How Geely’s design chief is mentoring next-gen car stylists

Peter Horbury Geely art 1 900x540
Peter Horbury Geely art 1 900x540

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How much time do you spend mentoring next-generation designers and how much time do you spend actually designing yourself?  

I think that as soon as you gain some seniority you start to be a mentor. We have lots of young designers who have so many fantastic ideas — many of which are impossible. But as a manager, when you spot a talented designer, then you help by showing him how to get an idea into a more producible form without losing any excitement or any creativity. The lifeblood of any company is to have new, young people who follow ideas and don’t know they’re impossible. That’s critical. As we gain experience we realize that there are 1,000 reason why you can’t do that, but a young designer doesn’t know that. So, you let that creativity flourish and give people confidence. When it comes to my own design inputs, they are less and less regular because as you move up in an organization, you have got more and more projects to oversee.  

Your successor at Volvo Cars, Thomas Ingenlath, is now CEO at Polestar. Car designers are underrepresented at the top of most auto companies. Can you tell us why that is? And, can Ingenlath help blaze a path for others to follow?  

I really admire that he’s done this. It’s been tried before [elevating a designer to a top management post] to varying degrees of success. Sometimes I think those designers [promoted to top jobs in the past] became fed up with all the [management] stuff they had to deal with. But I think Thomas is doing a great job bringing a completely new brand to market. I don’t know if I could have ever done that because I’m so steeped in the design area. I wish him well. Gerry McGovern is now on the management board at Jaguar Land Rover. I think he will do a fantastic job in maintaining the balance between the commercial, financial and creative sides, because his voice will have a lot of authority in that company as a board member.  

Is a new or different mindset needed to design an electric car?  

The electric car is a great opportunity. I’m pleased to see some companies really grasping that opportunity. There is no longer this great lump of an engine out front. You look at Lucid Motors, Faraday Future and our own Lynk & CO Zero Concept, which we presented at the 2020 Beijing auto show, we are taking advantage of that lack of an engine to move the upper part of the car forward. That creates momentum toward this modern profile of the automobile.

Preserving a design often requires tense negotiations with the manufacturing, engineering and marketing teams. How have you handled those difficult discussions while working all over the world?  

I have worked in the UK, Sweden, Holland, the U.S. and China, and everywhere is different. But there is a similar theme where you have got to be convincing. It’s always a compromise somewhere. It has to be a complete team effort because so many different skills are needed. I’m sure members of my team think I have giving in too quickly, but I know the clock is ticking and we only have a few months left to get to the final stage. We cannot risk another round of experimentation. We have to get there. So, everybody has to make some compromises. It’s not easy.

Is there a car that you see driving around and you say, “I wish I would have done that one?”  

There are plenty, but this is always changing. I think some design teams are working wonders these days. I’m happy to say that some of them are led by proteges who have been through my department in previous years. But I find it difficult to name one car or one company because I could name a dozen.

My though on current design is that I don’t see anything wrong in doing beautiful. I get worried that the ugly stick is being waved about a bit vigorously in some parts of the world. I think we risk heading toward this. In some Japanese designs there is almost a random line and shape pasted onto the car. This cuts up the car into pieces. I think if you look at a beautiful design, like the Jaguar E-Type, there is flow that goes all the way through from front to back — undisturbed. There may be details drawn into that shape, but they’re not disturbing it. What we will be doing at Lotus [which is also control by Geely] is maintaining that idea that it can be a thing of beauty.  

Many Chinese automakers during their early years were prone to copying. One of the things youhave done at Geely and Lynk & Co is create a defining look. How did you get your bosses to truly believe in the ability of a Chinese brand do this?  

There are a couple of reasons why it was like that. One of them is that copying, which we almost see as a crime in the West, is considered an honor in the East. The feeling is that if somebody copied my design, I should be honored. That is a completely different perspective. On the other hand, I think there was a lack of self confidence and a feeling that a brand needed to quickly catch up with the West. What I found at Geely is the idea that if the boss showed me the latest BMW on his iPhone and said, “That is what I want,” I would say, “That’s theirs. We can do something ourselves.” Now there has been a huge gain confidence in the Chinese automotive business that wasn’t there 10 years ago. What helped us was the strong sales of cars we designed from scratch.  

What’s next for you? You are 71 years old. How long do you want to continue to doing this?

I will gradually wind down from the position I have at the moment and take a more advisory, Although, I must say the Lotus projects that were started, I am going to find it hard to let them go. They are so exciting. This is the very fun part of all our brand. I’m not saying that the others are not fun, but you can imagine that having the chance to design a new Lotus is something I would like to stay with a little while longer.

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