From #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter: How the car industry could do better

As Ford design manager, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer an ergonomic approach to interior car design such as in the
As Ford design manager and one of the only women in a senior position, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer the current ergonomic approach to interior design © Ford

I entered journalism through the automotive corridor. Fresh from university and with a background in the arts, a Design History degree and absolutely no real-life working skills, I took the first job that presented itself. It was at a dry auto technology magazine. The publisher was part of a thoroughly traditional institution – the kind of comical establishment where the management is almost all white middle-aged portly men in ill-fitted suits –- the type who take long lunches topped with bottles of wine on expenses and flirt openly with their PAs. This was a place where archaic sexist banter and the occasional ‘funny’ racially inappropriate remark were commonplace.

On occasion, I found myself defending colleagues whose gender, looks, race, sexuality upset the institution’s ‘norm’ –- never with much success since the bullyboys made sure the victims were quickly silenced. Eventually I escaped to begin the life of a free and independent design writer. I kept a foot in the auto world though.

Since its explosion a few years ago, the powerful #MeToo movement has ushered a much-needed debate surrounding gender inequality and sexual violence. In much the same way, the tragic killing of George Floyd earlier in the year and subsequent protests in US cities and across Europe led by Black Lives Matter have boldly shone a spotlight on the systemic racism and the lack of true equality in our societies. 

Which brings me back to the contemporary car scene. Gender-wise, the last decade has seen a noticeable shift in how women are encouraged across engineering, design, marketing and public relations. Saying that, there are still few female automotive chief executives with boardrooms across major traditional car companies occupied predominantly by men in suits.

Even within car design, in the creative world where you would expect more diversity, there is a noticeable lack of women in leadership positions other than in interior design, colour and trim. Similarly, there are simply not nearly enough culturally diverse voices in the auto design world.

When I originally posted this piece (this is a revised version), I was contacted by a senior executive from a notable car design studio based in Asia protesting to the above. He insisted that there were no such issues in the industry. Yet, the reality is out there: design studios are mostly overseen by men, and with a few exceptions, white men rule in Europe and the US, with a mix of Asian and European men holding creative power positions at the car design studios in Japan, South Korea and China. 

Even in mainstream automotive journalism, it is baffling how few writers of colour exist. The YouTube/social media scene seems has filtered in a few more shades, but the numbers are negligible. The same can be said for women and LGBT representations. Dare-I-say, I sense that the women who do make it into the fraternity seem to either conform to feminine stereotypes, or try to fit in by being one of the boys. Since writing this piece, I have been inundated with messages from women in design and journalism who wholeheartedly agree with the above.

But I’m not here to point fingers. Rather, my interest is in understanding why this is the case. Surely, more diverse voices will lead to more exciting conversations in all aspects of automotive – from design to engineering, and from the boardroom to the newsroom?

A senior member in car design, and a good friend, highlighted something that I hadn’t quite considered. Having read the original piece, he told me there is a genuine want and a push to be more inclusive. Yet the reality is to become a head of a design department in a large car company requires substantial experience, and it will therefore take time before this new wave of women and diverse groups have gained the expertise to manage departments. His own independent studio in Italy is a healthy mix of ages and sexes and ethnicity, and the benefits are clear in the work they produce. 

Recruiting women and people of colour and diverse backgrounds is one element. But perhaps more can be done at an earlier stage to include a wider pool of talent. Brands can work directly with educational establishments, even at school level to show those who may not be aware, or may not have the confidence or connections, of the possibilities of careers in the car industry. It happens successfully in other areas, so why not here. 

By contrast, art, architecture, design, fashion (areas in which I am also involved) have made significant efforts to be inclusive, acknowledging that there exists a problem, then discussing it openly. What is perhaps telling is that since the killing of George Floyd how few of my colleagues in automotive have responded vocally on social media and elsewhere in defence of equality and diversity.

