Automotive Design is a synergy of creativity, strategic vision and business acumen, accrued through decades of global experience spanning cultures and continents understanding different design philosophies !

Ajay Jain, our next pathbreaker, Head of Mahindra India Design Studio, Mumbai, is responsible for the Design of the entire range of vehicles, from SUVs to Scooters and from Tractors to Commercial Vehicles, as well as setting a strategic course for the look and feel of future products and product-lines.

Ajay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the need for designers and architects to unshackle themselves from the constraints of today’s reality and focus on solving problems for future society !

For students, excel in whatever you do even if your initial journey is filled with risks, because those risks make your journey worthwhile and successful in the long run !

Ajay, tell us about Your background?

My father is a mechanical engineer from IIT Powai and having started his career as a marketing professional for IBM, continued to become a Chief Executive officer for Engineering equipment manufacturing companies. My mother was a school teacher and even taught me in my 9th. & 10th. Std.   

I was born in New Delhi, and when I was less than 3 weeks old, my father got transferred to Mumbai, where I grew up until the age of 9, studying at Campion School. We moved to Chennai where I studied until my 10th standard at Sishya School, under the watchful eye of my mother who was a teacher in the same school. I switched from ICSE to Tamil Nadu State Board for my 11th. And then since we moved to Indore, I completed my 12th in CBSE from Daly College, Indore. 

From a very early age I was disinterested in Sports and Academics, but excelled in Arts and Crafts. Sishya School even awarded me the highest award, a green card for Proficiency in Art & Craft; a merit reserved for A Grade Students even though it was not a subject for board exams;  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I received my Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Industrial Design (Transportation Branch) i.e. Car Design from the Art Centre College of Design, ACCD(E) which although in Pasadena California, had a European Campus for 10 years in Vevey – Montreux area of Switzerland. 

At that time, there were very few colleges in the world that offered Transportation/Car Design courses at a Bachelors Level. And ACCD(E) was the only one in mainland Europe. It was also the one college that had connections with most if not all of European Automotive and Design Consultancies, both in the faculty and the placement departments. I selected the college with an eye on the intended trajectory of my career. 

Initially, my parents funded my travel to Switzerland and I took out loans to pay for the initial tuition of my education. I’ve only recently finished paying off my loans 20 years after having started my career. Shortly after starting college, I was awarded financial aid (scholarship) at the college on the basis of need and merit. This greatly reduced the financial burden off my education. Most families choose a career on the basis of being able to pay off student loans. One is forced to jump into a career based on earning potential, but the facts aren’t available or determined, for pioneering professions. My father assured me that if I chose a profession of my passion and enthusiasm, I am more likely to succeed and gain financial rewards. He told me the that the world’s most successful shoe polisher would surely be earning more than a mediocre accountant. His advice to me was to excel in whatever I do and the financial rewards would follow instead of me chasing financial goals. 

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career !

I didn’t choose my intended line of work, but my career chose me! Being a Car Designer was not a choice, it was “my Calling”. It is all I wanted to do in my life and still remains to this day.  

To be honest, there weren’t any key influencers in my early years. In the 1980s there was little or no media available on Industrial Design and much less on Car Design. I was determined to pave my own path and fulfil my own destiny. In the later years, during my education, I was exposed to and came across many prominent figures in the field who shaped the way I think and solve problems, big and small. One needs to keep himself/herself open to influences and the knowledge of other people at all stages of one’s life. It allows you to keep growing as a professional and as an individual. 

Whatever support and encouragement I received was from my father. Despite my mother’s anxiety with my mediocre performance at school, my father encouraged my passion for cars and expressions of creativity. He helped me refine my craftsmanship and hone my talent. 

In the 1950s, my father was unable to pursue “his Calling” of being an Airforce Pilot because of his eyesight and of being an Aeronautical Engineer because of the lack of opportunities in India. His father was not prepared to send him abroad to study. 

