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Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research: “As designers, we don’t want to do anything boring.”

Calty had the design of both the exterior and interior for the 2013 Toyota Avalon. Kevin Hunter says that the quarter panel stamping was a tricky one, due to the depth of the draw and the tightness of the radii. Yet collaborative efforts between Design and Engineering helped realize it in sheet metal.

Kevin Hunter of Calty on Design

Observations on the new momentum at Toyota’s design studio.

Toyota has made a tremendous comeback of late.  In North America in 2012, it produced 1.78-million vehicles, which is up from its previous record year—a year before the Great Recession and the Great Toyota Seems to Have Quality Problems events—2007, when it produced 1.72-million vehicles in North America.  In addition to which, it gained market share in 2012 compared to 2011—14.4% vs. 12.2%—and the Toyota Camry was the best-selling car in the U.S. for the 11th year running (404,886 were sold in 2012).

 

What’s also interesting about what’s going on at Toyota is that since 2009, when Akio Toyoda was named president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp., the company has been on a mission to develop new, fresh, stylish, and appealing cars for its Toyota, Scion and Lexus brands.

 

Calty Design Research is Toyota’s design operation in the U.S.  Its primary studio is in Newport Beach, California.  It has a production design studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And, according to Kevin Hunter, president of Calty, which he joined in 1982, after being graduated from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Calty has established a studio in San Francisco (one person—“But we send people up there all the time”).

 

Calty had the lead on the design of the 2013 Toyota Avalon.  It worked on the 2013 Lexus GS (Akio Toyoda at the world premier of the GS at Pebble Beach, August 2011: “It needed to be designed, engineered, and manufactured without compromise! I told our engineers that we are not moving ahead unless we do it right from the start!  And since the design of the GS was going to be seen on future Lexus vehicles, it had to be bolder, stronger, and more confident.”).  It worked on the 2012 Camry.

 

We talked with Kevin Hunter about the state of design at Calty today. . . .

 

[Can QDR—quality, durability and reliability—be communicated through a vehicle’s design?]

I think we’ve been doing that for a long time.  Quality has been a hallmark of Toyota.  That’s what we’re about.  Customers expect something that looks high quality. That has to do with materials, design itself, and the execution, taste, color, graphics. We have to really be on our toes about quality appearance these days.  It doesn’t matter what car it is.  It could be Avalon or Prius.  Everyone expects quality. 

 

[On looking forward.]

ou always have to be amping up and leaping forward.  Wherever you are today, you can’t think that’s where you’re going to be five years from now or you’ll be left behind.  You have to project forward.  You may have to propose something that you’re uncomfortable with now, even though you know it won’t hit the road for another three years.  Because maybe if you’re comfortable now, it’s familiar and looks like it’s hitting the mark, it’s not going to be enough.

 

[On the change at Toyota.]

At Toyota right now, it’s not hard to convince other people in the company that we need to step out.  That we need to be more bold, more aggressive in car design.  Everybody is on board with that now.  That’s been Akio Toyoda’s message.  We all want to jump on board with that.  As designers, we don’t want to do anything boring.  We can’t have fun in our jobs if we’re doing that.  We’re all part of the conversation now.  It’s moving ahead in a dynamic way.

 

[Now’s the time.]

I’ve worked at Toyota 30 years and there hasn’t been a time when someone didn’t say, ‘We have to do bold, exciting design.’  It always goes on.  The benchmark for achieving that and where we need to go, and the vision for how high we can go is another story.  The vision and the bar are set very, very high by Akio Toyoda and everyone is working hard to achieve his vision of where the company needs to go.

 

[Hasn’t Design always been part of the program?]

Design is way more part of the conversation now.  Early on we are included in the platform development, determining proportions, height, length, overhangs, width tracks—designers are now engaged with Engineering closely to ensure that from the beginning we have a good foundation to start with so we can style a beautiful car.  I think you’ll start seeing some examples of that come to fruition soon.  It’s a more holistic approach having design and engineering working more closely together.

 

We were basically handed an engineering package—make this thing beautiful.  We were like, ‘Wait a minute, there are a lot of issues here that aren’t working well.  We can only do so much.’  The company understands that to get beautiful design, we have to work together from the beginning.  It can’t be an afterthought later on.  

 

[Why designers should know more than just Design.]

If you really want to work with Engineering closely in a production capacity, it really pays to know how cars are put together, the challenges of manufacturing, the Engineering thought, the cost side.  So you can make realistic proposals.

But I think the direction now at Toyota is to challenge engineering, to get them out of their comfort zone—the things they know and things they’re used to—so that we can move head on design.

 

[But what if Design proposes something out of the norm—like something that can’t be readily stamped?]

It happened on the 2013 Avalon, on the quarter panel.  The engineers said, ‘How are we going to do this? The depth of draw is greater than we’ve ever experienced, the radius tightness is something we haven’t achieved.’  But with Avalon we started early working with Engineering, we had a design early, and they started doing testing early in manufacturing.  Production engineering started very, very early, working out trial stampings on areas that were going to be extremely challenging.  As a result, we learned a lot as a company and expanded our capability in the stamping area so now Design can propose deeper draws and tighter radii and these can be achieved.

 

[The engagement of engineers.]

The great thing about engineers is once they see something that is really great, beautiful and intriguing, they want to achieve it.  The spirit in Engineering at Toyota right now is really fantastic.

 

[Creative or Technical: Which is better for the young designer?]

Creative is number one in my mind.  Ideas are everything right now.  Tools are something we can teach somebody.  That’s a skill set.  Creativity is hard to teach.  I think it is an aptitude.  A person’s life experience is part of it.  It is a special talent.  That’s what I go after.  We can teach them the other things, how cars are put together, and how to use Photoshop.  But most have those tools, anyway, because they couldn’t visually communicate if they didn’t.