Interview with Jo Stenuit - Design Director at Mazda Motor Europe (Part 1)

We sat down with Mazda Europe's Design Director, who graciously shared insights into his approach to design, his enduring journey with Mazda, the studio's unique culture, and the seamless collaboration between the European team and their international counterparts. Mazda Europe's design studio is not just a place where cars are designed; it's a sanctuary where art and engineering converge to create vehicles that inspire and move us. This commitment to innovation, the culture of creativity, and global collaboration that make Mazda a driving force in the automotive design world.

Jo Stenuit - Design Director at Mazda Motor Europe

Automotive Design Planet: Can you tell us a bit about your background and experience in the automotive design industry and how it led you to your current role as Design Director at Mazda?

Jo Stenuit: As you can read in the book published by my Belgian friends from Waft called "Ever since I was a young boy, I've been drawing cars", my dream was always to become a car designer. I expressed interest in pursuing art, but my parents suggested product design instead. Following their advice, I enrolled in Antwerp, Belgium's five-year product design program. 

After completing my studies, I did my masters from RCA, and the two years at RCA were enriching, and I formed lasting connections with fellow students. Following my time at RCA, I officially became a car designer. My first job opportunity came from Phillips Research Lab, where I worked on internet games and vehicle design. Eventually, Technicon, a contracting company, offered me a position in Germany. I spent the next three years working for Opel in Russelsheim, mainly focused on Alias modelling. However, my desire to be more involved in design led me to apply for a position at Mazda. 

Joining Mazda was a pivotal decision, despite their design level not being at its peak back then. It was a thrilling experience to work for a Japanese company; I've been with them for 25 years. I spent two years in Japan, contributing to show cars and production vehicles. Around seven years ago, I started looking at the brand style within the design, encompassing everything related to the brand's image, including photography, graphic design, and TV campaigns, working closely with marketing and PR.

Five years ago, I became the design director at Mazda Europe. It's been a fascinating journey.

ADP - Mazda is known for its distinctive design philosophy, "Kodo - Soul of Motion." How do you and the team at Mazda ensure this design language is consistently reflected across different models while allowing individuality?

Jo Stenuit - Our design philosophy is more like a guiding principle than a strict guidebook. It's a broad approach that doesn't dictate how each specific element of a car, such as the sides, front, lamps, or wheels, should look. This makes it incredibly interesting because it allows for personal input and creativity. However, it can also be quite challenging as we engage in detailed discussions for each car, exploring what "Kodo design" means in that context. We avoid any copy-paste approach to ensure uniqueness and innovation in our designs. 

Over the years, our design philosophy has evolved through different phases. In the first phase, we drew inspiration from a cheetah, incorporating its movement, muscles, and facial features into our designs. In the current phase, which we are approaching the end of, we aim to achieve the same impact with the least possible elements. The RX Vision and Vision Coupe are notable examples of this approach, which inspired our production models.

We are working on the next generation, with our new global chief designer, Masashi Nakayama, based on the initial idea of our "Kodo Design Language" started in 2010. This has brought significant changes and exciting discussions as we explore new avenues while staying true to our core design direction with a fresh twist. What's remarkable for us is the continuity of our design philosophy for such a long time, around 12 to 13 years. It has been a transformative journey, slowly building the confidence and understanding of the vision within the team. This aspect sets us apart from the typical Japanese design approach, which often involves frequent shifts in direction. This newfound confidence has been instrumental in our successes, including being recognized at the Villa desk and receiving design awards.

ADP - Mazda strongly focuses on craftsmanship, human touch and harmony of form and function in its designs. How does this philosophy balance aesthetics and practicality in the design process, and how it sets Mazda apart from other automakers?

Jo Stenuit - Craftsmanship holds a profound significance in our design journey. Artisans are individuals, not machines; they possess a soul and hands that create sculptures. Our interaction with them has taught us about the artistry and dedication they pour into their creations. Their skills and soul are woven into each piece, and this essence resonates in the final product, often evoking strong emotions.

While it may take considerable time, the results are truly remarkable. This mirrors our endeavour to infuse emotional value through craftsmanship into our designs. This craftsmanship is particularly evident in our exterior surfacing, a distinctive trait achieved through clay. But it's not confined to the exterior; it also extends to the interior. Our interiors are meticulously designed with a focus on the driver's experience. This is a practical decision, as a car is primarily meant for driving. It's not merely an entertainment space. Thus, we carefully positioned the pedals and the steering wheel at the centre to enhance the driving experience.

We intend to foster a strong connection between the driver and the car, putting them in complete control. This aspect gains more importance given the current trend where understanding and interacting with car functions have become challenging in some designs, which we prioritize by blending the aesthetics of craftsmanship with a user-friendly design philosophy.

ADP - Agree "The car is an object to drive, not just an entertainment space". So, how does Mazda aim to evoke an emotional connection and make people fall in love with their cars? Could you explain the specific process utilized during the early design stages to achieve this goal?

Jo Stenuit - The MX-5 is a prime illustration of our design philosophy in action. This car is tailored for individuals who truly relish the experience of driving. When you get behind the wheel, you immediately sense the tangible connection you share with the car—both physically and visually. We've gone to great lengths to bridge the gap between the exterior and interior, creating a seamless transition. We've endeavoured to infuse a touch of the MX-5's essence into all our vehicles. This extends to our engineers who meticulously craft the drivetrain, imbuing each car with what we call "Jinba Ittai," the harmonious link between driver and vehicle. The underlying objective is to empower the driver with a sense of control, ensuring they're steering the car, not the other way around.

We remain firm believers in the pleasure of driving and maintaining that direct connection. Consequently, all our vehicles were designed as something other than entertainment spaces. We're committed to preserving the pure joy of driving by minimizing distractions caused by non-driving factors.