In 1989, when I was making my decision on further education, there were only 2 small auto publications available in India. I was very lucky to stumble onto an article about Car Design and list of colleges where one could study car design in one of these journals – “Indian Auto Journal”.

How did you get to where you are today?

The Art Centre College of Design is a professional institution that prides itself on its contacts and interactions with the Industry. The professors are Industry Professionals who have up-to-date knowledge and skills. The educational institution believes that it’s not only their responsibility to hand out degrees but also to place its alumni in leading jobs in the Industry. The college had campus recruitment of the highest quality for both mid-year Internships and post-graduation recruitment.  

Furthermore, the college prepared students for interviews and applications. For creative professionals, a “portfolio” of work helps communicate one’s experience and abilities to a prospective employer or client. We were given rigorous instructions and practice sessions in putting together a portfolio and presenting it in the best way possible. 

Design Education and the teaching methodology in the west is very different from textbook answers we mug up for Indian board exams. Lessons in western universities stimulate curiosity and encourage a student to not only  develop an individual point of view, but to also eloquently articulate the reasoning and rationale for that point of view. Building the confidence to challenge your “professors” and later your leader requires a lot of self confidence and perhaps breaking away from some cultural norms.  

In Art Center as in most Design Colleges, a student is encouraged to dream big by imagining a distant future, without being constrained by financial, economic, technical and societal constraints. There’s plenty of time in one’s professional career to work within realistic limitations.

It’s not a prerogative but an imperative to propose vehicles that aren’t like anything thats already in production and made by someone else. It takes around 5 years for a car to go from sketch to an actual vehicle on the road. A young designer’s proposal needs to be relevant and current in 5 years time, and for a decade when it’s on sale. Imitating something that exists is to regurgitate a design that someone conceived of at least half a decade ago. This is the critical difference between a drawing and an idea. 

Change is the only constant in one’s career. It is never easy, but sometimes necessary. There can be many circumstances that require you to change your job, your area of expertise and even your profession. The Car Industry is very small and centralised and the Design department is even more so. In order to stay in the profession, one has to be prepared to move countries and even continents. Every move, no matter how difficult and personally challenging, can be very invigorating and rejuvenating for one’s professional abilities and skills. It is very enriching to experience a different culture both personally and in terms of a professional working environment.  

One of my very first assignments as a designer, when i graduated from college in 1995, was to work on the sketch of the rear view mirror of the 1998 Ford Focus. Meanwhile, I also sketched on the other versions of the Focus; wagon and sedan, the 2000 Ford Mondeo, 2002 Ford Thunderbird and even made a digital 3 dimensional model for the 2003 Ford C Max. 

Every country and every company has a different working culture and process even in the same field and discipline. No two jobs, employer or bosses are the same. Learning to adapt to the needs is a very important professional life skill. One has to find that balance between integrity and adaptability in order to survive and remain fulfilled. 

At my next stint at Deawoo, I started working on 3-dimensional clay models, initially in ¼ scale and later in 1:1 scale, which are real life size models of cars made on your instructions by professional clay sculptors adhering to dimensional accuracy, negotiated and agreed to with engineers. I also started working with Design Strategy which is setting up a roadmap for the Brand and Product line up of the future. 

Working and living in England while working for a Korean company was an enriching multicultural experience. One picks up skills of communication and  camaraderie that aren’t immediately apparent. 

SAAB in Sweden was another very exiting place to work. We were on a mission to save the Brand and the company and become leaders in Design. We worked on many cars, most of them only as proposals, that we thought would make us leaders. I also started working on automotive interiors for the first time and developed a healthy respect for the multi-faceted design discipline that combines, product design, architecture, space and fashion design. 

During the process of integration with General Motors, I had the opportunity to sketch future visions of Cadillac, Subaru, Saturn and Opel-Vauxhall brands. During which time I sketched on the initial exterior proposal of the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen Concept and the interior of the 2004 Opel Trixx Concept. 

