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Truly, What are "Designers"?

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Let's take a look at an iconic car design for this one. Lase week we covered what Design truly is, now we need to answer the logical follow-up question: What are Designers?

1957 Ford Nucleon Concept
1957 Ford Nucleon Concept

2nd installation of the RMD "Truly, What?" series

It looks like this is going to become a series, driving all sorts of interesting future write-ups. In an earlier write-up we went into a lot of detail defining Design, so the logical next subject is defining what a designer is - and it may not be as cut-and-dry as you think. While this post uses automotive design as an example, the philosophy applies across all disciplines of design - including fine art.

Ever heard of the Ford Nucleon?

Probably not, but that doesn't matter. The Ford Nucleon is a perfect example of what designers do: they envision what things could be like, and then start applying abstract principles, practical principles, mechanical principles... Let me give you a little background on the Ford Nucleon to better explain things:

It was designed in 1957, during the height of the American "Nuclear Era" when everyone was in love with all things nuclear, atomic, radioactive, and streamlined - space-age stuff. Back in those days, they used these space-age themes to influence the design of everything. I imagine it was something resembling our modern day trend of technology companies putting big touchscreens and Wi-Fi capabilities on everything - from toothbrushes to bus stops, trash cans, refrigerators, even ear wax cleaners.

Why was it so popular back then? Well, just like today views touchscreens, the Internet, and social media, back in the mid-twentieth century, everyone thought nuclear was the future - and with good reason.

Harnessing the power of the atom is one of man's greatest feats and ongoing pursuits. With the continual development of new ways to more safely and efficiently harness this power, places like NASA and MIT are presently working - and succeeding - on the next big steps, once thought impossible: cold fusion, and other nuclear fusion methods (as opposed to nuclear fission which is the method responsible for nuclear fallout, bombs, Chernobyl, radioactive waste, etc). Imagine carbon-neutral, non-polluting, melt-down safe, infinitely renewable energy? Yeah, that's actually right around the corner despite the lack of major MSM coverage.

Back to the Nucleon. 1957. Auto manufacturers' design teams famously took these space-age cultural interests and drew heavily from them when creating new cars. This can be seen in everything from the large, sharp "fins" that were made especially famous on the '59 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (shown below), to the jet-engine inspired lights and trim pieces, long sleek bodies, bubble windows, and crazy advanced technology that was being put into the cars - like rain-sensing wipers in the 50s! Another production car that beautifully showcases this obsession with space-age themes is the iconic 50s and 60s Ford Thunderbird (not the "new" retro Thunderbird that was made in the 90s and early 00s - gross).

1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville

The Nucleon's designers did what all great designers should do: they envisioned what the future could be like. These designers were so passionate and involved with the trends in nuclear power and space-age themes that they basically said "You know what? Let's design a nuclear powered car that has proportions and appearances unlike anything we've ever seen. A car that encompasses what the future could have in store for us."

And that's exactly what they did.

The Ford Nucleon uses an onboard nuclear reactor to create steam, which subsequently flows through a steam-turbine engine that turns the wheels, and also simultaneously generates electricity for things like lights, cooling fans, and powering your house. And you know what's really crazy about it? Ford's design team (based on some degree of actual science, no less) envisioned this thing going 5-10,000 miles between "recharges" which were actually done in futuristic "recharge stations", akin to standard gas stations, that replaced the uranium reactor core every time you filled up.

Recharge stations that replaced the uranium reactor core every time you filled up

The designers went one step further and decided to add a degree of customizability to this feature. After all, a staple for new technologies is making them as practical for everyone as possible. A "high-powered" reactor core could be used to give the car more power and speed, with less mileage, while an "efficiency" reactor core could be used for high-mileage, lower speed applications.

Just imagine pulling up to your local Atomic QuikTrip for a uranium reactor core fill-up:

"Hey (to the cashier), can you put $40 on number 12? I'd like to put in the premium uranium."

Because Ford's Designer's embraced the major science and engineering required to make a nuclear powered car, they ended up designing something that looked radical. It has the reactor placed directly over the rear wheels with the passenger compartment placed far out front. Why the weird proportions and layout? Nuclear reactors are insanely heavy, and at the time because they were fission reactors they emitted h u g e amounts of radiation. This also meant there needed to be a lot of radiation and heat shielding - in the form of solid lead sheets and gold plating. Thanks to these requirements, the car was given truck-like proportions, and the wheelbase was used to help weight balance and steering radius, among other things. That short of a wheelbase does not look safe for high-speed use, but does that really matter when there is already a nuclear reactor in the trunk?

1957 Ford Nucleon Concept 2

Ford's legendary design team (also responsible for the first Mustang) believed nuclear reactors would one day become small enough and affordable enough that a car like this could be viable. It could be plugged into our houses to provide electricity and reinforce the nation's electrical grid. It could provide carbon-neutral, hassle-free transportation. If the world had embraced nuclear power all those years ago, maybe we could very well have achieved this vision decades ago.

The funny thing is, NASA and the DOE (Department of Energy) teamed up over a decade ago to develop a working suitcase-sized nuclear fission reactor, with enough energy to power multiple houses for 10 years. And NASA's other nuclear fusion research is showing us that pure carbon and other safe metals can be used to create much safer nuclear energy - with no harmful nuclear waste, no long-lasting radiation, and zero chance of nuclear meltdown thanks to how the atomic fusion reaction works.

Solar panels, batteries, wind turbines - maybe it would all be obsolete technology today if nuclear power had been given the resources it needed back in the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, thanks in big part to things like nuclear bombs and Chernobyl, among others, nuclear energy was just too terrifying to the general public for continued research and development at such a magnitude.

Okay, but this article is about designers... not nuclear cars

Designers should push the boundaries of what's possible, and then go further. They need to do more than just worry about contours and proportions, they need to create a vision. Who else will? Their visions don't need to be for the future of the human species or some other large-scale thing, but they need to be able to create a vision for a product or idea. Aka: be a visionary.

Jony Ives developed a vision for Apple's products, alongside Steve Jobs.

Franz von Holzhausen developed a vision for Tesla's products, alongside Elon Musk.

Henrik Fisker developed a vision for Fisker Automotive's cars. He designed one of the prettiest EVs in the "early days" of mass EV adoption - the Fisker Karma - and he is also the owner of the company. That is hardcore vision.

2012 Fisker Karma vs 2012 Tesla Model S
2012 Fisker Karma vs 2012 Tesla Model S

A designer can be the medium between engineering, marketing, consumers, and literally every other profession in existence.

Farming? Yep. Anna Haldewang is an industrial designer from SCAD specializing in agriculture, with her own company.

Skyscrapers? Architects are designers.

Theoretical physics? Look at the Nucleon for your answer. I guarantee if the Nucleon had made it to mass-production, Ford would literally have theoretical physicists on their payroll - actively involved in the automotive design process.

In summary:

To be a designer is to be a visionary for a product or idea, then subsequently design the product or idea.

Maybe in the future I will add more to this post, outlining more specifics of what a designer is.

Shane Rienks


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