Satoshi Wada Speaks on Why He Left Audi

What Is the Mission of the Designer in a Time of Change?

After 11 years at Audi, Satoshi Wada is back in Japan.  The year after creating such remarkable concept cars as the "Avantissimo" and "Pikes Peak Quattro", he designed the market model A6, followed by the Q7 SUV and the A5/S5, and his achievements as Senior Designer and Creative Manager drew high respect  He spent his last year at the Audi Design Center California (DCC) in Santa Monica, and in June became a freelance designer.  What were his motives for this decision?


An open door-First, congratulations on your independence!  But why?

Wada: Before starting, there is something I would like to say.  I have been able to work in design as I have thanks to the good offices of Nissan Motors, through which I met many people and got the chance to discover a certain "door".  This "door" was not something I made myself, it is something that was built through great efforts by people with immense passion who left Japan to go out into the world, at a time when both the designs of Japanese cars and Japanese car designers were little known.It is because I have benefited from these efforts that Car Styling is now interviewing me.  I would be very happy if this could serve to profit the people of the next generation in some way.The "door" I opened led to a very wonderful world.  I joined Audi in 1998, just before the TT was launched.  The new Audi design was just getting established.  I was very lucky to meet then Chief Designer Peter Schreyer (who is now Design Director at Kia) and Director Walter de'Silva.Working in a different culture and meeting people with passion has proved a great source of vitality for me, both as a person and as a creator.All this was also possible because of the corporate atmosphere at Audi, which was willing to accept someone like me.  That is, there was space for me at Audi.  Europe is a pretty closed, conservative place, so this is almost a miracle.  It is a world that is very poor at accepting outsiders.  This tendency is particularly strong in Germany.  There is a more international atmosphere in such large cities as London or Paris, places with strong subcultures, but it was different where I was.  Subcultures are not accepted.  In Germany there is a tendency to see subcultures as childish, and I got the feeling that German culture was relatively conservative.But it is true that this conservatism consists in protecting what you believe in, and automobiles are a typical example of this.  Cars have a heritage, and their enjoyment is handed down over time.  There is clearly a "car culture" in Germany, and this culture is handed down and continuously created for the future.From this perspective, the culture in Germany today could be entering a very difficult era.  From a different viewpoint, we could say this is an opportunity to create a new Germany.

 A new challenge as a creator

Even so, it was quite a decision you made.  Particularly considering your position at Audi.

Wada: The timing by which you can do real design work does come around often.  Looking back in history, there have been many turning points - the Renaissance, the Baroque period ... I can't help but think that the situation today is a perfect chance for forming the next hundred years.How this is approached and presented is the job of the creator.  For example, how politicians and people in many other areas communicate?  Our job does not involve materials alone.  Materials are an important area of the work, but from now on communication will be even more important.  I think that how you communicate will be an important key.When doing so, you cannot say such things unless you stand on neutral ground.  I felt that I could not do what I wanted at Audi where I always had to speak with consideration for the company.

But even if you think so, your decision required quite a bit of courage.  Weren't you worried that things would not work out as you planned?

Wada:  One thing I said to Audi managers and directors in my presentation was that, concerning a designer's aesthetics, "this is the time to take risks".  That such risks are essential for creative design.  That the very fact of exploring what can be done through actions, works and communication with the company's top, including this very behavior, can be thought of as creative.  It was through the responsibility of saying this that I quit Audi.The premise of creating beautiful cars, cars with cultural value, is naturally a company objective.  But more than this, the company is at the mercy of commitments, the system has changed to one for reaching the objective of increased profits.  This is true not only of Audi but of car companies around the world.I believe that in all times, design is there for reaching goals.  There are goals and visions, and creation is generated by pursuing them.  But when the ultimate goal is "profits", design ends up following this directive.  This directive is issued by directors, and designers work accordingly.  Designers get started in response to the set goals.  But in the world of business, this is legitimized; I think this is a principle of capitalism.  But it has now become clear just how far the principles of capitalism are disconnected from humanity.This gap affects not only cars but all industries involved in manufacturing products.  I feel that this is the time to fill in this gap in a new way, or to try something in a completely different way.

