As the Head of the Porsche Design Department, Michael Mauer is in the envious position of holding the future of a hallowed marque in his hands. He leads the team responsible for the entire Porsche product line, including the new Panamera sedan and the upcoming redesigns of the Cayenne and 911. Before coming to Porsche in 2004, Mauer held key design positions at Mercedes, Smart, and Saab.
Passionate to the core about his life's work, Mauer took time on a Friday evening to meet with me for a conversation about the future of Porsche, sports cars, and transportation itself. Along the way, we spoke about the nature of creative leadership, a future filled with floating vehicles, and a car named after an espresso drink.
Is there a special toy car you remember from your childhood?
One toy car that I really loved was -- funny enough -- a Porsche, a 908. I still remember that one; it was red and white.
When it comes to the work you do at Porsche, what inspires you?
Inspiration is everywhere. I'm not a person who deliberately looks for inspiration. I think as a designer you are very open minded, you are very sensitive to everything that is happening around you -- if it is looking out of the window or if it is driving around with the car, if it is traveling a lot and being in different cities, even furniture. So for me, inspiration can happen every minute, every second. But on the other hand, as somebody once said, it's one part inspiration, and all the rest is perspiration... what I really like is discussing with the team all their different opinions and views. At the end of the day it is hard work, and sometimes things just happen on the model we're working on.
A challenge of leading in a creative environment is you can't tell people to make that magic moment happen -- but it does need to happen.
I try to give a clear direction, but I try to avoid telling people how to come to the solution. So I try to describe the objective, the target, but try to let them first decide what is the right way to achieve the goal -- discussing, looking at the design, looking at the model, trying to express if I'm not happy, what it could be. But at the end of the day, I do not tell them to move a line exactly 50 mils lower or higher or more to the left or more to the right, because if the boundaries are too narrow you really kill all the creativity. I try to motivate people to think for themselves about the solution and how they could achieve the goal... Even if I have a solution in my mind, it is just one possible solution. There might be ten other possible solutions that are maybe much better, but by giving a direction that is too detailed or showing a solution, a way to the solution that is too detailed, I kill all the creativity. One of my major goals is to give the team freedom in order to have a maximum of creativity.
In the next 20 years, many technological changes may influence cars and their architecture, the way they look and the way they perform. As we see more tension between performance and efficiency, how might you balance the fun of driving with modern environmental needs?
When it comes to the work of a designer, the effect of changes in technology can be a little overestimated: I believe customers have certain needs and based on these the layout of the car should start, and only then can we think about the freedoms new technologies bring. The layout of a car is primarily defined by the requirements and needs of customers, and less by new technologies. First of all there is the requirement from the customer side, for example, if you would like to have a very roomy interior or if you would like to have it a little bit tighter. That is the first and most important requirement. Then there is the question of which kind of engine you have in your car -- say if you have an internal combustion engine or electric engine. The interesting and exciting thing is that new technologies will give us more freedom in designing the car because you won't have an engine block in front or in the rear. And, if you just take a little detail, the head and tail light technologies we're using with LED technology: they gave designers more choices because the technology became smaller. I hope and expect that a lot of new technologies will be invented in the next few years because there is a lot of pressure on the environmental side. I'm looking forward to this because, at the end of the day, designers will have more freedom for designing surfaces.
Once you know who you're designing for, new technologies can be liberating.
Especially when you're thinking about interior design. I expect that we will have many more possibilities in the future due to new technologies, especially new human interface technologies. But at the end of the day, when it comes to the Porsche brand I still believe that the emotional part of driving a car will survive and be important, as will environmental responsibility. For Porsche, it is important in the future that we keep this emotional aspect in our products. You will never buy a Porsche because it is the most rational thing to go from A to B. If you look at electric engines, for example, when it comes to acceleration and g forces, there is no disadvantage. Maybe you'll be missing the special sound of the combustion engine, but still I think that experience will be possible in the future. And it will be important that it remains a very emotional thing to drive a Porsche.
Photo Credit: Porsche
Over the past decade the focus of Porsche has shifted away from sports cars toward grand touring. Do you foresee a change in that trend? What about micro vehicles or other modes of transportation?
