The Toyota Interview
Interview with Toyota Auto Designer Simon Humphries
Simon Humphries has been in Japan a long time since 1988 and has worked as a designer for Sony as well as Toyota. What makes him a bit special is the fact that he's the only Western regular employee at Toyota's headquarters in Toyota-shi near Nagoya out of some 700 designers there. And while he is quick to downplay this uniqueness, he's not been afraid to capitalise on it, to the benefit of both himself and Toyota. Now in his lateish 30s, he is currently responsible for Design Strategy for both the Toyota and Lexus brands.
Richard Donovan interviewed him at Toyota's Technical Centre just before the commencement of the Tokyo Motor Show, at which Toyota and Lexus vehicles feature prominently.
Japan Visitor: What did you start doing at Toyota?
Simon: Basically, motor-show cars, advanced concept cars and general sort of strategy work. Not line work on the production line doing the Corollas and Celsias and that sort of stuff.
So you've kind of been at the cutting edge of design from the beginning?
Yeah, if you put it that way! We have a system here where we go looking for new concepts for vehicles. Ten or fifteen years ago there were only sedans and wagons, or one boxes' and two-boxes' the basic silhouette of the vehicle and then along came the tall boxes', like the bB and the Fun Cargo. Creating those types of concepts was one initial project I did, and it's not necessarily just the exterior of the vehicle, so much as how we can break the status quo. When you work in design within a big company, it can be almost anything, from designing cars to designing the navigation systems: the graphics, the interface.
It does sound challenging. Do you have a lot of freedom in the direction you push things?
Oh yeah. I think it's a common misunderstanding about Japanese companies it isn't quite as rigid as you might expect. In fact, it's more open in a lot of ways than the Western side, a very open bottom-up system, so it is a good place to work.
Do you think there's something you're most proud of so far, one particular project that came off really well?
(Modest laughter) That's a difficult question. For the last four or five years, basically all I've been involved in is restructuring the entire brand, the entire approach to design for Toyota and Lexus, and perhaps one thing I am proud of is the steps we're taking with Lexus, a lot of which are coming to fruition now. You can now see in the high street the Lexus dealers in Japan, when they weren't here a year ago. They started from this August. The vehicles being sold here are the first examples of the strategy that we proposed for Lexus. I think Lexus in the States over the years had a tendency to verge towards a little bit of the staid side, and we feel like we're going to be able to bring it back to where it was originally, which was a complete alternative to the staid luxury of BMW and Mercedes Benz, and create an alternative, something that hasn't got history, and therefore it's an advantage.
What are the origins of the Lexus brand in fact?
The then president of Toyota laid out a challenge We can make a premium automobile. The result was the LS, which was released in 1989, and although I wasn't here at that time, the stories still go on now. The process for that was a phenomenal effort apparently: the amount of prototype vehicles made was unheard of, to get to that level in one go, basically. Usually it takes 20 or 30 years to improve your technology design build quality, ride quality, all the rest but that was done in one fell swoop.
But this was designed to go into the US market. Why was that? Was it too big for Japan or something?
No, originally it was intended for the US market, and that was it. I don't think there were any ulterior motives. That was simply what the US market required at that time.
So what do you think has occasioned bringing it home' in a way?
I think it's just the need to create Lexus as a global brand. It's no good these days having segmented brands around the world; it only leads to difficulties. For example, we were selling some models as Lexus [in the US] but the same body type as Toyotas over here. So again it leads to difficulties in design. It's difficult to purify design, to create a very distinct direction for something, because you're selling the same product under two brand names, and you get an overlap. So I think one of the primary reasons was to segment Lexus from Toyota, and do that on a global scale.
What is your involvement in the Tokyo Motor Show?
It's indirect. We create the strategy, the direction for it. Even the show booths are influenced by this, so we've got a very distinct Lexus taste for the Lexus booth and a very distinct taste for the Toyota booth. Obviously the vehicles themselves are also influenced by that strategy, but even right down to the [promotional] literature itself is all influenced now by design, whereas up until last year it wasn't at all. One other thing to add is that one of the vehicles this year called the i-swing, believe it or not was actually the result of a long chain of vehicles that we've done for previous motor shows. The first one was called the Pod, before the iPod was released, and I actually made that one. We did it in tandem with Sony. It was an interesting project, but misunderstood by a lot of people. There were actually a lot of very serious issues involved in that project: how to create something that changes over time, in other words, when you buy the car and when you throw it away, it's at two different states it's learnt your manners, it's learnt your idiosyncrasies. At the end of the day you could take a memory stick out of it and stick it in your next car and you'd get exactly the same taste within the next vehicle. The I-Swing is the next result, which is down to a single-seater concept. So although I've not been directly involved with this vehicle, what we started off doing when I was in advanced design before has sort of filtered through. If you actually see this running around, you want to have a go, the same as the one that was used at the [Aichi] Expo: that was really good.
