Interview With Pontus Fontaeus - Executive Design Director, GAC USA (Part 2)

In Part 1, Pontus sheds light on the unseen series' inception and the management's unwavering support for exploring bold and groundbreaking concepts. We also explore the mechanisms in place at GAC to foster collaboration and synergy among its diverse design teams. In part 2, we delve into the fascinating world of AI in design, explore the emerging trend of digital tools in design studios, reflect views on sustainability, offer valuable advice for aspiring designers, and provide a glimpse into the exciting future for GAC. 

ADP: Sustainability and eco-friendliness are becoming increasingly important in the automotive industry. How does GAC's design team contribute to the company's efforts to create more environmentally conscious vehicles?

Pontus: Absolutely, and I appreciate your question. Growing up in Sweden and now identifying as Swedish-American, and especially living in the forward-looking State of California, the ethos of environmental consciousness and a connection to nature is deeply ingrained in my values. Scandinavian culture strongly emphasizes sustainability, recycling, and respecting the environment from an early age. It's not merely a trend but a fundamental part of our upbringing. In my career, I've seen a notable shift in the industry's approach to sustainability, especially in China. Initially, it might not have been a primary focus, but now it's become a pillar in their values, reflecting the nation's progress towards an eco-friendly future. As a designer, promoting sustainability has been a constant, and it's heartening to witness the paradigm shift globally.

However, sustainability isn't just a checkbox or a sales argument anymore. Consumers, especially the younger generation, demand eco-friendliness, aesthetics, and quality. It's about finding a harmonious balance where innovation in material compounds contributes to a new aesthetic. We must consider regional aesthetics, acknowledging the diverse cultural influences on design. The future holds exciting possibilities regarding materials, colours, and sensations. Just as we're open to exploring new tastes in food, we'll embrace fresh aesthetics in design. While some elements from the past might be deemed classic, our ever-evolving world offers room for new, unique, and sustainable expressions.

GAC is progressing steadily, aligning with China's swift development pace. Asian countries, including India, are rapidly catching up and making substantial strides in sustainability. With rich cultural heritage, there's a growing appreciation for products that are not just modern but also reflect regional uniqueness. Ultimately, sustainability is no longer a choice; it's a responsibility. As designers, we're instrumental in shaping a future where our options align with ecological well-being. It's encouraging to see this shift, and consumers will increasingly demand products that meet their aesthetic preferences and contribute positively to the environment.

ADP: What are your thoughts on integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the design process? How do you see AI shaping the future of automotive design?

Pontus: It's a fascinating topic I've pondered for quite some time. To provide context, my journey into the digital realm started quite early. I've advocated embracing digital tools in design studios, steering away from traditional 3D evaluations and clay modelling. Let me clarify: there's immense value in working with clay modellers and having full-size models in the studio. It's a fantastic process. However, circumstances in the past, especially during challenging economic times, pushed us to find more efficient ways. This started back with Volvo, where, due to financial constraints, we had to explore innovative shortcuts.

In 2003, during my time with VW in the DCE satellite studio, we had limited resources and a tight budget. This compelled us to experiment with full-size foam models, a significantly more cost-effective approach than traditional clay modelling. Fast forward to my current role, and we've decided to be 100% digital in our system. While we use 3D printers for specific tests and details, it's more of a nod to our historical practices. Our studio uses advanced tools such as virtual reality (VR), 3D printers, milling machines, hand scanners, and AI. The 3D printers are handy for small-scale models, while the milling machine allows us to create full-size instrument panels. Virtual reality is integral to our design process, and we often find ourselves immersed in VR to evaluate and touch our digital designs.

When it comes to AI, I approach it with a mix of intrigue and caution. Having witnessed the evolution from traditional methods to desktop publishing and AI, I understand the importance of adapting to new tools. However, my current stance on AI is that I could be more impressed. It's an open-source platform, and the concern lies in AI learning from human inputs. There's a risk of creating something that might not align with our intentions. AI is a tool, and like any tool, we must be cautious in its application. It should differ from the design process's core, which involves gut feeling, emotion, and human intuition. AI lacks the consciousness to understand the emotional depth of design. Maintaining a balance where AI supplements our efforts is crucial but only partially dictates the creative direction. However, I keep up with the latest progress and am active, trying out the latest novelties like the Vizcom AI that impressed me so far.

