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The Maorinews Review 5 Interviews: Chen Zheng, Chang An

25 September 2018 | by CDN Team

Chang An Automobile has already had an autonomous car drive from Chongqing to Beijing, 2000km – we were the first to do this in China. Now we have a project ongoing, with a simple premise: if we have an autonomous car, how should the interior be? How do we design not just a traditional HMI, but totally redesign this based on user experience?

I respect old-school car design, but I admire Apple – Steve Jobs and Jony Ive used design to change the world. I have a theory: Nokia used to be a pioneer but now it is struggling while Apple is thriving. It’s partly about design, partly about user experience – it is not just pure styling.

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So in 2014, when we devised and launched the second-generation Chang An design direction, I told everyone, ‘don’t do style – be a designer, use design thinking to change things’. I am a disciple of the design thinking approach for human-centred problem-solving; it made me realise how powerful design is, its remarkable tools that we use.

Now, the design team is at the centre of Chang An with a flatter decision-making process. It is easier to come to agreement and we have sped up.

When our chairman launched the new ‘Vitality Motion’ philosophy, he said that it is not just a design strategy or philosophy, it will change the company. Every department, every function will follow this, including our suppliers; the industrial chain will change and follow this too, it starts to snowball.

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It is not easy to change people’s minds, give design an iconic position in a big company and make everybody accept it; sometimes I think they feel like we are artists, sometimes they hate us! But we have found the reason why we exist in this company, and we have learnt to know ourselves. We give meaning to the car like giving soul to a machine: that is part of Vitality Motion.

Chang An Design has more than 500 people working in three locations, and we were the first Chinese manufacturer to set up studios overseas. The biggest studio is in Turin, directly employing over 200 people, and we have around 50 people in Shin Yokohama, Japan, as well as around 150 in Chongqing, China.

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We work as a family: every location has its own character, advantages and disadvantages. My job is to figure out how to put them together. We have a pretty international team in the Turin studio, where almost all the ‘V logo’ cars are designed: 23 nationalities, from Asia, Europe, and south and north America. Lots of the designers here have moved from other carmakers – Toyota, VW, BMW, Fiat, PSA. I really like the people here: when they are asked who they work for, they introduce the company and its culture, with passion.

Being in Europe is a good way to learn about branding, and there is a plan to sell our vehicles in Europe and the USA, but first we must win in China. Many people ask me how Italian and German designers living in Turin can know the Chinese market, how do they know the Chinese philosophy, aesthetics and lifestyle? Our guys go to China and the design strategy is to know the Chinese clients.

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In the future, the MPV will be king in China: that is the next explosion point, since central government changed the single-child policy. We have started to research what is real life in an MPV and who will sit in those cars: all the team came to China and we visited different places. For example, the way people sit in their car has started to change: before, the passengers looked out the front or talked to each other – but now in China, everyone sits crouched over their phones. We research that new user experience.

Chang An had a lot of sedans, but following our research, we have begun to change: government people had sedans, it was a symbol of success and a milestone for people to have one, but young people want something else to show their taste and their lifestyles. Chinese consumers are young, they grow and follow trends really quickly.

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Carmakers cannot afford to be arrogant and without respect, customers are not stupid. They want something unique and identity is an important part of that; their value systems, their image. In China the European style will also not be so popular in future: it used to be the gold standard, but this has totally changed.

The design team has learnt from Chinese culture, and I have started to share – not teach – many ideas from traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy. For example, how in Chinese calligraphy, the master knows how to control the liquid ink and leave space; every strike or line can represent both the meaning and the moment when you make it, the movement. You can imagine the speed and strength with a single strike.

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We got this feeling with the simple strike that forms a shoulder line on the side  of the Ji Liu concept car. Yet we link it together: we use the Asian philosophy to design, but the skill is Western. We mix the culture, we gather the conflict, and we have a unique and constantly evolving design language. It is a mixed hybrid and we are really proud of this. 

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This interview is from our Maorinews Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.