“Design visualizes the future”: Toyota’s global design manager on the key philosophy of car manufacturing

What makes a good car? Of course, design is an essential part of any answer to this. So what does design mean to Toyota and its customers? These are the questions designers continue to address.

This article features an in-depth interview with Head of Global Design, Simon Humphries. Here he offers insight into his extraordinary career, the essence of design at Toyota and the new chapter in Crown history.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Humphries was good at drawing as a child, and when he was thirteen, one of his teachers recommended that he consider becoming a designer. This inspired his initial interest in the field.

Humphries

I studied design from there, including college, and in 1998 won a design competition sponsored by a Japanese company. Their invitation to visit Japan was a turning point for me. I remember being fascinated by Akihabara, which was much more chaotic than today.

After this first visit to Japan, he returned to the UK to work in a design firm but found himself unable to forget his Japanese experience. So, in 1989, he returned and joined a design company in Nagoya, where he worked for six years. Until then, he had specialized in product design rather than cars.

Humphries

Even though I continued to work in product design, I always had in mind that I wanted to try car design.

I had no automotive expertise, but I felt like product and car design shared the same elements, so I gave Toyota a chance and they let me join. I remember to this day how happy I was.

That was 1994, and at the time there were no other non-Japanese designers in Toyota’s Japanese design division.

Humphries

The manager at the time explained to me that the reason for my hiring was that they wanted staff with experience of overseas design culture. They also needed someone with computer graphics knowledge. Fortunately, I had both.

What exactly is Humphries doing now, as head of global design? He shared two key insights for Toyota car designers.

Humphries

One is Toyota’s perspective, looking at where the company is heading and what existing value it can deliver. Naturally, President Akio Toyoda’s way of thinking greatly influences this.

The other point of view is that of the customer. In other words, the prospect of what the market is asking for.

The designer is always somewhere in between. You have to look at both sides, understand their needs and shape the message. This is the designer’s job.

Clearly envisioning the future is also another vital task for designers.

Humphries

Akio has a clear vision of where to go. His message is not “do this thing”, but rather “go in this direction”.

This direction then becomes our task. Designers must be able to see this direction, understand it and shape it. Following this complete sequence is vital.

This direction I was talking about is, in many ways, like a dream. Some dreams are fuzzy and undefined, while others are clear but difficult to achieve. We designers have to keep our eyes peeled and look in all directions to be ready to capture all these kinds of dreams.

Designers must be able to visualize the future while considering business strategy, management intent, and market demands. Design thinking is a method of organizing and orienting indistinct things, and that is precisely the role of the designer as described by Humphries.

Humphries

Things like rounded or sharp corners are style issues rather than design issues. They may generally be by design, but they’re really just on the surface. The real essence of design is problem solving, and the most important part of problem solving is deciding on a concept.

Take, for example, the new crown that was just announced. Akio told me, “If we want to make the Crown a relevant car for the future, I think it’s time for a drastic change.” That was the direction he was pointing.

He also added, “The 15th generation Crown that is functioning today is like the fifteenth and last generation shogun of the Tokugawa feudal period. We have to open a new era for the Crown like the Meiji era that came after the Tokugawas.” These words served as the foundation for the next crown.

It was clear he wanted a huge change. With this direction, designers could take on the challenge boldly.

Although Akio’s words – drawing a comparison to Japanese history – are abstract, Humphries recalls that “in a sense they contained incredibly specific directions”.

Humphries also stresses that meeting diverse needs is essential, not only for the new Crown, but also for Toyota’s design across its range.

Humphries

Using a uniform design for all cars is one way to manage brand management. At Toyota, however, the focus is on whether or not each car will become a unique experience for customers.

For customers, who choose a car from all the available options, isn’t it better to be able to find the best car for them, than to look at a lot of cars that have the same design? Our goal is for customers to feel happy that they have chosen a car.

As values ​​continue to diversify, Toyota’s automotive manufacturing also offers optimal solutions for everyone. Humphries seems to think this is an extremely Japanese methodology. He explains it by taking the example of beer in stores.

Humphries

The same brand of beer is available in several sizes in Japanese stores. 1L, 500ml, 350ml… and the smallest is 135ml.

Why is that? Because there are people who want each. At the same time, he is also inspired by creative ideas for new ways to drink with these sizes.

In other words, Toyota designers are exploring vehicles that fit a variety of customer needs, including hobbies and lifestyles, while remaining mobility tools.

Humphries

Toyota is incredibly serious about users. I want people to understand that. Toyota doesn’t just make the cars it wants, nor does it do what market research says; it is a company with its own clear purpose.

And Akio is a critical part of maintaining a delicate balance between promoting purposeful automotive manufacturing and enhancing marketing.

This was made possible by the reform of automobile manufacturing in the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), which aims for both ever-better design and engineering.

Humphries

The most important factor for us is that Akio is not only the head of the company, but also a car guy.

If senior management is interested in the design of the car and offers feedback on where the car should go, such as “make it drive more powerful” or “make it perform better on a track”, we can come up with new problems and ideas. Fixing these issues can help take the design to the next level.

“It’s okay if there aren’t clear answers,” Humphries repeated over and over. Rather than sending designers to build a house on sand without a solid foundation, Toyota creates designs through a constant exchange of ideas.

Finally, Humphries shares the difficulty of the role of the draftsman.

Humphries

Design visualizes the future. Once a car hits the world, it’s already a thing of the past. To be perfectly honest, it can be an emotional strain.

This is because we have to take a critical look at our creations once they are released to find points for improvement. Otherwise, we could never take another step forward. But believe it or not, that’s the fun part of car design at Toyota.

Simon Humphries, Head of Design at Toyota Motor Corporation

Born and educated in the UK, he began his career as a product designer in 1988 before joining Toyota Motor Corporation in 1994.

Initially he worked in advanced design, and in 2002 he played a leading role in establishing and implementing the Toyota (Vibrant Clarity) and Lexus (L-finesse) design philosophies.

After managing various advanced design and production projects, he was appointed President of ED2 (Toyota European Design Development), where his team led various projects to define Toyota’s transformation into a mobility company.

In 2018, he was named head of design, overseeing both the Toyota and Lexus brands.

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