ADP - The automotive industry is rapidly evolving with the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles; how is the EV thing in the Japanese automotive industry?

Jo Stenuit - Having lived in Japan, I have some insights into the car market there. Considering the circumstances, I'm a bit surprised by the limited popularity of EVs in Japan. Japan's conditions appear ideal for EVs:
•    Shorter travel distances are the norm.
•    Car buyers generally have personal parking spaces where charging stations can be easily installed.
•    Driving speeds tend to be lower.

From my perspective, it is the perfect environment for EVs to thrive. However, despite these favourable conditions, the adoption of EVs isn't as extensive as one might expect.

ADP - So, what’s your approach?

Jo Stenuit - Our approach to EVs is rooted in a practical perspective. While we offer the same cars globally, we don't envision an immediate transition where everyone can switch to EVs overnight. Multiple factors are at play, including the cost considerations and challenges related to charging infrastructure. There are still gaps even in regions like Europe, where EV infrastructure is more established. In some countries we operate in, the charging infrastructure is sparse, making widespread EV adoption challenging.

Given these complexities, we believe in a multi-dimensional approach. We recognize the continued relevance of conventional petrol and diesel engines for the foreseeable future. This reality compels us to invest in developing electric and traditional powertrains. While EVs are undeniably a part of the future, combustion engines will continue to play a role for a considerable time. This approach aligns with our strategy, where almost all our vehicles, incorporate some electrification. It's a gradual process of electrification that we're committed to.

We entered the electric space somewhat later than some competitors, like other Japanese companies. This is partially because the EV market in Japan is less extensive. Additionally, EVs aren't the sole solution to our mobility challenges. By embracing a multi-faceted approach, we're better positioned to address the diverse needs of different markets and customers while remaining committed to sustainable and innovative mobility solutions.

ADP - Given the growing interest in hydrogen as an alternative energy source in the car design industry, is Mazda exploring hydrogen technology alongside its focus on electric vehicles (EVs)?

Jo Stenuit - Mazda has been actively exploring hydrogen technology for quite some time now. We introduced the RX-8 hydrogen vehicle around 20 years ago, and we've had hydrogen-powered cars on the roads in Japan. It's worth noting that many other automotive brands have also been researching and considering hydrogen as a potential solution. However, the challenge lies in the fact that there isn't a single one-size-fits-all solution for the future of mobility. This is particularly important for a relatively minor company like Mazda, as developing multiple technologies simultaneously can be demanding.

Hydrogen is undoubtedly one of the possibilities we're exploring for the future, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. For example, we recently reintroduced the rotary engine in the MX-30 as a valuable solution. In this case, we're using the rotary engine to charge the battery of the MX-30 rather than directly powering the wheels as we did with the RX-7 or RX-8. This illustrates how we're actively investigating various technologies to ultimately arrive at solutions that will be meaningful and relevant for our customers and the automotive industry.

ADP - Can you share some insights into how customer feedback and market trends have influenced the design changes at Mazda over the years?

Jo Stenuit - Historically, we used to have a more direct connection with customer feedback, especially during our time as part of Ford until around 2008-2009, but now it has changed, and we've developed a strong confidence in our abilities to create designs that resonate with our vision. When we initiate a project, we collaborate closely with our colleagues in product strategy. This collaboration is crucial because it helps us understand the specific customer we're designing for and whether we can offer them something new and surprising. A deep understanding of the customer is paramount in our process. This way, when we present a design, it's not just about styling and functionality but also reflects a customer-centric solid foundation. We aim to deliver designs that are not only visually appealing but also profoundly resonant with our customers' needs and desires.

ADP - Designing for different markets and cultures can be challenging. How does Mazda's design team adapt their approach to ensure that the brand's identity resonates globally while catering to regional preferences?

Jo Stenuit - We focus on achieving good proportions, elegant surfacing, and incorporating just a few carefully considered details. Our aim is not to chase trends or strive to be the latest and greatest in trendiness or coolness. Instead, we emphasize creating designs that possess a universal appeal and resonate with people worldwide.

This approach is particularly significant for us because most of the cars we offer, as a non-premium brand, are sold in global markets. Unlike some other non-premium manufacturers that develop entirely different cars for various regions, our vehicles are designed to be universally accepted. Therefore, simplicity and a timeless quality are critical aspects of our design philosophy. By keeping our designs relatively pure and uncomplicated, we ensure that they stand the test of time and are comprehensible and appreciated by people across the globe.

ADP - How does your collaborative process function, especially between the European and other teams? Can you provide insights into how this approach benefits Mazda, and could you share an example of a project where the European team collaborated with another group to achieve a common goal?

Jo Stenuit - Typically, our projects commence with a global perspective, involving all our studios worldwide. Each studio, including mine in Europe, contributes its viewpoint for the same car model. Subsequently, these diverse viewpoints converge during design meetings in Japan. During these gatherings, representatives from all studios across various models engage in discussions. Surprisingly, these discussions are not heated due to our robust and shared design philosophy, rooted in a strong core that we all comprehend.

The entire project relocates to Japan when the car's design matures and advances towards the production phase. This is because Japan houses the engineering expertise and much of our production capabilities.


Sign up for Part 2!

Please mark your calendars for 22 September 2023, as we will bring you Part 2 of our interview with Mazda Europe's Design Director, Jo. In this upcoming segment, Jo will delve into the fascinating world of AI in design, explore the emerging trend of the "inside-out" approach in design studios, reflect on his most significant achievements, offer valuable advice for aspiring designers, and provide a glimpse into the exciting future that awaits Mazda. Don't miss out on this insightful continuation of our conversation, where we'll unfold even more insights and inspirations from the world of automotive design.