When I was a kid – unlike every other automotive designer in the world – I wasn’t inspired by seeing cars because I didn’t see many. Back then in China, most of the vehicles I saw were either trucks or buses, so I didn’t develop a passion for cars. But I always liked drawing.
I ended up studying industrial design in Tongji University in Shanghai and did a Masters at Tsinghua. Then, in 2002, I took part in an international design competition. They tasked students to come up with a car brand which reflected youth culture, then we had to develop a series of cars for this brand, build a quarter-scale model and take it all to Stuttgart to present in front of the judging panel.
I came up with a brand called ‘East Scene’ because I wanted my brand to reflect the culture of the East, specifically China. But, when I look back, some of my ideas were very naïve, and very similar to things I dislike now – just putting a dragon or some other Chinese element on the car – but back then I was doing exactly that.
The judges saw something valuable in it, though, and I won the prize for Best Branding. My performance attracted the attention of the then deputy design director of Mercedes-Benz, Murat Günak.
He recruited me and I started work in Sindelfingen in February 2003. I learned a lot from those years with Mercedes, but by 2009-10 China was fast becoming the biggest car market in the world. A lot of Chinese companies wanted to sell their own cars with original designs, but they just didn’t know how. I saw this as an opportunity, so I started looking and finally decided to move to GAC.
At that time, GAC was famous for its joint ventures with Japanese companies. But you can’t just produce products for other brands, so the bosses decided GAC had to develop its own brand, which began in 2006 with their first R&D centre. Back then, the design organisation at GAC was very primitive, but in 2011 the first product came on to the market. Then people started to realise that GAC had a real brand, which we called Trumpchi.
I want our work to erase this stereotyped impression about the Chinese car industry, that it just copies or clones. We want to destroy this idea with our innovative, creative designs. The EnSpirit concept we showed at Detroit in 2017 was meant to reflect the new trend of young, multicultural people who have lots of different interests and multitask between them.
EnSpirit has beauty and good proportions, and expresses our design philosophy. One of the core values of that philosophy is always to try and create something people have never seen before. That’s why we designed this type of crossover, an SUV sports coupé cabriolet; that’s our own signature style.
Another of our core values is thinking about how to integrate culture into a modern design. That’s a topic I’m always very interested in – how to bring a fresh Chinese flavour.
For example, we put a bonsai inside the EnSpirit concept car. A lot of young Chinese people like raising these plants in their living rooms, on their balconies. We also came up with a very interesting solution for how to raise the bonsai, by setting up sensors around the plant which you can control remotely from your smartphone app, to give it water or light if needed. It will then develop a special relationship between you and your car.
Much of the interior of the EnSpirit is finished in bamboo, a sustainable, native product, but not one that has been much used in car interiors. We saw a phone case in bamboo, and thought ‘this is interesting’. So we found the manufacturer and worked with them to produce much bigger and more complex shapes.
It wasn’t an easy process at times, but I think the result is excellent and now we have a potential new interior material.
Most of our young designers apply to GAC directly for work – GAC is a big group In China, so it has a good reputation. We don’t struggle to recruit, but we don’t get the first-grade talent inside China. There are very good schools with very good graduates, but they seldom come to us. They all want to go abroad to get international experience, which is good. I was there too, so I know that was important, but the situation has changed since I graduated. China had almost no car design business then, but now car design is one of the most competitive businesses in this country.
Those young talents might just be missing big opportunities in China. Our designers are still young – most of them, even those in senior positions, are still in their 30s but they are in charge of exterior design, interior design and so on. And they get those positions because they have been through so many successful projects, which has made them capable of taking senior positions.
We are also looking for people with international experience and vision to jump on board and help our designers to be even better, to take another step, but that’s not the only way I’m planning to develop the team. We’re also building up satellite studios around the world. One is being built now in Los Angeles, another one is planned in Shanghai, and we may also establish in other places. We want to get inspiration from both outside and inside China – different perspectives.
I have realised that as a leader of the whole organisation, your task is not only to give designers tasks and pressure, but also to encourage and to cultivate the whole team to make the creativity sustainable. We have a lot of challenges ahead. When you think of the future for automotive design with all the influences from new technologies, the car has become a mobile living room. This brings challenges for designers.
The car will transform from a driving machine to a drivable living space, and people will expect to do more things while they are travelling. Therefore, designers need to be aware that the design content is not just about form, colour, lines, or details any more. They will still be very important, but they will not be the entire content of car design because, as with smartphones, people’s expectations are increasing, getting broader.
They need a car to be good-looking, but also to provide a sensational user experience. In a conventional car they could get those experiences from the styling, the performance of the engine and the handling. But for cars in the future, things like handling will just not be so important any more.
I think some designers are reluctant to embrace this, because that means they have to step out of their comfort zone and work with people from different disciplines – engineers, suppliers, even psychologists. And our job then is more than just putting all those technologies and ideas together. It’s about creating a special, unique experience that only your brand, only your product can provide.
So, the future I see for the Chinese automobile industry is very bright; I think we have many advantages right now. Our disadvantage is the technology, especially in the areas of traditional automobile technology – engines, powertrains, transmissions.
But we don’t have the constraints or the drag of the old, outdated perceptions about a car.
We are more open. We are travelling lighter.
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.