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2018-12-11 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

Perceived Leadership Quality

What exactly is the job of an automotive chief designer today?



Runt of the litter. Buffoons with crayons. Aloof idiots who were not cut out to pursue a ‘proper’ career in the automotive industry. This is how, among a great many of those engaged in the development of motor cars, car designers were seen for decades.

Even in terms of remuneration, car designers remained several rungs below the people that truly mattered in this line of business - the engineers. 

All of this has since drastically changed, of course. As has, albeit to a lesser extent, the role of the chief designer.

Whereas the image of the pen-wielding maestro behind the drawing board has  been a widespread misconception for decades, the concept of the chief designer as a brand’s public figurehead has truly blossomed over the past 15 years or so. For while the legendary Harley Earl (who was not a designer or even stylist in the true meaning of those terms) invented the showman chief designer, his scions tended to be no public persons, but professionals going about their profession in more or less introverted a fashion. 



However, just as car design itself needs branding beyond that of the marque it is intended to serve (Sensual Purity, Precision & Poetry, Kodo) today, so have the chief designers turned into brand ambassadors. As a consequence, to the non-industry insider, Ian Callum might appear to be the most powerful person working for Jaguar, just as Dieter Zetsche must thank his trademark moustache that he is not being upstaged by Gorden Wagener on a regular basis. 

Apart from these public relations and marketing duties, the occupational profile of the chief designer appears somewhat murky. For if he (for they are all male, for the time being) is not the genius that draws the lines, what is he good for? And what if he is no chief designer at all, but possibly even a Chief Creative Officer?

As far as this relatively recently invented job title is concerned, the question might well be asked what exactly is in a name. Trying to institutionalise as intangible a property as creativity through the creation of an executive post certainly is an idea that could only arise from the automotive industry of the 21st century. And evidence does indeed suggests that neither Aston Martin’s Marek Reichman’s, nor Daimler AG’s Gorden Wagener’s creative properties have in any way changed since they have been elevated to the status of executive board member in charge of creativity. Creativity, it would appear, cannot simply be conjured to expand exponentially through the creation of some grandiose new hierarchy level, after all. 

Ignoring cutting-edge job titles, the job of a chief designer remains what it has always been: To get the best out of his people (the ones who do the actual designing). And to have a possibly vague, but definitely informed idea of where to lead them. 

Without exception, the most capable chief designers within the automotive industry are all team players. Not in the ‘bonding experience at the corporate camp’ sense, but insofar as they respect the people that work for them, give them credit where it is due, challenge or support and, for lack of a less clichéd term, ‘inspire’ them. 

Providing ‘inspiration’ or ‘vision’ is obviously a delicate matter - quite too often, designers can get carried away by believing that design can ‘save the world’, when the power it actually possesses is to make what is already good better and what is bad even worse (which still requires a mature sense of responsibility that is all too often absent). All too easily, through sheer grandiosity, some half-baked idea can regrettably end up being inflated to ridiculous level, resulting in plenty of smug back patting and a fancy new marketing monicker - but very little else. 



In that context, it is quite telling that Patrick le Quément, not just one of the most successful, but also one of the most intelligent professionals to have worked in automotive design, is equally enthusiastic when it comes to discussing 和 (wa), the Japanese concept of harmony, as he is proud of his seemingly mundane pursuit of component miniaturisation, which helped free up dashboard space and enabled designers to be, yes, creative. 

The fact that some designers consider the ‘bigger picture’ or their ‘vision’ to be in opposition to banal real-world requirements, when they should in so many cases complement one another, is similarly telling in other respects. As is the obvious failure of some to provide guidance and inspiration to those tasked with executing that ‘vision’. 

The former shortcoming is betrayed in more than one production car unveiled recently. Especially certain BMW designs suggest a lack of a proper ‘editing’ process - a striving for aesthetic and, to some extent, intellectual coherence. Instead, elements that worked on competitors’ products serve as inspiration and are cobbled together with other ideas that are badly in need of further refinement. 

To blame this on the corps of foot soldier designers that actually drew these lines (and kinks and bulges and indents) would be highly unfair though. 




To see how this matter should ideally be tackled, one needs to look no further than the sketches and models that were created during the development process of the Mercedes-Benz cars adhering to the concept of Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity (VH/HA), as devised under then chief designer, Bruno Sacco.   

VH/HA had been created not so much in order to present the public with some catchy ‘design philosophy’, but as an attempt at creating a methodology for aesthetic sustainability. Just as Mercedes-Benz automobiles were of significantly higher quality and hence more durable than the competition in those days, their design was supposed to not only help facilitate and convey these properties, but supplement them through the addition of long-lasting, solid design. The opposite of a mere fad, VH/HA translated the traditional values and qualities of Mercedes-Benz into tangible shapes and appearances. 

However, when looking at most of the sketches that eventually resulted in the classic Mercedes W124 E-class, for example, one realises that the stylists initially pursued ideas drastically different from the final car design’s. Ranging from rather naïve ‘80s style aero designs (rear wheel spats and all) to some exhibiting almost Cadillac-like staidness, these initial thoughts depict that even a design that feels as inherently ‘right’ as the W124’s involved more than a bit of trial and error. And guidance - which Sacco so obviously provided. And which is so conspicuously absent from a fair few designs of Bavarian origin, anno 2018. 



Inspiration is not the result of pompous claims either. It can come in different forms too. The mission statement of  controversial former BMW chief designer, Chris Bangle, was all about disruption - questioning the tradition of automotive design was of more importance to him than respecting the past. The end result of this approach was decidedly scattershot and ended a stylistic bloodline that had started with Michelotti and been nourished under Claus Luthe - but Bangle had unquestionably pushed envelopes, for better or worse, and in the process helped raise a generation of designers to whom ‘flame surfacing’ et al are not a break from, but the norm. 

