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McLaren designer Frank Stephenson: “Playing it safe is the biggest obstacle for progress ; the ultimate suffocation of the arts and creativity; No risk means no change, no change means predictability”

In my opinion, the decision makers at the top need a rude awakening. It seems to me that for far too long now the entertainment industry has been playing it safe. This is the biggest obstacle for progress — the ultimate suffocation of the arts and creativity. No risk means no change. No change means predictability and […]


In my opinion, the decision makers at the top need a rude awakening. It seems to me that for far too long now the entertainment industry has been playing it safe. This is the biggest obstacle for progress — the ultimate suffocation of the arts and creativity. No risk means no change. No change means predictability and that eventually leads to a boring product or result. Finally, a boring product leads to failure.


I had the distinct pleasure to interview Frank Stephenson, the designer of the McLaren P1 and the Mini Cooper. One of the world’s most renowned and influential designers today, Frank began his career in 1986 after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Frank is a born designer and design is included in everything he does. He constantly sees design all around him — his mind never rests, always thinking of a better way.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Frank! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Sure. I was born in Casablanca, Morocco to an American father and Spanish mother. I went to an international school there. At the age of 11 we moved to Istanbul and at 16 we moved to Madrid where I graduated from high school. I then raced motocross internationally until the age of 23 when I decided to turn my professional aspirations towards automotive design. I grew up with a passion for art, science and moving objects, and designing cars was my idea of a dream profession. I moved to Pasadena, California to study design at Art Center College of Design for 4 years and on graduation I moved to Cologne, Germany to kick off my professional life.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My father had the ancestral Nordic character trait for precision and my mother had the Latin flair for the arts. Design is the combination and distillation of these elements — I feel I inherited my love for the science of beauty from them. It’s no mystery to me that on March 19th, 1969, walking hand in hand with my father on Rue Mohammed V, I saw my first Jaguar E-Type, parked and gleaming in the early morning sunlight. It stopped me in my tracks and it took a great effort for my father to finally pull me away from it. I’ve never stopped admiring that car, it’s still my favorite car design of all-time.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are too many interesting stories to tell but one that fills me with pride still is my first encounter with GG. When we launched the New MINI at the Paris Auto Show in October of 2000, I had the opportunity in the evening to personally show it to Giorgio Giugiaro, who’s widely considered the best car designer of the 20th century. After taking him through all the design details and thinking process I’d used to create it, his one and only comment to me was, “Perfect, I wouldn’t change a single thing.” I’m still humbled when I think of that moment in time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, the first design project for me was the awesome rear spoiler of the Ford Escort Cosworth, basically a street legal rocket of a race car derived from the timid road going version. It needed a rear spoiler to keep the rear end of the car glued to the road at high speed. Because I was new and fresh on the job, and in Germany, I took inspiration for the spoiler from the wings of the famous WW1 airplane flown by the Red Baron, the Fokker DR1. It was unique and beautiful in the fact that it was a tri-winger, 3 rows of wings, one atop the other, which made it very recognizable and effective. So I designed this new car with the 3 wings on the back of it instead of the normal just one. It looked fabulous and performed incredibly well in the wind tunnel aerodynamic tests. But in the last meeting before all the various departments signed it off for production, the finance department figured out they could save a few Deutsch Marks if we eliminated the middle wing. I argued fervently against it, saying that it would be like my child being born with 9 fingers instead of 10. They saw positive cost cost cutting and I saw design integrity failing. In the end, the bean counters won out, the car was launched and quickly became the most stolen car in Europe…unscrupulous fans of it just wanted to be able to say they’d driven one…and it went on to win many World Championship titles, with two rear wings instead of the design intended three.

Lesson learned: don’t ever fall in love with your designs.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve decided to move on from designing cars, not because I don’t still love them, but because there has to be a better way to be socially responsible with the power of design — be it with mobility or products — that can reach and help so much more of our world population in meaningful ways.
I’ve set 4 values that serve as filters towards determining which new design projects I take on. The end design solution must be : One, INNOVATIVE. Two, RAISE THE BAR significantly in its segment. Three, BIOMIMICRY INFLUENCED. And four, ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE.
So the different projects that I’m working on are all exciting in their individual ways. To highlight one; a new interpretation of a baby/infant car seat that will revolutionize the safety aspect. At the same time it will look like no other comparable seat on the market. Function and aesthetics will be optimized to create a product that will benefit an everyday concern in a beautiful way.

I’m very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

  • Diversity can affect our culture because it offers an additive element of enrichment. Race, creed and gender influenced viewpoints all contribute to a wider perspective for us as a society to grow as the more tolerant, intelligent and noble creatures we should strive to be.
  • Diversity is a true and fair way to balance the power of influence and education that film and television have.
  • Diversity in the entertainment industry allows for an exponential expansion of creative input.

From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

In my opinion, the decision makers at the top need a rude awakening. It seems to me that for far too long now the entertainment industry has been playing it safe. This is the biggest obstacle for progress — the ultimate suffocation of the arts and creativity. No risk means no change. No change means predictability and that eventually leads to a boring product or result. Finally, a boring product leads to failure.

I also feel that making decision making positions available to a more diverse team stimulates and activates new avenues of earnings, innovation and, ultimately, creative progress.

The belief and philosophy of “tried and true” is an outdated model in my world, because if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward — which is worse than being stagnant. As human beings we are geared to continuously move forward, physically, intellectually, and evolutionary, nothing stays the same. I love the saying that the only fish that goes with the flow is a dead fish. So…move to improve!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Quality over quantity. One good idea is always better than a hundred not so good ideas. I think about the design problem first, then I think about the design solution next and then I visualize it, draw it, refine it and go with it. That saves time and energy.
  2. Only show your best work. You are only as good as what you present so never present something you are not proud of.
  3. First impressions count. You only ever get one chance to make a first impression, make it a great and lasting one.
  4. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. Initiative is a good thing. Complacency is not.
  5. Trust your gut. Instinct should be a main driver so learn to rely on your own opinion. But always remember that you’re not always right. So listen and consider but be your own judge.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

First of all, expect to reach burn out, effort-wise. If you never approach the red zone you will never achieve your true potential. How many champions or records are made without maximum effort? Rarely. Thriving and NOT burning out are obviously very important and the best way to do this is to find a balance in one’s life. Keep the foot heavy on the pedal during the work week and relax with your chosen leisure on your days off. Stressing about something is the worst ingredient on the path towards burn out. Never stress, nothing is that critical, nothing.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Perhaps a subdivision of religion where the teachings revolve around the emitting and receiving of positive energy. We are all energy, everything has an energy. To try to harness it and use it to grow with love and peace, eliminating stress and evil, and promoting health, that would be amazing!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Easiest question ever! My father. With an infinite love towards my brother and I, he ingrained in us a mindset that good enough is never good enough. The strive to better yourself in every way should be a lifetime goal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Simple and true. We all have to learn to overcome the adversities in our lives. There’s no getting around having problems and issues, it’s the bouncing back that counts. You’re no good to anyone, least of all yourself or your loved ones, if you don’t pick yourself up, dust yourself off and use that experience as a stepping stone to get to a higher level. I’ve tried to pattern my life in that way and see every seemingly negative as a potential positive.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Without a doubt it would be David Blaine. People oftentimes don’t understand how I come up with the shapes and surfaces that I envision that ultimately make a product beautiful but for me it just feels like a natural thing. I really admire people who can make possible what seems impossible. It’s a talent that brings joy to the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Instagram account name is: frank_stephenson
My website is www.frankstephenson.com

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