At Renault, I took a deep dive into the core of the profession, designing vehicles for mass production, balancing constraints of costs, engineering, mass production and market forces with the objectives of designing desirable vehicles. The 2007 Scenic conquest, the 2008 Dacia Logan Pickup, the 2008 Sandero Stepway and others among them were the cars that took from pen to production. I also set up the proportions and concept of the 2010 Dacia Duster. 

While at Renault, I was sent over to Mumbai to set up India’s first creative satellite studio by a foreign OEM. It a privilege to be sent to my home country and an empowering amount of trust from Renault to fulfil my destiny in this way. I interacted with many design colleges and recruited a design team. We worked on Projects for joint ventures with Mahindra & Mahindra, Bajaj Auto and Nissan. Many cars like the Renault Kwid, Triber and Krieger may not have happened were it not for the pivotal role Renault Design India, as the studio came to be known, and the staff recruited and trained by me, played in their design and development. 

How did you get your first break?

My first breaks came through college recruitment. I got an internship to work for General Motors Europe (Adam Opel AG.) And I got my first job at the Ford Motor Co. both in Germany. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There are challenges at every stage of one’s life and career and overcoming them or learning from them is the essence of life. You’re truly retired when you no longer have any challenges, have stopped learning or given up trying to overcome tough situations.

My very first challenge was to discover that a ‘portfolio’ is needed to apply for college admission in creative fields. Throughout my school years, my parents and I hadn’t documented or retained any of my school Arts and Craft projects. I had to rebuild my admission portfolio from the very start. 

Knowledge and awareness of design and creative fields as professions and stable careers was very limited in India. Writing letters to colleges, professionals and companies all around was the only way through which I could get information to pave tmy path for my own future. 

Arriving at college in Switzerland in a class of 15, with 14 nationalities was very humbling. I realised that I had the least amount of exposure, knowledge and skills. Art, Design and Creativity are part of high-school education in most developed countries. Students with an interest or passion for a profession acquire skills and knowledge through apprenticeships and summer jobs. 

BTW: This is still illegal in India. No company can legally hire anyone under the age of 18 for any form of internship/ apprenticeship. To make up for a late start, there was only one solution; hard work and repetitive exercise. I solicited and even harassed people until they gave me constructive feedback and suggestions to improve.  

When you graduate from college you’re on top of the world, and getting your first job makes you feel invincible! Your college camaraderies and friendships have defined you and provided you a sense of a support system thus far. 

However, entering a professional working environment is very different. Your colleagues are in competition with you. They’ve been doing the job for decades if not for years. Having navigated the pitfalls of the organisation and learnt the hard way, they aren’t always going to be helpful and share all their knowledge with you. You, as a young freshman, are a competition and a threat. Your enthusiasm for the job, new ideas, fresh thinking and naive optimism could make it very uncomfortable and at times even threaten their livelihood. One has to be careful and respectful and yet look after one’s own best interests. Only one person is ultimately responsible and invested in your career of some 30-40 years and that is you yourself! This is a very hard lesson that one learns and is a very difficult transition to make from being a student under the protection of school, university and family, to a professional in the wide world.

Another challenge that you will face not once but several times in your career is when you change jobs, or there is a new boss after a restructuring in your company or when a new process of automation comes in. After 15 years of having developed my tradecraft and hand drawing skills, I was confronted with the prolific use of computer software for drawing. I had to reinvent, re-learn and up-skill myself to be competitive and relevant. I was competing with none other than young graduates who were fresh out of college. 

Today, once again, I’m facing the same challenge as 3-Dimensional  and Virtual reality software is poised to displace flat 2-Dimensional sketches and drawings.  

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I am now the head of Mahindra India Design Studio in Mumbai. 

I solve problems of an organisational nature. My job is to put the right people in the right positions and roles, while empowering them to design the best possible products for the future. Meanwhile, I set the standards of creativity and performance, and define the strategic objectives of the Design Studio and the company’s products. 

