Aug. 11, 2008 – Visionaries turn Victory’s dreams to reality

By Steve Bauer
Managing Editor
PASADENA, Calif. — Victory’s plunge into the luxury touring market in 2007 was a shock to many, not because of the company’s desire or ability to compete against the likes of Honda and Harley-Davidson, but because of the vehicle they introduced to do it with.
The resulting Vision, with its otherworldly-like design and sleek features, is, according to Rider magazine, “the most controversial and unique-looking production motorcycle to come along in years, with styling that is either love it or hate it.” Such a bold design does not come from a company afraid to push the boundaries of style and innovation, and it’s that mind frame that allows Victory’s designers tremendous creative license with their ideas.
Powersports Business had the opportunity to sit down with three of Victory’s lead designers: Industrial Design Director Greg Brew, Lead Industrial Designer Michael Song and Vision 800 Designer Tiger Bracy. The trio provided a glimpse of the six-year process that led to the development of the Vision, from the constant, early brainstorming sessions to the intense internal debates over matters of cost vs. style.

The birth of the Vision
The Vision was easily the biggest undertaking in Victory’s 10-year history due to the extensive consumer research the company invested in the project and the extreme engineering and design challenges the bike presented. In 2002 Polaris management saw an opportunity to create a unique bike in the luxury touring market, and the following Victory designers and engineers developed a concept bike that was introduced to customers with unexpected results.
“We thought that motorcycle was really advanced at the time,” Song said. “It had fiber optic lights, all kinds of bells and whistle, and was really only meant to be a concept vehicle. But when we showed it to consumers we were taken by surprise because everyone wanted to buy it right then and there.”
It was at that point the Victory team realized it needed to go back and focus in on exactly who its target audience was going to be for what would become the Vision.
“We thought at the time that we knew who that customer was, but that wasn’t the case,” Brew said. “When the first concept bike was completed there weren’t a lot of consumer studies done on it, which was the exact opposite case with the Vision.”
In fact, Polaris was so concerned with ensuring it built a bike that exactly met potential consumers’ wants, the company undertook the most extensive consumer testing it has conducted to date, spending nearly a year working with focus groups, visiting large motorcycle gatherings like Daytona and Sturgis and conducting informal surveys with current Victory owners. Victory designers were present at each event, never asking questions but always listening to consumers’ opinions.
In late 2003, the designers, a team of five, were given the arduous task of taking all the information gathered during the past months, and designing a vehicle that was not only comfortable, functional and technologically advanced, but that had a look unlike anything the market had ever seen.
Based off the studies, Victory management determined that comfort and style had to be the two main focal points of the bike.
“From that point it was up to us to figure out, well, how comfortable is comfortable and how stylish can you get without turning off your target audience?” Brew said. “That was a major challenge, but that didn’t even incorporate all the other features we knew would be important to the success of this bike.”

