In advance of the L.A. Auto Show, I’m at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures for the west coast launch of the new Range Rover. Auto show aside, this is the perfect city to launch the new model. Los Angeles is practically the Range Rover capital of the world–you see so many of them on the road, it’s like parent company Jaguar Land Rover has set up RR dispensers every few blocks.
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Outside the venue, a long line of well-heeled Los Angelenos is forming, Instagramming selfies, eager to see the new vehicle in person. Me with my press pass, I’ve snuck into the staging area. On the stage in front of me are two unmistakable Range Rover silhouettes covered with sheets. They sit on turntables. In between them stands a mic’d up Gerry McGovern, automotive designer and JLR’s Chief Creative Officer, very precisely directing a small army of technicians on how he wants the launch to unfold, minute by minute: When a certain image should come up on the screen behind him, when the cars should rotate, when and where they should stop rotating so he can discuss specific design elements on the part of the vehicle facing the audience.
One of the organizers wants him to announce the celebrity musical act at a certain time, and McGovern’s not having it. “No no no,” he says. “It’s got to be about the vehicle first.”
At one point the attendants appear to be struggling to keep up with McGovern’s very specific instructions. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m an artist,” he says. I’ve heard finicky creatives preparing a presentation say that before. But then, as McGovern comes close to exasperation, he says something I don’t often hear higher-up designers say: “Look—there’s over a thousand people that have worked on this,” he says, pointing to one of the Range Rovers. “I’m meant to represent it.”
The unveiling goes off with nary a hitch, and the next day I’m able to get a short sit-down with McGovern. I start off by mentioning that I’d witnessed the launch prep, and I recount the paragraph above.
“Probably more than a thousand people,” McGovern says. “When you think about the designers, the engineers, the purchasing people that bring the parts in, the manufacturing people that put it together–it’s a massive ecosystem, isn’t it? Sometimes I think when we present these things, we’re too quick to think about the marketing part, and not actually think about the sort of people that have created these things. And so I do.”
I know that McGovern, whom I’d met before, takes design and his position seriously. He takes himself seriously. (I think he’d be a tough person to work for, which I intend to ask him about in the interview.) But he’s also not above poking a bit of fun at himself. During an earlier press event, he joked about a colleague’s posh English accent; McGovern’s is unmistakably working class. At one point during our chat, realizes he’s going off on a tangent and stops himself: “I’m philosophizing,” he sighs. “I’m in danger of disappearing up my creative backside.”
I should point out that Paul Owen, Jaguar Land Rover Design’s Head of Design Communications, sat in on the interview; he comes up a couple of times.
Here are excerpts from our chat.
Core77: Judging by the launch event demographics, or just by driving around L.A., the Range Rover clientele is pretty diverse: Men, women, creatives, suits, young, old, famous people, regular people. Maybe the only thing they have in common is tax bracket. When designing for this type of clientele, what kinds of things do you have to be plugged into?
Gerry McGovern: If I’m honest, when I’m designing products like this, or directing them and editing them, I’m not thinking about the customer. It might sound a strange thing to say. But luxury has been around since time began. Luxury is a visceral desire for people to enrich their lives, and there are many forms of luxury products, and a vehicle is one of them. If I do think of the customer, it’s sort of subliminal, because I am a luxury consumer. So a lot of what I think is “right” drives how the vehicles end up being.
You do need to be cognizant of what’s going on in the world of automotive in terms of technology, in terms of innovation, et cetera. But quite frankly, I don’t look at what anybody else is doing, particularly from a design perspective. Our brand represents certain values and we have a design philosophy [that we adhere to]. It talks to integrity, purpose. And really three things:
Desirability, which is probably the most important. When I look at this thing, do I desire it?
Behavioral: When I’ve got this thing, does it work?
Last but not least, Reflective: Once I’ve owned it, used it, experienced it, do I still love it? Does it still work? Most importantly, am I building a lasting relationship with it, which reinforces why I bought it in the first place?
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Ultimately, for me, it’s about giving people things that enrich their lives. It’s not about being a commodity or having the latest this, that and the other. It’s about creating things that are truly special. We’re not trying to capture every customer. My compass, if you like, is people who generally love well-designed, beautiful things. And when you have a brand that has certain values that resonate with them, then that’s all you need to start with.
