Design master class : Pierre Leclercq (Citroën) returns to the ESA school, Liège

A few weeks ago, Citroën’s styling boss, Pierre Leclercq, visited his former school, the ESA in Liège. During this Master Class, he reflected over his career as a car designer, his works and… explained what lies on the less glamourous side of the automotive design scene!

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« Design is complicated… when I started my studies, the teachers would ask us how we would explain design to our grandmother… Maths take two hours, design takes a lifetime! After ESA, I went to Switzerland to specialise in automotive design.  I did several internships: BMW, Zagato and then Ghia (Ford). »

From BMW to Citroën: culture clash

« After graduating, I spent 13 years at BMW, between California and Germany. I learned a lot and designed the first generation X6. Then one of the projects I had worked on a lot (a successor to the M1 coupe) was cancelled and I wanted to progress without feeling locked-in with a manufacturer… I took the plunge and went to China. There, I set up the Great Wall design studio in Shanghai. It’s one of the biggest private companies in China, employing 60,000 people. With my colleagues, we produced some forty cars under the brand name Wey – named after the firm’s boss – in just four years!  Shortly afterwards, I met Luc Donkerwolke… he offered me to join Kia in Korea. I stayed there for only one year before Jean-Pierre Ploué offered me the top job at Citroën design. I didn’t plan to leave that job so quickly but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, I really wanted to work for Citroën,  having grown up surrounded by Citroëns !  My mother used to drive a Dyane, my father a CX, my grandfather a DS… In China, I was very impressed by their dedication and quality of work, just like in Korea. There, everything is done very quickly. In just one year, we signed-off a car for the Indian market. »

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Car design changed massively over the years…under Flaminio Bertoni (Citroën’s styling director from 1932 to 1964), projects took a long time because modifying plaster or clay models was complicated.

Car designer: the ever changing job

« Car designer changed a lot over the last 30 years. When I started my career, back in 1999, the design team was responsible for everything : exterior, interior, colours and materials. Today, we work much more on the details and the user experience, especially with digital interfaces. This aspect is becoming more and more important in our work. Things like smells, the sound of a key… have been around for years but really became noticed by designers more recently. Once, design studios worked on their own, without much interaction with the rest of the project and the technical part was paramount. Nowadays, designers have a greater influence and the technical (read innovation) and engineering sides of things have taken a back seat. In fact, technological innovation and development are now more suppliers- driven than done in-house by car manufacturers. Brand values are enhanced by the integration of elements such as smells, sounds, space and architecture. Design studios try to develop a better customer experience, both inside and outside the car. Ideally, our smartphone should allow a car to work faultlessly once we are in it, in a most natural way. All brands are now working on enhancing user experience. »

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Today, 3D printing, augmented reality and the virtual world enable more daring designs to see the light more quickly.

A vast number of challenges…

« Nowadays, designers face tough and tricky challenges: various international and regional regulations, energy changes- the switch to electric and, to a lesser extent right now, hydrogen- everything is set up to contribute to a better world, hopefully. Of course, this has a deep impact on the design process. Until the early 2000s, the protection of passengers was paramount. Today, pedestrian protection is just as important. As designers, we have to make sure that pedestrians pass over the bonnet and not under, without touching any hard points located right under it. That means it is  increasingly difficult to produce innovative and disruptive designs.

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Do you want another example? The Stellantis Group wants to be carbon neutral by 2038. A lot is already changing in the way we work today. In my opinion, aerodynamics will certainly evolve deeply over the next few years. We are already testing many solutions, the aim being to cover ever greater distances with the same amount of energy. Materials is another important area with a large scope for evolution., Even though the materials used in the automotive industry manufacturing are recyclable, very few recycled materials are used right now. That’s another area that should evolve a lot.  In the future, designers will create unique things based on recycled materials. In our work, technology is becoming more and more relevanton a daily basis : 3D printing allows us to create incredible things in terms of structure and weight reduction, with a strong emphasis on visual lightness. Until a few years ago, models were made in plaster and clay, but it was complicated … and even more so to change! Today, thanks to augmented virtual reality goggles, changes are easier and faster to implement.. Many designers can easily switch from 2D (with Photoshop) to 3D. They can create volumes and modify them much faster. We also use themO for presentations to the brand’s management board and for project validation. A typical car manufacturer’s plan, has to mix ‘core’ cars with others that are more iconic. At Citroën, it’s a bit like the juice and the zest… of a lemon! The « juice » are the cars that have to please a little more and the « zest » are projects, the conceptual side carrying a brand’s values as strongly as possible. »

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The TPV (Très Petite Voiture) project of the 1930s aimed at bringing the car to the countryside. After the war, it became the emblematic 2CV, incorporating Citroën’s DNA and values. Thanks to it, people from all social could afford to travel and move about freely.

Competition is getting stronger!

