Car designers get ideas from many different things. For Volvo’s Design Director Henrik Otto inspiration comes from life, chilling out over a Japanese meal, visiting an Italian furniture fair -- even while relaxing with yoga.
Good design is about applying brainpower intelligently to bring pleasure and peace of mind. So says Volvo’s recently named head of design, 38-year old Henrik Otto.
"We often blame ourselves for not understanding how things work, such as our video machines or car radio controls. But, you know, that’s nonsense: the blame lies with a klutz designer who hasn’t thought his or her stuff all the way through."
With a masters degree in fine arts and industrial design, Henrik Otto has design attitude, albeit tempered by modesty: "I just try to look at things a bit differently and hopefully bring pleasure to those travelling in a Volvo. I never forget I’m designing for people not only buying into the Volvo ethos, but also looking for style intangibles."
Desire for stimulation
Inspiration, he says, comes by keeping his eyes open for things that turn him on (or off). He believes a designer can never afford to switch off the desire for external stimulation, which in Henrik Otto’s case can come from a toy, a gadget, a fabric shop.
"We’re all so individual. That’s why perceptions of the Volvo brand vary from market to market. Everyone likes his or her Volvo for different reasons. Although people often appreciate the same functions, style tastes vary so much I don’t believe in a global ‘emotional’ product.
"My job as a designer is to build trust by delivering a living, breathing thing that people will feel fond, even proud, of. There’s nothing fickle about car design, it’s about delivering people something more than a platform on four wheels."
He notes how the design approach of the Volvo S80’s and S60’s has helped revitalise public perception of Volvo cars. "The Volvo S60, for example, attracts praise not only for its roomy cabin and exterior architecture, but also for the interior design detail. The design logic is about providing an easy-to-use ergonomic layout, encompassing bigger buttons, rotary knobs and even things like a multi-size adjustable cupholder. The easy-to-use stereo and air con controls confirm our applied design ethos."
So what about accusations that cars in general are still very masculine? Henrik Otto comments: "Over 51 percent of those driving a Volvo in the USA are female who clearly don’t buy our cars for macho reason. I think they buy a Volvo because it delivers their expectations as both drivers and women. True, the car design field is saturated with men, but that’s changing and at Volvo 15-20 percent of our designers are women."
If design is so important to making waves in today’s marketplace, how come we don’t know who’s designed our car? "Designing a car is very much a team effort, encompassing designers, market planners, engineers and safety experts. And although we make use of advanced CAD programmes and environment modelling software similar to that used by Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park, nothing replaces ‘brainware’ and teamwork."
Henrik Otto underlines good design is not just about modern taste. "We don’t design cars for families, we design cars for people who have family values. It’d be wrong to dilute our values by paying too much attention to trends. Our job as designers is not to revolutionize, but to be consistent in taking our customers on a journey that reframes their perception of us as it unfolds."
When free, Henrik Otto happily chills out in a yoga class or playing around on his mountain bike or a golf course. Relaxation is about striving to keep a balance in his life, spending time with his friends, fiancé, cooking his favourite meals: "I love the freshness and simplicity of Japanese food, allowing specific flavours to burst through by using spices individually. For similar reasons, I don’t like cluttered, crowded spaces. I guess that’s why I find Swedish and Japanese interiors so appealing -- both promote simplicity and the enjoyment of the proportion of things."
Stimulating the senses to encourage harmony is a core pillar of Henrik Otto’s design approach. "A car is one of the few places where we as individuals can still sit in isolation yet remain ‘connected’ to everything going on in our day-to-day lives. Roads aren’t always pleasant places to be, so it's important to create a driver environment that can promote peace-of-mind and, hopefully, harmony, thereby contributing to less stressful, safer driving."
Henrik Otto frankly admits that many cars today appear to offer similarly performance, technology, design features and price in each class. However, he adds: "Earlier carmakers competed on price, then quality. Today the competitive difference is about design. Not just about the way a car looks, but also what it delivers in terms of feel, aesthetics, ergonomics, and comfort. That’s why Volvo puts design at the top of its strategic agenda."
Design, he stresses, is not about making things ‘prettier’, but rather a way of life where nothing is allowed to happen by accident in the effort to surprise, entertain and amuse a customer.
"Some people think that in recent years we’ve been reinventing Volvo by focusing our advertising on ‘performance’ and a zestier, younger audience, but actually we’re just using messages relevant to customers increasingly adverse to commodities. Volvo cars still offer outstanding levels of safety with design features that benefit each individual user; male, female, kids, even the family pet."
At day’s end, Henrik Otto’s bottom line is simple: "Enough is never enough. My job is to constantly drive the design advantage forward, ensuring Volvo cars are memorable and distinct, with design considerations intimately integrated into each and every car."
Volvo Car Corporation sells over 400,000 cars every year in more than 100 markets globally. Making cars since 1927 and employing 28,000 people, Volvo Car Corporation is a member of the Ford Premier Automotive Group.