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Mark Adams Interview – Vice President, OPEL Design.

Mark Adams was born in London in 1961. He studied engineering and design, completing his bachelor degree in Mechanical and Automotive Engineering and reading a Master’s degree in Automotive Design at the Royal College of Art in London. He held various executive positions in design at Ford holdfore taking the role of head of Exterior Design for GM Europe in 2002. He was instrumental in the design of the Antara, Astra TwinTop, Corsa, Zafira Tourer and Astra GTC. In 2007, he was appointed Vice President Design for Opel/Vauxhall. From August 2012 to August 2013, Mark took on additional responsibilitiesy as Executive Director of Design for Cadillac and Buick at GM in Warren, USA.

Today, Mark Adams in conversation with designdaily.. talks about the current phrase of Opel Design. He also shares his thoughts and experience on what ‘Design’ means to him, the Automotive industry, Electric Vehicles, Design education & how to become a Successful Designer.

Opel GT Concept.

Mr.Adams, can you kindly tell us about your background and how did it all lead to you becoming a Professional Designer ?

As a child I was always drawing and maybe at around the age of 9-10 years old I had a real fascination with drawing cars. The big stepping stone to me becoming a car designer happened when I entered a competition organised by AutoCar to design a new MG. The competition included entries from many professional designers but I managed to win a highly commended prize and I was invited up to The Waldorf Hotel in London for the prize giving. I was blown away and from that moment knew I had to be a car designer.

My education path was a slightly unusual one for someone following the car designer path but it has put me in a good position now. After school I did a Mechanical engineering degree rather than following the Art degree path. However, I was always developing my portfolio on the side. At the time I was sponsored by Ford but I managed to show the head of Design my portfolio and luckily they agreed to sponsor me.

Opel Monza Concept.

The Royal College of Art in London, where I did a Masters Degree in Vehicle Design in 1982. Having both an Engineering and creative, artistic background means that I use the left and right side of the brain; I am… sort of both (smile). In my job I think that has been an amazing benefit. When I am challenging engineers I can understand engineering principles very well – this has given me a very strong foothold in both– let us call it – the artistic side and the functional engineering side.

It is a little bit like our design philosophy, in a way (smile). You can argue the Engineering part is my German precision and Sculptural artistry is my artistic side. When I look back now, I can make that relationship; it is interesting how things work out.

Opel Rak e.

How would you describe your approach to Design and what is your Design Philosophy ?

A bit of it, I mentioned in the first answer, but in terms of approaching design in general, I become frustrated when people refer to the Design Department as the Stylist. Because that implies we are just cosmetically decorating an object. That is not what we do. We are thinking about the fundamental principles of design, its functionality and of course making it look good but most importantly, how it connects to a customer emotionally.

My three most important rules for car design are proportion, proportion, proportion. Because great proportions then allow you to simplify your design approach. You do not have to try so hard, you do not have to over decorate when you have well thought out product fundamentals. Design is the visual indicator of the brand, so it’s important that the shapes, lines and graphics all come together to reinforce the brand image. This is not something just related to car design but applies to any product.

How would you describe ‘Good Design’ & what would it be it’s essential elements?

As I said earlier, proportion is key for me, particularly in car design. Without great proportions everything else suffers.

Consistency of a design execution is also very important when developing a brand. When I first joined Opel I looked at some of the great cars in the brands history but I also recognized that the execution had not been as consistent as it might have been. One of the key things I developed was a simple Design philosophy that my team (and the company) could rally around. I called it “Sculptural artistry meets German precision” and we have been developing this in product waves. Cycle 1.0 started with the original Insignia and now we are moving through cycle 2.0. You will soon see how we are embarking on the latest phase, Cycle 3.0. This time the philosophy is the same but with a slight nuance change to represent our ability to focus more on being German, I flipped the design philosophy to “German Precision meets Sculptural Artistry“.

German Precision meets Sculptural Artistry.

Opel Monza Concept marks the start of Design 2.0.

Progressive Evolution in a German brand is very important. We want to keep the principles and the fundamentals consistent with what we stand for, but develop fresh ideas that fit the future context using latest technology and innovations. You will still recognize all of our cars as Opels, since our DNA needs to be strong and clear but at the same time, it will be fresh, new and modern. It’s important to understand your history but you always need to look a long way forward. We are proud of our history, which is important to build consistency but if you look too strongly back over your shoulder, you do not make a big enough progressive step forward. We are not doing that.

For me, Germaneness is about the balance of simplicity yet pushing innovation. Getting the fundamentals right, yet pushing the application of relevant technologies that are both functional and beautiful.

Opel GT Concept.

How the products that you have worked on affected the Automotive Industry & Design ?

I would like to think we have done many interesting things in recent years. Clearly many of our recent cars have been very successful, like the new Astra (European Car of the year) and new Insignia but I guess the recent show cars probably have the strongest impact from a Design perspective, since they represent pure brand expression. As an example, when we did the GT Concept, I had many of my peers around the industry who were really complimentary about that car. It was the latest expression of where our brand could go next.

