Thursday, February 12, 2009

In conversation with Damien Basset


Damien Basset, the man who designed the Ducati Streetfighter

We think the Ducati Streetfighter really is one of the very best looking machines to come out of Italy in recent times. It’s buff and muscular, taut and aggressive, and gives out that ‘you don’t want to mess with me’ vibe, which we quite like. So it was only natural that we tracked down the man who designed this bike – Damien Basset – and asked him some questions.

From 1997 to 2000, Damien studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in the US, from where he got a degree in product design. He then started his career in 2001 with Honda R&D Americas and now works with Ducati at their Design Center in Bologna, Italy. He was the project leader for the Ducati Streetfighter and was responsible for the concept, design and development of the bike.

Here are some excerpts from what Damien has to say about his life, his work and motorcycle design:

On where he’s from, and how he got started with motorcycle design

I am from Laval, a small city in the north-west of France, about 30 minutes away from Le Mans. My father is a passionate motorcyclist; I've always seen motorcycles in the garage, all brands, all types, and all generations. I wanted to do something about bikes, selling them, building them etc. I was always a hands-on person – restoring old bikes and modifying my own…

Once, seeing the parts I had designed for my bike, a mechanic told me about Franco Sbarro and his design school and I decided to check it out. Till that time, I thought design applied only to furniture and weird lighting devices – I had no clue I could also apply this to creating motorcycles. While visiting Sbarro's school in Switzerland, I learnt about Art Center College of Design. When I entered the students’ gallery, there was a yellow Ducati redesigned as a thesis project by some student, and I was hooked.

When I enrolled at the Art Center, I first decided I wouldn’t design bikes!! I was much too involved with bikes to let anybody impose their vision on me. And so I started with sketching and designing more than 200 watches, TVs, cellphones and other consumer products. But in the end, I realised I’d rather do motorcycles after all…

I took a transfer to the American campus in Pasadena and redirected my studies towards motorcycle design. When I graduated, I got picked up by Honda R&D in California, where I worked on the design of a couple of ATVs, sportsbikes, cruisers and Jet-skis. There, I really understood what it meant to design motorcycles, and the complexity of the task. The Japanese are very thorough and I learnt a great deal. Those were good times!

On how he got started with Ducati

Four years ago, Ducati was looking for somebody to design motorcycles exclusively, so I wound up my 10 years of life in America and returned to Europe to design red, exotic racing motorcycles. I worked on the 1098, the SportClassics, the Hypermotard and the Desmosedici. And then I started the Streefighter project...


Damien says the MHe is a good blend of retro design and modern power, brakes and handling

On the bikes he rides

I have always ridden – cruisers, sportsbikes and motocross bikes. In my family, we always spend our vacations on bikes – we like to go places and meet people on the way. Motorcycles are great for that, it's a fantastic community.

I had many bikes – sportsbikes and cruisers – the latest one being a Ducati MHe. I love antique and classic bikes, but I also love to ride them. So, the MHe seemed a good compromise of retro looks, power and modern brakes and handling.

On his favourite bikes, from the design point of view

It's a bit difficult to say. There is the professional point of view and then there are the bikes that I personally loved, because they meant something to me. It's very difficult to differentiate passion from profession. I have respect for all motorcycles, I always find something interesting in most bikes.

In general, I like bikes designed by non-professional industrial designers. Bikes done in a garage, with very little resources, often lead to amazing and original design solutions, which can be very inspirational. This is the spirit in which it all started – from the early-1900’s DeDion Bouton cycle cars, to Britten. It has to do with people being able to see their design through – no restrictions, no limits, no meetings, lots of passion!


The Kawasaki ZXR750, Yamaha V-Max and MV F4 are some of Damien's favourite bikes...

On his favourite bikes from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s

From the 70s, the Yamaha 1100XS, the first bike I remember in the garage when I was eight. The Goldwing GL1000 and Watsonian sidecar, with earl forks and square car tyres. These are not really design references, but they're the reason I design bikes today!

From the 80s, the Yamaha V-max – it’s one of the first bikes I remember desiring. I was 11. I still think the original bike looks more modern than most bikes today.

