Why Volvo’s game-changing design move could signal a new trend

Jessica Thompson

Volvo Cars‘ decision to pick an executive to lead its design team who has no experience at a traditional automaker could become a new industry trend.

“This is the first but unlikely the last move where an automaker shakes up its design by bringing in someone who isn’t a longtime car design boss,” Sam Livingstone, who is director of consultancy Car Design Research, told Automotive News Europe. “I believe that a number of other brands will be observing this move with a lot of interest and a fair bit of apprehension.”

Incoming Volvo global styling boss Jeremy Offer has more than 30 years’ experience as a designer, but this will be his first top-level post at a global automaker.

The 55-year-old executive, who will start May 1, comes to Volvo from electric van startup Arrival, where he serves as senior vice president and chief design officer. Prior to joining Arrival, Offer was head of industrial design and part of the senior management team at global consulting firm EPAM, where he helped bring service and industrial design to their wider consulting practice.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a looming bigger shake-up of automotive design because of the move to software-defined, autonomous and electric cars,” Livingstone said.

When asked about the decision, Volvo CEO Jim Rowan acknowledged that it was an out-of-the-box choice.

“You are absolutely right. It’s not like [we picked] a traditional automotive designer with 20, 30 years’ experience,” he told Automotive News Europe. “Quite frankly, we have so many people in our business who really understand automotive design, people with decades and decades of experience. What we want to bring in now is more of that industrial design.”

Rowan said Offer will bring in a fresh perspective and cited his “plethora of Red Dot awards for industrial design.” He said another one of Offer’s strengths is his ability to multitask.

“When you are working for four or five different clients simultaneously, you think differently,” Rowan said. “That is what we are trying to bring into the mix. So, we’ll blend his experience with the experience that we already have in the company and hopefully that will take Volvo to a new level.”

Livingstone said it’s fitting that Rowan, a former Dyson and Blackberry executive who is running his first automaker, has made such a bold move.

“He is not an automotive guy, so he isn’t afraid to bring in people like him who have different kinds of experiences in other industries,” he said.

When asked about the potential downside of the move Livingstone said: “It is a risk for Volvo to bring someone in from outside of the most uniquely sophisticated craft that is car design — but there is a whole team of car designers at Volvo — arguably it would be bigger risk to not do so.

Overdue change

One company insider said Volvo’s pending change in design direction is overdue.

“I think it was important for Volvo to distance itself from Thomas Ingenlath, given he runs Polestar,” the source said.

Ingenlath started as Volvo design boss in 2012. When he was named Polestar’s first CEO in 2017 he retained overall responsibility for Volvo’s look and feel as chief design officer.

At the same time, interiors boss Robin Page was put in charge of running Volvo’s styling department as senior vice president of design.

Ingenlath handed over full control of Volvo’s design to Page in 2021.

The source said that a big question at Volvo was whether Page would be able to reset the brand’s design direction given his deep ties to Ingenlath.

One criticism of Volvo’s first vehicle under Page’s leadership, the EX90 electric flagship SUV, is that it carries over a lot of Ingenlath’s styling cues.

Offer will join Volvo’s Group Management Team, replacing Page, 51, who will report to Offer and serve as a senior advisor.

Who will crack the code?

The source said that the biggest challenge Volvo’s new Offer-led design team faces is mapping out what’s next for the brand.

“Where will car design go when the long hood is just a memory and SUVs are broadly recognized for their aerodynamic deficits?” the source said. “Will it be a longtime automotive designer or non-automotive designer who will first crack that code? It’s 50-50 if you ask me.”

Added Livingstone: “Jeremy will have a tall hill to climb. There will be a lot of eyes on him.”

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