« Competition in design takes place at two levels. On the one hand, the car market is very competitive, a brand can only survive and go forward in a fiercely competitive segment thanks to its differentiation power. On the other hand, the same is true within each design studio: a designer must defend his project and constantly prove that he is better than his colleagues. At Citroën, there are always ten or so designers competing on a project. It’s great to see a personal project come to fruition and your shape becoming a reality on the road… however, if your project is not selected, you have to withstand it and move forward. »

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Design is accessible, now !

« Design is now everywhere and… accessible, financially. It’s been like that for many years now, just think of IKEA… I often use kitchens as a good example. In my parents’ day, you bought a kitchen for life and, depending on your means.  Factory- assembled using cheap materials meant it was not too expensive whereas… if it was a one-off made of oak or any other elusive and rare wood, it was therefore much more expensive. These days, it’s possible to buy a kitchen for a few thousand euros at IKEA. Design is no longer a luxury, it is now more largerly affordable and easily accessible. It’s the same with cars: everyone wants to fall in love with the design of their future car! That’s what brings some passion to another wise and rational purchase. »

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The DS is a design UFO that appeared in 1955. It remained in production until 1974. Disruptive, different and divisive, it became a symbol of the « Trente Glorieuses ». Simplicity allows design to pass the test of time with flying colors…

Design is part of the Stellantis group DNA

« Design is very much in the heart of the Stellantis group. It includes no less than fifteen brands. Along with my French, Italian, German and American colleagues, we share a lot of elements… however, we always come up with very different things. We win when the customer doesn’t realise that a lot of parts are shared. We all work for different brands and put forward their DNA and values through unique and disruptive designs. Four times a year, we share our work at design reviews. They take place in Germany, Italy, France and the USA. Of course, Carlos Tavares takes part in them and that’s where we introduce our projects to him. Each and every time, I am truly amazed by all the creativity that is everywhere in the group.

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The Ami Cargo, is the commercial version which appeals to many companies for stylish urban deliveries.

The results are very different, even if the basic ingredients are identical. In addition to these meetings, once a year, we explain the group’s management board the direction where we are aiming our brand’s design, while remaining faithfull to its core values and design language. This is what concepts cars are all about, whether they are restrited to internal use only,or publicly revealed during a trade fair or automotive exhibition. We produce about two to four internal concepts a year. They help us to convince our managers while differentiating us from the other brands in the group. »

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Citroën design: a tradition deserving to be nurtured and preserved

« Citroën design is based on key elements that never change ; they ensure the brand’s cars have « Citroën-ness » and can’t be mistaken for anything else. First of all, they must be disruptive : our design will disturb and not be derivative, generic, or taken for granted directly. The Citroën identity must be strong and away from any blandness.  Cars like the Ami or the C5X are not immediately understood… When people ask us « what is it? » I think it’s the best answer we can get. The shape and its outlines must be disruptive. Architectural elements, proportions, surfaces and details being no less important. Regarding proportions, we work on a platform : this ensures our work’s proportions are right from the start of the project. Surface treatment and style are brand-specific, of course. Nowadays, details are increasingly becoming our identity’s hallmark. Secondly, a Citroën design must be simple. It is very easy to produce a complicated design and make it unique… but it is much more difficult to produce a simple design and make it unique! Just like George Lucas who wanted to keep the Star Wars spaceships shapes as simple as possible to ensure them a long life… I believe in keeping things simple to give a design maximum strength and allow it to stand the test of time. Thirdly, contrast is paramount. At Citroën, I use it a lot to reinforce the language of shapes. These must be soft, simple, sculptural and… automotive. They will be more technical for other non-automotive things.

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Recently, I sent my designers them to a FNAC shop in Paris and get inspired by the world of Hifi, for example… The aim is to bring something new to the treatment of details and interiors. Or even new colours! Let’s not forget that colour is Citroën. We always have to reinvent it, in a more technical, more refined way, in order to bring something really contrasting in our cars’ design. Contrast is also linked to the materials and fabrics : it brings softness where we want it and we use harder, more technical materials in other places. Citroën’s design must also be functional. Indeed, the brand’s customers are very different from Peugeot customers, for example. And it varies from country to country: the customer base is not the same in Belgium and France. A Peugeot customer is more ‘vroom-vrrom minded’, more sporty, than a Citroën customer. They don’t really like cars, they are more rational, more open to electric cars, for example. They are looking for something different in their car. This means we have to keep things simple and come up with a solution : function being fullfilled by an element’s design. This is what Carlos Tavares calls ‘brain juice’. Innovation is increasingly difficult to achieve with cars ! However, we are working on it in two ways: through design, to make a car innovative, as well as through technical innovations that  first- tier suppliers offer us ; these are then integrated into our vehicles. Obviously, designers have less influence on this aspect, of course. »

