Interview with Thomas Lienhart - Senior Interior Designer, Zeekr
CAR DESIGN INTERVIEW - The usual path to becoming a car designer used to be very exclusive, reserved to a select few, and mainly fuelled by a childhood obsession with cars. The story has been told many times in this way. However, that story is changing. It seems that behind the scenes, a few seismic changes to the way car design is taught and how students get to that pathway are less clear-cut and more, let’s say, well-rounded.
With the advent of the car industry, mould-breaking companies like Tesla, Fisker, Rimac, and even Riversimple, and new online teaching platforms, such as Inktank.Academy, the formula for the growth of a contemporary car designer is different. Here we got in touch with Thomas Lienhart, designer at Zeekr and tutor at Inktank, to check out the profile and expectations of this new wave of car designers not quite what you’d expect!
Interview - Thomas Lienhart
ADP - Tell us a little about where you got your automotive design roots, a moment you remember or even a series of events…
TL - I don't remember one precise moment, but I know that I have always been passionate about cars. My big brother was even more passionate than me, so I just did what he was doing. My dad was also very much into cars as well so the idea of them was always around. We liked cars; I could recognise all the cars and draw them all the time…but I didn’t know it was a job I could do. My brother ended up being a doctor!
I was actually more interested in product design, but when I realised car interior design was a complex arrangement of many products design then, it caught my attention. I liked to draw as well, so when I learned about product design and car design, I started to look for schools
ADP - What was the process of selecting the right school for you? Which one did you attend and why?
TL - I had been looking for design schools on the Internet. At that time, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do car design, so I was open to the schools. I was mainly looking at any design school in France, and that’s how I chose Strate School of Design because they were considered as one of the best schools in Europe and the projects from their students that they were showcasing talked to me. And also because they had an automotive department.
When I joined the school, I was still attracted to product design, car design was a dream, but I was still hesitating. Then I realised that the interior of cars had many products, much more than the exterior. An exterior has maybe 100 parts, and the interior has at least twice as many. You have to think about all the ergonomics; in the end, the user needs to have a functional interior. That was challenging.
ADP - Was there a way of teaching at Strate that taught you how to learn complex thinking?
TL - Yes and no, we had some technical classes, like giving you knowledge about technical drawings and history. You learn things at school, but it’s the real-world experiences like internships that show you how to make a car. Do lots of internships! I remember the first month I was working, and I was completely lost. The school will teach you things and skills, but you just have to learn on the job.
ADP - Despite having a strong ability to design car exteriors during your studies, you have focused on interior design in your professional work. How did that transition happen?
TL - When I joined the Automotive Department at Strate, I was already focusing on interiors. It was the first year that they opened a section only for interiors. I always wanted to do interiors, so I went that way.
What I love about interior design is its combination of many products. While the exterior design is more of a sculpture where the reflections of the light are so critical, the Interior is more about ergonomics and architecture. It has a lot of product design in it. I love working on steering wheels, or just on the Instrument panel in general, challenging the architecture of an interior and finding clever designs.
ADP - Do you think the focus has shifted from outside to inside for the buyer?
TL - If you look at Tesla, people talk about the interior more than the exterior and how it differs. The interior is becoming so crucial in the use case because we have more technology and more opportunities to interact with the interior.
ADP - How about that report that nobs are more critical than screens in a car? What do you think?
TL - It's super interesting; I agree in a way because an interior can become more timeless, more iconic, with no screens. Screens put a date on interiors. Like 20 years ago screens were so big and chunky, and now they are still big but super thin. It dates a car. When you don’t have a screen, it’s harder to know. We will move towards fewer screens; they will be more integrated. For example, when you are waiting to charge your car, you might want to be entertained. Screens won’t disappear but will be more part of the interior. There will be a good separation between entertainment and function. It will be interesting to see which brand leads the way.
ADP - AHA! Good lead in…which brands are leading the electrification design space? Which is leading the autonomous design space?
TL - For the electric, I think Tesla has led the electrification design area, especially with the interior. For autonomous, it's super early because we haven’t seen many production cars with proper autonomy. I think Audi, and of course, I can say Volvo because I did a project there! Many brands realise that autonomy will take a bit more time, and are now focused on delivering electric cars as the demand is there.
