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What It’s Like to Design for a Chinese Car Company

I recently sat down with Wayne Burgess, who heads Geely’s U.K. design office.

I first met Wayne Burgess  at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September of 2007. We were both at the same Jaguar cocktail party and started talking as we walked around the just-revealed XF. I listened closely to what Wayne had to say because he was the chief designer on the groundbreaking Jaguar sedan project. Fast forward to 2019, and beyond still being a hell of a nice guy, Wayne is now head of design and vice president at the newly opened Geely Design U.K. It’s quite a change to move from the longstanding British automaker to a privately held Chinese company. I recently pestered Wayne for a cup of tea and a chat at his office in Coventry, as I was eager to hear all about his new gig.

Jaguar isn’t the only feather in Wayne’s cap before joining Geely. “Working closely with Ian Callum (design director at Aston Martin at the time, in addition to Jaguar), I was responsible for exterior design, running the clay models, and overseeing the interior development for both DB9 and V8 Vantage,” said Wayne. “We had a very small, focused team. It was literally Ian, me, plus Ed Willis and Luke Ray on interiors. In less than three years, the four of us along with a clay modeling team and a couple of studio engineers created DB9 coupe and convertible and the car that became V8 Vantage.”

But his favorite design project thus far was that first-generation Jaguar XF. “I believe [the] XF was the first real demonstration of the new design language Ian Callum envisioned for the brand,” noted Wayne. “It was such a radical step forward from the heritage-inspired S-Type, both inside and out. It left nobody in any doubt that Jaguar had changed and was looking forward once more.”

So, why the move to Geely? “I had recognized for some time that China was playing an increasingly important role in the car industry,” said Wayne. “When I visited China, I saw that Chinese automotive manufacturers were eager to embrace new technologies. Also, their government was keen to support them. In the case of Geely, I was especially impressed with the way it had handled the Volvo and Polestar brands. It allowed them to flourish while giving them the right kind of financial and technical support. When I heard that my good friend and former ‘boss’s boss,’ Peter Horbury”—Horbury was the design director at Ford’s Premier Auto Group, which then included Jaguar and Aston Martin—”was looking to create a U.K. studio for Geely Design, I was very interested.”

I talked with Wayne further about Horbury. “He’s always impressed me with his ability to understand, absorb, and interpret the culture of any company he’s worked for,” said Wayne. “I remember him explaining Scandinavian design philosophy, in the context of Volvo cars, years ago, and being absolutely fascinated by his thoughts. That’s why I had a lot of confidence in making the move to Geely. His vision for Geely Design, I believe, is to make Chinese cars global, through a truly global organization of design studios that also understand Chinese car culture.”

But what is it like to work for the Chinese? “Put simply, things move at a much faster pace!” said Wayne. “I’m already aware that the product delivery timing is considerably faster. This is great from both a designer and a customer point of view, as the products are genuinely fresher in the marketplace. Culturally, it’s probably too early for me to have a full appreciation, but I do sense that the Chinese take a more intuitive ‘go with your gut feel’ approach. If an idea doesn’t quite work, they learn from it quickly and move on.”

Geely is a young, private company. Jaguar has most recently been owned by two large and established public companies in Ford and current owners Tata. That’s quite a change for Wayne. “I would say that Geely takes a more intuitive approach to the auto business,” he noted. “Again, they move quickly and aren’t afraid to try new processes and techniques. I’ve been hugely impressed by the enthusiasm and passion of the engineering team in China. They will literally investigate every idea we send to them and then provide feedback on it very quickly.” He also told me a bit about Geely’s president and CEO. “Mr. An Conghui is very interested in design and has a keen eye for details. At major international auto shows, Peter Horbury and his global first line will spend several hours walking the show with Mr. An, discussing the latest product offerings.”

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Geely Design U.K. currently has 60 employees in Coventry, and Wayne is looking to double that number within the next 12 months. “Our aim is to create a design center of excellence for the Geely Auto group of companies,” he noted. “We’re focused on creating a concentrated team of experts.” Much of Wayne’s time will be spent on Lotus, which is now owned by Geely. Volvo design stays in Sweden. But Wayne will also keep busy on Geely’s wide variety of brands. “Each of the Geely brands is developing its own design language, be it Lynk & Co, the Geometry brand, Geely Auto, and so on,” said Wayne. “Brand differentiation is very important. As Geely Design U.K. will effectively act as a consultancy to the Geely brands, we will spend time analyzing each and every one we work on, both to ensure that our creative input is aligned with the products currently available, but also to identify new opportunities for the brands to develop. It certainly makes our role even more interesting and enjoyable.”

It’s clear the former Aston Martin and Jaguar designer found an excellent but challenging opportunity for the next step in his impressive career. To the man who also plays in a band in his spare time, I say this: Rock on, Wayne.