Problem solving is part of our every day’s work. They range from the microscopic to the universal. It may be related to tuning to the scale of 0.5-1mm. Or when the design and engineering departments cannot come to a suitable agreement. E.g. between aesthetic priority and manufacturing feasibility. 

At times we are Crystal Ball gazing, finding solutions for anticipated issues like societal changes in transportation or even autonomous flying cars. 

I use a lifetime of skills acquired through my education, my career spanning 6 countries and 2 continents. I keep myself abreast with the latest developments in my industry and technology through subscriptions of magazines and a plethora of web based services. I maintain relationships with a very large professional network and can enlist their help, support and advice in formal and non-formal ways as needed. 

Interactions with people take up most of my day. The interactions are interesting and exciting. We discuss sketches, drawings, models & animations of future product proposals. We brainstorm, share and at times argue about strategies for the future and of our own tastes or the perception and evolution of the preferences of our future customers. 

Drawing is still the language of Design (creativity). Drawing whole cars, parts of details and accurate technical sections is thrilling and inspiring. Translating a drawing into a full size 3 dimensional representation of an idea is the most involved puzzle that engages one’s emotional intuition and mathematical exactness. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing through to fruition one’s creation that may have started as a fuzzy idea or a rough doodle. It’s a sense of elation to see your creation driving down the road, posted on the internet and even appear on the silver screen. 

Creation is in itself the best reward for one’s soul. 

As a part of the Mahindra India Design Studio, we are responsible for the Design of 7 different types of vehicles. From SUVs to Scooters and from tractors to commercial vehicles. We are responsible for the emotional qualities of the vehicles while looking for synergies in the business and processes of design. As the creative head of the studio, it is my job to ensure that all the proposals from the studio are world class if not world beaters. Developing the talent and giving them the opportunities to perform to the best of their abilities within the expectations of the company is the balance I need to grapple with on a daily basis. Indeed setting a strategic course for the look and feel of all the future products and product-lines is a very stimulating part of the job, one that requires me to be the sponge that takes in many inputs, opinions and future scenarios before mapping out a course for the studio, design and the group.  

How does your work benefit society? 

On a very basic level, the job of a designer is to infuse life and personality into seemingly inanimate objects. It’s what fuels the desire of customers, who chose to buy our products. This provides jobs and employment and when your design fails, it destroys wealth and people lose their livelihoods. You have to live up to the trust given to you by an entire organisation and society to make relevant products that meet people’s needs. These are the clearly stated needs of the present day and the unarticulated needs of the future. 

In solving the needs of the future, designers and architects have to unshackle themselves from the constraints of today’s reality and solve the problems for future society. E.g. designing objects that use less energy or are made with sustainable materials and processes, that reduce congestion and alleviate stress by harnessing emerging technologies. 

In summary by designing objects and services that are commercially viable we improve people’s lives.   

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

It’s very difficult because the beauty of a creative job is that every day and every new project is memorable.

The highlights of my career were the creation of Renault Design India, the country’s first design studio, by a foreign brand, set up to harness and develop the creativity from the country. I felt proud to return to my country and give back the years of knowledge and experience to young aspiring Indian (Car) Designers. I also wanted to create a voice and a signature of Indian Design that was unapologetic, distinctive and desirable. 

Conceiving and bringing to fruition GEOMETRY, a Chinese Electric Car Brand, was very fulfilling and a proud moment for me. It went far beyond the challenge of designing a single car, it was the mandate to give birth to a Brand and a range of cars on the cutting edge of technology and dynamism that would continue for decades to come. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I’d advise all students to not get picked by universities or attracted by stamps or labels, but pick institutions that give you the vocation and professional networks that will support you for the rest of your professional life. 

Don’t be afraid of taking risks, making mistakes or following an untrodden path. Stay true to yourself and keep your integrity. Never stop learning and always respect others. Everyone has different experiences and perceptions than yourself and can teach you to look at problems from a different perspective.