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Fun and playful, the Ami Buggy concept uses the Mehari’s DNA. Electric and fun, this is a way of making cars cheerful again…

Inspiration from the past to create the brand’s future

« Let’s take examples from Citroën’s history: the TPV, or « Toute Petite Voiture », is the 2CV ancestor. It featured a single headlight… to save money. Its metal structure provided strength where it was needed. The canvas roof was there for lightness and to reduce costs. It was a way of bringing the car into the rural world… it had to be able to cross a field carrying a basket of eggs and not a single one could be broken at the end! The DS, on the other hand, was a UFO ! Its design combines a simple surface treatment with a reduced number of lines, along with striking and disruptive proportions and shape. In the 1950s, Citroën offered 2CVs and DSs that were completeley at odds designs. Today, the C5X is in the spotlight. It was not immediately understood by some journalists but, once they had tried it, it was completely different. Comfort is one of the brand’s values and that car is an object that remains amazing on the road, from that point of view. Moreover, the advertising campaign will focus on silence and, therefore comfort. It will feature an astronaut and the relationship between space and the car. Today, Citroën’s role is to make life better. With the Ami, we changed the rules. It is different from any other licenceless car, which are sold at a much higher price than the Ami. It has been a lot of hard work to bring this project to fruition while keeping  costs down!

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Back in the 50s and 60S, the DDB agency worked wonders for Volkswagen in the USA. Citroën’s ad campaign does exactly the same. It plays on the Ami’s flaws to make it more appealing and win over new customers.

Creating a vehicle like the Ami is much more difficult than creating a concept car. Thinking it is not enough, you have to put it on the road. We produce 400 to 600 Amis per week in Morocco. That’s about between 15,000 and 20,000 cars a year. This means we had to work in a different way on this project, compared to what we usuallly do for the rest of the range. The chassis is tubular and the bodywork is made of dyed injected ABS and glued to it. Just one color is available and the panels are recyclable. Moulds are expensive to produce, cost reasons lead us to a symmetrical shape and antagonistic doors. The number of parts is reduced : development time and cost are therefore lower, as well as the retailing price, obviously. The Ami is very compact but interior space is massive: the passenger seat is set away from the driver’s to give more width to the passengers, as well as more space and overall weight is reduced… we left no stone unturned.

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Citroën is thinking about tomorrow’s mobility… which will not necessarily look like today’s car. The Citroën Autonomous Mobility Vision concept uses a single base and adds various « pods » with specific uses: taxi, lounge, bus shelter or even gym! The idea is to give users more time to make the most of it, rather than spending time spent behind the wheel in traffic jams, quality time can be shared with loved ones,friends, or used for leisure activities.

The car shape and its surfaces were  designed to be accessorized and covered up with a wide range of stickers. In time, this approach will allows us to open up new opportunities for the rest of the range… Accessorizing and covering up cars is still not quite common. The Ami interior accessories are functional and exterior ones are more fashion-aimed. In Italy and France, it can be driven without a licence from the age of 14  and it is very popular with teenagers. The Ami cargo concept turns it into an even more practica vehicle. It was made at the request of the Moroccan post office and the right-hand side compartment can accommodate parcels. The Buggy concept is a leisure vehicle in the spirit of the Mehari. It is even more fun than the Ami it’s based on ! We can produce its bodywork elements in another colour, (khaki), and remove parts such as doors… it just begs to be driven ! Advertising the Ami, is also unconventional and fun. »

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Citroën Autonomous Mobility Vision: based on time

« More and more, cars are being outlawed of city centres and fully autonomous cars are not yet a tangible or accessible reality. We thought about this and developed a robot concept equipped with batteries and hydraulic jacks. It can accommodate a whole series of cells, for multiple uses. No less than sixty-five different concepts were created in just a few days. For example, it can become a real living room, without having to comply with the usual car regulations. Our partners in this project are the Sofitel Pullman and JC Decaux groups. The pod will replace the limousine that picks you up at the airport and take you to the hotel or the theatre. The bus shelter will come to you… it is an easier and more  pleasant way to move about in urban areas. Another pod allows users to run or do physical exercices instead of wasting time behind the wheel.

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The energy produced will recharge the battery ! This is a real revolution in travel between point A and point B. A multitude of other applications could be developped : virtual gaming, medical care, yoga… or to cruise along in a city with friends, sipping a drink in total comfort. My personal conviction is that mobility solutions should not look like cars. This is the case with this project. The idea is based on time, time spent, time lost, time recovered, for oneself, one’s loved ones, time spent doing enjoyable things rather than lost sitting in a traffic jam… As a  conclusion, I would say that designers are passionate and I am happy that Citroën spends large sums ensuring our vision of things make it the road. Design has never been as important as it is today, it’s the cheapest way to make a difference and change the world… through creative talent! »

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