Interview with Volvo Cars China Vice President of Design Jonathan Disley. Future of Scandinavian Design.

VP of Design for Volvo Cars China Jonathan Disley (left) and Managing Director of Volvo Cars Malaysia Lennart Stegland (right) with the Volvo P1800

A few months ago, Volvo had the Vice President of Design of Volvo Cars China, Jonathan Disley to come give a talk in Malaysia titled Tech Talk: A Design Story. Jonathan Disley shared plenty of interesting insights in regards to Volvo designs in the past and in the present, as well as pointing out exterior and interior design details that makes Volvo’s latest vehicles look how it is today, which is stunning and arguably class leading in my opinion. I’d highly recommend clicking here to watch the whole one hour of his talk which was filmed by Bobby from Evo Malaysia.

After the talk, I had the great opportunity to interview Jonathan where we discussed about his role in China, China’s unique taste in design, the future of automotive design, and even about his perfect three-car garage. Keep in mind that this interview happened in February where Geely has yet to make a deal with Proton, and I asked him if his presence has anything to do with that. Now with that in mind, read on and enjoy my interview with Jonathan Disley below!

Is this your first time in Malaysia?

Yes it is actually!

What are your first impressions?

*laughs* I haven’t seen much. I’ve only seen the hotel. Next time I’ll stay longer I think. So far it’s really nice.

What is your main purpose here besides the talk you just gave?

My main purpose is to give the talk here, but what I want to do also is to visit dealers, understand the customers, meet you guys, meet the media, and learn from our experience here.

The interesting thing when you meet dealers is that you understand how the flow is in the dealership, you understand what kinds of cars are being sold, you understand how the customer flow is inside. Also, is there anything that I can do to help them understand what kind of product and do they know these information. Some of the things I told the guys (staffs) today, they didn’t know about.

Things such as?

Like the symbol on the (car) key. You can colour code this to have his and hers. This is an accessory anyone can buy.

Does your presence have anything to do with Geely’s interest in Proton?

No. I heard about the Proton thing this morning. So I read on that on the newspaper.

How long have you had the position of VP of design for Volvo China?

Nineteen months. Nearly two years.

That’s relatively short I would say.

That’s fairly short yeah.

So did you get the chance to experience how the Chinese market is like compared to the rest of the world in terms of taste in design?

Well the thing is I was just asked a similar question earlier which is what is the difference between China’s design and Gothenburg’s design and why I am in China. I’m here to learn. I’m here to see parts of the world I would have never seen before. One part is to meet some dealers as much as I can, but also, you know, designing cars from Gothenburg you need to see other things in the world because your needs and demands can be very different.

One of the things that I learned very early on is that Volvo, you know, we played on the simplicity side maybe too far, and we lost some of those luxury elements that made a difference to our cars. So when we started designing some of the concept cars, was to add, or should I say, we did concept cars for China and then we needed to make the cars longer, more exclusive, more luxurious…

More dramatic?

Yeah, and then you say: “Oh surely Gothenburg wants that too.” “Yeah we do.” “Oh okay.” And then it starts to add to the process. I mean China is known historically of being very extreme, bling bling, lots of jewelries, lots of things, and that’s changing very very fast. So it’s becoming more about experience, personalization, about understanding quality, about understanding craftsmanship, very very quickly.

The other side is, Sweden, Denmark, (they) understanding how things are built, test of time, quality, fit and finish, stitching etc and they are polar opposites from us. Sweden can be more towards…they want more jewellery items. These guys are becoming more quality craftsmanship, so somewhere, it will meet in the middle. We’re feeding off each other. So I am reporting back every house meeting. I’m making movies, I’m making things go back to the designing team in Gothenburg and saying “Look this is what’s happening in China, this is what’s happening in Asia.” So this is my feedback to them. Plus, we are designing certain cars for these local markets.

So is your office currently in China?

In Shanghai, yup.

When your design team in Gothenburg is designing a car, do they send it to your team in China for some survey of sorts for the market?

I mean it’s not just only design. Car companies have marketing, factories, you name it. Whatever’s going on, those guys will all start talking. Remember we have internet these days, we have Skype, we have easy global communications. I’m talking to Gothenburg minimum once a week via Skype.

