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Design Q&A: Mazda's Derek Jenkins on the 'golden age of form'

Posted by Keith Griffin  April 12, 2010 12:03 PM

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(Keith Griffin for Boston.com)

Mazda design director Derek Jenkins stands next to his 2 Evil concept at the New York International Auto Show.

NEW YORK—As chief of design for Volkswagen Group North America, Derek Jenkins was the man behind the design of Audis both big and small (the A8 and A2) as well as the Volkswagen Scirocco concept.

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He now is tasked with keeping the "zoom zoom" in Mazdas sold in North America as design director for Mazda Design Americas. He sat down with Boston.com at the New York International Auto Show to discuss the future of automotive design.

It's been almost a year that you've been head of North American design for Mazda. What is the first product coming to market that's going to have your fingerprints on it? Or is it out?

There is nothing specific. My work is on all the next-generation products. I'm involved in all of that. I can't say it's this particular model or that. I helped to develop the Mazda 2 concept "2 Evil" to take the car in its base form and give it more of a track day feel and show what's possible. I look at 2 Evil like it's my own personal car.

In a company with global products like the Mazda 6 or Mazda 2, what role do American designers play? Is their influence more on interior design or exterior design?

We're involved in every component but that's not to say we're getting everything we want. We go through the creative phase and create an alignment of ideas. It is pretty comprehensive across the board whether it's a near-term launch like the Mazda 2 or future generation platforms. It can also be working with research and development on packaging and customer wants. It could also be refinement of technologies or the external paint colors that reflect general American tastes or the color and texture of the carpet. In general Americans are a little bit reserved when it comes colors but [you] can get punchier colors liked Spirit Green. There is potential in the U.S. market for a more colorful palette but we'll still have a higher volume with silver, gray and white.

One Internet commenter said, "You can't paste 'design language' bits onto a car like the Mazda 3." How do you incorporate the design language from a vehicle like the Furai into production cars that appeal to a broad audience? How will Nagare affect upcoming products?

There are a range of ways with concept cars, with dream cars like Furai, to closer to production cars that show the direction of vehicles. There are general line treatments like Furai with its stronger linear quality. Its thematic elements and front graphics are strong on the new Mazda 5. (Ed. note: The new Mazda 5 was introduced at the Geneva Auto Show and comes to the U.S. late fourth quarter 2010.) The cars coming on the road, the Mazda 3, Mazda 2 and Mazda 5 have incorporated general form taken from the Nagare show car.

You lead the design exercise that created the Mazda Souga for the LA Design Challenge in December. In part, the Souga was designed for 2030 where "most digital communication and information devices are now integrated into fashion apparel, eliminating the need to include these systems." Is that where automotive design is headed? Back to a more basic model where the car is just a conveyance method and the driver brings everything into it?

That was a true design exercise. We had a blast with that. We involved the whole team about the parameters for future products. A young person in the future will take technology for granted. The experience will be more like that of a motorcycle. We won't be talking about flat screens or iPhones anymore. The focus on car companies will be on transportation. If we distilled it back to the basics, that would be the Souga.

Another interesting aspect of the Souga is that is was designed by Max, a typical customer, with VMazda, a design platform and a virtual design mentor. Twenty years from now, will customers be building their own cars online incorporating elements designed by manufacturers?

I don't know if it will be to the extent of the Mazda design station. There will be a virtual level of connectivity well beyond what we experience now. There is no reason a customer like Max couldn't engage with a Mazda program – maybe not a custom design for the entire exterior but there could be a high level of configuration. That could be a brand attribution.

This is a great question that was asked in L.A. and bears repeating. Will the inevitable march toward alternative fuels suck the passion out of car design altogether?

We have to take that design on like everybody else. We're in a new golden age of form language … yet there are more parameters and constraints. We'll still be able to create exciting enticing cars but will still deal with the necessities. Strong personality is a core aspect of our company. If we don't do that it would take away one of our competitive attributes.

This interview was edited from a longer transcript.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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