and as part of series production.

An automobile genre very close to the heart of the Chief Designer and his team is that of the small, purist and manoeuvrable sports cars, which evoke lightweight icons such as the Porsche 904 or 550 Spyder. Michael Mauer is convinced that a compact "corner hunter" would still be enthusiastically welcomed by the sporting-minded brand community today. The studies for a new hyper sports car that could be the successor to the Porsche 918 Spyder at some point in the future are especially dramatic: many of the draft designs are inspired by the victories of the LMP1 race cars in Le Mans and the initial experiences gained in Formula E. As motorsport-based halo projects, these automotive visions serve as a radical counterweight to the more civilised touring sports cars and SUVs with which Porsche is currently enjoying so much success.

And there are also the crazy ideas, where the designers – as Michael Mauer puts it – “cast the stone a very long way into the future”. Here, the designers leave the spheres of the present day and experiment with forms and ideas that have previously not existed at Porsche. These visionary cars serve as a basis for discussing strategies, visualising abstract ideas and crossing the boundaries of traditions and conventions. It can then very quickly become pretty metaphysical in the internal discussions: What is a Porsche? What is it not? What body forms and space concepts are conceivable? Can there be a Porsche that drives autonomously? And what does sportiness mean? What will come after the car as we know it?

The future orientation of the company is discussed repeatedly on the basis of these questions. But back to the present: how does the design process of a vision differ from that of a series production car – and who decides whether an idea is pursued or dropped? Michael Mauer slows his pace and explains: “The Design area is part of the Development department – and development of a new series production car is an extremely democratic process in which very many people from different areas have a voice. However, if you also want to develop unusual and special ideas, it is counter-productive if too many people are involved at the start. Our agreement is therefore that we receive our budget directly from the Chairman of the Executive Board. Oliver Blume and the board member responsible for Development are therefore our first ports of call for all new ideas.”

Michael Mauer

“The bond of the designers to the Porsche brand – and really everything that makes it what it is – is very strong in Weissach. With every sketch they are working on, the designers can vividly imagine how the prototype will at one point drive round the test track here.”

Most starting points for new visionary projects originate within the Design area itself. “You ask yourself: what could a Porsche for four or even six people look like – and then start to design freely. In the end you then have a draft.” Unlike with series production, creative freedom is not limited by defined technical packages such as engines, gearboxes, floor assemblies and axles. The design process starts with a sketch, which in the next step is then visualised in virtual space as a 3D model. If an idea is seen as being valuable by the Chairman of the Executive Board and the board members responsible for Development and Sales, this is followed by small models in 1:3 scale and finally by a 1:1 hard model. “Virtual reality is the first step, but you especially have to experience the unusual models in real space in order to understand whether a car has small, large or surprising proportions,” says Michael Mauer. If the interior is of particular importance, it is possible to make an "entry model" with a fully designed cockpit. The result at the end of the development process is a drivable prototype with engine, gearbox and complete technological architecture. In the case of series production models such as a new Porsche 911, there are always several designs competing against each other. They are all pursued quite a long way in the design process and realised in solid form as models. In their vision projects, on the other hand, the designers concentrate on a single design – this serves as a protagonist and as the symbol of a central idea.

Most design studies that are produced at Porsche appear astonishingly realistic. This is due to the professional division of labour. Alongside the designers, very experienced model builders from series production are also involved. Studio engineers ensure that the concepts are at least fundamentally technically capable of realisation. Body constructors, engine developers and acoustic specialists also support the process with their know-how. “If we designers want to show what we are really capable of, it quickly turns into half a series production project,” laughs Mauer. “You always have at the back of your mind the fact that you have to keep your promises if the decision is made to put a project into series production. That is also why our concept cars for the Porsche 918 and Taycan were always extremely near-production versions.”

This has many advantages on the way from the drawing board to the road. But can designers who have internalised the highly complex and efficient processes in series production free themselves from their knowledge in experimental projects and break through the creative barriers in their own minds? “It’s true that the longer you do this job, the more you know about the restrictions. It is difficult to shake off this knowledge. The solution is to put teams together that are as far from homogeneous as possible, so that people with quite different backgrounds can contribute to a project.” The design team at Porsche actually has a classic structure – with exterior, interior, cross-departmental function. However, there are also teams who work only in advanced development and specialise in vision design or – put simply – the future. There are four to five people from each area.

“The designs produced by students are also often very free and not yet subject to the rules of feasibility,” says Michael Mauer. “As an experienced designer, you look at these drafts and think: they still have a lot to learn. But it is exactly this unprejudiced viewpoint that you need. That is why the proportion of designers with little experience and plenty of creativity is also particularly high in our concept teams.” In this way, young designers who are fresh from university can also contribute with their ideas to the development of the brand at Porsche – instead of feeding the wastepaper baskets with endless variations of new series production models.

Other worlds

In order to break free from specifications and explore the creative space of the fantasy world, Michael Mauer also values the exchange of insights with creative sectors away from the automotive industry – such as with Hollywood. Together with the special effects specialists Lucasfilm, the Porsche design team designed a starship for the fantasy universe of Star Wars™ in 2019: the Tri-Wing S-91x Pegasus Starfighter. And it is indeed possible to recognise numerous proportions and details on the compact spaceship that call to mind the Porsche design language. Who would have thought that the characteristic flyline of the Porsche 911 would also suit a starfighter so well? In this joint project, Michael Mauer was fascinated above all by the similarities and differences in the way of working: “The design process and the process for the realisation of ideas at Lucasfilm are very similar to our processes. And we too have visionary ideas. But whereas a car designer has to march back in step again when it comes to series production, the team at Star Wars™ can remain creative without any restrictions in the realisation phase. If the designer wants, the power source for a spaceship in the future can be as small as a cigarette packet.” So that's a clearly identified goal for all engine developers in Weissach ...

A passion for science fiction may not belong to the classic qualification profile of a product designer but would the technological progress of the 20th century have been possible without the visions of flying cars, glass cities on the ocean floor or rotating space stations? Have the futuristic worlds created by artists such as Syd Mead not shaped whole generations of designers? Would the iPhone have been so successful if Star Trek had not already planted the idea of a handy communication and measuring device in our heads? It seems that we need visions, utopias and pictures of a better world in order to fuel our imagination, accelerate changes, allow innovations, and make the unthinkable thinkable. After all, without examples, discussions about the future take place in a vacuum. In this way, Michael Mauer and his team therefore shape tomorrow’s world with the designs they produce today.

“It is not our goal to realise every idea, but rather to try things out, look outside the box, open up new spaces, to explore the future,” said Michael Mauer at the start of our tour. “Some of the visions that we produce cannot be realised at the moment. But they are symbols of a certain direction of travel. Like a compass, they can provide us with guidance on our way. And inspiration.” It is a further sign of the highly developed ideas culture and experimental spirit that can be found in the Weissach design studios that Porsche has now opened up its dream factory. And is taking us all on a journey – into the future of sporting mobility at Porsche.