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The Design Principles That Make Land Rover Successful: Excerpts from a Talk by Gerry McGovern, Director of Design

In 2008 Land Rover was in flux, having just been acquired by Tata Motors (along with now-stablemate Jaguar). Tata wasn’t exactly a household name, and Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s Director of Design, told Alloy + Grit of his reservations at the time:

“For me, when Tata bought Jaguar and Land Rover, there was a bit of concern. What do they know about the premium automotive business? They were first to admit they knew nothing about it. But [they said], ‘That’s why we bought you. You’re the experts. You run the business in the way you see fit.'”

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However, there was one very significant change made by the new owners. At the time, Land Rover was structured the way that a lot of car companies are: The design group reported to the engineering group. But fortuitously for Land Rover, Ratan Tata, who was then Chairman of the Tata Group, wasn’t your average businessman; he held a degree from Cornell in Architecture and Structural Engineering. In other words, he was trained in both design and engineering, and understood what the relationship between the two ought to be.

Thus Tata had a question for Land Rover: “Why does Design report to Engineering?”

From then on the arrangement was swapped, to the betterment of the company, as we saw here. “We’re all in it together,” McGovern said, “but they do the engineering better than we can, we do the design better than they can. So we respect each other, and we make sure we get it in the right order.”

We’re at a press event for Range Rover’s new Evoque, where the car’s high sales figures are being touted. McGovern takes the mic and turns the talk towards design. “Of course volume is important to us, and business is important, but more important is that we create vehicles that our customers love for life,” McGovern says.

“Design leadership and engineering integrity is at the top of the bar no matter what vehicle it is. That hasn’t always been the case at Land Rover–in the past they looked the way they did because of what they did. But what we’ve tried to do, over the last 10 years or so, is give them a good dose of design in order to make these vehicles more universally desirable without them becoming generic. That has certainly made a difference. And we’re doing it without in any way undermining the engineering, because the two can be reconciled if you’ve got the right attitude.”

McGovern then goes into detail about his and Land Rover’s design approach, their design do’s and don’t’s, how they harness design to create an emotional connection and more. Here are excerpts from that chat.

A Modernist Approach to Design

“For us it’s about being reductive. It’s about being ‘less is more,’ it’s about reduction of clutter. We believe that’s absolutely right for a Range Rover, which is a sophisticated vehicle.”


“Let’s face it–people don’t actually need luxury Range Rovers. I said it. They don’t actually need luxury watches, luxury homes, luxury holidays. They don’t need them, but they desire them, and that’s the difference. If people can feed that desire with products and services that are morally sociable, responsible and sustainable, and in the process feed lots of families and keep people in business, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Three Elements of Using Design to Form an Emotional Connection

“That emotional connection is something that only the best, in my view, achieve. Whether it’s a car or anything else, to me it’s down to three things:

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“Visceral: When I look at it, do I desire it, do I want it?

“Behavioral: When I’ve got it, does it work, does it do what it’s supposed to do? And last but not least,

“Reflective: Once I’ve used it, experienced it over a period of time, do I still desire it? Does it still do what it’s supposed to do? And am I building a lasting relationship with it, which reinforces why I bought it in the first place?

“Now these aren’t necessarily all equal, sometimes the product can over-index on the visceral and not on the behavioral, but overall still be very successful–they vary, it’s like a graphic equalizer. But for me, that’s the absolute core of emotional design.”

Not Looking at Competitors

“In Land Rover we tend to work a slightly different way to some of our competitors. I know and have talked to most of the design leaders all around the world, and I don’t tend to look at their designs too much, because I think that can subconsciously affect what you do, and I encourage our designers not to do the same either. We’re cognizant of what’s going on, in terms of being competitive and the latest technology and all those things. But when it comes to design, we’ve got our own DNA.”

Design First

“In the studio we [designers] create the tangible asset, we create the volumes, the proportions and the basic layout of the vehicle and the packaging. And once we’ve signed it off, then we ask our brilliant engineers to come in and deliver and get us as close to that design as possible. A lot of studios work the other way round. I believe that’s dangerous because the horse has bolted and you end up with what’s called ‘styling,’ which is reinforced by volumes and proportions that don’t look right.

“If you look at a Range Rover, it’s very elegant: Long wheelbase, bit of a boat tail, short front overhang, that’s the body relationship. It’s a very well-considered, proportional design. That’s not even talking about the surfacing, just the volume and proportion. Now if we did it the other way round [by starting with the engineering], there’s a danger it could end up looking [quite wrong]. This isn’t having a go at Pete [Bingham, JLR Chief Engineer] and his fraternity–we’re all in it together–but they do the engineering better than we can, we do the design better than they can. So we respect each other, we make sure we get it in the right order.”

On Chaotic Design

“We are starting to see in the marketplace more and more of this approach to design which I call ‘Zorro,’ [as in] the fencer–all the lines all over the place. And to me it creates visual confusion.”

Refining Vs. Rebooting

“There’s this preoccupation in the automotive industry that ever time you do a new car, it has to be completely different. Why? When it comes to a new vehicle that we haven’t produced before, that’s our opportunity to be radical. But if you’ve got something that’s established, that people love, [I’d rather] refine it. Look at the evolution of the 911, it’s a very good example. Or the evolution of the Range Rover. That is our approach.”

Defender of Design

Yes, we know what a lot of die-hard Land Rover fans most want to hear McGovern talk about: The Defender, that iconic and discontinued British 4×4, which Land Rover will shortly be resurrecting. The new design is cloaked in secrecy, and at the press event, after teasingly joking that he had one out back to show us, all he would say is this:

“Our design strategy, or our brand architecture: Land Rover is still a master brand; Range Rover is our family of luxury vehicles that talk to refinement and sophistication; Discovery talks to versatility. And I think when Defender comes, this strategy will all make sense. It will be the absolute polarization of Range Rover, to give you a clue.”

We’re waiting!

Source: core77

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