The automotive world has changed significantly in recent years, just as people’s lifestyles and values have also diversified. How should vehicle design respond?

Simon Humphries is the Head of Toyota and Lexus Global Design, leading the design operations for both brands. Since 2020, he has also been a judge for the Lexus Design Award, an annual international design competition. In the context of a world thrown into disarray by the global Covid-19 pandemic, he talks about the role of designers and his personal design philosophy.

“The most important aspect of design is to consider the feelings of the user”

Since joining the company in 1994, UK-born Simon Humphries has worked on a wide variety of vehicle designs. Today he leads his design teams with inventiveness and an ability to translate ideas into reality.

“In the UK I studied industrial design, so until I joined the company, I hadn’t worked in automotive design at all,” Humphries recalls. “Despite my lack of experience, I was welcomed into the team because of my experience in other fields. This kind of flexibility will be central to it becoming a ‘mobility company’.”

Explaining his design philosophy, he continues: “The most important aspect of design is to consider the feelings of the user. Next, after coming up with a design that incorporates these considerations, you must be able to explain it clearly in the form of a story. This is why it’s essential for designers to have communication skills. I am always trying to explain what our customers need, and how my design reflects those needs. No matter the design, if you show it to five people, each one will focus on different aspects. In other words, communication is the key to conveying the designer’s intention.

“At the design studio where I worked before joining the company, I was solely responsible for explaining the project and convincing the clients, and that experience still informs the way I work today.”

How will automotive design evolve in the future?

The designs Humphries produces are not simply illustrations; they have words and concepts: “What will the automobiles of the future be like? The answer no doubt lies in how we respond to the human desire to move freely. Unlike animals, whose movement is driven by basic needs such as food or shelter, humans have the freedom to follow their curiosity and seek out learnings. In this way, the human desire to move is very deep,” he says.

“Some people worry that if automated driving becomes mainstream, automotive design will become commodified. But I don’t agree; in fact, I believe the opposite is true.”

“No user wants the same thing from their vehicle all the time. For example, they might want to commute by car to work on their own; then, at another time, they may want to take the car shopping, or go on a drive with their family. So, it’s better if a vehicle can respond to individuals needs in the best way possible.”

Yet Humphries’ next words are: “But today is different to before. It is not possible to create cars using the same mindset as before. From a market-centric perspective, automotive design needs a revolution of ideas.”

“A long time ago, automotive design had identifiable ‘trends.’ This is no longer the case. Consumers have become incredibly diverse, and markets change with great speed. The key is this: how quickly can we incorporate user needs into our products?”

“The strength of the Lexus Design Award is that it provides all applicants with an equal opportunity”

In 2020 Humphries became a judge for the Lexus Design Award, an international design competition hosted by Lexus annually since 2013. The award seeks to discover, nurture and support up-and-coming designers and creators who are seeking to “Design for a Better Tomorrow.”

“The strength of the Lexus Design Award is that it gives all applicants an equal opportunity, regardless of whether they are professionals or students, or where they are in the world. Today, professional designers are constantly trying new things to make their voices heard. This is a public award, so the winners’ designs become widely known—it’s a huge opportunity for them.”

Six award finalists are selected from the design submissions received from around the world and they are given the chance to develop their ideas with mentorship from world-renowned creators over a six-month period. Traditionally the announcement of the ultimate Grand Prix winner takes place at a special event held during Milan Design Week in April. Due to the cancellation of this year’s design week, the result was revealed in an online event, together with presentations on all six finalists’ work.

Humphries comments: “For the finalists, this must have been a difficult experience. But often a time of crisis can be a spur for creativity”. He refers to the experience of grandparents to illustrate his point: “For long periods during the recent lockdowns, grandparents couldn’t meet their loved ones. When I heard about what was happening, I wondered if someone could develop apps that, for example, make use of haptic feedback, so that when you touch images of people on your tablet, it would feel as though you are actually touching the cheeks of the people on your screen. These kinds of new ideas to meet people’s desires are what designers require now. When it comes to cars, too, it is vital that we don’t focus excessively on the cars of the past. We are entering a time when we need to set aside preconceived notions—such as a car being just a means of transport —and move towards a more innovative future.”

According to Humphries, the automotive industry must adopt a broader perspective than ever before when making cars. He believes in the power of design— and his belief is inspiring others to do the same.