The Domeble Three Six Zero Q and A Sessions: Nick John

By Carl Lyttle | 24th July 2020

For Episode 4 of the Domeble three six zero Q & A sessions, we are interviewing Nick John, the Design and Visualisation Manager at Symetri.
A very experienced professional, Nick tells us about how he got into the industry, his experiences in his career so far and his predictions for the future. Read on for more information.

How did you end up where you are – what’s your career path been?

The career path is quite strange, mainly because I didn’t know my current role existed when I entered the industry and being somewhat of a traditionalist, ironically, I was the most reluctant CAD modeller in this hemisphere. Growing up I long held the ambition of putting my sketching skills to work by pursuing a career in the design industry. It didn’t matter whether it was architecture, industrial design or graphic design, my goal was pursuing a career in creative problem-solving. After securing a place at Coventry University to study Industrial Product Design & Engineering I was exposed to more Automotive design which would eventually have a big influence on my chosen career direction. This is where I discovered a newfound appreciation of what (the right) design software could provide in terms of design exploration and efficiency, so much so when I returned for my final year of University after placement, I set up my own CAD training course for my peers.

Fast forward to the end of the final year, my classmates and I graduate with good degrees from a well-respected university, many of us securing good graduate jobs. The problem was this was a 2008 and a recession hit the job market. The reality was cost-cutting exercises across the entire creative design industry provided very limited opportunity for recently minted grads with no experience. My first role after graduating was as a digital design consultant at a small Autodesk reseller which felt like a good fit for my creativity and my passion for emerging technology. There I supported and/or worked alongside clients across a number of pieces of design software. It was also a great place to refine my digital skills. We were acquired by a large company called Majenta who had a longstanding history of supporting most of the UK’s automotive industry. Interestingly Majenta had an increased focus on complex modelling and visualisation using products like on Alias, Maya & Showcase. This was a perfect fit for me because these were products were already a big part of my toolset, and an area I wanted to focus on. I soon took over management of the automotive department which resulted in me operating as an SME (subject matter expert) for practically every UK OEM. I couldn’t believe my luck, I was getting paid to work alongside some of the most innovative digital studios and teach (and learn) from some of the best users in the world. It could be supercars one month, motorbikes another, with a superyacht consultancy in-between. In hindsight, it’s difficult to describe how much I was able to learn in this role.

I recently began working for a company called Symetri (the result of another acquisition, must be doing something right) in 2019 which saw me take management of the Industrial Design and Visualisation department. Being the largest Autodesk vendor in Europe, my department’s footprint extends to automotive OEMs and design consultancies across Northern Europe. We are essentially a group of multidisciplinary subject matter experts that assist clients (of all sizes) navigate an ever-changing digital landscape. Sometimes we generate output for clients, for others we identify and evaluate new design technologies and try to smoothly integrate into their existing design, engineering and marketing pipelines.

As part of my job at Majenta (now running at Symetri), we developed what became an internationally recognised training academy for digital modelling and visualisation. Our success was our ability to democratise the best practices developed for OEMs and condense them into short courses in a way university couldn’t. Remembering the difficulties my peers and I had upon graduation the Academy became an area I am extremely passionate about. I still keep in touch with our Academy grads, many of whom are now Digital Design & Visualisation managers around the world.

How have you seen software and tech change over the past ten years?

The past decade has seen many disruptive technologies coming to market.  Complex technology previously available to the wealthiest organisations was quickly democratised allowing the creative community to perform complex tasks quicker, more accurately and to a better quality. Over the course of that 10-year time period, it would be fair to say the pace of technology development has accelerated in line with the increased appetite & demands placed upon those tools.  Personally, the areas that have had the biggest impact are AI, XR (along with more accessible head-mounted displays), real-time raytracing, cloud computing, GPUs and shorter development cycles across software and technology in general.  These areas have allowed the studios we support to explore and investigate increasingly innovative designs.  Realtime visualisation and CGI have facilitated improved communication a reduction of prototypes and a quicker & more efficient route to market.

Although they are not Automotive example, and I believe their journey started in around 2005/06, I consider IKEA as one of the best examples of a company who took full advantage of the software and technology available. Initially embracing CGI with the aim of creating marketing material more efficiently IKEA has continued to deploy innovative methods to improve inhouse communication and better connect their products with their customers via proprietary visualisation apps and VR.

