Q&A with Volvo Head of Design Thomas Ingenlath
The man behind Volvo's new design direction shares his vision
AM: With the Concept Coupe and subsequent vehicles, you and your team appear to have absorbed and integrated the Scandinavian design sensibility that has impressed Americans for the past 60 or 70 years. Do you agree, and can you tell us how you are differentiating Swedish from German design?
TI: Some would argue that the creator cannot also be the interpreter, but you have definitely captured our intentions with the S90. [Some say they've] always liked Volvos, despite their clunky appearance. We want to remove that caveat. We want how our cars look to be part of their appeal.
In terms of Germany versus Sweden, I'm not sure that's the case. It's about designing the right car for Volvo. We are proudly Scandinavian, and so, of course, that is reflected in our cars, but to say that is the only ingredient would be too simple. It's much more about capturing the essence of Scandinavia in terms of nature as well as the lifestyle and social values. You can't capture that in something as simple as a grille graphic, for example.
When we created the Concept Coupe, Concept XC Coupe, and Concept Estate, we focused on each of the three strands of contemporary Scandinavian design and culture: authority, activity, and creativity. We did this because most people's idea of Scandinavian is outdated. Each new car will feature elements of each of these three aspects but in different ratios.
AM: Do you intend to use these same design themes throughout the entire Volvo range as older models are replaced, or will you give each size range a different basic theme?
TI: It would be a big mistake to simply scale up or down a design theme—that's a lesson that we can learn from automotive history. It's about creating the most appropriate car for each segment and therefore each customer group. Of course, everything is seen through the same Volvo lens, but that shouldn't be a very prescriptive set of guidelines.
AM: Will you use design to provide visual indications of what the power unit is as Volvo integrates electricity into its drivelines?
TI: When you have a car that is available with conventional power and also as a hybrid, it's important that it works equally well as both. I think we're beyond the requirement to be so overt about drivelines; customers are already starting to accept electrification as "normal." But, of course, the experience changes, and that is what we will focus on. There are functional elements that may become redundant, so maybe these should be reevaluated.
AM: Do Sweden's extremes of light in the summer and dark in the winter have perceptible effects on you and your design team?
TI: The experience of long, dark winters might be the influence that makes us strive for a welcoming, cocooning interior that radiates warmth. In contrast, our summer light with its crystal-clear brightness reflects a lot in our color choices.
AM: How else does the Swedish environment affect your design work?
TI: Beyond the obvious natural environment, there is also the "human" environment of Sweden. There is a real emphasis on the quality of life here, and that is what I think we have really captured alongside the country's natural beauty.
AM: Can you suggest the direction in which you will push Volvo design in the long term? Simplicity? Divergence from "international" norms or staying in the mainstream?
TI: Probably a mixture of all of the above. Volvo is not mainstream—it has a very strong appeal, and we have to balance that with the very obvious need to sell cars. Simplicity is something we strive for in many areas, but carefully considered elements of intricate detailing can make a "simple" design sing.
AM: What's the hardest part of your job?
TI: Answering journalists' questions.
AM: And the easiest?
TI: Not having to motivate a great team of passionate designers.