In our studio, we continue to rely on traditional methods initially and then use AI to explore alternatives and variations. We shouldn't succumb to the temptation of quick solutions, as the discomfort and challenges in the design process often lead to the best outcomes. AI should be a supporting actor, not the lead, in our creative endeavours. As we move forward, I'm keen on exploring not just AI but also other emerging technologies like game processes, which have the potential to enhance our design simulations. My philosophy revolves around leveraging technology to gain speed, sustainability, and holistic insights without compromising the essence of human-centric design.

But I'd also like to add a bit of caution to it. For instance, if someone needs more experience, like in my case, let's say I ask AI to compose music, which isn't my forte. Despite appreciating music, when I played around with Apple’s GarageBand about 15 years ago, thinking I was doing great, it was not so impressive compared with the result of more musically talented and experienced friends and family members. If I lack understanding in a particular domain, how can I assess if the AI-generated output is good or bad? With a preset goal, it becomes easier to determine if it aligns with what I truly want. Younger designers and users may rely on AI extensively, leading to numerous portfolios and books created with AI assistance. However, there's a risk that the output may need more intellectual direction. It might be a loop where one thinks, 'This computer-generated music is amazing.' Still, it might not truly capture a visionary or intelligent essence and lacks a general direction, at least not yet.

ADP: With the increasing integration of AI and digital tools in the design process, there's a shift in how we approach traditional methods. You've mentioned the importance of clay modelling and how it holds a part of the industry's heritage. Will these advancements make clay modellers or the entire clay modelling department obsolete?

Pontus: The role of clay modellers or the practice of clay modelling will not become obsolete. I hope it doesn't. The industry's trajectory will largely depend on what we can afford and where we are regarding technology and capabilities. In our LA Studio, we've embraced an utterly digital approach, and the use of math is integral to our design process. The advantage is evident in how efficiently a digital model can be transferred, allowing for animation, milling of models, and seamless communication with our HQ and engineering department. The speed of information transfer enables real-time decision-making, minimizing the need for the physical transport of clay models. This not only saves costs but also aligns with sustainability goals as it reduces pollution associated with transportation.

Before the pandemic, we would still fly down to collaborate on clay models for specific projects because seeing and interacting with a physical model has its value. Clay models have been significant, especially when dealing with complex surfaces. For example, the AION Hyper SSR project involved a digital collaboration with suppliers and colleagues in China. However, I truly grasped the design only when I saw an early clay model in person. There's something unique about experiencing a physical property in real time. Collaboration with clay modellers is crucial for me. Many are not just executors but highly skilled artists and essential team members. Working closely with them has always been a collaborative and enriching experience. Interaction, discussions, and feedback are invaluable when creating a 3D sculpture. The teamwork and collaboration between designers and clay modellers bring out the best in the design process. Creativity flourishes in partnership, and I am a far better designer when working with others. I could say this also counts for the 3D Alias modellers; it's just the same.

While technology like Alias allows for specific shortcuts, the unique collaboration and tangible experience with clay modellers have their place in the design journey. The heart and soul put into the product by a collaborative team, whether digital or physical, contributes significantly to the outcome. So, in short, I foresee a partial replacement of clay modelling; it's about finding the right balance between digital and traditional methods to create the best possible designs.

ADP: What will be the next significant shift in how we perceive and produce cars, and what new aesthetics will emerge?

Pontus: I've been trying to explore this, and it's akin to the moment when smartphones became touchscreens without buttons. In the phone industry, interaction and capabilities took precedence over styling. Similarly, some cars, like sports cars, must be beautiful, while others require maximum volume and space. Finding an aesthetic that fits these diverse needs is the challenge. Cars adhere to traditional norms, but I anticipate a breaking point where practical considerations inform aesthetics. Imagine a person walking into a modern house—it might initially look like a square box, and they might think it's not attractive at all. However, once they experience thoughtful design, with windows strategically placed for sunlight and modular systems optimizing space, they understand the purpose behind the creation.

This will be exciting- the shift from conformal designs to something more user-centric. How we approach interior architecture and user experience will undoubtedly influence the exterior, leading to a departure from the traditional norms. It's a prospect with great potential for innovation and change in the automotive industry, and I'm eager to see when it happens.

ADP: Which cars, designers and brands do you admire?