How important is training people, in order maximise software potential?

Early on my career, I saw design software as a constraint on creativity.  With experience and increased education, you learn to appreciate design software facilitates creativity.  Because design software is developing quicker than ever, it is increasingly important for new users to build good foundational knowledge, and for experienced users to maintain their skills to ensure they continue to work efficiently.

Regardless of whether we are describing an individual, a small team or an entire design department, I have seen first-hand what can be achieved with regular training, consultancy and exposure. Fundamentally if you aren’t aware of a tool’s potential, it will continue to be used inefficiently and a user/team will never see the maximum return on their investment.  I remember introducing VR to a start-up several years back who upon realising the potential of immersive communication changed their policy on prototypes that day saving them 10s of thousands of pounds over that project alone.  The irony was that they already had the software, access to hardware and inhouse knowledge available, but hadn’t explored the possibility of VR.

In an era of increased competition and finer margins, an organisations ability to extract value from their chosen toolset can influence the speed, quality and bottom line of a project’s delivery.

What are your thoughts on the importance of seeding tech and training at an educational level both in university and for the manufacturers?

30 or even 20 years ago if you couldn’t master the (limited) industry-standard tools available then it wasn’t very likely you would succeed in that field, and if you did master that tool it was highly likely you would use it for the entirety of your career with little friction along the way.  The sheer amount of new specialist areas appearing in the design studio means the idea of a single toolset for the duration of your career is somewhat obsolete. Graduates and experienced users alike must understand that their preferred tools will change rapidly and with new technology constantly appearing on the market they must be open to exploring new tools for periodically for themselves and their business.  Nowadays your core toolset can easily completely change in a 5 years cycle.

If you are studying at university it means the tools and job role you focus on might be replaced before you graduate, but it also means your creativity has more entry points into the studio.  If I take the typical visualisation departments as an example, a decade ago most of the team were from the same background, same universities, same skillset.  Today, these expanded teams in now include game & software developers, XR specialists, real-time artists and light/texture/character artist.  I see it as a great opportunity.  We are seeing a lot of traditional courses adapt their structure as a result of these changes.  The RCAs Vehicle Design course, restructuring to what is now called the ‘Intelligent Mobility’ course being a good example of a course adapting to reflect the changing demands of the industry

Images courtesy of Swift Leisure.Nick and his team have worked alongside Swift for over a decade helping to establish a VR department, train and place design specialists from his Academy, and integrate new innovations into their design and visualisation pipeline.

The Automotive visualisation process is now more than ever in the spotlight of Automotive design development – how have you seen this change over the past few years?

The quality and volume of output that internal visualisation teams are producing have increased exponentially in the last few years.  Teams previously creating content for in-house presentations and customer clinics are now producing full customer-facing campaigns.  Increased acceptance of automotive visualisation to complement or replace traditional methods has also helped reduce physical prototypes and accelerate decision making in the design process.

Because the output quality is now widely accepted across the business for all the traditional design and marketing use cases, other areas like perceived quality and body in white are becoming more involved.  But, with increased familiarity comes increased expectation. State of the art can quickly become run of the mill and teams are constantly challenged to see what the next wave of technology is and how it can boost quality and efficiency.  XR is a great example, of how quickly a fringe technology can achieve ubiquity across the design and visualisation process.

VR – how have you seen that influence the industry?

No disruptive technology is adopted perfectly.  And contrary to popular belief VR isn’t new to the automotive industry.  Some OEMs with have had immersive departments for many years but the technology was complex, required lots of optimisation and was expensive to maintain and calibrate.  The difference is, this wave of lower-cost easy to use consumer headset has really lowered the barrier to entry, and with more users comes more ideas. It has taken several years for organisations to understand the potential of VR and to position it properly within their creative pipeline, but there is no doubt that a well-executed VR experience can enhance creativity, connect globally distributed teams, and reduce miscommunications.

How is the industry adoption of VR currently and how do you see it in the future.