So at the Expo they had someone driving that on stage?
Yeah, at the Expo it was called the i-unit, but that was actually a four-wheeled version. But the point about it was that it changed between two states. When you were running slowly, the wheelbase would actually contract, and the seating position would become more direct, and the faster you went, it literally became a racing version of itself, with more stability. At the same time, the person riding in it as well became much more lying down, in a much more dynamic position.
And how far away is the concept from mass-production, do you think?
There's no direct answer to that. So many factors, not just what we can decide but also laws, safety regulations, all sorts of things.
But I suppose by merely creating it you're pushing the parameters and you're opening up avenues for something like this to be out there in the future.
Oh yeah. It's not simply about this as an item in itself. There's all sorts of technology that's contained within that, in the same way that an engine from an F-1 car is not going to go directly into a production car, but there may be technology that's derived from that that will be incorporated into production cars; it's the same sort of logic.
Do you think that your previous work in other spheres of design gives you a particular flexibility of thinking? Do you think you've brought something unique because of your wide experience?
I think so, yeah. Product design as a whole is quite different to car design, and even within car design as a huge subject, interior designers and exterior designers are actually quite different. Interior designers are relatively similar to product designers: in other words they're very user-centric, they think about how this person is going to use it, how he's going to touch it, what he wants to see, what he expects, what he doesn't expect, what his family are going to do with it when they get a hold of it. On the other hand, the exterior designers are much further towards being an artist, a sculptor: they have their own world in which they live. Coming back to your original question, yes I do feel I've brought certain aspects, but not just related to the work, also cultural aspects as well, looking at things from a different angle, a different background, and sometimes it's nice to, not just because I'm English or whatever else, but just simply to have come from outside the box, if you like, and be able to say, hold on a second, should it really be that way?
Can you think of a concrete example?
The cream navigation screens that we used to have years ago: they were going to use the same ones in Europe, but at that time Europeans had an allergy to an American' image of cream and beige. Even just being able to say something as small as that is useful within the production process.
When the Lexus was exclusively in the American market, was your input valued for a Western perspective, or did they do their own research, and talk to people in the States about that kind of thing?
Yes, Toyota and Lexus do that anyway. Do you know the expression genchi genbutsu: go there and see', basically. I think that's one of their big strong points Toyota's not a company that shuts itself away and produces something and says use it; it's very much consumer-orientated. So they'll go there, they'll watch, they'll listen, they'll interview, they'll bring that back, and then they'll use it to cook up the finished product. So whether I'm here or not we still go to Europe, we go to America, Saudi Arabia, and listen to people. That'll never change. Over the last ten or fifteen years, over a hundred of our Japanese designers have at one time or another spent three years or more at one of the satellite offices overseas, so they're also very attuned to the needs of Europe or the States or wherever else. It's a very mixed pot of culture, with is very good.
But you have chosen to live and work in Japan. Are there any particular reasons for that?
I'd have to say, because I like it, basically. I enjoy working here; it's a good company to work for. Like I said before, we have freedom to do what we want to do, the ability to influence to the highest level, if we have the right ideas, and the chance to go anywhere around the world.
What brought you to Japan for the very first time? Was that design?
When I finished university, I won a European bursary competition sponsored by Sony, and I ended up coming to Tokyo for a while. That was during the bubble years, and they were making Walkmans by the truckload at that time. Wall to wall there was nothing like that in Britain. You go into an electric shop, they literally have 40, 50 different types of Walkman on display. For a product designer, that was a dream world.
What about the Japanese language? Obviously you had to take that to a high level to be able to operate in a Japanese environment. How did you do that?
I've got a story to tell about that, actually. When I was interviewed to come to Toyota, I was interviewed by the then boss of Toyota design who was called Mr Morihoshi, and he spoke to me in English. He'd worked in the States for ages, so he speaks fluent English, and when I came in, I thought, great, I can speak English here! And from that day, till today, he hasn't spoken English to me once. I had to learn Japanese, and I just picked it up as I went along, and I don't speak any English at all at work. I think it's a necessity. Everything is moving so quickly that unless you can really get a grip on the situation but that's not to say that I can read it!
