Torino Internazionale | Concept design



Roberto Piatti, Stile Bertone


How has car design changed in recent years? And how much has Turin's car culture changed?

These are two seemingly banal questions, and most people would tend to answer more in terms of the changes in equipment used - which is not so interesting given that it is the mere result of technological developments - than in terms of substantial changes in concepts and markets. Both questions also invite answers that are even more banal, self-satisfying and predictable, the types of answers that continue to have a harmful effect on Turin's car culture.

For years we have been reading and writing about how car design has changed because the computer mouse and modern software have replaced pencil and paper and because time-to-market has been reduced and quality improved. For years we have been reading about how Turin has taught developing countries how to build cars, its car-body designers having become design machines capable of providing not only style, but a complete service that takes the initial idea through to its engineering and prototyping and, in some cases, to the production of niche models. But these are not the only changes that have taken place, and they are certainly not solid enough foundations on which to construct the Turin of tomorrow.
What have changed more than anything else are the conditions surrounding the design process.

For more than a decade all the major car manufacturers have understood that design is of the utmost importance. They have come to consider it as the core activity for their business brand, and have expanded their in-house design centres. At the same time, the proliferation of design schools around the world has produced an unprecedented level of creative strength, to the point that supply has for a long time exceeded demand. What's more, many professionals in the car design sector (designers, modellers, engineers and prototype specialists) have left the schools where they learnt their craft and have started independent enterprises with companies of varying sizes. Together these factors have created an explosion of the services on offer - sketching, modelling, prototyping - which in turn has led to highly increased competition in the car design market, and a corresponding reduction in profitability.

This is the context in which Turin has entered the third millennium as home to a multitude of operators that are extremely diverse with regard to origin, culture, size and capacities. All of which, on the downside, resembles a huge supermarket without a shopping guide.

In the wake of a global reduction in demand for designers from the more traditional car producers, there has been an increase in demand from the car sectors in developing countries, among which China is leading the way. This car design consumer culture (it is consumerist because buyers often do not know what or why they are buying, and because the price is not determined by the quality of what is sold, but by the budget of the person buying it) is gradually breaking up and wearing down Turin's car industry, which is struggling to defend its dominant position against the newcomers. In India, for instance, the labour cost in design companies is a fifth of that in Turin, or emerging groups in China, or even for established Japanese suppliers who are no longer full of work from local companies. It must also be remembered that learning curves have increased drastically compared with fifty years ago.

Let's not forget that Torino is one of the few places in the world where you can sit down around a table and create a car by simply listing all the necessary factors. But if some of the factors listed are irrelevant, unnecessary or insufficient, there is a risk of doing permanent damage to the city's reputation. If credibility is to be retained, mistakes must be avoided at all costs. In this new climate of competition it is not easy to provide recipes that will re-assert the role of Torino in the coming years, one of the ingredients we would certainly have to include is intellectual honesty, the will to sell quality services, and the willingness to speak the truth even if it is unpleasant. Forever saying yes to inexpert buyers and accepting the cost objectives and unfeasible timescales proposed will only lead to a situation where neither party is satisfied, and business is diverted towards other companies.

You may well promise the world to a lover, but if you want them by your side for the rest of your life you will also have to find the strength to tell them unpleasant truths from time to time, and these will then become the honest foundations of the future. None of this is intended to be pessimistic, but rather to defend the role of Turin in the car world in an optimistic and realistic manner. Such an approach requires focusing on competence, perhaps changing certain business methods which have by now proved obsolete, and - most of all - renouncing the dream of refashioning a world that no longer exists.