From the 90s, GSX-Rs, CBRs, and especially the Kawasaki ZXR750, for it's monstrous air-intake pipes. Those were the forbidden crazy rides, the race-replicas, 0-to-60 under 4s... Then, Britten, for the story and the innovation.

Current models? The concept MT-01 before it became fat, Sachs Beast, Honda NAS, Harley-Davidson Softtail, Benelli Tre, MV Agusta F4 and the Ducati Streetfighter... because it's my baby!

On how working in Italy, for Ducati, is different from working in the US, for Honda

The work is pretty much the same, the environment is different. LA is a big place, Bologna is small. Honda is a big company, Ducati is a small company... The culture of a company is related to its size. I think that's the main difference between Honda and Ducati.

Things are not as planned here at Ducati, at least not as you would expect. Therefore it takes a while to gather all the resources necessary. Once it starts, it's very quick, efficient and to the point. Just like a race. Also it seems that designers are more involved from day one, therefore have a little more control over the outcome.

The Japanese plan everything, even the non-planned hurdles are computed, so products are defined well in advance in a very tedious process. Everybody and everything is considered and when your turn comes, there is the necessary time to achieve exactly what was expected of you. You have to be quick and efficient…

On European vs Japanese motorcycle design

Japanese manufacturers must follow their market very closely. They are huge enterprises therefore must sell lots of ‘products’ to sustain their activities. This is something that drives their design. A bike will look different if you sell it for 15,000 euro to 4,000 people or if you sell it for 9,999 euro to 20,000 people. Because it's a saturated market, you must make sure you'll design something that will please those 20,000...

Europeans must identify a narrower set of taste and opinions, which lead to more targeted design. This what BMW or Ducati are doing. Talking about evolution, It's seems there are many more crossover concepts nowadays. Bikes used to be classified in just a couple of categories – standard, cruiser, sports... Nowadays, it's motocross-meets-streetbike and sport-tourers with 300km/h top speeds.

They're all doing it, but Europeans have to stick to their core market due to limited resources. The Japanese have expanded exponentially in all directions – and not only in the motorcycle business – Honda is making jet airplanes now…


While he's happy with the Streetfighter, Damien wants to make a 'Director's Cut' someday

On the Ducati Streetfighter

Claudio Domenicali identified an opportunity to use the chassis and engine of the 1098. Because of the new Monster 696, we had to find an alternative for the S4RS. We rapidly decided that the ‘Streetfighter’ had to have its own style.

Due to time restrictions, we decided not to modify the 1098’s chassis, engine and airbox. It was clear to me from that point that the ’Fighter would be closely tied to the 1098. So, identifiable details and form language are directly drawn from the 1098, but proportions are clearly more aggressive and the lines are more directional. I also put it on steroids – more muscle. I really wanted it as the ‘pissed-off’ alternative!

Another design prerogative was to make it a 160kg/160bhp motorcycle. We blew it somehow, but not by much and certainly those figures remain easily reachable. Overall, I am quite satisfied, considering the complexity of the project. The bike is very short, narrow and directional. The goal was to keep most of the volume contained in the perimeter of the frame. Proportion is the most important aspect of design, the rest is detail.

In terms of integration, creating a sense of unity was one of the biggest challenges. Unlike with a faired bike, the bodywork and surfaces are interrupted by mechanical components on a naked. Overall, I just kept the bodywork on top of its mechanical, functional part. In terms of surface treatment, I wanted fluid surfaces, along with clear and sharp character lines.

I have to give credit to the patience and perseverance of the development team in charge of producing the bike – they're the ones who really made the Streetfighter, not me. With the time constraints, it turned out to be an engineering nightmare, but they still pulled it off.

On how people react to the Ducati Streetfighter

The response of Ducati fans has been very good. The bike won the best of Milan show – I guess that means something. Still, I get criticism about the headlight and the bellypan (I hate it by the way!), more from people who’ve only seen the bike in pictures. But once they have seen it physically and felt its volume, size and proportions from all angles, the criticism tends to vanish. In the end, you can't please them all, right?

