Another piece of thoughtful design is in the vehicle’s taillights, though that wasn’t without its challenges. Mayer explained the taillights were used as an opportunity to create a unique aesthetic feature. As the car is focused on distinctive form, the designers originally wanted a massive rear taillight, typical of a Volvo, that bent up, around, and accentuated the sloping roofline with a single stroke of light. At least one break in the illumination would be necessary for the tailgate, but if another could be avoided, that would be ideal. Unfortunately, the engineers came back and said that wasn’t really possible.
This seemingly endless quarrel between designers and engineers happens in every industry. Page called it a relationship of love and hate. “We challenge them and they hate being challenged. But at the end of the day, once we solve problems together, it’s a great atmosphere,” he said.
In this case, the engineers were victorious, though: The upper taillight lens would be two different pieces of plastic. The single stroke of light the designers wanted wouldn’t be possible and there would have to be a break in it. In response, the designers added more breaks in that stroke of light, creating a unique segmented lighting signature. They found an opportunity within the constraints of engineering.
In my experience working at the few design jobs I’ve done, there are situations such as these in every designed object few will likely ever appreciate. To use Page’s words, “Every designer can probably tell stories about every single millimeter that moves.”
One of those areas is the lengths Volvo’s designers went in order to integrate the modern automobile’s ever-growing battery of cameras and sensors seamlessly into the exterior of its cars. I asked Mayer to explain some of the perhaps more “boring” things his design team cares deeply about, things a regular consumer would be completely ignorant about, and rightly so. He said one of them is making sure all the driver-assist sensors on Volvos are hidden or as flush as possible on the exterior of the car. It’s another thing the consumer may never notice or understand but would take issue with if it was done “wrong.”
“The goal is flush,” Mayer explained. “So when they are flush, I know all of the exterior designers are very excited. But a normal consumer, they probably couldn’t care less.” He went on to say all of those electronics are now “sketched in from the very beginning,” and that some of these sensors, if they’re obtrusive enough, will end up influencing the design of the vehicle in subtle ways, like the front-facing camera below.
Not all of Volvo’s design is so subtle, though. An easier area of the new C40 to appreciate is the interior, which the company’s head of interior design, Lisa Reeves, explained in detail. Along with “leather” seats made without cows—she described it as “micro-tech soft material that’s largely recycled”—the C40 offers a premium cloth interior made from wool, which is of course quite sustainable. Much of the interior upholstery and carpets are made from recycled plastic water bottles as well. These materials are light and comfortable; the fewest amount of raw petrochemicals as possible were harmed in the making of these interiors.
“Our next-generation customers are increasingly aware of environmental impact and always looking for non-leather options,” Reeves said. She explained how working with these new sustainable materials allows for greater design freedom. There’s finally more than just different shades of leather out there and that’s “really exciting” to Reeves and Volvo’s interior team.