When I was growing up in India in the ’70s and ’80s it was quite a closed economy, so we didn’t grow up surrounded by the great cars you see in the States or in Japan. What you did see was a rich heritage of architecture and textiles. As the economy started opening, more and more cars came in from abroad; one day I saw a Mercedes 280 SE in electric blue parked in front of the Taj Mahal, and I remember seeing that iconic car in front of that great piece of architecture, and how it piqued my interest.
There weren’t any courses in India for transportation design in those days, so I enlisted at the National Institute of Design for product design, and the curriculum allowed you to choose the projects.
The definition of the job of a car designer is less clear than it used to be – it now covers every point of contact that the customer has with the brand, in every place the brand manifests. Today, from conception to delivery of product, design is a much broader discipline.
I think in the past, you were handed a brief, did a bit of work, dropped it through the wall and it disappeared again. Now it is much more seamlessly delivered. Designers wear many different hats: you may handle the advertising photography, for instance. You are a designer, a marketer, even an anthropologist.
We are present in Europe, although we don’t sell cars here. Still, we did the Geneva show in 2017 and designed the stand for the Tamo. We have done the same thing in a slightly different form for the Delhi motor show, and the next  Geneva show. Showing at Geneva is important. It goes a long way towards creating a credible brand image. And now we are involved in the next phase of showroom design. We are going to create 7-800 new showrooms for Tata in India in the next five years. It is the first time the design department has been involved in this, but it is important.
We will also be designing the digital experience. Design gets involved right from the first point of contact. In a young company like ours we don’t have this defined history of what design can and can’t do, which is why I find it so exciting.
We have a team dedicated to trucks and buses and by 2019 we want to be the third largest commercial vehicle (CV)-maker in the world. We see now that there is also aspiration attached to the CV side of the business. There is a global shortage of truck drivers. Truck drivers are starting to influence the acquisition of the fleet, and this is a huge change. We have started to notice that truck drivers are making the choice to work for companies which have trucks with better ergonomics, comfort, safety.
It really helps to have the commercial vehicle and passenger team in India under the same roof, because a lot of the vehicle design and quality influence, in terms of material, textures, finishes, ergonomics, driver comfort, seat design, is put into the commercial vehicles. We are launching a product in Delhi which will be the stand-out product, but as a piece of design it is extremely aspirational. Truck drivers will look at this product and say ‘I wish I could drive that’.
Cars are only a small source of my creative inspiration these days; I have started looking to other industries. Watches, tailoring, sneaker design – in terms of a range, you can have the Bentley of shoes and the Nano, and everything in between. The kind of materials, the process, the way they [shoemakers] are driving technology, 3D-printed shoes from recycled plastic bottles – really pushing the boundaries of technology, material design, fashion, society, that whole nexus.
You can hyper-customise your design on a website, that is the twist. The style and trends from the ’80s have come back, but the context is totally different. It is very different from customisation as we know it, and they are mass manufacturing individually customised trainers. We should totally be doing this – there is no reason why, if you use artificial intelligence, 3D manufacturing, machine learning, you can’t have exactly the design of bumper you want. The software will intuitively let you design the parts that already meet the manufacturing requirements.
We have two brand new Tata global platforms. One is from the Jaguar Land Rover SUV and the other is for a small-to-medium modular car. With these two platforms, we will renew the whole product line. The architecture of the new platforms is great. We have got great proportions to begin with.
We are reducing six or seven platforms to two. This is the biggest investment in the company’s history. It is really great as a car designer to have worked on that, because usually you live with whatever compromises were made at the point the platform was set. So we are very lucky that we were involved in the design of the new platform architecture. It gives us a great range of cars. We showed the first new car of each platform at the 2018 Delhi Auto Expo.
I thought it was very important to bring a philosophy to Tata Motors’ design. We had broken down all the elements of the branding, and came up with Impact Design. We observed that the first contact with a new car is on a five-inch touchscreen. If you lose the battle there, whatever you do in the showroom, your customer won’t turn up. You need to win the war on the screen and you need to make that immediate impact – this relates to the exterior.
For the interior we consider lasting impact, because it lives with you, it is part of your life, that is what keeps you with the brand. If you have your favourite coffee shop and you can’t fit that cup into your car, you won’t buy one again. It is those tiny things – how easy it is to deploy the seat, to change the temperature in the car? All of those have a lasting impact.
We have studios in Coventry, Pune and Turin. Being in the UK and India gives us access to a very good talent pool. One of the key things I look for in recruits is social sensitivity – many people have great technical design skills, that is a given, but it is important for the designers we recruit to understand cultural subtleties, to understand the market we are working for and to love India. Our heart is in India.
At both a formal and informal level every member of the senior design team in UK and Italy will travel to India at least once every six weeks. Every two trips I ask them to spend a day or two in Bombay or Delhi, wherever they are, but not in a studio, just in the city.
What a designer observes is unique. We call this a ‘design safari’. Our little office in London also does this, they go to Shoreditch and just observe. What happens in Shoreditch happens in Bombay in the next three months.
This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.