In fact, I can't wait to see personalised Streetfighters. And I dream of making a ‘Director's Cut’ version – all carbon and aluminium, back to the original 160kg/160bhp concept. The final test will be when the bike hits the dealers but I am convinced owners will love it.


Of these three, he'll take the 916. But of course...

On which bike he would choose, between the Ducati 916, 999 and the 1198

I would choose the 916 because it became such a design icon, a classic. At the end we always come back to that bike. If I wanted performance before everything else, I would choose the 1198, but the 916 is our 911, and if you offered me a choice between the current Cayman or a 1993 911, I would choose the original (money considerations
apart!)

Among older Ducatis, I really love the F1 – it’s my favourite. Then, the1972 Ducati 750 Imola and the 916.

On how motorcycle design has changed over the last 20 years

From craftsmanship to industrial process, computers, the way we draw, the way we introduce a bike to management.... Nowadays, the management must have a preview of what the bike will be. The goal is to provide more evaluation opportunities and provide choices, options. We draw the bikes, many of them, so the management can choose early. This is necessary because compared to 20 years ago, many more departments are involved in bringing a bike to the market. Quality expectations have evolved and the earlier you can test the final design, the more time you have to avoid potential problems.

Designers are just one element in the team, but we are where the process begins. We have the responsibility to control the aesthetics of the bike in a macroscopic way. The bike must be beautiful, but it must work perfectly too, then it must sell. This has to be a common goal for the team…

On the role of computers in motorcycle design

Computers do allow a much more integrated process. I constantly send and receive updated 3D CAD models. Surfaces are digitized in the first steps and are updated all along the development, allowing us to control the layout in a more efficient manner or, later, to update our surfaces accordingly. Mechanical or functional parts are superimposed by the technical office, while I can modify the 3D model in a couple of days and material resistance/volumes or weight are simulated in a matter of weeks.

It's a big dance – I propose some ideas for a part, receive a counter proposal from the engineers, then digest it and redesign, incorporating those changes. Eventually, the essence of the design is understood and we start to work on the details. That's a big change from 20 years ago, when you would have to wait until the first prototypes to validate an idea fully. Obviously, this provides you with much more opportunity to experiment and refine the design.

On what he would build, if he had full, complete freedom to design a replacement for the 1198

It would have to be identifiable as a Ducati in any colour, without any logo – just gorgeous by any standards! The bike would be small and very aggressive. It would have a pair of eyes and flowing lines, shapes inspired from nature, designed by wind tunnel – a mix of the 916 and the Desmosedici.

I would try to bring in the mix, some ‘shrink wrapping’ around the technology – just like the human form, which follows the shape of the muscle and the bone structure. Don't you find that F1 cars have such an intrinsic beauty, due to their absolute function-oriented shape? I'd like people to think at first glance, ‘That is the F1 of motorcycles.’ And it would be red!

On how he thinks motorcycle design will evolve over the next 10 years

Until recently, parts suppliers were, more or less, common to the auto industry. If you wanted a battery or a radiator, the choices were quite limited. Also, considering the numbers of units per year, it was quite difficult to justify the investment in specific tooling for just a couple of thousand units a year. Basically, for many components, we had to choose from a catalogue.

Now, industrial suppliers are becoming increasingly flexible. The looks of the motorcycle will evolve in parallel with those suppliers’ increased capacity. I dream of batteries taking any shape, radiators that I could curve in any direction, mouldable, cheap carbonfibre etc.

Given that motorcycle design is closely related to the layout of its components, these technological breakthroughs will drive big steps in design. Every once in a while, there is one of those breakthroughs and bike design evolves (for an example, aluminium moulding/welding has shaped sportsbike design over the last 20 years…).

Factory personalisation will also probably play a big role in changing the design picture. Big manufacturers have implemented factory ordered personalisation. In the modern age, I can see how that will expand – from designer to owner – that sounds good.

About my future designs, I'll keep trying not to be taken by ‘design concept’ frenzies or originality for its own sake. I want to see more beautiful motorcycles that are refined and well thought out.

Thank you, Damien, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer all our questions. We wish you all the best and look forward to more Ducatis that you’ve designed…!

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