What’s the time difference?

My staff (meeting) are first starting at around four o’clock, five o’clock (afternoon) to Gothenburg, and they (Gothenburg) are just started working. So just before we go home, two hours before we go home, it’s just when they started working. We have specific rooms in headquarters that are only allowed for China meetings, so there are always those rooms available for telephone conferences or Skype, and it works really good.

We have cinema screens, bigger screens than this *points at the projector screen*. I can show my cinema, in Gothenburg, of my latest car designs data system, direct. I can send that, and they can turn it around, I can turn it around, and I can control what they look at in Gothenburg. I can zoom in, I can zoom out, I can rotate, I can change the whole thing, while they’re sitting in Gothenburg drinking coffee in the morning.

You know, you have to take a flight to come out to China. We communicate every single week, and my exterior designer would be talking to the exterior director in Gothenburg “I think we should change this.” “You’re right.” “I think we should change that.” “No, you’re wrong.” And we have a very good balance.

And then what happens is that we’ll mill the data, and Gothenburg will come over and take a look. Or, we send the data and Gothenburg mill it. So they mill a physical model, and we go and check it out there! It’s three dimensional data.

In your opinion, how do alternative fuel vehicles such as electric or hydrogen cars affect car designs for Volvo or even cars in general?

It means you got to think differently. You’ve been designing cars for a long time you’ve start to think, you know, my tunnel console, my gear lever etc. You get students, even young designers, and they’re still designing cars like we design twenty years ago. The hardest thing is to get people to design cars for the future.

When they took away buttons on this *holds up a smartphone*, everybody before was designing buttons. But as soon as they saw this (smartphone), everyone was designing with no buttons. So now they all look the same. Because everyone has seen what that looks like without buttons. So there will be eventually a change, but until you’ve imagine what this was, you won’t start designing it. So to get people to think out of the box, it is REALLY hard because you can only design what you’ve seen before.

There are only a few geniuses in the world who can figure out what that is, right?

Jonathan owns the patent to the “air blade” mechanism in the S90/V90 air vents

In a way that’s a blessing because you have more freedom in design inside and out, but it’s also a curse because people will compare yours to the pioneers. Just like how people would immediately compare any huge centre touchscreen to Tesla’s touchscreen.

Look at all these EV (electric vehicle) companies. Why do they look like cars? Why the hell…..all of these guys have got a golden opportunity, an open goal to design a futuristic, AMAZING looking, future transportation pod.

I (traditional cars) have an engine I still have to package, I have a HVAC I still have to…..I have…..

These guys (electric cars) have got a flat roller board skate. Why the hell has it got a long hood? Why? There is no engine! Why has it got a trunk? Why has it got four doors like a standard car? Why? Why?

I guess they would argue that they do not want to scare away customers by being too different?

*Holds up a smartphone* did they scare away customers by taking the keys off?

The problem is that no one (designers) dares take that jump, not from a customers’ point of view. Or do they know that they could take that jump. Can they show me something that’s amazing? I mean, when I was a kid, cars flew in my imagination. With jet-packs and all, I thought “whoa, this is going to be the future”.

Honestly, I know some of the designers that are designing all these cars, and they’re brilliant designers. But I was expecting so much futurism when I was on board.

*Gives examples of cars* in a few months’ time we’re going to show the FF, we’re going to show the Lucid, we’re going to show the…you know. *puzzling facial expression* It doesn’t even look like a concept. It looks like a production car. And it looks like a…, it looks like a…..sedan. You see what I mean? Why does this interior have a…..why is it…..Why? It doesn’t make sense.

So are you saying that Volvo is going to be breaking new grounds in terms of design for alternative fuel cars?

I think we are already breaking grounds. We have engines that we need to still package, we have to put a hood on a car. I’m talking about these new EV startup companies. I’m saying why the hell do they look like they do, because they don’t have an engine, then why are they got hood hoods? They look the same as any other car in the market. A little bit more futuristic with a little bit of details…but generally.

So, it’s difficult to imagine the future unless you’re being brave. And I think that’s where we need to be in the next generation; really brave. That’s where we need your young designers. I’m really searching for designers today that show me something unique, and these guys are going to be the Picassos or the crazy ones. It’s not the “It-looks-like-a-Ferrari guys”. These guys are going to be the ones that are really kind of…a bit weird probably. But they are going to show us what the future looks like. “Here’s to the crazy ones” you know. The ones who are ready to break the rules.