More recent examples of chief designers quite obviously lending their staff the kind of framework that enables them to excel would be Mazda’s Ikuo Maeda and Volvo’s (now Polestar’s) Thomas Ingenlath. In either case, the chief stylist did not have to completely rebuild the brand, but drastically recalibrate what is called the ‘brand DNA’ these days. In both cases, lightning did not strike, but the chief designers obviously enjoyed sufficient trust, courtesy of their respective CEOs, that they could formulate and pursue a clear idea. 

In Mazda’s case, this resulted in a string of highly competent production designs, before recently culminating in a succession of concept cars of astounding craftsmanship and beauty - the outcome of long, painstaking work on the cars’ clay models that far exceeds the efforts of most competitors in that regard today. Even if this was not Maeda-san’s own idea, it took a good, a determined chief designer to secure the budget and time for this undertaking (which also goes to show that good design is not necessarily connected to big budgets, as both Mazda and Volvo lack the resources of the truly big car makers). 



Thomas Ingenlath, on the other hand, performed the due diligence after Volvo had poached him from the VAG empire - determining that the core of the Volvo brand was very much intact, as were its values, and that all that was needed was a bit of refinement. The result of this pursuit is a range that is as coherent as the German ‘premium’ brands’ were in their better days, building on the foundations of the Swedish marque and adding just enough glamour for Volvo to not be that bit too self-effacing for its own good anymore. 

Volvo’s renaissance marks neither a clean break from the past, nor a drastic reinvention - just a delicate, confident realignment with changing times and markets. Sometimes, less is truly more. 

In either Mazda's and Volvo's case, one may assume, the chief designers enjoyed the support of their respective executive boards to push their agendas through. Yet that is not always the case. For there is more than one example of marketing, engineering or finances trying to thwart the designers’ best efforts. Market research is particularly prone to counteracting the design department’s schemes by proving that a certain concept would not be ‘accepted by the market’. Ultimately, this is when the chief designer wheat is separated from the chaff, when weak ‘leaders’ bow down and those driven by conviction - not because they are obsessed with some hazy intuition, but because they know that their team developed a design to the best of their collective knowledge and abilities - stand their ground. For this reason, more than one groundbreaking car design owes its existence as a purchasable good to a chief designer’s stamina and willingness to fight on behalf of what they and their team have created.



Such tangible achievements, rather then speeches at motor shows, videos of them scribbling cars or, worst of all, endless bouts of intellectually and linguistically deplorable ‘design speak’ are what the post of chief designer should be all about.  

Unfortunately, the success of the decades-long struggle for car designers’ respectability has since been corrupted. And as if to make up for the disregard some of their predecessors had to deal with, more than one chief designer today seems to believe that with great power, fat pay cheque and high public profile comes little reason for humility and self-contemplation. 

There is nothing more treacherous than the belief in one’s own hype. Only a buffoon would not be aware of that. 



Photos: BMW AG (2), Daimler AG (4), Mazda (2), Volvo Cars (2), all rights reserved

Text  ©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt

car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

Comment by Lucien @carbrochure |

A very interesting article indeed, as always. Having myself worked in first architecture and now interior design for more than 20 years, it is very interesting to compare design leadership of architects and interior designers, with chief car designers.

I would suggest that one of the key differences between the two worlds is that most of car design is now in-house, whereas in architecture/ID you always have the "client" and/or "ownership" to contend with. More often than not this transcends any market research. I imagine the two disciplines are more similar when a design house, such as Pininfarina, is employed.

The best architects (and I worked with the late, great Zaha Hadid for many years), like the best chief designers, guide their teams and challenge the engineers to achieve greater results.

As with all design, the strongest designs need almost no justification beyond the design itself. For me some of the best designs, both in car design and architecturally, have a purity of vision that runs through the entire project.

At one point I witnessed these two worlds colliding, when Zaha Hadid met Chris Bangle at the opening of the BMW factory in Leipzig. Mr B was at the height of fame/notoriety and they enjoyed a very happy half hour complimenting each other's designs. I was in paradise!

Reply by Christopher Butt

That's an interesting comparison. 

I guess the differences are also marked because you've worked with people who'd get hired exactly because of their views, craftsmanship, style and vision - after all, one wouldn't go to Zaha Hadid to have her design a fun-of-the-mill shopping centre. Unfortunately, there's few people in car design in possession of the same kind of reputation & clout. 

Had you been working with less prominent architects, I presume, the situation would've been more alike what car design anno 2018 is like: A combination of compromise, insecurity and desperation. 

Comment by Charles |

Interesting article - thank you. That reminds me of a question which I’ve been wondering about for a while: how does the facelift process work? For example, are vehicles signed-off with the facelift which is due in a few years already approved (e.g. at launch), and is the facelift done by the team that designed the original vehicle? I’d love to know more about this.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Exceptions prove the rule, but generally speaking, there is no ready-made facelift waiting to be applied. 

Most of the time, a facelift is aimed at aligning an older design with the more recently launched models - see BMW E46, which received a bit of 'Bangle flair' in order for it not to stand out as drastically, what with its traditional Munich style. 

Sometimes a facelift is intended to alter what has been perceived as a visual shortcoming by the market since the initial launch. The first-generation Jaguar XF would be a prominent example for this: The C-XF concept car was designed with a different front headlight shape after the production car had been signed off, but was shown before that car's launch. Given the controversial reception of the original production car headlight design, the concept car's solution was implemented come facelift time. 

On the subject matter, you might find this article worth your while. 


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