Tool, status object, vehicle, means of transport, mobile accommodation – a truck has a thousand faces. You get different perspectives depending on the person to whom you are speaking. A driver hauling a full load up a steep Alpine gradient appreciates its power, size and spacious interior. A regional planner with responsibility for environmental issues would doubtless prefer to see more modest and more aerodynamic trucks than those currently on the roads. A child who is about to cross a busy road would perhaps prefer that there were no trucks at all.
“When we pen a new design, we consider two different types of end-users. First of all we have the customer, who usually knows exactly what he wants. To attract him to our brand, the design must express certain values and qualities. The other end-user of our products is society in general. The trucks we design operate everywhere. If people don’t like them because they look frightening or ugly, they simply won’t function in society. Which means we will have failed,” says Asok George, Chief Designer at the Volvo Design Center.
At his workplace just outside Göteborg, a dozen or so designers from all over the world work on the creation of what in truck circles are some of the most dynamic products in the world: Volvo’s fleet of heavy trucks. Designed with “a thousand faces” for almost as many different applications, these vehicles are the very epitome of functional design – design that must function in terms of both content and form. Or, to use Asok George’s terminology, “design that is self-explanatory”.
“The lid of a jar looks like the lid of a jar and is designed to be opened in a certain way. You don’t need to read an instruction manual to understand how to operate it. In the same way, the truck’s appearance must communicate what it’s intended for and how it is to be used,” he explains.
Fairly straightforward, thus far. But it all gets far more complicated when you start adding in the context in which all the world’s truck designers work. As laymen we might be tempted to picture a “designer” as something of an artistic bohemian genius whose unfettered imagination helps conjure new lines and functions out of thin air.
Nothing could be more wrong. A truck is characterised by strict restrictions regarding height, width, length and shape. For instance, departing from the typical flat-fronted design that is the norm for European trucks today is out of the question. “Our starting point is a square-edged box that is designed to transport goods. There are detailed standards governing everything from the dimensions of the wheel housings to where the lights are to be fitted and how large the windscreen must be. And of course it’s vital to make the inside as spacious and practical as possible, at the same time as the outside is made as small and slim as can be,” says Rikard Orell, Design Director at Volvo Trucks and the person who heads the design operation.
Coming as he does from car design at Volvo Cars and before that at Australian car manufacturer Holden, he admits that the firm restrictions on today’s trucks can sometimes make the truck designer’s job a bit frustrating. “You have a much freer hand when designing cars. You draw a product that may have a production run of millions, where it is often the appearance itself that ultimately attracts the customers. This means that the resources and preconditions are on an entirely different level compared with working on trucks,” he relates, at the same time as he emphasises that this firm focus on exterior design is not always a positive thing.
“The risk is that everything ends up being about traditional styling. A truck is far more complex than a car. There are major differences between the different variants and configurations and since everything is so firmly tied to the functional aspects, the work itself is much more exciting.”
In other words, even within strict limitations there can be scope for innovation. If you take a close look at a Volvo, you can accordingly see that it really does stand out from the crowd. The way the lines along the side are drawn in towards the front, the clean body panels, the rounded contours and the classic profile – everything spells design that is typical of Volvo.
“It’s all about creating something that looks like and is perceived as a Volvo. The brand is the primary area for which we have clear-cut responsibility. Our job is all about communicating Volvo’s core values – the environment, safety and quality – in the best possible way. Volvo’s design is clearly inspired by the Scandinavian environment. It is simple, clean and straightforward,” says Rikard Orell.
So from where does a professional designer draw his own inspiration? “From everywhere: architecture, cars, product design, boats, mobile homes … I have a 70 or 80 gigabyte database of pictures that I continuously update and look through,” says Asok George. He’s quiet for a few seconds, then adds: “If you can keep the end-user in your mind throughout the design process, you already have access to the best source of inspiration there is. Just imagine you’re developing the best possible tool for the world’s most professional driver, at the same time as you visualise a little child riding his tricycle in a garden – with those two images playing through your mind you can’t fail!”
For Rikard Orell it is the environmental requirements, such as fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, that will have the greatest influence on truck design of the future.
“We work ceaselessly to improve aerodynamics within the strict frameworks we are given. The focus may be on optimising the radius of a curve in a body panel, getting rid of unnecessary detail or working on the underside of the truck to improve airflow. What it isn’t about is to transform the truck into a Ferrari. After all, its job is to haul heavy loads.”