The COVID -19 situation has provided an opportunity for companies to really assess their existing processes and evaluate what is the most efficient way to accelerate the design phase.  The value of connecting teams in VR has proved to be vital in maintaining projects for some of our clients and mitigating the impact of travel and meeting restrictions.  For that reason, I believe the appetite for immersive collaboration will continue to grow.

Currently, VR is used for design, product training, feasibility but in the future, we will see more XR opportunities as HMDs become more readily available to the public. Artificial Intelligence, cloud-based solutions & 5G will provide the platform for high-end XR experiences anywhere.

Is VR changing how cars are designed?

Yes and no.  While there is no substitute for a physical asset to review during the design and development of a vehicle the time that VR gives back to the designers is more valuable.  The technology has been available at many OEMs for a number of years in the shape of immersive CAVE systems, but the process has always been clunky, requiring lots of optimisation and data prep with little focus on photorealism.  The reduced cost and increased capability of GPUs coupled with the release of consumer HMDs like the Oculus DK2 is really what I consider the start of the recent VR revolution.

XR now plays a huge role in accelerating decision making in design and engineering.  Rather than creating costly physical prototyping for every gateway, companies can review digital assets instantly at scale, either entirely in VR or in conjunction with a physical buck.  This has been a game-changer with regards go, no go decisions because issues can be flagged earlier and fed back to the design team for revisions long before a prototype is available.  Why review one physical scale model when I can have a near-infinite selection of immersive digital models, dressed in multiple trim variants, reviewed as multiple personas (height, reach etc) in multiple realistic environments.

That’s the review side of things but now we have the creative VR.  More recently we have seen companies like gravity sketch, flying shapes, Alias VR and others venture into the realm of creative VR toolsets where a 3d immersive space becomes the canvas.  While it won’t be replacing traditional surfacing anytime soon, it does introduce a completely new creative paradigm that I like and will continue to follow with interest.  Imagine a VR platform to adapt your Domeble HDRs in the scene, in context, I don’t know?

How important is an asset collection like Domeble for the industry (with its amazing collection of super res HDRIs and backplates that get the best out of render engines and make VR immersion more real than anyone else is providing?

OEMs have more departments using renders, animations and XR for reviews which require a range of the appropriate HDRIs and backplates. The number of creative allrounders who model, and render has increased (and I see no reason to believe this trend will slow down), so the general demand is also increased.

If you were to ask the average creative designer or modeller what the value of a good HDRI dome and backplate was a decade ago you would be greeted with a puzzled face, whereas now most creatives, surface modellers and VR/Visualisation specialists will understand the role a good environment plays in communicating a design.  As well as the traditional use cases of static and animated output, the democratisation of VR, coupled with improved HMDs resolution/performance like the Varjo XR-1 means that lower end environments really can’t cut it.

What’s the future for Automotive biz?

More of what I would call traditional visualisation will continue to be brought inhouse but as high-end technologies like XR are democratised there will be a whole new audience, requiring a paradigm shift in visual communication in the automotive industry.

Although headsets are a pretty normal sight in the studio, they are not yet ubiquitous for the average customer.  It might transpire that game consoles moving forward become a big marketplace for B2C, who knows?

What I am sure of is that immersive experiences will continue to play a larger role in the decision-making process for both design and the end customers decision making.  Footfall in showrooms will continue to decline as will the importance of the big automotive shows in the future.  The extra capital available to marketing teams by reducing attendance at these events could be redeployed for other emerging marketing activities with the aim of reaching the largest audience possible.

COVID restrictions cancelled Geneva this year and resulted in many automotive companies launching vehicles online with focussed campaigns.  Ironically these launches probably resulted in more focus on their specific vehicle unveiling than at a big show shared with multiple other vendors.

As a traditionalist, there is no comparison of seeing a vehicle in the metal at a show, but the reality is, at these shows you can’t get in, interrogate, evaluate or experience the vehicle from behind a velvet rope. The economics and reach suggest the route taken by Volvo back in 2014 at Paris Motor Show to unveil the new XC90 in VR really was an indication of the trends moving forward.  Using a comprehensive digital asset, Volvo was able to connect its new product from the design studio directly to the end customer.  This content was eventually distributed globally, generating a controlled repeatable curated experience that could be consumed in a number of ways

How do you think VR will change the automotive buying process – is it the demise of the car showroom?

