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Car design

Designing a Car in a Pandemic: A Unique Challenge and an Interesting Opportunity

student spotlight
Two product design students from the Wilson School of Design reflect on the rewarding experience of making it to Phase 2 of Project Arrow.

Project Arrow, a competition to design Canada’s first zero emission concept car, pushed Marie-Pier Alary and Bailee Van Rikxoort, two product design students from the Wilson School of Design, out of their design comfort zone. They entered their concept poster during phase 1 of the contest and were shortlisted to enter phase 2, the only all female team out of the three teams chosen from across Canada. Others came from automotive-specific schools or programs, while Alary and Van Rikxoort had no previous experience with car design.

Van Rikxoort (left) and Alary (right) outside the Wilson School of Design building
Van Rikxoort (left) and Alary (right) outside the Wilson School of Design building

Their instructor Victor Martinez introduced them to the contest and Alary reached out to Van Rikxoort, asking for her help. “I knew we could work well together,” explains Alary. “She would be the one to take on the challenge.” Alary admits that they likely have a different story than the other teams but they quickly realized how valuable their product design skills would be, allowing them to tackle the project from a unique angle. Van Rikxoort realized it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn more about the different areas of product design.

The team didn’t anticipate their success. “We were both super shocked to find out we made it,” Alary says. Van Rikxoort’s graphic design experience aided them in creating a poster that effectively communicated their idea but both agree that what really made their project stand out was their concept itself. “We were able to show really well what Canadians would want and what our car could do,” Alary explains. “It showed how having a different eye or a different angle paid off.” The product design program at Wilson School of Design focuses heavily on the human factor, which helped the team build their concept. “You really need to understand the user,” Van Rikxoort explains, “and that’s what really got us to create a good concept that they thought would be worth pursuing.”

Car design mocked up in action on a winter road

Their concept revolves around the idea of modularity and “a car for all.”

They designed their car with the prediction that autonomous driving will be the future standard of transportation, meaning they would need to optimize every inch of a small space to accommodate for a variety of activities. Juggling aesthetics and functionality proved challenging, especially when designing the interior of the car. Alary explains that they came up with a list of different features they knew they wanted to include to create modularity and it became a matter of making those elements fit with the aesthetic style of the car. Alary, pleased with the balance they achieved, reflects that in their process, function preceded form. “I think we were never too blinded by the aesthetic.”

Car interior 3D rendering

One of the biggest challenges the team faced, however, was the creative process, pandemic-style. They pushed through all of phase 1 remotely. “We designed a poster entirely by screen sharing. That is painful,” explains Alary. “It was really daunting.” She admits that the pandemic, though it presented unique challenges, also created the perfect environment for full focus. “The fact that we were stuck at home and there was nothing else to do … it was kind of nice because we fully dedicated our time to this project.”

The learning of complicated 3D software programs created challenges as well, but also the opportunity for learning. “Learning it from scratch and having to make this car was challenging,” says Van Rikxoort. “It felt like a roller coaster.” The team was paired up with the program AutoDesk, for which both team members are grateful. Both also heavily emphasized the impact of Victor Martinez, product design instructor and mentor to the team. “It’s unbelievable the amount of hours we spent on Skype during the summer with our teacher,” explains Alary. “I would call him at least an hour and a half per week. It’s a lot to ask but I think because it was his passion it was easy for him. But I think we owe him, definitely.” Both Martinez’s experience in the auto industry and his constant encouragement pushed them over bumps in the road. Van Rikxoort says, “He would tell us if we were on the right path.”

Initial creative process sketches of car design

Neither team member regrets entering Project Arrow, even though they didn’t make it to the next phase of the competition. Both agree that the learning curve was priceless. “We already won in terms of an experience,” says Alary. She admits that participating in the competition, especially phase 2, was almost the equivalent of a full semester of school. “Yes it took our summer, but we basically got a full semester free of learning. That is something that doesn’t have a price.” Another added benefit, explains Alary, is the community built between the teams, with whom Alary and Van Rikxoort have been keeping touch since phase 2. They’ve enjoyed video calls with the other team members, whose variety of specialties and interests have created interesting and valuable conversations.

The project has been invaluable for both team members. Alary says, “Bailee and I both saw it as an opportunity to grow as designers more than just a contest that was fun.”

They had the opportunity to work with programs they’d never experienced before, including VR, which they both found fascinating but not as applicable to their actual project. The drastic growth in skills and experience can be overwhelming. “You can literally never stop designing,” explains Van Vikxoort. “You can always keep iterating. I get really focused on the details. You really have to stop and think who you’re designing for and what you’re designing for.”

Their hard work and innovative thinking brought them farther in the competition than they ever anticipated. Van Rikxoort from home and Alary in a van on the road to Quebec, the team focuses on their online classes, carrying the wealth of knowledge gained from the experience with them.