Mazda’s Old-School Design Secret

Back when Ikuo Maeda was a Young Turk just cutting his teeth at design, he whipped up what he thought was a beautiful sketch for the Mazda Familia, a compact family car.

He handed it to the clay modeler, sure of the wow power of his two-dimensional vision. His pedigree didn’t hurt: Maeda’s father was lead designer of the storied Mazda RX-7 sports car.

He was in for a rude awakening.

“Our opinions clashed, and the conversation got heated,” Maeda says of the skirmish with the modeler some 25 years ago. “He actually left for home and didn’t come back to the office for several days.”

The showdown had a lasting impact on the stunned young Maeda. Designing vehicles, he realized, isn’t just a top-down, flat pen-and-paper exercise. It is a collaborative effort — and one that must incorporate the expertise of three-dimensional sculptors.

“From the modeler’s eyes, my sketch didn’t consider the vehicle’s three dimensions,” Maeda says. “It didn’t make sense.”

As Maeda, 55, climbed the ranks to head Mazda Motor Corp.’s global design division, it was a lesson he remembered.

Breaking with the modern-day reliance on computer-generated design, Maeda took Mazda old school. He overhauled the design process to begin every project with sculpting and handed the clay modelers even more clout in steering a vehicle’s style.

The shift began in 2009 when Maeda took the reins. But it is appearing just now in the bold, head-turning Kodo design language that has critics raving about Mazda’s latest lineup.

The very modern looks have an ultralow-tech origin. Mazda, a relatively tiny automaker on a shoestring budget, is one of the last carmakers to prioritize clay as much as computers. It’s a point of pride, and, Maeda says, a secret to Mazda’s success.

“It’s a part of our DNA that we need to protect,” Maeda said in a Sept. 19 interview at the carmaker’s global design studio.

Not too long ago, many in the industry thought clay would disappear. But it has hung on for its flexibility.

“The realization was most people still needed the ability to touch, feel, walk around a hard clay model,” says John Manoogian, a professor of automotive design at the College for Creative Studies and a former General Motors designer.

“Will clay ultimately go away? Probably. But right now it’s a great tool to realize an endless number of designs,” he says.

Creating an underlying volume and energy is a key difference between Kodo and Mazda’s previous design language, Nagare.

Kodo strives for a sense of muscular motion, with heavy creasing, bold fenders and aggressive proportions. Nagare evoked a windswept, watery fluidity, with delicately scalloped sheet metal. While Nagare played at the surface, Kodo digs deep.

“It is the opposite of static German design,” Maeda says of Kodo. “Proportion is the most important thing.”

To ensure a solid three-dimensional foundation, Maeda says he premises the design on a so-called vision sculpture.

These curvy, twisted abstract statuettes look more at home in the Museum of Modern Art than a carmaker’s industrial studio.

Fashioned by clay modelers trained as sculptors at Japan’s top art schools, they play muse for production cars.

“When it comes to shifts of volume or shadow and light, it is difficult for designers to capture it in two dimensions,” Maeda says. “Sculptors can find something new. It’s very effective.”

Mazda has digital designers working in tandem. And it still has milling machines to robotically carve clay models.

Mazda’s four global studios — two in Japan, one in Los Angeles and one in Frankfurt — have fewer than a dozen mills among them. Compare that with GM, which has just as many mills at its single satellite design studio in South Korea. At Mazda, modelers’ hands still come in handy.

The clay way means it takes nearly two years to design a production car — a little longer than rivals, Maeda reckons. Yet, delay is a small price to pay for nailing design, he says.

“If you want to get it done quickly, you can just do almost all of it digitally,” Maeda says. “But the human hand is more capable of creating a range of different shapes.”

At Mazda’s studios, it’s part and parcel for clay modelers to propose ideas for a vehicle’s shape and brainstorm design cues.

Do they still butt heads with prima donna designers?

“Yes, every day,” Maeda says with a smile. But, he says, that’s a positive interplay that hones ever-sharper designs.

Maeda pledges that Kodo will remain Mazda’s design language “until I die.” But that doesn’t mean it won’t evolve.

It already has. The fourth-generation MX-5 Miata arriving next year tones down the sharply creased beltline that defines the fender flares on the CX-5 crossover, Mazda2 hatchback and Mazda6 and Mazda3 sedans. Instead it relies more on subtly rounded sheet metal to convey motion and carry shadow, Maeda says.

“There is a big change in the design of the form,” Maeda says of the MX-5. “The sense of movement is the same, but the way of expressing it is different. … We have plenty of new ideas for how to express the movement of Kodo design.”

by Hans G.

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