Yet design and arts communities have come out in full support of the anti-racist movement. From MoMA to the Barbican Centre (even my yoga studio), cultural establishments have posted bold statements regarding their anti-racist pledge. This doesn’t mean these galleries and centres were racist. It means they acknowledge that more can be done. They are having an honest dialogue. They are taking positive actions.

I look back at my time at that very first institution and shudder at the sheer blatancy of gender and race inequality. Those men got away with so much because they knew that ultimately the system favoured them. The modern car industry is certainly more refined and there is less obvious a show of chauvinistic, but it’s clear that there is still work to be done. It can do better.

Diverse voices with different experiences and outlooks naturally lead to more exciting conversations. And it will help bring about genuine progress.

… a note following the publication

This is an updated version of a post originally published in June, edited to reflect the responses I received following the original piece. Much of what I claim here is from personal experience and first-hand knowledge. It is not imagined and the evidence pretty much speaks for itself.

Within minutes of posting the original post on social media, messages began appearing in public and private. One I blocked for his hair-raising fascist stance, some I chose to ignore for their stupidity (including one guy from Munich who couldn’t understand the fuss since design studios are, in his words, ‘fun places to work’ and another who unimaginatively wrote ‘all lives matter’). Yet largely they were positive adult discussions from the design community echoing my observations, and with some added tragicomedies which will have to make it into a fictional piece one day.

I am happy to hear some of my colleagues in car design take such issues seriously. Some, I now know, have created departments dedicated to working towards fairer and more equal environments. I hope they too will continue to listen to other voices and experiences – including mine. Prejudice may not exist in their studios, in their direct view, yet this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Following some worryingly passive-aggressive online bullying peppered with cutesy wink-smile emojis by the white male senior member of the Asian car design studio mentioned above, I eventually took the post down. He simply wore me out. Saying that, his name appears often as an ‘ism’ to explain away this type of blind-to-their-privileges characteristic (insert a wink-smile emoji here for my passive win, if you wish).

Yet, on the whole, the post created a genuinely engaging conversation, and much of what I’ve learned will naturally feed into my future writing. One reader noted that the car industry, on the whole, has long refrained from talking politics, that they see themselves as separate to these bigger discussions. I thought this is a really interesting point to conclude on.

If this were true of a sector which, up until now, has largely been involved in building personal motor cars, surely the next stage of transport, an altogether much more complex web, requires a deeper connection to politics and society? These are some thoughts that I hope will lead to more exciting discussions and eventually to positive change.

Jaguar explores new territories with F-Pace

The F-Pace is Jaguar‘s first sports utility in its 70-year history. Designing an SUV was not an easy task for a marque associated with a low, long and sleek vernacular, and with such a rich sports car heritage. ‘The customer wanted one,’ admits Ian Callum, ‘It is a practical car but with the spirit of Jaguar,’ adds the design director.

We’re in Frankfurt at the biannual international motor show. The previous evening the F-Pace proved its claim as the ‘sportiest SUV’ by breaking the Guinness world record, and defining gravity, on the largest ever loop the loop completed by a road car. Witnessing stunt driver Terry Grant race inside the 19.08m tall, 360-degree circle was pretty spectacular.

The F-Pace unveiled at Frankfurt is a production car closely based on the 2013 C-X17 concept study. It’s underpinnings are the marque’s lightweight aluminium architecture which has allowed the design team the freedom to create a car with ‘latent poise, a svelte car with attitude,’ smiles Callum.

‘Of course a crossover is vertically more challenging,’ admits Al Whelan as we caught up with him on the Jaguar Land Rover show stand, ‘but in many ways the intensive aluminium architecture helped us set up the building blocks,’ says the chief designer, adding, ‘You get this right, and the Jaguar traits follow from that.’

It also allowed for a roomier cabin. The F-Pace can accommodate five adults and there is a versatile 650/1740-litre cargo space. The doors come alive with Jaguar’s signature blue ambiance lighting, and the optional panoramic roof expands almost the entire length of the car suggesting a more spacious cabin.

This is a highly intelligent car too, featuring the marque’s latest 8-inch touchscreen and infotainment system, with an optional 10.2-inch InControl Pro system, which can connect up to eight devices to a wi-fi hotspot in the car.