The hidden spider in the rear compartment was also his idea

What would you like to say to all aspiring and future car designers?

Don’t be afraid. Do not follow your colleagues. Do not follow the people around you. Show what you want to do with as much originality as possible. I mean you’ve still got to be able to do the standard stuff, but don’t be afraid. There are so many things out there.

The reality is, sometimes it’s still up to the management to approve your designs.

Yeah of course. And maybe I’m a little bit unique where I want to see originality. I tell you, I can get fifty portfolios and all of them are pretty much the same. And I can’t decide who are you, *points at different imaginary person* who are you, who are you, and where are you in here (portfolio).

And as a student, you have to think to yourself *presents a scenario* “I’m going to join a team of whoever this car company is.” Then, what do I bring that’s unique to that team? If I’m like all the others, why would they bother hiring me? What am I really good at? What is my unique selling point? Put that in your portfolio because they are looking for something extra. Otherwise they don’t need to hire you. Just do something that’s true to You, and be honest about it.

Final question, what is your perfect three-car garage?

I’ve had 911s. I’ve had classic Porsches. I had a beautiful 356A GT. Gorgeous looking thing. Um I’ve had a 912 racing car, which looks like a 911 but it has a smaller engine, better balanced car. A lot of people don’t remember that car but it looks exactly like a 911.

Lighter weight, better balanced. It’s so noisy, that when I drove it into the Volvo garage it used to set all the alarms off of the Volvos. It’s big, raw pipes at the back. I’d wake all my neighbors when I rode that car. At the moment I have a Morgan 3 Wheeler. I love that car, because no one hates you on the road in that car.

Do people feel bad for you when driving it during bad weather?

No, they’d smile and goes like this *makes a funny driving face while smiling at passerby’s*

Jonathan loves driving the Morgan 3 Wheeler, and he kindly did a sketch of it for us

Do you wear those classic driving googles when you drive it?

Yes I do. You just go lower and the rain goes over the top. But it’s such an experience to drive that car. And it goes back to what driving is about. That’s what I love about it. And everybody will tell you that the Porsche is just amazing, which it is, but you can hardly use that power anywhere. And it just becomes a mundane car. And what the problem is that you got a really amazing Volvo, and then you buy a Porsche and it’s like “I might as well just take that (Volvo), because I don’t want to put too many miles on it, I don’t want to pay for servicing, and I’ll just use the Volvo.” And it just becomes this…end of the car (Porsche).

Every time I get into the Morgan, it’s an experience that puts a smile on my face. And every time I stop at traffic, everybody’s like *thumbs up with approval*, and every time I stop for petrol everybody’s like *more thumbs up with approval*. Whereas in the Porsche they’d go “You’re an arsehole. You’re rich. You’re this, you’re that” and you get all this negative energy, and I hated it!

So I’m going to say, I’d go for another 356A. *Continues to think* I don’t know, I’d like an E-Type but I don’t want to have the cost of maintaining that, first gen E-Type. So complicated. Beautiful to look at, but rust comes and…

I’d go for a 356A GT Carrera. I’m going to go for a Plus 8, Morgan. And I might buy one when I go back to Sweden. They are really…..don’t want to put Morgan down, but you need to fix them all the time. You know, screws come lose and it rattles and stuff, but it’s the fun of it. And I’m going to keep my Morgan 3 Wheeler. So I got two Morgans in my garage, then I’ll probably throw in a company Volvo in there as well so I got my forth. 356A GT Carrera, Plus 8 Morgan, murdered out, black, black wheels, spokes. I know exactly how to spec that car.

What would you have?

We will be here all day. *everyone laughs*

During the second half of our interview, Lennart Stegland, Managing Director of Volvo Malaysia also joined in with our conversation where we further discussed about vehicle safety systems, the future of vehicle communication, Jonathan’s near-hit experience in a Volvo S80, as well as Lennart’s perfect three-car garage! Should you like to watch the full, uncut interview including Jonathan sketching the Morgan 3 Wheeler, click here!