Pontus: Our industry has a wealth of creativity and talent, but unfortunately, it has its share of challenges. While many outstanding individuals and companies produce exceptional work, there are also many subpar products in the market. A key factor lies in the decision-making process. Designers must be conscious and market-aware, understanding the end clients and striving for commercial success. Design is a professional job, not just an outlet for personal and artistic preferences. We're tasked with creating for others, which involves making decisions that align with industry expectations and economic considerations. The complexity of car design, coupled with the financial risks involved, often leads to bad decisions. Moreover, some decision-makers need more vision and knowledge to guide the design process effectively. I prefer not to single out specific brands or individuals, as there are many whom I respect and find inspirational. That doesn't mean you should not be an artist; quite the contrary.

What I admire most are companies that approach design holistically. Those with a clear vision and mission, both internally and externally, and a commitment to a 360-degree design philosophy. This includes interior design, CMF (Color, Material, and Finish), graphics, and, most importantly, UX/UI design. The successful integration of these elements, combined with a touch of soul, passion, and love, sets a product apart. The challenge is that sometimes, products are solely judged on their technical execution, needing more emotional connection that brings them to life. A flaw here and there, a touch of personality, makes products and people endearing. It's imperfections that add character.

In my personal preferences, I lean towards smaller, sustainable cars with a smaller environmental footprint, especially for urban use. However, I also appreciate the bold styling and comfort of larger SUVs, especially when they push the boundaries of design. There's likely an abundance of creative talents in our field whose impact might not be fully realized. Breaking through this industry can be challenging, like a freshwater fish navigating the vast, salty ocean. Surviving and thriving involves understanding various facets of the industry, being adaptable, and remaining humble. The design journey requires looking at challenges from multiple perspectives, acknowledging that one may not possess the whole truth in any given situation.

ADP: Automotive Design looks fascinating from the outside, but there is immense dedication and hard work behind the scenes. What advice or insights would you share with young automotive design students dreaming of entering this world? Mainly, what aspects of the industry do you think they should be prepared for, and what words of encouragement would you offer as they embark on their journey in automotive design?

Pontus: The creative process is undeniably fascinating, but from the inside, it's an intense journey. When it's too easy, that's a red flag; it won't result in something remarkable. Also, being too proud or in love with your work can be detrimental. It's a delicate balance. I believe the key is to set ambitious goals, work hard for them, and, most importantly, have fun. The collaborative effort of a team is what drives the process. You're not alone in this journey; if you forget to enjoy it, even a successful result might not be worth it.

Drawing a parallel to cooking, another passion of mine, the social act of sharing food is fundamental to human connection. Similarly, in the creative process, the camaraderie, shared challenges, and moments of joy contribute significantly to the overall experience. The trip to the result is often more memorable than the result itself. Having fun during the journey is crucial. Just like enjoying a meal with a partner enhances the experience, enjoying the process of creating something makes the result more meaningful. To all the aspiring designers, my advice is simple: Have fun. Cherish the journey, the interactions with your team, and every challenge you face. How you feel during the process is more impactful than the final design. Remember, the enjoyment of the journey will reflect in the end product, which is the most important lesson.

ADP: What does the future hold for GAC in 2024 and the future? Are there any exciting developments or projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

Pontus: I believe GAC and several other companies are on the brink of a fascinating time. While our focus has been primarily on the domestic market, particularly in China, we initially considered entering the North American market about five or six years ago. However, due to various reasons, we withdrew from those plans. Nevertheless, GAC is already making strides in markets across Europe, the Middle East, and through joint ventures in Mexico.

Globalization is crucial for us, and it is a pivotal moment. It's about potential profitability, reaching more consumers, and spreading and sharing our philosophy. As mentioned, many Chinese products have a more human-centric approach and incorporate advanced technology, creating a more pleasant user experience than some Western or American cars. This shift may not necessarily be because Chinese vehicles are better but rather because they are more aligned with the needs of modern society.

While Western companies continue to produce unique cars, expanding market shares globally is the most significant aspect. For me, success is not solely measured by the products; it's about our design studios' overall presence and footprint in different markets. Whether it's a concept car from China, Milan, or Shanghai, the collective success of all our studios and products excites me. Reflecting on the past six years since I entered this role and considering the prospect of the next six years, I find it thrilling to witness our designs' continuous renewal and improvement. The anticipation of surpassing our current achievements drives my excitement, and I see a high probability of that becoming a reality soon.

Stay tuned for more amazing projects from GAC.

If you want to explore the mechanisms in place at GAC to foster collaboration and synergy among its diverse design teams and how the company ensures that regional preferences and nuances are acknowledged and effectively woven into the fabric of the design process, Please read Part 1 of this interview.