How would you describe the current state of the Industry (even the profession) & what do you expect the future to unfold ?

I think we are at an incredible turning point in history in the automotive landscape. For the last – let’s say – 100 years, the automobile has been an evolution of a core principle, which is: there’s an engine at the front, there’s a steering wheel behind it, and then 4 or 5 passengers… or more (smile), positioned behind that. That really goes back to horses at the front, someone behind the horses and then the carriage with the people in.

Now, as we look into the future, which is much closer than we think, the significant move towards electrification and now potentially combined with autonomous technologies, mean that whole principle can be turned on its head. Because no longer is there a need to have the engine at the front, no longer is there a need to have even potentially a steering wheel, or even to face in the direction of travel!

It is not just a pipe dream for designers. This technology is real, it is doable, it is coming and it is coming soon. We already have some of those top technologies today, and they will only get stronger and better and become more impactful on our environment. The world around us is changing fast and the automotive world needs to reflect these fundamental changes.

Are Electric Vehicles & Autonomous Transportation really the Future ? Or this is merely a step in a bigger revolution/evolution ? 

Electric vehicles will no question be in place, as we put greater pressure on reducing emissions, and particularly reducing local emissions. So yes, it is really the future.

I do not think autonomous technology will take over completely, in the sense that no one will ever drive again. I do not know for how long, but there will be a bandwidth of what autonomous means. Some levels of autonomy allow you to take control when you want, while others are there fully all the time. This clearly depends on the type of use from personal transportation, through to automatic taxi shuttles.

It is all still in a state of flux, but it will be interesting to see the landscape in which the technology can adapt. With car-to-car communication the whole idea of safety changes. If cars can automatically see each other, then they can automatically stop at a certain distance from each other. The chances of accidents could be reduced dramatically, especially as most accidents are through human error. Of course there will be the IT challenges but this is a revolution that is coming fast and it is very exciting for us designers, since it opens a whole new world of Design challenges to solve.

Opel Rak e.

Your thoughts on the current Design Education structure, how it has evolved and how will it evolve in the future ?

Design education was very much focused on the function of the object and its aesthetics. Now, if you think about how the world is changing, for me a big thing is the experience of travel. If you think about the whole interface experience you have, even considering our phones – think about that whole user experience you have with your phone. Back in the days of the punch phones, you would never dream you would have the experience that we have today.

I think that formal design education has to adapt to that too, consider it as a stronger part of the curricula. It’s again part of this dramatic changing world.

Opel Vivaro.

How to become a successful Designer ? What are the qualities of a Successful designer ?

I see in our field lots of talent. There is no question that designers today have huge ability to create 2D visuals that capture the spirit of something beautifully.

And most of them, because they’re younger and they have been brought up with the technologies that are common place today have amazing skills when it comes to developing their designs quickly in 3D data models. Interestingly, because they are so used to that virtual world, the challenge is to truly understand how to execute a 3D object.

That is the biggest challenge we find when a young designer comes into our studios. We are executing a 3D physical object: it is interesting how they can have amazing 2D and 3D Data skills but they do not necessarily find it easy to capture that in a 3D object. Very often the bigger the object, the harder it is. That’s a big part of our in-work education of the younger designers, helping them translate their very creative ideas and using the experience of people like myself and the rest of my leadership team to get them to that next level.

You have to take a bit of a bet, if you like, recognizing if this person is going to have the ability to do that and really work in that way. I think we have many talented people who really have developed and found that next level.

Opel GT Concept

I often take a young designer back to their original sketch and say When I look at that sketch, I see a different proportion here and here – telling them where on their model and helping them capture their original fresh idea. Not changing their idea but helping them materialize it. A sketch is something quick, you do it with no constraints, so you do what you really want. Interestingly, as they feel more constrained, they often drift further away from their original idea. It takes the experience of people who have done it before to know how you can get closer to their original idea. It is an interesting part of the process.

At the end of the day, obviously being creative and having fresh new ideas is fundamental but having the quality to translate those thoughts into a compelling 3D object and being able to work within the constraints of Engineering feasibility, costs and customer expectations creates a truly separates the good designers from the great ones.

Today we have to go broader than traditional car design schools in search of appropriate talent. As I said earlier, the world is changing and although we will still need traditional skill sets, we will also need a whole new breed of designers that think differently and have a wider diverse set of skills to cope with the changing world.

A piece of Advice for aspiring designers ?

I consider myself lucky to be doing a job that I also feel passionate about, not everyone has that opportunity.

As designers, I think we are all very lucky in the sense that we are all very passionate about what we want to do and here is a job that helps us do what we love, so we can combine the two. I think that is an important thing for designers, to stay passionate and enjoy what they do.

Enjoyment gives you that freedom to express yourself. When you feel constrained, your brain shuts down. Be confident and challenge the status quo. There will always be people telling you we can’t do that, but don’t stop challenging… ask why can’t we do that? Let’s do this. Because that opens new doors.

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