The job I do is curate the two creative hubs of the business: The creativity of the products itself and the creativity around the storytelling, the brand, the look, the feel, the tonality, the language. And they’re inextricably linked, what drives that ultimately is the product and that design philosophy. They’re at one, if that makes sense.
I don’t want it to sound arrogant, “I don’t take any notice of the customer.” My ultimate goal is to enrich the customer’s lives. But they can’t tell me how to design it. We know through experience, or intuitively, what’s “right” and what’s “wrong,” and you never create great products through committee. You never create great products by overzealousness on the part of looking at data. You just end up with normality in most occasions. It’s what you actually bring in terms of the creative perspective that will bring customers to you.
In interviews, and on stage, you’re very specific with your language. You’ve said the design of the new Range Rover isn’t “minimalist”—I gather you find the term too reductive to convey what you’re trying to do. I’ve also heard you bristle at designs being referred to as “evolutions.” Can you talk about that?
Yeah, maybe there’s a level of sensitivity there, because in the automotive design world, there’s always this thing about, “Oh, you’ve got to be different each time for the next one.” I think there’s confusion, particularly for younger designers starting out, this view that [the next version] has to be something that’s completely different, and that’s the conversation about how that thing’s “evolved.”
This evolution bit is the evolution of the DNA, not the evolution of certain specific design cues, because the aesthetic is just one part of it. I could argue it’s the most important part of it, because it’s the bit that starts the ball rolling and creates that emotional connection. But then it has to be the integrity of the engineering. It has to be the innovation around the technology and all those other things which are fundamentally important to what Land Rover’s about, and always has been: The supremacy of its technical capability to go anywhere and do anything.
The evolution part [should be] in the essence of what they represent. With Range Rover it’s the fact that you still sit high, you’ve got that “command” driving position. You’ve got that level of formality. You’ve got a certain ethos. But it’s not about “That line on the new car, is like that line on the old car, modernized.”
For me, modernism is always about trying to move it forward. And if you can use technology to take it to the next level, as we’ve done on this, you’ve got flush glazing and things that we wouldn’t have been able to do for the last generation because we didn’t have the technology to do it. So that technology has enabled us to take this to next form of modernism, return to that reductive approach.
When I came back from America and returned to the brand, years ago, I felt it needed a dose of design literacy. So what we’ve tried to do over the last dozen or so years, is to get a more balanced view to consumers, to our clients, of what the brand represents. And that is a balance of not just being over-focused on one thing, which I think we were in the past. We were all about capability, which people admired, but we weren’t true luxury in the sense of a product that enriches life.
Now I’m trying to move these brands on, to think about themselves as luxury brands, to stop thinking about themselves purely as automotive businesses. Omit the word automotive. Yeah, they’re automobiles, but the brand is more than just the product, and in the future, it’ll be more and more.
What are some of the product designs you yourself admire?
You still wouldn’t go far wrong for looking at Apple in terms of the way they do things. Design is there as part of their philosophy, that sense of detail and perfection and precision, those are the things I admire in Apple. Because if you looked at that and compared it to a Dell, they do the same things, but one is far more desirable than the other, isn’t it?
There’s a lot of great product design out there. One of the things that always intrigues me is that a lot of the great luxury brands aren’t necessarily modern in the execution of their products, but quite often they’re very modern in the execution of their look and feel, their imagery, the way they communicate, the way they present themselves is very modern. Louis Vuitton, for example, if you look at some of the products, they’re quite traditional. But look at how they’re presented.
You often talk about design being a discipline with multiple outlets. What made you decide to focus on automotive?
Money. (Laughs.) No, it’s funny, when I was growing up I wanted to be a painter. I’ve always been interested in fashion and art and architecture, from a very young age. And then I wanted to be a footballer. I fell into the automotive thing by chance, more than anything, and then it just evolved.
And where did the strong interest in modernism come from?
I’ve always been interested in Modernism as a philosophy, because I grew up in Coventry, which was bombed during the war, and it was rebuilt by this Miesian advocate, a guy called [Sir Donald Edward Evelyn] Gibson. So that Modernist approach, I think has been indelibly stamped into my psyche, it always resonated with me. When I first started off with automotive design tools, I didn’t necessarily know what—it takes years to realize what you’re about, and it’s evolved.