While I don’t think showrooms are dead (yet), it’s well documented that the average number of showroom visits required for a customer to make a buying decision has reduced massively in the past 20 years.  There is also no doubt that the buying experience for the vast majority of customers (particularly for younger generations) starts online using the comprehensive configurators every brand uses as the first touchpoint.

I believe footfall in showrooms will continue to decline but the real estate a showroom provides could be redeployed for more focussed vehicle launches/unveilings and customer focussed activities moving forward.  I think the idea of large out of town showroom somehow increasing customer activity back to the levels of a decade ago is very unlikely, but I imagine we will see more of the pop up micro showrooms appear in city centres and shopping malls (even with declining footfall on the high street) using mixed media and XR experienced to communicate new products and services.

I don’t want that to be a blanket statement though as it is important to consider the brand when answering this question.  Some of the supercar companies we support have been using high-end Realtime and VR experiences to complement the showroom experience to upsell vehicles for years.

The market vote with their feet e-commerce is rising, configuring everything from your trainers to you house online has become the norm so who is to say the next generation of customer won’t further extend the trend to automotive and do more online than they are already.  It’s very difficult to say but COVID may accelerate the decline of the traditional brick and mortar showroom.  As we speak, I’m working with a customer right now designing an incredible EV who have no intention of ever having a lot of physical showrooms, and instead intend on selling directly to their carefully curated client based with high end real-time and VR and pop up the showroom.

Let’s not forget back in 2014 at Paris Motor Show Volvo decided to unveil the new XC90 in VR even at the time I considered this a very important campaign for the industry.

Looking into your crystal ball, how do you see the use of software and tech in the industry in 5 years?

 As an optimist, I’ve fallen for this one too many times before and had the evidence used against me.  That said I will try to provide a few topics that will undoubtedly shape the next 5 years of tech within the automotive industry and automotive design.

There has been more change in the last 10 years of automotive design than there was in the 30 that proceeded it.  I strongly believe the companies who establish forward-looking inhouse innovation departments will be the ones who ensure their survival for the next century.

Marco industry influence like ACES (autonomous, connected, electrified and shared) that change nature of vehicle ownership and underlying vehicle architecture will continue to influence what is considered the ‘typical’ exterior form of a vehicle. I feel interior design (including HMI) will considerably alter the passenger experience.  The thing is companies want to bring all of this to market in ever-decreasing design times and there are only really 2 ways to achieve this, increase headcount or explore new methods and processes.  I’m glad most companies have chosen the latter direction to meet their ambitions.  Luckily design software and technology is rapidly improving to help keep pace with the changing demands of these changing dynamics.

The strength of successful start-ups that have entered the market isn’t just their access to cheap capital.  Rather than copying the playbook of established companies, they have evaluated all of the legacy issue and inefficiencies present in the automotive industry and chosen to avoid as many as possible with lean agile methods for design, production and marketing. These company started on a foundation of innovation, selecting the best design tools and embracing emerging technology.  As a result, they have been able to replicate the output & experience that large teams and complex supplier networks can produce at more established design departments.

In terms of the immediate changes I see in the design department, short term, I see a lot of traditional physical design work being replaced in part (or entirely) by more efficient digital equivalents. Increased HMDs quality and potentially haptic feedback will be key to further acceptance.  The recent travel restrictions have highlighted the potential of a work from home policy and I think this will continue at least in part for many organisations.  Immersive collaboration and telepresence will become an important part of a company’s strategy. If the best vis artist, designer or modeller is based in California but your HQ is in London, why not bring them into the team without relocation fees, travel costs, new schools etc.  Can we better connect and develop a distributed team?

Marketing wise, right now we see regional campaigns, in the future, I believe campaigns (even adverts in real-time) will be hyper-personalised and tailored to the individual.  The orientation of the vehicle, location, trim will all be focussed on you.  AI will have a large part to play in profiling prospects and developing the vital user-focussed marketing asset.  There are also a huge number of developments in manufacturing, but I’ll discuss those another time.

As I said previously in another question the key technologies tend that will further unlock this potential in both design and marketing will be artificial intelligence (to automate, personalise, predict and optimised manual tasks), cloud-based processing & 5G.

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