Friday, January 23, 2009
Xenophya Design: In conversation with Mark Wells and Ian Wride
Set up by Mark Wells and Ian Wride back in 2001, Xenophya Design is a UK-based motorcycle design consultancy – one of the very few such outfits in Europe. Xenophya recently moved into a new office that’s located in the Northumberland countryside, in the North East of England. Situated in a relatively inconspicuous building, the facility includes a design office, a clay-modelling studio and a workshop with painting facilities.
Mark and Ian have, apparently, built up a significant portfolio of motorcycle design projects over the year, though they can’t talk about much of their work because most of their clients insist on complete confidentiality. ‘Some of our most impressive, innovative work is confidential and not meant for public, much less competitor consumption,’ says Ian. ‘On occasion we have to stay completely anonymous. Some contracts state that we can't even mention that we worked for the client let alone be allowed to use anything in our portfolio. That’s just the way the industry works,’ adds Mark.
Now, since motorcycle design is one subject we’re deeply passionate about here at Faster and Faster, we asked Mark and Ian to speak about their work and their thoughts on motorcycle design. Here are some excerpts from what they had to say:
On why they chose to go with the name Xenophya
The word Xenophya is derived from Greek and means ‘strange in shape or nature.’ It seemed to suit what we were doing when first started up…
On how they got started with motorcycle design
It’s been a lifelong ambition – we can’t imagine doing anything else. After graduating from Northumbria University’s Transportation Design course in 2000, we wanted to be involved in bike design, by whatever means possible. Mark’s final year project was to redesign the Ducati 900SS, giving it a completely different image based on the standard chassis. This would broaden Ducati’s product line with minimal investment, or could be sold as a kit.
It showed potential as a product, so we set about designing an aftermarket kit for the Kawasaki ZX-9R, which could be simply bolted on in place of the original plastics. Once that was finished in clay, we got a bit of publicity which resulted in an accessories manufacturer asking us to design some parts for their range. To help pay the bills, the aftermarket kits got put on hold and the consulting has grown ever since.
On their favourite bikes, from the design perspective
This is a never ending theme of discussion in the studio and the answers tend to change from day to day. The problem is from a design point of view it’s all about context. For example, the Ducati 1098 is more evocative than say a Kawasaki Versys, but it can be argued that the Versys is a better piece of design. With the Versys, the designers at Kawasaki had to re-invent an existing product and make it appeal to an entirely new market – not an easy task. All the Ducati design team had to do was evolve a classic design - easy? Well, perhaps not, but you get the point.
It’s also tempting to ignore the obvious answers such as the 916 and instead tell you all about how important the Scott Flying Squirrel was, in order to demonstrate our in-depth and esoteric knowledge, but that would be a bit pretentious. So, without stating the obvious and listing the same models that appear in every top 10 bikes ever supplement, these are some of the bikes that are etched in our subconscious:
We both ride bikes and have a bit of a two-stroke habit, especially the early-90s Japanese race reps. The little RGV and NSR250s have great proportions and are two of the best looking bikes ever. They are anti-socially noisy and smokey. They demand focus. They handle better than almost anything and have enough power to put a big grin on your face without being caught out doing 180mph before you know it. That’s why it’s where our money went and that’s what we own. Mark has a NSR250 MC21 SP and I have an RGV250 VJ23. The world needs bikes like these again!
Going back a little further, the RD350LC (RZ to the rest of the world) was from the same school. I’ve always wanted one and at some stage, if I ever get a spare moment, I will find a seized one and restore it.
For Mark, as a kid, the posters he had on his bedroom wall were of the Norton F1 rotary, in JPS colours – the racer not the road bike. His dad even took him to see Trevor Nation and Steve Spray race the F1s in the British super bikes at Brands hatch…
We are both fans of and very influenced by 50s British racing singles like the Manx Norton, the AJS 7R and the Matchless G50. Each of these bikes is beautifully proportioned, with a dramatic horizontal line separating the organic forms of the tank/seat from the rest of the bike. Late 60s GP bikes like the Honda RC166 are also fantastic, not just to look at, but you’ve not lived until you’ve heard a six-cylinder 250. We first saw one being ridden in the flesh at the Goodwood Festival of Speed a couple of years ago.
On how Xenophya works with bike manufacturers
We tend to work together with our customers to create the design brief. In an ideal world, we will take their marketing material and conduct our own research into the target consumer, resulting in a report which outlines the goals for the product. This is then used to inform the brief and the direction of the product.
What they want and what we want are irrelevant in a way. The product should be about what the target consumer wants. If we decide to make a bike red, it should be because that what will sell, not because it’s the CEO’s favourite colour.
