Interview with Jake Loniak

Every so often transportation designers hit the mark. Back in May GCD was the first to feature Art Center’s very own Jake Loniak designed Deus Ex Machina wearable motorcycle. The design went viral and fired up people’s imagination…

“is that really possible?”

To say that it has become a design icon may be too early to define but it has definitely become a phenomenon that proposes a new frontier for vehicle design, and most importantly it has pushed the design bar just a little higher.

But just how does a designer achieve ‘a thing of beauty’? We exchange a few words with Mr. Loniak to see how he got from A – the design brief to E – the ‘eureka’ moment to Z – the final design. Creativity is often restrained and muffled due to the design constraints of the real world, however, without it progress would never rear its head. So to grand multinational car companies we ask “what if” and to design schools we say “watch out!”, there is a new breed of eco-designers out there with plenty of ideas and talent to back it up.

GCD : What brought you to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena?

Loniak : I wanted to rise to a professional level in design and came to Art Center to study industrial design with consummate professionals.

GCD : Have you always had a passion for motorcycles?

Loniak : Yes, I was riding before I could touch the ground. I have never not owned a motorcycle. And so far I have found nothing that can match it.

GCD : How about green energy? Or perhaps that is something you discovered along the way...

Loniak : I am concerned about the challenges we face as the human race. More than just energy, we need more solutions than green energy. Clean, renewable energy will not support our energy needs for some time to come, globally, people will not turn to it until the ‘easy’ energy is expended, so we need more solutions.

GCD : What was you brief for the Deus Ex Machina?

Loniak : The assignment was to design a new motorcycle, which led to several weeks debating what defines a motorcycle, combined with thorough research into trends, technologies, functionality and performance. Motorcycle doesn’t always mean two wheels and an engine. It has a lot to do with the experience and I wanted to design a new experience, something that no one else offered.

GCD : When and how did the 'light-bulb' moment of designing a wearable motorcycle come to you?

Loniak : My very first thought was to offer a new experience. I focused on the experience and then found what I needed to make it work. The idea that it was wearable came just a little later almost as a solution to making the experience possible. The early proposal was co-branded with shoes, clothing, and electronics as a lifestyle vehicle. In order for the experience to be enjoyable, one needs to be comfortable with the way one feels and with the way one looks.

GCD : Through your initial sketches it seems that you had a clear idea of the visual concept of an exoskeleton architecture for the motorcycle, but it also looks like you were struggling to find the right design language. At what point and why did the design take on more natural and simplified forms?

Loniak : During the first few rounds of ideation I imagined a more enclosed vehicle, more like a full fairing cruiser and at this early phase I was still putting together what it would take to make it function tech-wise. The form language was at that point inspired mostly by musical instruments and gothic architecture, which I quickly abandoned. This language was working against the feeling of speed that the motorcycle needed to be sporty. The ‘eureka’ moment came when I began to expose the functional elements.

The design was simplified to meet the package and a speedier form emerged. About the time I completed the package, I decided that the function should be skinned by the fairings so one may in effect see through the surface. I was working with the proportion of the components and adjusting their position to find a design solution and then applying surfacing to reveal the structure and mechanical elements.

This same week I began a short series of insect sketches, drawing from life. It was the exoskeleton design of certain aggressive insects like the mantis that convinced me to apply it to my surfaces, flowing with the human structure makes it work.

GCD : The fact that much of the mechanics is exposed highlights it's greenness, was that intentional?

Loniak : In so much as good design follows functional guidelines. I had goals set in place for performance, weight, footprint, and so on. Meeting these goals through research and benchmarking gave me volumes of mass that I needed to package and I was fortunate, I think, that a lot of the technology looks really cool to begin with. So exposing it only makes sense.

GCD : Your design has exploded over the internet. People seem to love it or call it a ridiculous fantasy. First of all did you ever expect it to receive such widespread attention, and second, you must have thought through the safety and comfort issues implicated by the design and much criticized by did you resolve these issues?

"I continue to be pleasantly surprised!"

Loniak : I integrated many ideas to address comfort and safety. For example the rider can recline at low speeds. The artificial spine attaching the helmet supports the head to prevent neck fatigue and absorbs impact. Side and rear impact protection is also a natural advantage of the package. This is a sport bike with a riding position similar to a conventional sport bike so comfort and safety were not the primary concern.

GCD : There are many examples of exoskeleton designs and personal mobility vehicles as well as a slew of sci-fi examples that one could compare the Deus Ex Machina to but somehow it stands out on its own. Looking back what design features, or lack thereof, do you think make the machine so attractive?

Loniak : To me it is the unique acceleration of curvature, form and proportion of these insects that I used in designing the final bodywork that help to make it unique, but mostly the unique experience offered. I offered a concept that one can look at and say “this just might work” and then one imagines riding it.

GCD : The course you followed was the first of its kind as we featured back in May. Having been one of the pilot students what would you say this kind of course adds to an established transportation department such as that which exists at Art Center?

Loniak : It allows students to pursue a wider range of interests, it helps to keep us current and it follows a need in the real world. The problems transportation is facing need to be looked at from varying directions. Art Center College of Design is Transportation Design focusing on anything from motorcycles to 18-wheelers.

GCD : If you could would you change anything?

Loniak : I would flesh out the control interface and work more on the ritual. The ways in which we relate to and interact with the products that we use are an important element of design. Due to time constraints, the control interface was simplified to focus on the overall function and styling.