AI Will ‘Reduce Amount of Designers Brands Employ,’ Says McLaren P1 Designer

AI is changing the game for automotive design, but it’s not without it’s drawbacks.

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AI Will ‘Reduce Amount of Designers Brands Employ,’ Says McLaren P1 Designer © AI Will ‘Reduce Amount of Designers Brands Employ,’ Says McLaren P1 Designer

AI is now being charged with running search engines, writing essays, and even generating hypothetical car designs. Automotive designer Frank Stephenson, responsible for legendary McLaren, Ferrari, and Maserati models (among others) has something to say about how AI will shape the world of automotive design in the future.

Discussing AI on his YouTube channel, Stephenson has the right credentials to speak on the issue. Perhaps his most notable and recent achievement was creating the design language that propelled McLaren's rebirth as a street car manufacturer. His pen designed the McLaren P1, which was inspired by a sailfish he saw while holidaying in Miami. When Stephenson says that AI will change the industry, it pays to listen.

The prime topic of Stephenson's discussion is the rise of AI text-to-image generators. Generators like DALL-E and Midjourney are capable of generating detailed visual imagery of a wide variety of subjects purely based on textual input from the user. "It took me over a decade to learn how to design my own cars," says Stephenson. "If you were to go back and tell me as an eight-year-old, that all I needed to do was imagine something and a computer would create it... my head would have exploded."

"If you've ever wondered what a Frankenstein of a Mini Cooper and a McLaren P1 could look like, well, imagine no more," says Stephenson. He then steps through a series of grander examples, questioning what cars from Ikea or Picasso might look like while sharing AI-generated pictures based on these prompts.

Left: BMW's big grilles have proven polarizing and been the subject of some derision. Right: AI-generated images produced by Stephenson to "fix" the issue. BMW, YouTube/Frank Stephenson

Stephenson then relates this amazing new capability to what it means for the industry. He notes that these tools give designers more time to refine the details of their creations, rather than needing to spend hours on creating basic sketches. He suggests that AI tools could be used to improve existing designs or create unique new ones.

A cheeky moment sees him suggest that BMW could have used AI to help figure out the design for its signature grilles. The text prompt he passes to the AI? "A BMW GRILLE THAT ISN'T HIDEOUS." The results are impressive, and probably more to your taste than what BMW actually delivered.

Outside of entire car designs, Stephenson notes that AI can design individual details too, like headlights or steering wheels. Beyond cars, Stephenson casts an eye to the future. He believes that e-VTOL craft could be a major new vehicle segment down the line, and suggests automakers could use AI to expand their offerings into this space.

YouTube/Frank Stephenson

Of course, AI does have limitations. Existing text-to-image generators use huge banks of existing images as training data to create their images. Everything they make is a complex remix of what they have seen before. This makes them weak at coming up with truly new ideas. Sure, they can imagine a hatchback Ferrari or a 1980s BMW SUV. But can they develop a radical, fresh design language from scratch for a new bespoke automaker? Not so much.

Expounding on the negative effects, Stephenson also points out that we could lose a lot from the rise of AI. He talks about the prospect of design job losses, and the loss of sketching skills in the industry. He praises the power of AI tools while stating his gratitude that they didn't exist as he was building his career.

Youtube/Frank Stephenson

Fundamentally, Stephenson's point is that AI image generators are useful tools that are incredibly efficient at what they do. However, he highlights that human interpretation and taste are key to the design process, and that's something AI doesn't have. An AI may generate a pile of designs quickly, but it's up to a human to pick out which ones actually have any aesthetic value.

In a fun twist, he ends the video by revealing that much of his spoken script was generated by an AI. The times, they are a-changing.

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