Multi-tasking a must
Even with a project as big as the Vision, speed and the necessity to juggle other projects is a must for each designer. From the first sketch on draft paper to the final design that was handed over to management for review, Victory’s design team completed the project in roughly three months. Turnaround is typically only one-two months at most for projects such as updating existing models.
“The Vision project happened really fast when you consider the scope of it,” he said.
Once the final design is approved, the project then heads into the clay modeling stage, where engineers literally mold clay around the chassis and frame of a full-size bike to see where there need to be changes or improvements on the original design plan.
“Once it gets to the stage where you go from sketching to actual clay design, the ultimate goal there is to try and capture as much of the sketch as possible,” Brew said. “The first thing you do is to get the sketch, and if it gets into clay and it doesn’t look like you expected to, maybe the view from the top is different or the styling doesn’t fit on the body like you thought it would, then you can modify it. But getting the sketch and having the mold match it as close as possible is the No. 1 priority.”
While the vehicle is being molded, designers work on other projects, periodically checking in to add input, make changes, etc.
“The average development of a vehicle for Polaris is roughly four years,” Bracy said. “So we’re always living in the future so to speak. When we were working on the Vision we were working for 2007, and now the stuff we’re developing we know won’t be public until 2012 or beyond. There’s a lot of educated guessing involved, trying to figure out what will be trendy five, 10 years down the road, and then designing a vehicle to match that so after one year on the market it’s not already outdated.”
With only five designers juggling all of Polaris’ projects, the speedy pace does not mean the designers aren’t closely monitoring their designs once they’re handed off to the engineering department. Once the clay model stage of the project is complete, the engineering department takes on a much larger role, testing the bike’s ergonomics, functionality and other features by building a thin fiberglass model of the bike’s body to place over the frame. Although the designers are less involved at this stage, they are still asked to provide input on design changes or remodels.
“How involved we are once it gets past the clay stage depends on the particular model. But generally we will do a hard model (which consists of very thin fiberglass), and make those parts available to the engineering department to ensure we have the right profile, the right ergonomics, ensuring that the seat actually works, etc.,” Song said. “You’re able to roll the bike or ATV around to get a feel for it and make sure that once parts started being added that it still has the look and feel that you envisioned with the final sketch.”

A deep trust
One of the most intriguing aspects of the design of the Vision is the relationship between Polaris’ design team and the company’s upper management. CEO Tom Tiller, for example, was offered few glimpses of the Vision until it was formally presented to the management team for final approval. Such an occurrence is not unusual as the company generally gives the design staff as much creative license as necessary to constantly push design and engineering boundaries.
“Generally speaking, Tom Tiller was in the dark regarding the design of the Vision,” Song said. “Some stuff was shown to him, but when it was presented to him for approval, he was basically seeing it for the first time. Sometimes he’ll come in and see what we’re up to, or if we’re working on something that we think is really fun, we’ll have him come down to take a look and get his thoughts.”
The designers believe without that trust, Victory would never have been capable to create the varied designs its lineup features.
“Tom has a lot of faith in us to design products that the customers will love,” Brew said. “Even if he doesn’t like something he won’t tell us, because it’s a very strong trust that he has in our ability to know what people will want to ride. I compare it to them being blindfolded and holding our hand as we lead them through the design process. Not that they’re not knowledgeable, but they place blind faith in us to do it right.”
Song says it’s refreshing to have a system in place where ideas can be brought to upper management without having to jump through several hoops to get there.
“It’s so different. Before I came here, I was used to taking my idea to one meeting with 15 people, just to get that approved so I could take it to another meeting, so that I could finally be able to present it to senior management,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to have an idea that you present directly to the board.”
One group the design team sometimes has more difficulties convincing is the company’s engineering department. Brew says there were plenty of “discussions” regarding aspects of the Vision that the design and engineering teams had to compromise on. One thing Brew and his designers will always do, no matter how far-fetched the idea, is to at least pitch it to the engineering department, a luxury he says isn’t afforded at many OEMs.
“We’ll always investigate to see how far we can get,” he said. “One of the great things about working here is that your ideas will always be heard, even if in the end they’re not approved. We constantly push. But to Victory’s credit, they really went out on a limb with many of the features on the Vision, because when we first pitched it to them they had no idea how we were going to achieve it. But if you look at the fiberglass model compared to the final sketch, you’d be hard-pressed to find many differences between the two. So that’s a good yardstick as to how far Victory and Polaris are willing to go when they really believe in the project.”
Song believes he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t constantly push other departments to the edge of their comfort level.
“If I’m not making management freak out, then I’m not doing my job,” he said. “I mean when we first brought the Vision concept to them, Tom Tiller looked at us like we were crazy.
“But the funny thing is that even going through the modeling process there are plenty of times when the engineers are not happy with us, but as we get deeper into the project and they understand how to integrate each part with another, there’s really a lot of great teamwork there and each department is constantly pushing the other to make it happen.”
Song relayed one particular push and pull that lasted several months.
“This particular part was really controversial, that I can tell you,” he said without specifying exactly what it was. “They were worried about the cost and the difficulties in making it, and I think we must have gone back and redone it three or four times. But after production was done they tried their version of it, the low cost one, on the bike and as soon as they put it on they took it off, because they realized that the bike was so much better with our version. Sometimes price has to be sacrificed for something the bike needs to have design-wise. And it took seven months for us to finally straighten it out, but we finally came to a compromise and the result was great, which is really satisfying as a designer.”
The success of the Vision has given the designers even more leverage when they present new ideas to various departments.
“From this point forward, we really know we have the freedom to go as far as we want to,” Song said. “Every time I present something to an engineer and he throws up his hands and says, ‘We can’t do that,’ I say to him, ‘You’re sitting right next to a Vision. After everything we did on this bike, you can’t tell me we can’t do this or that!’”

