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How car designers make us feel safer

How car designers make us feel safer Volvo concept car interior
Tristan Honeywill

Car design bores a lot of people. All that earnest talk about the stance, the lines and the brand’s design heritage can get pretty rich. The silly thing is that it’s not even how most car designers see their work. Understanding how the form follows function and how design can improve the interface with the user is what really matters to them.

To understand the relationship between safety and car design better, I spoke to Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo’s head of design. Ingenlath joined Volvo in 2012 after spending six years running VW’s design studio. Before that he was at Skoda and designed cars such as the Roomster. If anybody can give some insight into how car design really works, it’s him.

I wanted to ask how design can be used to make drivers feel safer. I wondered how much designers need to leave to the ergonomics experts for safety reasons – and how designers feel when safety requirements mean compromises in the styling. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, surrounded by blonde wood and Scandinavian furniture, Ingenlath explained.


How do designers make a car look and feel safe?

In the old days it was pretty obvious: you just had big bumpers. Nowadays it has to be more subtle. The first thing is to suggest the car’s solidity. It should give you the feeling of a strong body that is well built, that will make you feel protected inside.

There are also some key elements where you can express the sense of safety further. For example, the rear lights graphic can be designed so that the different elements interlock. When you look at it, you think, “Hey, the whole thing is sturdy and tight.”


Is the way that people think about safety changing?

Over the past 20 years there have been more and more electronic aids in cars, helping to avoid accidents. They sometimes interfere and lecture the driver – an alarm sounds and you have to check what’s wrong. You feel the car has something monitoring you and that’s obviously the wrong way to connecting people with the safety.

To make safety a more positive experience means designing something that feels more unified. It means offering support, not warnings. Drivers should get confirmations of what they are doing earlier on. That way it’s more like having a guardian angel on board; the car connects with you in a positive emotion.

It sounds like more of your work is concerned with the user experience, not just the aesthetics. Is that how car design is developing?

Car design isn’t as static as people think – it would be boring. Just a few years ago designers started designing the lights for the first time. Now it’s becoming much more about steering and designing the user interface.

I spend a lot of time working with our ergonomics people on the graphics we use. We discuss how to communicate the information. How do we make it intuitive? How do we make sure all these great technologies add to the safety and don’t distract people?

These are new questions for designers and it’s not like we’ve had ten years to refine and develop our answers. That’s exciting. 


The interface between cars and drivers is going to develop a lot in the coming years. Do designers work much more with new technologies now?

Sure. You can’t just take a 17-inch screen screw it into the car. The driver interface and displays are such a big part of the interior they have to feel natural. The design team also has to make sure it’s specific to our brand. It’s not just the graphic design: to make the whole interior work, the way that information displays also has to be part of Volvo’s design language.

Tomas Ingenlath, Volvo head of design

“To make safety a more positive experience means designing something that feels more unified. It means offering support, not warnings. That way it’s more like having a guardian angel on board”

Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo’s head of design

What techniques do designers use for doing this? Is it just a case of breaking down every part of the user experience?

It is everything. You can do customer research, but it’s difficult because people just don’t have the language to talk about design easily. You have to observe how customers live with their cars, how they drive to work, how they drive at weekends. You learn a lot about what people actually need from the experience and you work on that.


I also wanted to ask how much does safety constrain your work? You mentioned the rear lights – there must be a lot of detailed safety regulations that control their design

There were times when aerodynamics was the biggest issue for designers. There used to be packaging issues sometimes as well. These days it’s safety regulations that have the greatest impact on the work of car designers.

It’s completely understandable and designers have to accept that they must work around difficult issues. We may not always like it, but it would be ridiculous to fight it.


We’re sat opposite your new concept car, the Concept Coupé. How much more freedom do you have on concept cars? Are designers more pragmatic and mindful of safety now even with show cars?

Concept Car With a concept car we don’t have to consider all the details when it comes to safety.

Having said that, for the Volvo Concept Coupé it was my clear brief to the designers to deliver sketches that stick to the packaging space that we know we will have at the front.

The volumes of the Concept Coupé’s package are faithful to what we know is viable for our production cars. For that reason, the concept car has a lot of respect for the safety built in. Okay, we might not have looked closely at the bumper beam at the front, but the volumes needed to accommodate the safety systems, the hood height, the cowl and are all already spot on for what we need for the safety legislation.

What you see isn’t just a styling model; it’s something that can be produced. From a designer’s perspective, that makes it pretty cool.


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