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Profiles: Joel Piaskowski & Hyundai’s Exploratory Approach

At Hyundai, “Change is good” is the company mantra, even in design. However, future changes will be more focused than they have been in the past, even as the company explores new themes.

Born in the shadow of GM’s North American engineering headquarters in Warren, MI, Joel Piaskowski—son of a former Chrysler designer and graduate of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (Detroit, MI, www.ccsad.edu)—left college and went straight to GM. “I was a little young to be hitting the job market,” Piaskowski says, “but my time at CCS gave me a leg up and I moved straight into General Motors.”

He spent almost 13 years at GM, cycling through the Pontiac, Chevrolet, and Buick studios with side trips to Opel in Germany, Isuzu in Japan, and numerous trips to Suzuki’s design center. He also squeezed in a month in Turin, Italy. “It was a lot of travel, but the experience allowed me to learn about new cultures, what their needs are, and observe what drives them,” he says. From this he was able to categorize what each was good at—Americans create “big picture” designs that have broad brushstrokes, Asians scrutinize detail, Europeans focus on old world craftsmanship and take a more conservative view of design—and synthesize it such that he could discern what elements are common and how adding vocabulary from other regions affects how a design is perceived. Little did he know just how important that would become. 

That’s because, in January 2003, Piaskowski, now 38, became the chief designer for Hyundai and Kia in North America, and moved to Irvine, CA. Hyundai’s design language—if there was one—had been far from consistent, with each new model heading in a different direction than the one before. Go back three generations on the Sonata, for example, and you’ll find it impossible to draw a line—straight or otherwise—to the current model. “Hyundai has a philosophy of changing things very quickly so people don’t get bored,” claims Piaskowski, “and they want folks pointing at and talking about ‘the new Hyundai.’ Therefore, it’s not concerned about whether a design is true to some ‘Hyundai heritage’ or not.” And while Piaskowski admires the ability of Koreans to quickly adapt the latest technologies, fashions, and materials, his job description also includes designing Hyundais that appeal to Americans. “Our brief isn’t to design American cars, but to create cars that appeal to Americans,” he says. “Hyundai’s youth means we can be more exploratory in our design language, and focus on similarities in things like surface and form vocabulary, line quality, graphics, and other details without worrying about heritage.”

Rather than follow a “cookie cutter” approach, Piaskowski sees Hyundai pulling forward threads of what he terms “design character” from one generation to the next. That means the new Veracruz crossover—which has a flowing upper character line in common with the new Elantra and Santa Fe, plus familial graphics—might keep a variation of those graphics but place them over a new surface vocabulary in the next iteration, or vice versa. “We have the freedom to explore the visual similarities,” Piaskowski says, likening this process to the changes each generation of a family goes through while retaining a level of resemblance.

With the coming separation of Hyundai and Kia design centers in North America, and the need to complete 3 to 5 production, advanced, or conceptual projects (both interior and exterior) at any given time with just 12 designers in each studio, Piaskow-ski’s hands are full—and he wouldn’t want it any other way. “The pace,” he says, “ keeps everyone fresh, interested, and excited.

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