Porsche started as a sports car company. Porsche launched the Cayenne because there was a decision to grow as a company, as a brand. And you could say the Panamera as well was based on market analysis -- and from my point of view, it was a clever decision about a segment in which we have opportunity for further growth. The important part now is that we keep in our products the spirit of a sports car company. For sure the Panamera is not a Boxster or a 911, but if you look at it in comparison to the competition, it is much more sporty and much more dynamic, and much more emotional than any traditional sedan. If we manage to keep this spirit in our products, we will have a lot of possibilities in the future, not even knowing what those could be. And as for future products, as we have done in the past, we have to base our decisions on very good analysis and then decide what to go for. If you think about the Boxster Spyder -- a very pure car and back to our roots -- we are not neglecting where we came from. But again, if you would like to grow you have to think about different products.
I was recently in Singapore and got a ride in a Suzuki Cappuccino with a tiny 660cc motor and two seats. It gave me a sports car experience without speed. As more people move to congested cities, how do you deliver an emotional experience when it's increasingly difficult to drive fast?
That's definitely a very good question. We have not started to think about products for that need. And the question for me is if Porsche will ever be the brand for inner city transportation? But again, maybe it is about a reduction in weight, a reduction in size -- I think that's definitely a very exciting challenge to think about. At the end of the day, for me it would be a question if the Porsche brand should go into this business?
That's an open question.
Yes, because from my point of view, in the mega cities maybe cars are not even the right means of transportation anymore. Perhaps cars are for some other needs.
Here's a quote from a book about Porsche which I had as a boy: in 1980 Professor Porsche said, "Even in the unlikely event of the car disappearing one day from the road we will still have the sports car. If we take the horse as an example, as a working animal it is practically non-existent, but in the field of leisure and sport there are many more horses today than ever before."
(laughs) Yeah, cars are such a highly emotional topic, so I hope that they never get reduced to just a means of transportation. There will be always this emotional component and so hopefully we as a brand will always be able to offer attractive products. Porsche has never been in a market where it was just a means of transportation, and we are different from our competitors in that Porsches are true sports cars but still have day-to-day usability. You could say we are not world champions when it comes to interior space, so a Porsche is still a GT or sports car where you have to have some compromises, and is really much more on the emotional side. I hope -- and am convinced -- that mankind will always be interested in products that stimulate one's emotions.
I love that. What's in your garage today?
Porsche! (laughs) I'm driving a 911 Turbo convertible. And since I started my career at Mercedes, the first car I was responsible for the design of was the first generation SLK. And for some sentimental reasons when I left Mercedes, I bought an SLK.
And what do you wish was in your garage?
A Panamera! And, what I would really like is an older car, the Lancia Stratos. I love that car because I think it's such a radical design which is still modern today, and I would love to have one in my garage.
Where do you see Porsche in a hundred years?
I have to admit that as designers we live very much in the future, but not so far in the future as that! (laughs) But as I said, I still believe that even if technologies change dramatically, and even if environmental circumstances change dramatically, people will still want to have emotional products that help them enjoy life. So I'm convinced that we will still be a company offering products that help people have emotional moments in their life. Now, not really knowing how much technology may change, I really don't know if these products will all be cars with four wheels -- they might be something that is floating above the ground. But from my point of view it will still be a product that, whenever you step into it, what you step into will be much more than a purely rational thing, it will stimulate your senses and it will put a smile on your face. It is about the g forces you have to feel, acceleration... I think there will be always a spot in this world where we as a brand can offer attractive products. But again, maybe without wheels, maybe they will be something else.
When the person who leads design for Porsche in 2110 looks back, what will they find inspiring?
First of all, I hope that this person is very proud of our history, and gets a lot of inspiration from the way we worked. That we always wanted to create very emotional products, but as well very honest products. That we were not following each and every fashion, that we were creating trends as I think we are doing right now with the Panamera. I hope as well that this person identifies as a top priority for him or herself that the Porsche brand should come up with new products that set trends, and that Porsche is still the iconic brand in the field of transportation.