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For the Volvo Enthusiast

TI-interview

Roundtable with Volvo’s Vice President of Design Thomas Ingenlath

It was just before the covers were removed from the all-new Volvo XC90 for the first time when I felt a strong vibration from my pocket.  Reaching down to grab my iPhone in that not-at-all-sly movement seen countless times during staff meetings around the globe (you weren’t fooling anyone), I looked down to read what had been sent.  It was a text from a PR staffer at Volvo, informing me that I was to take part in a round table discussion with Volvo’s VP of Design Thomas Ingenlath.  This was one of the (very) few times in my life when a message received mid-presentation really was that important.

After a quick snack I ascended to the top of the Artipelag’s main staircase to meet the man who was brought on in 2012 to help create the new design language of Volvo Cars.  In his two years at the company, Ingenlath has given us 2013’s Concept Coupé, 2014’s Concept XC Coupé, and the Concept Estate- which is perhaps the most visually striking Volvo concept car ever shown.  Certainly he would have a lot to say.

As this was a question/answer session, I was recording and have transcribed the meeting to the best of my ability in its entirety below.  Please note that other journalists were present, and their questions have been included as well.

Q- You must be thrilled with the presentation and reaction (to the XC90)

TI- I can’t judge it, I am far too involved with the preparations.  Obviously being backstage, I actually don’t get a picture of the whole show really, so you experience it much more than I have.  That’s why I am quite interested in what you have to say about it.

Q- You talked a lot about Swedish heritage driving the design and the interior experience (during the presentation), but are there traditional Volvo design cues that have been consistent through history that are woven into this or are essential Volvo design elements?

TI- Yeah, some things definitely through the generations that are kind of constant in a way.  For example, we were quite surprised when we did research in the beginning, asking people what is actually looking at the interior of the car, what would you consider is a typical Volvo design element of the car.  Surprisingly number 1 or 2- the headrest of the car was mentioned which obviously is quite a surprise.  You think, how can the headrest of the car be an iconic design element of the brand?  And indeed the new seat generation that we have now in the XC90 has a specific shape that you will not find with any other brand, so that is where we can cherish and develop this kind of element.  And even if we like something as an element, if for technical reasons we can’t because the use of technology has changed if it doesn’t make sense to stick to something, then of course we don’t stick to it for the sake of having a tradition.  An example is actually the first element that was mentioned- the free floating center stack that we have in the interior of our cars.  We can’t stick to it and we don’t want to because the technology that it was based on, we changed that.  Now we have touch screen which requires different integration.  So now, it would be really, really wrong to stick to something that no longer represents the content of the car.

Q- So in that, then nothing design-wise is ‘sacred’, nothing would be preserved strictly for tradition’s sake.

TI- Well, the one thing really is the iron mark.   You may be surprised to say that it is not to be touched, since we just touched it (laughs), but that is a highly professional attitude if you want to keep an element of your heritage alive.  If you don’t work with it, keep it alive over the decades, and in a respectful way evolve it then let it die.  If you put it in a glass box, then send it to the museum because in 10 years it will look so old and dated you won’t want it on your car.  So if you have an understanding of how these things work, then you know you have to evolve everything.

Q- You got rid of the blue in the iron mark.  Is that a change across the range?

TI- It is a change in how we use it with the product, when the logo is on its own.  So we didn’t abandon it at all.  The iron mark has a blue background when the word is incorporated in the iron mark.  There is a difference between using it like this (holds up business card) or using it on a product.  On a product we didn’t change it to black, it is the iron mark on its own. But sometimes on an interior or with chrome it needs to be more neutral so we use it with black, and the color was in the wrong place.  It is how you handle that when you have a sensitive environment like the interior of the car. So that is why we did not use the blue, connected to the product.

Q- Do you believe the audience has increasingly sophisticated knowledge of and expectation for design elements and if so, how do you approach that?

TI- Well A- I heavily rely on that and B- yes of course.  In our society that evolves and I have to say of course it is an element of sophistication and a luxury element that we have to have the time to educate ourselves on these things.  That brings a level of sophistication and knowledge to design that wasn’t present decades before.  In fact, just the element design on its own that makes you buy or not buy a car on its own is a level of sophistication.  20 years ago you might discuss is that the right drivetrain for the car, or which brand has the better way of moving you- quality issues, reliability, all that is not on the top list as it is not a big issue anymore.  You just simply know that it works.  So, people have a different focus on design.

Q- So you think people have more of an appetite for luxury now and that is increasing.  Is that true?