If we go back several decades, the different form factors of vehicles was very clear: That’s a car, that’s a truck, that’s a station wagon–
And it was quite naive at that time as well. It really lacked sophistication compared to now, because things have moved on massively. Having said that, when I look at automotive design–or let’s call it “styling,” back then– when we look at America and the style wars of the 1950s, there was a great sense of exuberance then. And okay, it was styling driven, and a lot of it was building in obsolescence, changing the look of the vehicles every two years in terms of the aesthetic, but not the mechanics, but there was something quite exciting about that then. They were raw, they were quite crude, but there was something quite visceral about it, which I think has been lost completely.
And a lot of it had to do with volume and size, which in America worked, because you’ve got the scale. But they were trying to replicate it back in the UK, and we were getting these smaller vehicles that were emulating a style that doesn’t work on something that size, you know?
Because I could never look like Paul [points to Paul Owen], because I’m not big enough, but I’m prettier than him. [Laughs.] Maybe not.
Nowadays the form factor categories of cars has become a lot more vague.
You’re right. There’s lots more niche type products out there, there’s not these definitions. If you think about the Range Rover Velar, the Range Rover Evoque, before we created them, there wasn’t actually a definition for those. What is the question? Are we going to carry on with that, or…
What I’m getting at is, the original Land Rover and Range Rover were shaped the way they were because of their function. So the modern versions are perfectly able to transition into today’s SUV archetype. But the third part of your brand, Jaguar, has me puzzled. Jaguar’s original well-known form is this low-slung, two-person GT car.
2022 Jaguar F-Type
That’s the heritage of Jaguar–and that’s the form factor that’s going extinct in today’s market. So what’s the plan for Jaguar? Do you have any idea what Jaguar is going to become, if not the low-slung, two-seater GT?
I know exactly what it is, but unfortunately I can’t tell you.
Paul: Because I’m in the room.
Gerry: We will redefine Jaguar as a completely different, new business. We’ve already said they’ll be all-electric. In terms of what these vehicles will look like, they need to look like something you’ve never seen before. They need to be exciting. They need to be exuberant. They need to be aspirational. They need to be truly compelling and emotionally engaging. That’s the direction that the designers have been given, and we’ve already started to visualize what that means, and it’s very exciting.
But there are particular physical shapes and forms, that work better than others. There are certain classical elements and cars that can be made incredibly modern and exuberant and still have a level of relevance. And one of the things that I am preoccupied with is not following fashion or trend. I’m not interested what everybody else is doing. I think great artists, creators, innovators have generally been that way. And that’s why I think it’s important that you have those sorts of people right at the top of a company and not being dictated to by business people or generalists.
You mentioned “the direction that the designers have been given”—now that you’re in the C-suite, what is that like? Do you put marker to paper anymore? I assume that at that level you’re just sort of overseeing.
Yeah. I mean the reality is that I have a big team. I’m sort of a thinker, if you like. Clearly I come from a background where drawing cars is what I was really good at. I came to America when I was virtually a kid, 21 or whatever, and I was taught here how to draw cars with magic markers and vellum and Rembrandt pastels and all that sort of stuff. If I said to one of my designers, “Draw me a car now with that stuff,” they’d run a mile, because they’re doing it all on the screen.
My job is to create the vision, and it is quite descriptive. It’s this, and it’s not that. But I’m not sitting there drawing it on the computer. I do get involved in all the design reviews, and we do them regularly, when I look at stuff and I say, “Yes. No. Yes. No. Move this. Move that.” So it’s not just saying something then presenting the end result, because that would be delinquent of me. If I’m going to put my name to it, that team needs to be speaking my language.
Looking at the creative personality of the whole business is what I do now. Clearly that starts with these products [gestures towards the JLR booth at the auto show]. And I have some great people around me, that know what I’m on about. Some of my designers have worked with me for 20-odd years. So when I say reductive, when I say free from excess, when I say I want to see more plan shape, I want to see more attack on, they know all that. So they translate what I’m saying.
I think in the automotive world, there’s always that desire to have one name to put to a design, while the reality is everything is created by a team effort. But there has to be a singular creative view. That doesn’t mean to say you’re there drawing it all, but it has to come from a singular creative view.
