Interview: Ian Callum, Jaguar car designer

As the design director of Jaguar, Dumfries-born Ian Callum is one of the most influential figures in the business. Rory Mackenzie brewed up some Scottish Blend, whipped out the good biscuits and asked Callum about his life and work

Jaguar design director Ian Callum with the new F-type
Jaguar design director Ian Callum with the new F-type
Jaguar design director Ian Callum with the new F-type

Growing up in Dumfries, was there a moment you knew you wanted to go into car design? I was about four years old at the time, that’s the honest truth. I used to draw a lot of stuff at home when I was very young before I went to primary school. And then I just had an interest in cars, the two came together, and I decided before I went into primary school at age five that when I grew up I wanted to be a car designer.

You submitted a car design to Jaguar when you were 14. Yeah, I’d been sketching for ten years at this point so I’d become quite proficient at drawing cars and I decided to send some in.

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I had to try and find a way into car design and I wrote to Jaguar and said “What do I do?” And they came back with some suggestions from Bill Heynes who was the assistant to [Jaguar co-founder] Willy Lyons.

I’m very flattered, even to this day, that he bothered to reply with some advice. As the years passed, it became more obvious that a degree in industrial design was probably the most expedient way into car design.

Could you ever have imagined when you sent that picture that you’d be where you are now? No, no I never imagined it. Even when I started my career I was somewhat modest about my final role and position in the car design world. I think when you start off you’re just very happy to be part of it but I had no idea I would ever reach the ranks of design director of a brand I’d always admired. I feel incredibly blessed.

Who were your heroes and inspirations as a kid? In my formative years, motor racing was very much a part of my life. Jim Clark was just the most wonderful man ever. In terms of design, I lived through the years of Bertone, with the likes of the Espada and the Jaguar Pirana.

As I grew a bit older, Giugiaro came to the forefront and he was very much one of my aspirations; to be as prolific and as respected as him would be an enormous accolade. The other great hero of mine during the 1960s was Bill Mitchell, who was head of General Motors design in the US – a very famous man in the design world.

What are your all-time favourite non-Jaguar car designs? The Ferrari 250 short-wheelbase is a car I admire greatly and I had the pleasure of driving one for the first time a couple of years ago – there’s something very animalistic and very pure about that car. The car I drove was actually a very famous one – it was the ex-Rob Walker Stirling Moss race car. Driving it up the north-west coast of Scotland was the ultimate indulgence and the ultimate experience of my life, I’d have to say. It was just amazing.

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Other cars I’ve always greatly admired are the Aston Martin DB4, DB5 and the 1965 Buick Riviera. That last one may surprise a few people, but it really is one of the most beautiful cars ever. I’d put those three as my top-three non-Jaguars.

What is a typical day in the life of a car design director, or is there no such thing? I don’t think there is such a thing. My life is hugely mixed. I do a lot of travelling because I represent the brand in so many ways and do a lot of PR.

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The creative side of it is hugely important to me, it still is, but my greatest love is for the process of design. Even when I’m on an aeroplane I’ll sketch on my iPad and send the results straight back to my office. I’m constantly designing. I’ll sketch and come up with ideas, I’ll think of the latest issues and problems with cars, how they should develop and then go and see the team.

While I’m here in the office, I’ll spend at least an hour walking round the studio talking to the team, discussing design issues. Thursday is always blanked out entirely for design, when I spend 11-12 hours doing nothing but design with the team, going through presentations, decisions, discussions with some very definite direction. That’s my favourite day of the week because I’m absolutely tied into my main job.

Sounds like it’s non–stop… It never stops. I don’t want it to stop. But the application of ideas, lines, form and general architectural ideas – it does take a lot of effort. Probably the hardest part of the job is not just reinventing what you feel comfortable with; it’s pushing yourself to the next level of creativity.

When a new car is first sketched, do you have to think years ahead to what rival designs might look like? I don’t feel hugely concerned about what everybody else has done. I think everybody will be in the same boat; they’re trying to move as far forward as they can within the constraints of a modern product.

And although we can always anticipate perhaps what BMW or Audi might make – and they may surprise us if they do something different – our main overriding objective is to push ourselves as far in the future as we possibly can, and there’s not just one sketch, there’s probably thousands. The first sketch may just be an idea that will start a process of evolution and perhaps even revolution, and then I might decide it’s not enough and we have to start again – that does happen sometimes.

So if it doesn’t work out, you have to start from scratch again? In terms of design, we’ve got a good six months of creative time to go through various iterations to get to the right answer, and then we hone it down into refining and detailing. So we’ve got a fairly healthy period to go and try stuff. Sometimes we decide it’s not going to work, but there are at least three or four designs of any one particular new model. It could be we take a piece of one and a piece of the other and we’ll try and pull cars together that way.

