Jonathan Disley’s passion for cars began as a boy.
He always carried a toy car around with him and he would take his toy cars apart and tried to make new models out of those parts. “I loved taking things apart to figure out how they worked,” he recalls.
The 49-year-old British started his career at Audi Design Ingolstadt. During his stint at Ford Motor Company, he was selected as one of Ford’s top future leaders.
As a designer, he feels that proportions are everything. He collects classic cars and love cars like the Porsche 356 A Carrera GT for their phenomenally beautiful proportions.
“It is an incredibly simple, yet iconic shape. You cannot take anything away and you also cannot add to it,” he explains.
Jonathan considers the Volvo S60 an extremely beautiful car because of its proportions. “We really worked the proportions to make it look good from every angle”, he says.
For him, design inspiration can come from everywhere and anywhere. “The simplicity of a nondescript bottle can be inspiring. Cutting a fruit in half can provide great inspiration for a wheel design that is derived from nature,” he elaborates.
Jonathan offers insight into Volvo’s new design language and shares his take on autonomous vehicles. He also tells us what makes a premium product desirable.
What is the significance behind Volvo’s new design direction?
We were given a free hand to create the best Scandinavian product that we have ever designed.
We started from scratch, beginning with the proportions. We wanted the things that really make a Scandinavian product, Scandinavian. It was also important to remain true to the brand.
We worked with the engineers to come up with the smart platform. Knowing how wide or how low the car can be, we can design within those boundaries to create the proportions that we want.
These are intrinsic to how we set up the whole car because once you define those things, you can put all of the pieces inside and work backwards to refine it and then proceed to build the platform.
We had the opportunity to do things that had never been done before. People came up to us and asked, “How did you do this? How did you make this change in the company?”
I think it was possible because everyone in the team had the same direction.
What was your involvement in the design and development of the new Volvo S60 and V60?
I was the chief for the show cars. We were designing various models as a series and I was responsible for the XC60. I was also trying to get the proportions right for the S60.
They have a lot of common parts and it was essential that whatever we were doing for the XC60 also had to work for the S60.
When I left for China four years ago, the design for the S60 was just right and everything was in place. The rest of the team took the car to production.
It is like a painting – you make the first statement and ensure that you get the proportions right before you start.
What defines a premium product?
A product is designed to be used by a customer, so it must be desirable. It must be something that the customer wants, not needs.
There are watches that you can get for free out of a cereal box. On the other hand, there are luxury watches that are collected like heirlooms. Why do people pay for the premium product when they both do the same job?
The key lies in its desirability and its brand. It is functional, but it is also like a piece of jewellery. When I design a car, I want the wow factor.
But I also want the car to answer the right questions. It must also be a right fit for the brand.
Do you foresee a paradigm shift in automotive design in the era of autonomous vehicles?
It is going to be an interesting future. We recently showcased the Volvo Concept 360c. It illustrated the different ways you can use an autonomous vehicle, which is very different from today.
An autonomous car can get you from A to B, but it can also be used as an office. You can even sleep in it while it takes you to your destination.
You will enter and exit the car differently. How you sit inside the cabin will also be different. Will you sit facing forward or rearward? All these have implications on how we approach design – of the car, the safety systems etc.
The car interior becomes even more important. That’s because people’s attention will be focused on the interior instead of on the road and driving.
Time passes more quickly when you are the one driving. But in an autonomous car, how do we overcome boredom, especially on longer journeys?
We need to use materials, colours and lighting to entertain people.
What are your other interests besides your Morgan three-wheeler?
The Morgan three-wheeler is just raw and back-to-basics. It does not have any of Volvo’s safety systems, so it is probably very dangerous.
With some cars, you evoke a love-hate reaction from onlookers. With the Morgan, everyone is happy to see and admire the car and ask me questions about it.
It is a car that I can enjoy by just sitting and looking and analysing its design all day long without even driving it.
I started learning martial arts many years ago and I did Karate in Sweden. However, Karate was not so common in China, so I took up Tai chi instead.
It helps to strengthen both the body and the mind. I also do a lot of tennis and yoga.