Range Rover, 1st generation
Range Rover, 2nd generation
Range Rover, 3rd generation
Range Rover, 4th generation
Range Rover, 5th generation
What are some of the challenges of overseeing a staff of automotive designers?
I remember a designer a few years ago that we brought from Audi, an interior designer. He was really good. And I remember looking at his work and it was beautiful. I used to say to him, “I love that design…but that ain’t us. You’ve got to get out of that way of thinking. That isn’t a Land Rover.” And he really struggled with it. So there is a sort of a philosophy. It ain’t just about having designers that are great designers. They’ve got to understand what the philosophy is and how that transitions and manifests into the product, to the metal, to the architecture.
Were you able to separate him from his design instincts?
In the end, he went, unfortunately. I’d still invite him back. He started to [come around] in the end, but he said to me that he was struggling with it, because he was so used to a particular way of working. Oh, you know Marc Newson, the designer?
I remember I worked with him for a while, when I first went to Ford, and he was doing those concept cars about 20 years ago when J Mays was there. The 021C, it was a little sort of push-me-pull-me-shaped car for the Japanese market, which J directed. I always remember meeting him for the first time in Turin, and he’d done a lot of product design by that time, the lounge chairs and all this stuff. And he said to me, “I’ve never tried designing a car before, Gerry. How do you do it? It’s a total mind fuck for me.” I always remember that [laughing], it’s really funny.
C-Suite Commonwealth guys: You, Ive, Newson, I’d love to have the three of you in a room talking about this stuff.
He doesn’t talk very much, though, Mark. He’s quite quiet.
Your official title is now Professor Gerry McGovern. Can you tell us about that?
It’s a professorship with the Royal College of Art, at which I studied. It is a proper professorship, not just a title, because I do get involved with the college doing three or four lectures a year.
It’s also engaging with, through my team, teaching the rudiments of design. I’m very keen, particularly with the Royal College, that we make sure it doesn’t drift into becoming too technical. I’m pushing for “let’s get back to basics,” teaching students to become good at being able to produce design basics. How you design something. How you shape it. How you draw it, whether it’s on the screen or free-hand. How you surface something. How you reconcile the technical aspects with the aesthetic aspects. How they work, and how that works together. How you prioritize. That sort of stuff.
I think that there’s great young designers out there, but they need to be nurtured. I think you’ve got to give them the ability to develop their own language, their own design philosophy, but you’ve got to teach them the basics. A lot of that is you’ve got to get the right people in the colleges teaching, for a start. I think that there’s teachers getting there that spent a couple of years in a design studio and then they teach. You need to spend a lot longer than that to become really competent.
For the young, aspiring automotive designers who want to work at JLR: What is it like working for you? What do they need to have?
Well, they need to look great, for a start. [Laughs.] No, I think they have to be passionate about what they believe in. If it was in my organization, they’d have to share that view of looking forward and not back, not being traditional, but being determined and understanding the basics of proportion, of balance, of line.
And remember, most car designers want to be Exterior Designers. And then if they can’t be, they want to be Interiors. But the whole design process now needs different types of designers, like digital designers, too. At the moment, I want to find some really good digital designers who can not only design that interface in terms of what you see on the screen, but how that connects to our language throughout the brand, so there’s that consistency, particularly when you think of all the other things we’re trying to do with digitalization, sustainability, the difference services that eventually are available on board and relate to off board and all that sort of stuff.
I remember one person who wanted to be an exterior designer, and she was intellectually very capable, but she was preoccupied with wanting to be an exterior designer. She wasn’t good. When it comes to exterior design, there is a bit of you’ve either got it or you haven’t. You can’t teach it. It’s a natural input. There’s a natural ability. It could be developed, but some people just aren’t good at it, but that doesn’t mean to say they couldn’t be a great interior designer or they couldn’t be a great graphic designer or digital designer. There’s also a need for people to help evolve the designer, interface with the engineers and all the other people that we work with.
There’s no point just drawing and building a model. How do you bring that to reality? It’s a multi-discipline task, and people that can communicate well, understand the vision and advocate it and take people on that journey with them.
I think that generally, young designers today are better educated. They are more knowledgeable about the whole process, and that’s great, but they need to understand the basics of design, if that’s what they want to be.