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What are the steps after the scales and the sketches? Our whole process is digital from the very beginning – our sketching is all done with Photoshop. Even I can sketch a little bit in Photoshop, but I still use pencil and paper.

I come up with initial ideas and, with the rest of the team, discuss it through sketches. But we go through a digital process two-dimensionally – we actually use plasma screens now to go through our design routines – we hardly even use printed matter any more.

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After we’ve chosen two or three ideas, we’ll use software to render those ideas into 3D digital models. Then, from those models, we create super high-realistic images and animations of the cars. If we like something well enough, we will then cut and build from that animation a clay model of each of the cars. We will have three or four clay models sitting there – the parameters will be the same but the designs will be different. And then we will develop these clay models by hand. And through those clay models, we will develop it in 3D – that’s a fun part, staring at it for hours on end and discussing it, debating it.

We’ll take that information and every week we will digitise it and put it back into the computer digital model, which is always the master and relates to all the engineering and aerodynamic information that comes in.

We’ve got input coming in all the time and we have to adhere to safety regulations, manufacturing feasibility, so it’s a hugely complicated process. Through all that intake of information, we have to keep the integrity of the design right and that is actually the most difficult part of our job, because if you get pushed into allowing all that information and input to shape the car, you’ll end up with a very boring car.

How does changing technology affect the design process for you? When I started, it was all magic marker and pastels, we used to draw everything and if we wanted another version of it we’d have to start again. Nowadays you can do everything so much quicker with digital rendering and digital models and we get to the answer much quicker. One of the upsides of that is it gives us a chance to try more ideas.

How do you and your team strike a balance between incorporating cues from Jaguar’s heritage but keeping the look modern, and even futuristic? That’s a good question. We have a very simple design philosophy and it’s based on three or four very fundamental things: a Jaguar should be exciting and the way we do that is to exaggerate line or proportion by visual architecture as Jaguars have always been that way. Also, we try to keep the car as beautiful and as pure as we can. If you look at an XJ from 15 years ago, the roof was about four inches lower – in normal packaging and safety terms, that’s unacceptable now.

We try to form our cars to look hopefully a little bit more exciting than the competition by creating overall silhouettes which instinctively look more interesting, and then we work with designers, the engineering and structural teams to make sure we can protect it.

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We have an incredibly clever engineering team who are in complete empathy with what we want to do; they are our partners in developing something that looks fantastic.

But the foremost element of what a Jaguar is about is proportion, and that’s what we push for in every aspect.

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Now, the starting-up sequence in the XF and XJ, from the heart-beat starter button, the rising gear selector, swivelling air vents… where did all this come from? Through various people. I do give quite a lot of direction of what I want the car to feel and look like. I remember getting into a MKII Jaguar at the age of 12 and thinking “Wow, this is wonderful”. With lots of leather and dials, it felt very special to me.

I said to the team that when we get into an XF or XJ, it has to feel very special, it has to feel like an occasion. I want excitement; I want fun because we’re a British brand. I want the owners of these cars, when they get into a Jaguar, to smile every time they do – that was my direction. We also have a very adaptive research team who help us instigate a lot of these ideas. The pulsating light switch on the starter button – one of the design team said it should be like the heartbeat because I want this car to look like it’s coming alive.

What inspires you and your team when you set about a new car to design? Overall, the main objective is to stretch yourself as a designer to come up with something which works and is beautiful to look at and excites people. In terms of pure inspiration, we have images of just about everything around our studio from architecture to clothing, shoes to concept cars

I do encourage my team to think originally, and about what Jaguar stands for, which is a pure sense of beauty and honesty [laughs]… if that makes some sense, before I get too highfalutin! We have huge knowledge about how a car is put together, not just physically but emotionally, and we work on that.

The new F-Type – some say it is the best-looking Jaguar since the E-Type and there are definitely hints of it there. Which elements of its design are you particularly proud of? I think the back of the car is hugely successful. Aerodynamics demanded a very high tail; we wanted something that looked a little bit more relaxed and streamlined. The tail lamps were influenced by the E-Type – I said to the design team I want a bit of that feeling into the back of this car.

The reality of the front of a modern car these days; there are so many inputs of safety regulations and crash requirements – we don’t have the same freedom we used to. The front of the car I think is very powerful. For me, the overriding thing is always the big picture, the overall silhouette.

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Finally, I know that talk of future models is hush-hushed, but is there anything we can expect from the replacement for the X-Type? (laughs) I couldn’t possibly comment, and you know that! We have to look at the opportunities to Jaguar for the future, and that’s clearly part of a process at the moment. We’re progressing towards a bigger car company, there’s no doubt about that.