Finding inspiration
Song says the key for the design team, which must balance several projects at once, is to find the right inspiration to begin gathering ideas for sketches. How that process works can vary widely from one designer to the next.
“How you go about finding what you think is the right style is different for every designer on the face of the planet,” he said. “A lot of guys will have pictures of other bikes that they look at for inspiration. In fact some guys had photos of the Gold Wing on their desks, and you’re wondering to yourself, what are they doing? But what they’re doing isn’t looking at the bike itself but maybe one little pipe that could be used for a background color, or something else that most people would think is insignificant. They’ll focus in on the really, really small details and use that to come up with the inspiration for body design or handlebar grips, etc. Other people can just sit down in an empty space with zero distractions and find their inspiration that way.”
Song said he gained his inspiration for many design aspects of the Vision based on how open the riders in the focus groups were to pushing the envelope when it came to traditional touring bike design.
“When I started working on the Vision, I really focused on what we learned from our focus group, and knew that our potential customers were really open to new ideas, far more than your typical cruiser rider,” he said. “Many of them are just so conservative. For some reason our groups really were receptive to some more radical concepts, and that really helped the ideas flow a lot easier.”
For Bracy, inspiration comes from having an emotional attachment with a photo or other object he’s looking at.
“I can’t just look at something and gain inspiration from it unless I feel some sort of connection to it,” he said. “That’s where the individuality comes through in each product that a designer works on. When you look at that bike, you’re basically looking at through my eyes, how I envisioned it in my head.”
To help overcome individual creative roadblocks, the designers work closely, collaborating on every detail of the bike, meeting in some cases on an hourly basis to brainstorm and present new ideas to the rest of the group. Brew says the different personalities and styles of each designer lead to many interesting discussions about what direction to take with the bike’s design, with his job trying to piece together some of the best ideas into one unit.
“We’ll have our sketches on the wall and maybe I’ll see something about the brake light of someone’s sketch that really stands out, and we can take that and have everyone else use it as a basis for future sketches.”
Brew says sometimes the discussions over a particular part of a sketch can become pretty heated between designers.
“I might look at something and like it and other designers in the room will be like, ‘really?’” he said. “It’s really an open forum, where ideas are constantly being floated around, and everyone knows that we’re all there to try and design the best motorcycle on the market.”
Brew says what’s unique about Victory’s design department is that he doesn’t make all the final decisions, as the designers work with each other and then with other members of the group until they are all in agreement.
“All the designers are working on powersports projects for Polaris, whether it be Victory or otherwise, and I’ve found it’s much better to have them give each other feedback than to have me telling everyone what my vision is,” he said. “That doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom among your designers with that kind of attitude. I might chime in with some comments, but it’s a very organic process. They have to ultimately prove to their fellow designers that their concept should be used over others, and the discussions that follow are very beneficial to the ultimate design of the vehicle.”
Brew adds that each designer is working toward the ultimate goal of maintaining Victory’s promise to be the new American motorcycle brand.
“We’ve had the unique opportunity to change the way people view American cruisers and touring bikes,” Brew said, “and that’s really exciting for all of us.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button