TI- Yes, I think its true.  I think its something that, I mean, I’m hesitating because it’s dangerous to think that design is everything.  I am not that designer who thinks that design is the center of everything, so its very tricky for me to answer.  We are just communicating the content of a brand, we are not creating the content of the brand, so therefore, I don’t want to go to the extent that this is what the brand now stands for- design.  No, it’s one of the elements, because Scandinavian design and us being rooted here in the Swedish atmosphere with design is one of our content elements, but its not “it.”  If we didn’t have this natural integration of what we call the “human centric approach,” that wouldn’t be something that is indeed the core of Volvo, then the design is meaningless.  We have to communicate a message, otherwise its a little bit meaningless.

Q- I think that’s very well said.  I know that the research that you did in the field is really interesting- your approach, and last time I interviewed you, you talked about this- this notion that good design is design that makes sense.  Your field studies of watching people at a store and how they use cars factored into the design, how they pack and unpack at the grocery store and things like that.  Can you talk about that a little bit?

TI- Obviously I did already (laughs).  I mean, you can do research this way or that way.  One way is to put models in front of a relevant group, and ask them “do you like A, B or C”, and you can imagine how much I hate that type of clinic as a designer.  So I’m really glad that we have a different approach to that research and having a session with customer groups and just simply looking at how they use the car, what they do in the car on their way to work- of course that is a more interesting way of incorporating the needs and the way people use our into design.  So, that’s a nice way of doing it, but that of course requires a lot of attention to it.  I mean, translating that, because watching them, customers don’t give us a clue on how to solve their problem.  You may detect, ok, what he’s doing while driving is incredibly dangerous, so how do we help that person be not so dangerous in the future?  That is still a creative process in that moment that you have to come up with a solution.

Q- I guess what I’m wondering is, not that is was a market research scenario, really just watching the way human beings are behaving when dealing with cars.  When we are not just walking towards the car but also using the car is interesting in that the behaviors change with time, culturally speaking.  25 years ago, you didn’t go to a big box store and get a lot of items at one time.  Even these things change with time.  I thought it was a very fascinating approach.

TI- It is fascinating, I mean, sometimes its not the big philosophical questions.  In a way, they stay the same, you know?  It’s really interesting to see how our day to day life has changed, but a little bit of a complication is that we have different behaviors in different markets.  The change question is less of an issue than can we make one product for many markets compared to how people actually live their life.  People asking me how much can we be successful with scandinavian design around the world, and I say that is less of  a problem, I’m really not afraid that we will find customers for that kind of design, but we have to address- “how are these people using their car?”  It is something that we have to be more specific and can’t just have one car for the world. But, I don’t think we are completely there yet.

Q- When a new customer, not familiar with the brand walks up to the new XC90 for the first time, what is something that you want them to notice about the vehicle?

TI- Hmm.  Ok, I would love them to think that actually looking at the car opposite of a lot of other cars surrounding it, its not a character of design, because it is not a “freak.”  It is not styled more wildly than other cars.  I would love them to think “wow, the person who designed that car kept it to a natural beauty without ruining it.”  I want people to detect that.  I’m so fed up with going to car shows and seeing extreme, this competition to do that most complex section, the most intriguing wrap-around corner light that is so bizarre.  I think that I would love to give a different answer to that, have an almost old school approach to sensible proportions and graphics on the car.

Q- So which ones are the freaks?

TI- (Laughs) I can’t comment. (laughs) I really, really can’t.  Is it so difficult for you to come up with some? (laughs) I’m not that tired yet. (laughs)

Q- Quick technical question- the more upright grille, is that for safety of heritage, and the meaning of the T shaped LEDs- is that because they look pretty or is there something behind that as well?

TI- You think that is quick? (laughs)  Ok- the upright grille, that does not have to do with safety demand, it is possible to do so, because it is possible to still have pedestrian protection in there as well, I really embraced the opportunity to put it that way because it’s just, the character of the car, being so proud and upright.  The second part of the question- the T shaped headlights, umm, well, it is the search for “what is the right expression of that daylight signature for Volvo”, and again, look around whats on the market and you see an incredible orgy of offensive decorated lights with lots of different elements in them and to go and say you know, what is the most simple, clearest expression for them and it is that one, slot of light sitting there.  And what does it create, if you draw a picture of it, it’s such a clear image of a confident face that links it so brilliantly to what people cherished about cars from Volvo in the 1970s when you had a very upright architectural expression of when cars were designed with a ruler.  The T shaped light is a beautiful 3 dimensional shape when you look closely, but I though it was such a suitable expression for the brand Volvo in that element.  And then, Thor’s hammer came as a nice way of communicating that story.

Q- So is it safe to assume that the new T shaped light design will carry through to all new Volvos for the foreseeable future?

TI- That is the one thing that I can confirm.  That is the one element of the front that is not flexible, it is where you create identity and it frees up the rest of it to be a little bit more playful.

 

So there you have it, straight from Volvo’s Head of Design.

Tomorrow, we will take a closer look at SENSUS Connect, detailing our time at Ericsson’s headquarters to see the possibilities that this new technology will bring to Volvo in the future.

 

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