The art of compromise

Between creativity and restraint: How the design department of MAN Truck & Bus manages this daily balancing act with much passion.

They should not only be robust, efficient, durable and present technical perfection, but also, of course, be dynamic and powerful and make for an individual appearance. Those designing commercial vehicles must be able to unfold their creativity within a multitude of restrictions. A true challenge, which is met daily by the design department of MAN Truck & Bus with much passion.

With a critical eye, Roland Schüller inspects the neatly arranged tools lined up on a trolley before him, which are somewhat reminiscent of surgical instruments. The small and delicate ones are on the left, the large and robust ones on the right. He reaches for a sturdy carbon chisel. With precise movements, he positions the tool on the three-metre-tall clay structure standing in the midst of the light-flooded hall and energetically scrapes out a shape, layer for layer, which is to eventually become the outline of an MAN TGX. Roland Schüller is a modeller. His task is to transform the ideas of MAN Truck & Bus designers into life-size models within just a few weeks.

The creative performance behind it is provided by the team around Holger Koos, Head of Design Truck & Bus. Together with Rudolf Kupitza, Head of Design Truck, and Stephan Schönherr, Head of Design Bus, Koos oversees the creative department Engineering Vehicle Styling, which was consolidated in the Munich-Karlsfeld location back in 2014. The 20-strong team is made up of designers, engineers and modellers. “Even after almost 30 years, it is still exciting to watch how an idea is turned into something tangible in this modelling hall here,” says Kupitza, who is an MAN veteran, like Holger Koos and Stephan Schönherr.

An already painted model stands a little further to the side of the hall, featuring the typical design characteristics of MAN: black radiator grill, curved chrome rail, horizontal headlights, the window curve rising towards the back. Two floors above the modelling hall, the team around Rudolf Kupitza currently works on the digital drawing board to design the new truck generation. Even though the MAN-specific design characteristics are just as distinctive here, the designers must bear a lot more in mind whilst working: “Our manoeuvring room in designing is rather limited,” explains design leader Holger Koos. “Technical requirements, cost factors, legal and cooperative restrictions – all these factors must be taken into consideration during the designing process. Yet precisely that is the challenge and the attraction of our daily work.”

The target is to represent the brand to the outside world, while cultivating and further advancing brand-specific elements. These goals also shape the work of Stephan Schönherr and his Bus Design team. “A century of building commercial vehicles definitely entails a lot of tradition and history. That is a treasure that we as designers can also greatly benefit from,” says Schönherr. Typical design features – such as the A-column arching up into the roof, the typical silver-coloured MAN wing on the sides or the sharp-cut design with taut lines distinguishing the NEOPLAN family – have been continuously refined over the years.

Serving as idea generators for the continuous design evolution are people such as Michael Streicher, Senior Designer Bus, who has also pinned manually drawn sketches next to colourful rendering prints onto the wall behind his desk. “Obviously, a majority of our work now runs through graphics programmes in computers,” he says. “Which does not mean that hand drawings have been totally replaced. Pencil sketches possess a very intuitive character. An unknown factor comes into play here, with lines appearing that perhaps were not even intended.”

The design work here encompasses every detail – ranging from the body to the tiniest pictogram in the interior. Everything must be coordinated harmoniously. “The new truck series was issued a more clear-cut geometry for its interior,” says Thomas Ochs, Senior Designer Interior Truck. “We have replaced soft curves with tight lines in order to more strongly emphasise the engineering aspect. Clear and geometrical designs require higher manufacturing efforts, which will serve to enhance the value of the new series.”

Another important factor that must be heeded especially in interior design: the long life cycle of vehicles, in addition to the strong strain experienced by materials. “We can’t tag along with every trend,” says Eva-Maria Krammer from the Colour & Trim department. “Even after a decade, the colour schemes must still appear appropriate. The fabrics should not only look good, but resist wear and tear, as well as remain lint-repellent.”

Other than working on new series and applying facelifts to current generations, the designers also focus on future studies time and again. What should the ideal drivers’ cab look like in an autonomously steered truck? Which message should the exterior design of an e-mobility bus carry to the outside? The designers find answers to these questions in the cooperation with universities. “We find it essential to approach these topics with as much freedom and visionary input as possible,” says Rudolf Kupitza. “Working with students is enormously helpful in taking more of an out-of-the-box approach and looking at things from different perspectives.”

Sometimes, the collaboration with universities even results in some highly unconventional studies that most likely will never see a road, but can certainly still influence the design of the future. One such example is Concept X, the master’s thesis of a French design student. “With its highly exaggerated approach, the extremely dynamic design indicates how the leonine aspect of the brand can be emphasised even further,” says Kupitza. Ranging between a sculpture and a concept truck, the study is meant as a free interpretation of an MAN truck in 2050, according to the project description. And it has currently even made it onto the MAN plant grounds in Karlsfeld near Munich. Specifically, as a 1:10 model, which will henceforth adorn the entrance area of the design department – clearly stating where the journey shall lead.

Group picture of the MAN Truck & Bus design team

Collective efforts for good design

With 20 team members, the Engineering Vehicle Styling department is composed of designers, engineers and modellers, supported by additional freelancers.

Close-up of a clay model

Tone-in-tone shades everywhere

The designers use black tape to mark the desired contouring or plane curvatures on the clay model. This “clay” is actually not made of natural soil but rather industry plasticine, which is tinted brown to better reveal spatial structures.

Manual sketches in the MAN design department

Bringing ideas to life

At MAN, pen and paper still remain essential at the beginning of every creative process. The manually drawn sketches don’t signify feasibility, but rather serve to work out a model’s character and emotion.

Designer draws a 3-D model on the graphics tablet

Virtual sculpting

Designs are specified and transformed into 3-D and colour on graphics tablets. Depending on how much pressure the designers apply to the screen with a sensitive pen, the lines run thicker or thinner.

Designer works on 3-D model at his computer

Precision in 3-D

Life-size clay models serve as the basis for 3-D models. Including all details for series production, the designs are processed via computers.

Designers are inspecting material samples for vehicle interiors

Creating atmosphere

The Colour & Trim Team ensures that interior colour hues and materials also support the overall vehicle characteristics.

Designers use a colour fan to evaluate the colourfulness of materials

The goal is timeless style

An important aspect when choosing colours: As life cycles of trucks and buses last longer than those of cars, colour shades should not be inspired by short-lived trends.

Futuristic design study of an MAN Truck

Vision of the future

In cooperation with design students, the designers gingerly approach the future. The “Concept X” displays a free interpretation of an MAN truck in 2050.

Design team presents new vehicle design

The big moment

The team presents finished model designs at the “power wall”. It usually takes four to five years to get from the first sketch to a market-ready design.

The three heads of MAN’s design department

Creative veterans

Holger Koos, Rudolf Kupitza and Stephan Schönherr (from left) head the 20-strong design team in Karlsfeld near Munich and are true MAN veterans. Together, the three old hands share 77 years of work experience at MAN.

Images © Oliver Soulas

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