Designer’s notebook: how I designed the XC40

Inspired by the creative worlds imagined in sci-fi movies, influenced by Sweden and driven to create something different, Ian Kettle – the lead exterior designer of the XC40 – explains the thought process behind his vision.


Meet Ian Kettle

“As a child, I was interested in drawing. I would draw cars and my father would say ‘You know, you could do that for a job’. So from about the age of seven, I knew what I wanted to do. You obviously have to have an ability to draw to be a car designer, to visualise 3D form. But more importantly, you need to come up with a technically creative solution, to engineer your way out of problems and to be able to understand that what you are creating is for your customers. That is the real skill. The design process starts as an internal competition. There were eight proposals and mine was chosen for the XC40. Competition is healthy for a brand. It improves the breed. It forces people to think differently and work better.”

My design process

“My designs always start with words. For me the creative process begins with writing down what message I want to convey, where I think it should be in relation to society and how it fits into what Volvo Cars wants to achieve. That way the exterior design team and I can establish a firm foothold of what it is in just a few words. In the instance of the XC40, that phrase was ‘Tough Little Robot’.

“I used Tough Little Robot from day one and it defined everything about the product. Its stance, its surfacing, its sense of playfulness. It represented what I wanted to make for the city. Once I have established those core words, I start to look at influences. I look at imagery of what a Tough Little Robot would be, and what I would like it to be. Then I start sketching and visualising these ideas and trying to translate those characteristics on to a vehicle. Creativity is really about taking two unrelated ideas and bringing them together.

“When you have that grounding in the development process and the creative process, it means that for the rest of the project the design team have anchor points to go back to – in this instance, Tough Little Robot. So if you’re faced with three or four different proposals for a rear fog lamp, for instance, it’s easy to make a decision if you know you’re trying to create a Tough Little Robot.

Influence and inspiration

“The early phase of the process was inspired by the product design consultancy IDEO, who invented Apple’s first mouse. When I was at university, my friends and I were invited to a workshop at IDEO’s studio in London. They showed us how they would approach complex problems and make them simple. The way they approached it was to start with researching and trying to understand the people who used the product. Once they have a body of thoughts, they write them on Post-It notes and start to group things and look for a pattern, a story or a series.

“For me, the best time to do this kind of thinking is in the evening, sat at my kitchen table with some music on. You’ve got to be in a certain mood. I can’t do it in the middle of the day. Like many creative people, I’m most focussed when I’m slightly tired. It’s important to make sure you’ve got the washing done, the emails sent. Clear your mind.

“There are a couple of creative process books by Paul Arden that influence me so much, even to this day. These are It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be and Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite. They are small, Penguin-style books that you can read in half an hour because each page has just one sentence on it. Paul used to be the creative director at a global advertising agency and it’s full of gems of creative advice such as ‘It’s right to be wrong’. It’s stuck with me for my whole career.

“If I talk about influence in its purest sense for this car, it came from watching a couple of sci-fi movies. One was Elysium, with Matt Damon. The robots in it were designed in a completely different way to most other contemporary films in the genre and that really influenced me. The other film was Oblivion, with Tom Cruise, which had really interesting vehicles that were beautifully designed by Daniel Simon, who used to be a car designer and now lives in Hollywood.”

“As for broader influences, Sweden is a huge inspiration. I’ve got really into outdoor sports since living here but the influence for me as a designer comes from the attitude of society. It’s an extremely equal place. Swedes don’t seem to be held back by traditions. You can see that in the attitude to technology. For many years, Sweden had the best 3G coverage, because they adapted to it very quickly. Sweden is also one of the leading cash-free societies. Swedes have a real acceptance of change. It’s a really progressive country. And that kind of openness affects you as a creative person because it means you’re encouraged to do something different.

“Car designers often design products in their own image. You can see that in the XC40. My personal taste in design is having large sweeping surfaces that convey both a sense of calm and confidence in the product. If you look at an Apple MacBook or an iPad, they don’t have lots of line work breaking up the surface. It’s about making the product seductive in a really intelligent way, with an uncomplicated design that suggests it will make your life easier – which is the whole point of the XC40.”