ADP - How do you feel about the true sustainability of electric cars?
TL - I think it has, of course, a lot to do with governments having electric cars than companies. In Europe, they put laws that by 2035 all cars should be electric, so the companies don’t have a choice. We are still in the beginning, like navigation in cars was pretty bad, but now they are pretty good. The beginning of every technological revolution is never the best and will improve. There are other ways, like hydrogen, and I think combustion, is not as good for pollution, but I think if you look at it as a whole, we haven’t reached the peak of that technology.
There is much room for improvement there; I hope engineers are still working on this and improving this technology. But, the best is to buy a used car. It’s more sustainable to buy a car that is already made. Maybe there are some excellent questions about giving old cars a new life. For example, when you design the car from the beginning as having a second life.
ADP - Yeah, people don’t talk about that!
TL - Yeah, because you sell less! The whole sustainable green market is enormous, so it would be interesting to push for that because it’s essential.
ADP - Speaking of brands, having worked for several brands, how do you keep their ethos on paper while infusing your own style and not fudge the two?
TL - I think it comes naturally. Studying the brand and the form language is important to create something aligned with the brand. And if the brand has a vision and a strong identity, it is easy to know what to do and, how to push the boundaries, and how to make this identity evolve.
ADP - You work as a Tutor at Inktank.Academy, specifically with autonomous interiors. What do you like/not like about teaching online, and how does it compare to your formal studies?
TL - What I like about Inktank is that it makes learning car design accessible for everyone, with feedback from professionals. But it is easier to teach someone how to draw or the tricks of car design when you can be physically next to the person.
What is good with Inktank is that you have direct professionals that give you direct feedback. Like me, I am working on real projects and I will teach from the perspective of a professional. Sometimes teachers in traditional schools are set on their course and haven’t been in the industry for a while its a very different perspective. In school, they judge you most on your creative skills in a way, but you also need to learn about real-life car packages and the tricks of the trade.
ADP - You are practising at a novel time in car history. What is your view on autonomous driving and electric driving? How will it define/ or not design?
TL - Autonomous is a big step in the industry; we don't know when it will come because it brings a lot of questions, but it is the first time in automobile history that we don't need to look at the road while "driving", so it brings a lot of opportunity for the interior. Electric cars are also a revolution in the car industry and we are right in it. Right now, the difference is not visible. But in the long term, there will be opportunities to challenge the architecture of the interiors, with more space.
Also, using an electric car is slightly different than a petrol car. The evolution of technology can help to change the trends in interiors, and how the customers will use the cars.
ADP - Your style is very layered, analogue and tactile, yet living in the digital space, can you explain why?
TL - I still like using paper and pen, it's the way I learned, and whilst some people jump straight into digital I still get the best results out of drawing and then using digital for rendering or 3D etc. My ideas always come from processing information through drawing. That’s my tool to get creative. I always feel like when you do a render if it's straight from the computer it feels a bit too cold, there is no life in it, it's important to bring this hand drawing in to show that it's still handmade. Cars are handmade. You need the human side, when you see clay modelling it's
still important in the industry, exterior or interior, you don’t have the same perception in the computer or even VR. You need the real thing to bring out the magic.
ADP - You moved into this new fantastic building, how is that after the pandemic?
TL - I was working at Canoo, they are doing some great work on interiors by the way!; but then I came back to Geely exclusively for the Zeekr brand in the new facility they have built here in Sweden. It's all the Geely brands together so it's nice to have this one big building where we can all work together. Of course, we had a tough time that we could still work from home but at some point, you start to lose the creative side and team spirit. It’s nice to come back to one roof to have regular meetings with people and communicate.
ADP - What is your favourite part of the day?
TL - On a normal day or when everything goes okay? I like it, it depends a lot on the mood, I like a bit of time to sketch new ideas. It's a teamwork job when you feel the job is going well and the team is working hand in hand…and of course, the coffee is good as well! An ideal day is when I don’t have to rush to be creative, but it's not always like that!
ADP - Name your top 5 tools of the trade :-)
TL - I love the early sketching part when you try to find new ideas. Also, I like when the project is in development and you see the first models and mock-ups.
My Top 5 Tools: Paper, ball pen, markers, pencil, sharpener.