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The Designers: Meet Volvo’s man of tomorrow

Jonathan Disley looks to the far-flung future to stay ahead of the massive challenges that automakers will face as technology moves forward.

Published June 29, 2012

As a rule, the car you see on the showroom floor today was probably designed some five to seven years before it first appeared on the market. With so much work and testing involved, it takes that long to bring it all together.

But some designers have to look even further ahead. Volvo’s Jonathan Disley, who goes by the lengthy title of strategic advanced design manager for interior/exterior, is currently looking at what cars will be like after 2020 — and as far ahead as 2050.

“That’s my design brief,” Disley says from his office in Göteborg, Sweden. “It’s quite an advanced area and we’re working a lot with concept cars. We’re really trying to nail down what’s happening between 2020 and 2030, and where we think cars will possibly be during that time. 2050 just allows us to be completely freethinking in the process.

“If we set up 2030, we wouldn’t be able to stretch our minds. If we say 2050, we’re not restricting our thinking.”

Thinking outside the box isn’t new to Disley. Born and raised in Yorkshire, England, he studied product design and then went to the Royal College of Art in London. As his final project, he designed a quarter-scale helicopter. He used the philosophy of painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, known for his work with the German Bauhaus art school. “It’s very modern art,” Disley says. “They used techniques to create tensions and curvature, and I wanted to do that with the helicopter.”

He might have stayed with aeronautics, but for two things: First, since they’re primarily utilitarian, there weren’t many helicopter companies willing to spend money on design esthetics. Secondly, his work caught the eye of several auto companies, who were fighting to get him. He decided to go with Audi.

“It was 1995, and at that time, cars were getting quite exciting,” Disley says. “Audi had the TT concept, which was a real direction at the time. I worked on the production TT, doing little pieces of it. It’s very exciting the first time you get something on the road. I’d go up to people and say, ‘I designed it,’ and they’d look at me like I’m a weirdo.”

Two years later, he went to Volvo’s concept studio in Holland. “They had just launched the C70 and I thought it was a beautiful car,” he says. “It was an emotional product, with that human Scandinavian factor.” He left briefly to work with Ford, setting up a design team at the company’s London studio, before returning to Volvo in 2001, where he’s been ever since.

Inspiration comes from many places and members of Disley’s team travel to various transportation, fashion and furniture shows, both locally and worldwide, looking at the designs and materials being used. “There’s a lot of classic DNA and form language in Scandinavia, and you blend them together to come up with something fresh,” he says. “Just when you think you can’t better a design, you see something that’s more amazing or futuristic than it could be. But at the same time, we’re also keeping our feet on the ground.” As an example, a simple but classic table by Swedish furniture design company Swedese became the design basis of the air vents in the new S80.

His designers also use a wide variety of styling tools. Some are high-tech, including electronic tablets and cinema-style projectors that cast full-size digital renditions onto a screen. Others can be as simple as traditional clay models, or even just pencil sketches on paper. “Behind every successful designer is a team of people who pushed the vehicle forward,” Disley says. “Our studio has warm light, people are chatting, it’s a very nice environment, and that comes through in a lot of our designs. A car is a home away from home, and that’s very important when you’re creating something. If someone gets in the car and they feel straightaway that it’s ‘right,’ then we’ve done our job.”

So why look as much as 30 years or more into the future? Part of it is inspiration for the cars that are being designed now, but it’s also to stay ahead of the massive challenges that automakers will face as technology moves forward. “There are a lot of electrical cars on the market right now,” Disley says. “We have to think about how you would, in the future, lay out the engine or the batteries, and how people would fit into the car. If you have no engine, you don’t have the same requirements as you have now. There will be a lot of different possibilities of the layout of the car, which frees up the form of the vehicle. It’s complicated, but at the same time, it’s very creative.”

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