INTERVIEW | We enter the minds of two Volvo design heads

13 May 2020 - 19:11 By brenwin naidu
A 2020 Volvo S60 in action.
A 2020 Volvo S60 in action.
Image: Supplied

Volvo availed two of its key members steering aesthetic affairs to us, for an electronic interrogation.

Robin Page is the head of design and Owen Ready holds title as head of strategic and brand design.

We asked and dutifully, they answered.

Owen Ready is head of strategic and brand design at Volvo.
Owen Ready is head of strategic and brand design at Volvo.
Image: Facebook / Volvo Cars

Encapsulate the defining features of each decade of Volvo design since 1927?

Owen Ready: Well, it is a little tricky to encapsulate Volvo design in decades but…

1927 to 1950 - The company was still establishing itself, but right from the start we had a purpose that put people at the centre of everything we do. That began with a focus on robustness and reliability, to protect people from the harshness of our northern climate, which resonated at a time when vehicles were often very unreliable.

1950s - Post-war boom and a global obsession with the American style drove a sense of optimism for the future. The cars were luxurious and streamlined to match. In 1953 our desire to create cars for how people live their lives gave birth to the first estate car, the Duett.

1960s - This was really the decade during which Volvo established itself as a maker of stylish, sporty yet understated cars. The P1800 and Amazon combined the style of contemporary Italian cars with the now legendary Swedish reliability and strength. The 144 from 1965 redefined Volvo with a radically different shape that placed safety at the centre and set the template for the "boxy" era of Volvo design that was truly unique to the brand. 

1970s - An ever-increasing focus on safety and family really drove the development of the cars in this era, with Volvo helping to define new standards in this area. Impact bumpers, crumple zones and rear-facing child seats totally changed the perception of vehicle safety. This was reflected in the strong, architectural look of the cars.

1980s - The 700 series cars helped to define the iconic wedge shape of this decade. Towards the end of the 80s the 480 (what could be more 80s than pop-up headlamps?!) and 440 expanded the range and set the tone for the next decade. 

1990s - If the 850 started to knock the corners off the ‘brick’, the S80 took the architectural building blocks made famous in the previous decades and remixed them into a Postmodern expression and an exploration of Scandinavian design heritage.

2000s - An expansion of the model range from the small C30 to the XC90 via the C70 coupe and cabriolet in the neo-Scandinavian style that combined rational product design with bold sculpture

2010s - The rise of the SUV and a more expressive and ‘emotional’ styling era as the brand aimed to directly compete with the other premium brands. A new company owner and design direction has driven the enormous success of the brand since 2015 and established it as a true premium carmaker. Exceptional proportions, attention detail, leading User Experience design and truly Scandinavian great taste are at the core of this. 

2020s - Wait and see!

Robin Page is the head of design at Volvo.
Robin Page is the head of design at Volvo.
Image: Supplied

Give us a hint then. What are some of the hallmarks we can expect from the brand as it progresses?

Robin Page: The Volvo logo and the light identity of our cars is extremely important for the initial design hallmark. We have on our current product range the Thor’s hammer, which is a strong identity to the front of the car. And we have a strong graphic which we will continue to evolve for the rear of the car. This will continue in the future and become even more important and develop to an even more sophisticated level.

Aerodynamics will also play an even more important role in the development of exterior design as we move forward into electrification, purely because it has a direct connection to range and the look of the new generation of cars - for example, elements such as wheel design and lowered hoods.

The signature silhouette lines and the shoulder lines and daylight openings (a design term worth Googling – ed) are also key to indicate brand identity.

In terms of the interior, we will stay true to Scandinavian design, which is really about capturing the right ambience inside the car. True Scandinavian design is a combination of both visually clean, well-resolved design and elegant architecture, combined with beautiful jewellery details and premium Scandinavian materials.

This will be combined with the very latest technology, which we [will] develop even more as we go forward into our next generation. 

Safety is a major part of the Volvo brand narrative. Everyone knows this. Talk to us about the symbiosis of safety and design?

Robin Page: Safety is a fundamental part of the DNA heritage and future of Volvo and of course design embraces that. From the traditional elements of safety such as the seat belt and airbags to the latest sensor technology, we work very closely with the Safety department to ensure all elements are designed properly into the car.

As we move forward into the next generation, we have to integrate even more sensors, radars, lidars etc. This will play a fundamental part in the future of car design, so we can actually prevent an accident happening in the first place. We are protecting pedestrians and cyclists from even getting into an unsafe situation with the vehicle.

Design has to work extremely closely with the safety department and the engineering department to make sure we integrate this technology the best way and design around it. It is really important to embrace the problems and come up with great solutions that are the optimum for safety and also think about the customer themselves.

We use design in terms of user experience to really enhance the safe feeling of the person inside the car. It is about making them feel secure and safe by communicating that the technology is in place to really keep them secure and to look after them and their family. 

The wagon has always been a staple for Volvo. With consumer appetites shifting towards sport-utility vehicles and crossovers, can we still expect to see the traditional, slab-sided estate (like the V90) playing a part in the design story a decade from now?

Robin Page: We are constantly looking at the type of vehicle that our customers expect in the future. Of course, as we move into electrification, we are predicting that, for instance, aerodynamics will play a key part in the future of the SUV, because it has a direct relationship with range, but we also see our customers enjoying a high seating position in the car.

Along with these trends, our customers expect a car which relates to our Volvo heritage, but in a modern way. Our job is to deliver on all elements: a car which fulfils the needs of our customers and is true to Volvo design language. I am sure the traditional slab-sided estate will remain as an influence to reflect on in the future, but it may well be a very different vehicle. 

Virtually all manufacturers are scurrying to capture the youth market, as the nature of the automobile industry changes rapidly. From an aesthetic perspective, in your view, what do young customers want?

Owen Ready: We’re less concerned with how old our customers are and instead focus on their values. We offer freedom to move in a personal, sustainable and safe way for people who care for themselves, those around them and the world we share. People who aren’t interested in these values aren’t our customers.

Single-out five models that marked new directions in the Volvo design timeline.

Owen Ready: Duett (1953); P1800 (1961); 144 (1964); S80 (1998); XC90 (2015).