Whelan sees most of the competitors in the small crossover category producing quite similar proportions, ‘long overhangs and short rear overhangs, and balanced looking side views,’ he says.

So, when two years ago the team came to envisage a Jaguar crossover with the C-X17 concept, Callum insisted on taking the marque’s most recent designs, in particular the DNA of the F-Type coupé, as inspiration.

Whelan explains they set out to create a unique typography with the F-Pace ‘with a long bonnet, lots of tension on the side view, and of course big wheels,’ he smiles. ‘The key was to keep it sleek and exciting and I think we have achieved this.’

The F-Pace is handsome in the metal – subtly translating the Jaguar form language to a car that by nature should defy this. Callum had asked his design team to embrace Jaguar’s sporting heritage, extract some of the theories from the evocative cars in the company’s rich back catalogue, and apply it to the F-Pace.

The overall vision was ‘for it to be softer, more refined, and more muscular interpretation,’ notes Whelan. ‘We introduced the two strong character lines from the F-Type coupé, the long front fender and the rear haunch… and it all started to work.’

Nargess Banks

A full report from the Frankfurt Motor Show was published in Wallpaper*.

Read more about Jaguar design here.

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Trend spotting at the Geneva Motor Show

The Geneva Motor Show is a great place for spotting new design and technology trends within the car industry. There never of course is a single direction but you can get a general sense of what  to expect in the new few years. Read the full reports in Future Space Magazine and in Wallpaper*

BMW_empty stage

Also have a look at some of the designer interviews from previous Geneva Motor Shows.

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BMW’s new 4 Series Convertible

Meet the new BMW 4 Series Convertible, the latest model to join the expanding portfolio of cars. It replaces the 3 Series Convertible and, along with the Coupé forms the all-new 4 Series family that will eventually grow to include the X4 and 4 Gran Coupé. Like its sibling, the Convertible is handsome and imposing in the flesh. Read the full review published in in Wallpaper*.

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Can electric cars make music?

Can cars make music? This is the premise behind a research project that is looking into inventing new sounds for the age of the silent electric and hybrid vehicle, a sound that responds and returns something back to the environment.

Electric cars emit very little noise. Legislations in Europe and the US, however, will soon dictate that they must alert other road users. What we’re seeing though is a focus on sounds that are about warning or are heavily imprisoned in the old age of the motor car: roaring engines, the depiction of speed, of aggression, even fake Ferrari engine notes.

But what if we look to it from an entirely different angle to discover the aesthetics of sound and the responsiveness of it. Or simply – how can the car respond to the city around it through sounds. And why not use this an opportunity to completely re-imagine the vehicle sound?

Electrification deserves its own sound, say Sonic Movement, a research project headed by a group of designers, artists and musicians. Our cities have developed but the sonic landscape remains primitive and disordered.

The brainchild of designers James Brooks and Fernando Ocana, the project is being backed by technology firm Semcon who are working with avant-garde musician/artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst. Herndon’s work sonically explores the intersection between people and technology, whilst Dryhurst is looking into the blurred edges between art and technology.

The team looked at multiple cars and how the sounds working together can build a symphony. They pinpointed sounds in a three dimensional way, creating elements for when a car goes faster or slower, turns an angle or sits idle. The soundscapes here show some of the ideas being explored at the moment.

‘What is the aesthetics of sound and the responsiveness, which allows the car to respond to the city around it,’ says Ocana. ‘We need to influence the legislation so as not to live in a world of fake Ferrari engine sounds and find a suitable humanistic sound,’ he notes, adding so that the car is no more the villain.

Listen to Sonic Movement talk with musician Jarvis Cocker here.

Learn more about the project and listen to some of the sound ideas here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read about Fernando Ocana’s previous project Monoform that also looks into how the car can respond to its environment. Plus have a look at James Brooks’ shared transport project – both of there were presented at their final year Royal College of Art vehicle design show in 2011.

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