So what do you do if you get a big document plonked in front of you?
I skirt through it as best I can, or ask somebody. That's the only way to do it, and everyone's really helpful about that type of thing; they don't have any big problems with that. But certainly for designers anyway, speaking is the most important thing. We don't have to spend too much time reading. We're not in the administration division, so from that point of view, maybe I'm getting away with it. (Grins)
Well, it seems to be working! Could we talk about environmental issues. Obviously, Toyota has featured very prominently at the Expo, and the pavilion was just crazily popular: I certainly couldn't get in! (Laughs) Now what do you think about Toyota's position on the environment?
At the end of the day Toyota has been and is pushing the environment as much as, if not more than, anybody else. They went out of their way from an early stage with the hybrid vehicles [the first was released in 1997], and they didn't have to do that. In other words, it's not a pose with Toyota, I don't think it's part of their fundamental philosophy: that's what they feel they should do, so it isn't something that's a fashion or a fad, it's there to stay. A lot of people still misunderstand the hybrid: they think it's something that's a sort of transient step towards achieving fuel-cell vehicles or whatever else, but actually, even if we have a fuel-cell vehicle or a diesel vehicle or whatever else, we can still use a hybrid with that. So the development of that particular step is very important, and a big step towards helping not save the environment, but it'll certainly help it.
Well, you can see in the American market that now other companies are realising that the Prius and so on have made a dent in the market, and with the high fuel prices, they're getting a boost, aren't they.
Yeah, the Prius has been a huge success over there. It's become almost a cultural icon. We've got Dustin Hoffman and all these rock stars and movie stars who are all buying the Prius, and I think that's a great thing because it gives you the ability to state your ideological standpoint by what you're driving.
Could we talk a little about the fuel-cell hybrid [the Fine-X, featured at the Motor Show], because I think many people would conflate the two very easily. So how does it work how can a fuel-cell car be a hybrid car?
The hybrid system itself, all that it does, quite simply, is to regenerate braking energy, so as you brake the car, rather than just using the brake pads to stop the vehicle you actually turn a turbine which generates electricity which recharges a battery, which then can be used again to accelerate the car. Then whatever power system you have to power the car, in other words if it's a fuel cell, a gasoline engine, a diesel engine, a hydrogen engine, whatever, you can still attach a hybrid system to that to regenerate lost energy into usable energy. Fuel cells themselves are a much more complicated issue and something that hasn't been fully worked out for the future. There are no definite plans as to when that will become a production vehicle. The infrastructure problems are immense. The climate problems are immense: you know, the byproduct of a fuel-cell car is water, so if you drip water out of an exhaust pipe in minus-40 degrees you're going to get ice. Everybody's trying hard at the present time, not just us, to try and develop a system that will one day replace the gasoline engine, but it's still a relatively long way off I think.
What about fuel cells from a design point of view?
The good thing with fuel cells is that they give us a chance to redefine the packaging. One thing you may notice [with the Fine-X] is a completely flat floor: in essence, no engine compartment. The greatest benefit of the fuel-cell system from a design point of view is that it's not like an engine with a block with cylinders in it that you have to keep together in one piece otherwise it doesn't work; this can essentially be divided into its components, and as long as it has pipes between them it'll work as a system. It's more like electronics than mechanics. So you can get a smaller vehicle for the same cabin size. And as for the Lexus GS hybrid, it gives you the same sort of extra fuel efficiency as the Toyota vehicles, but in the Lexus the hybrid has also been utilised to increase the power. So the interesting thing about the hybrid is it's not simply about raising the fuel efficiency; it can also be used to create power. You can combine the [electric] power with a gasoline engine so you can create a higher output than you could ordinarily with a V6 engine. So that's another interesting way to look at it: it's not just necessarily about creating zero emissions so much as actually giving you more enjoyment.
Do you think that all cars produced at Toyota will be hybrids at some point?
I don't know. Again, there are still cost limitations, and a question of whether the user has the ability or the will to pay for that. Also, there are other ways of creating [the efficiency] for the smaller cars, we can start thinking about lightweight structures, different materials, more efficient gasoline or diesel engines that will give us almost the same result, so it's not necessarily only one road towards that.
Read more about touring Toyota headquarters and museum