It is also true that many of the large manufacturers have their own in-house design studios. Most of them however still commission external designers to work on projects. That could be to input some fresh ideas at the early concept generation stage, or to act as an overflow where their own staff are engaged on a project and something else needs doing. Some OEMs such as KTM and Yamaha have exclusive tie-ups with external studios such as Kiska and GK design. Certain parts of the process are regularly outsourced – for instance it’s not uncommon for OEMs to outsource clay modelling to a third party.
On the more interesting projects they’ve worked on
Working on the Fischer MRX650 was our first experience on a full bike. We were contacted in 2003 by Glynn Kerr, who needed help in building the clay model and subsequent model for the Indianapolis show. The design was done entirely by Glynn but working with him and the chaps at Gemini Racing in Milwaukee taught us a lot.
More recently the Royal Enfield Bullet Classic was great fun. Being British, it was a real opportunity for us to work on an old British brand which is one of the longest in continuous production. Royal Enfield really recognise the value in their brand and have made a real effort to embrace it and retain the heritage which I think shows in the product. It also meant we got to travel to India and were introduced to their domestic market which is now a key part of our business.
On working with bike manufacturers based in Asia
We have worked with Royal Enfield and a number of others. Bikes in Asia are still predominantly about transport, in Europe and the US they are a lifestyle product. This is changing in Asia and bikes like the Yamaha R15 are leading way in introducing new market segments. We were at the Delhi Auto Expo in January last year and the atmosphere on the Yamaha stand was truly electric – it reminded me of the excitement I felt the first time I visited a motorcycle show as a school boy. That’s not to say Europeans don’t get excited about bikes, but somehow it seemed more visceral, rawer in India.
The biggest physical difference in the products is the scale. On average, Asian populations are anthropometrically smaller, so bikes are designed with appropriate ergonomic triangles. In Europe we’re used to bigger bikes. Apart from a recent resurgence in 125s and scooters, most bikes are over 500cc. In Asia, it’s all about affordable, practical transport so priorities are completely different. Bikes are mostly under 200cc and need to be versatile. In markets like India, there are also specialist requirements such as sari guards which need to be taken into account when designing a new motorcycle.
The biggest difference however is in the volumes that are manufactured and sold. The whole of Europe and Japan combined manufactured around 3.5 million units in 2006 compared to seven million in India and a mind blowing 20 million units (nearly half of all global production) in China. These vast quantities affect how you go about designing a motorcycle. In Europe, the number of bikes that a manufacturer predicts it can sell will greatly influence the method of manufacturing – tooling cost is a crucial consideration when deciding whether a design is feasible or not. In Asia, however, the numbers of units manufactured is so vast that tooling costs become less significant. Instead, raw material/part prices are a higher priority.
On Japanese vs European motorcycle design
The Japanese are technically superb, practical, reliable and governed by strict brand guidelines. Their design is equally well governed and subsequently competent – you rarely see a genuinely ugly Japanese bike (although someone at Kawasaki must have misplaced the manual when they designed the ZZR1400). The Yamaha R-series is a great example of good design evolution over time. The current R1 can be easily traced back 10 years – the current model is clearly related to the 1998 model, but still looks modern. The 2002 model is actually one of the prettiest bikes in recent years and had it been painted red with the D word written on it, it might have attracted more attention. Can I add that to my list?
European design is self-proclaimed as being more passionate and creative, however the truth is the Japanese are every bit as enthusiastic, passionate and creative. The Italians are particularly good at shouting about ‘Italian Style.’ They aren’t so keen on telling everyone that the designers in these companies responsible for some of the memorable models are often not Italian. In truth, most design studios are very multinational environments with teams of engineers and designers from all over the world contributing to the final product. At Xenophya, we regularly employ a network of design professionals from all over the world.
On how they expect motorcycle design to evolve in the future
In pure styling terms, we’ve seen motorcycles, sportsbikes particularly, becoming increasingly complex. The Yamaha R6 is probably the most extreme example, with a high panel count and complex surfaces. I think this has peaked and will start to move back to simpler forms – the new R1 already shows signs of that.
One aspect which we have seen grow recently is the role of the importers and their relationships with Asian factories. The influx of low cost models from Asia has prompted smaller manufacturers and even larger importers to take a scooter, for example, and make it their own by replacing the body. This presents new opportunities for outsourced design companies to work with a greater range of clients wanting to differentiate their products.
Although still extremely popular, there has, in Western European markets, recently been a shift away from the hyper-sports category of motorcycles. We suspect (and hope) that a new selection of mid-sized experience oriented products will enter the market to cater for people who want to be thrilled, and involved without necessarily doing 200mph.
It seems almost inevitable that we will see an ever greater number of electric and alternative fuelled motorcycles on the market. The challenge here will be to create products which are as exciting and involving as current motorcycles are.
We thank Mark and Ian for taking the time to answer all our questions. And we wish them all the best – hope Xenophya gets to work on many exciting motorcycle design projects in the future...!
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