As I also said at my last presentation at Audi, "Let's change the company".  For this to happen, the company's nature must change.  By changing the nature of companies, the nature of the industry must change.I said that Audi has the mission to do this.  Audi has been a leader in design, and this is recognized throughout the world.  It is said that Audi now surpasses Mercedes-Benz and BMW in designing cars.  But 10 or 20 years ago, Audi had been outstripped by Mercedes-Benz and BMW and had the ambition of catching up and overtaking them.  Once that goal has been met to a certain extent, Audi may lose its goal, but it still has the business vision that it must meet this goal.I do not think this is totally unrelated to the fact that I continue to be a designer.  From my experience, it is designers and creators that can change a company.  If creators have outstanding communication techniques and humanity, they can convince the top management.If the in-house staff remains, I hope they will find the way.  From my 25 years of experience as an in-house designer, these are my suggestions for in-house designers in the future.  In-house designers can do something about the situation, they must do something about it, today we need creation that goes in this sense.It is a tough job to create a new model, but I believe that in-house designers must think and do even more than this.  And even more, directors must be willing to take risks.

The auto industry basically has a Western industrial structure.  Companies are always competitive and try to be number one.  It is like the fashion industry.  In the 1990s there was a tendency for American companies to buy out European companies.  Now it is clear that there are some who are organizing, others that are not managing to do so.  And with the influence of the financial crisis even those that are organizing seem to be in a critical situation.  European and U.S. corporate theory is based on a culture of power, and the structure is extremely dominating and meant to win.  It is maybe inevitable that a capitalist society depends on power, but even with the end of World War II, CNN and others use the term "business war".  Why does business have to be a "war"?  It is a simple question I ask myself.Actions designed to win - in the design section, that consists of creating "styles" that are better than anyone else.  All designers are aware of this, but if the logic that rather than create something that is essentially beautiful it is better to create designs that can win commercially, if this logic is legitimized, designers will resort to any means.  And because the goal is to win, success leads to arrogance.  That might have been my case in the past as well.  But under these circumstances I feel it is not possible to create truly good designs.

At the end of my presentation I was asked, "Why are you a designer?"  This question is trivial yet very important right now.  It is time that all designers answer this question.  If your final goal is money, you can't really be a designer.  Why are you a designer?  That is something we can say now, but that you probably couldn't say five years ago.

What was the reaction to your presentation?

Wada:  When I left Ingolstadt, the younger designers told me that by leaving my last message, my spirit lived in their hearts even more than such works as the A6, Q7 or A5.  I think they thought about what I said.  That a certain Japanese, a certain Asian designer was giving them a message.  They are all very smart, and they are creators, so I think they understood me intuitively.  "They can do it."  That was the greatest message in my presentation.At the end everyone applauded loudly.  I can say that this last presentation was the most memorable event of my 11 years.  I am truly grateful to Audi Design Director Stefan Sielaff and the Audi design team.  It was really thanks to them that I was able to do the work I did over the past 11 years.

 That gives us a different, more generous view of Audi.  Now, tell us about your ambitions for the future.  Or your thoughts about cars themselves.

Wada: I plan to aim at a concrete simplicity and minimalism for a new age based on the concept of uniting the minimal and the future in terms of design.  Basically to run my business compactly, without expanding.

I can give you this map as an example.  First, at the very center you put green energy.  Doing so will create a different relationship with various electric companies and a different network from the past.  But with this as the premise, it is important to establish borders, deeper mutual relationships, this way changing the nature of various industries.  This is the chief idea.  For this purpose various categories required now must be established, but in the aim of achieving new mobility, they must not be competitive by nature.

When I was in LA, I met many architects.  They said that the biggest problem in LA is the freeways, that the freeway-dependent urban form is ruining LA.  How did this happen?  Through the influence of the Big Three and the oil companies.  This is the reason that zero emissions vehicles are so slow in spreading.  If a zero emissions policy had been properly put in place a decade or so ago, things might be different today.  The people in these industries tend to like to fight, and this attitude is not in keeping with the times.  Nor is it in keeping with the attitude of the young generation.  We must recognize this and create a structure for change.  The top down approach is no longer valid, a flatter organization is better.  Eye lines must be on the level.  And above all the competition-based system of the automobile industry must be taken apart.Apple serves as one example. 

When I was in LA, I had the opportunity to meet Jonathan Ive (Apple Senior Vice President of Industrial Design) on a completely private basis.At Apple, hardware and software are mixed with a good balanced, and the company is spiritual.  In the 1980s in particular Apple was extremely spiritual.  It has now taken on a more contemporary system of business and is less spiritual, but it is still extremely balanced as a global brand manufacturer.  And at the same time it is not aggressive.  If this business spirit could influence the auto industry, I believe it could lead to good results.  So, as a completely personal request, I asked Jonathan, "Why doesn't Apple create a new vehicle?"  Of course at the time I was an Audi employee and had no thought of doing something with Apple.  Jonathan laughed, but he understood the situation of the auto industry today.  And I am sure he knew what I meant.  But if Apple were to bring out a new generation vehicle, it is we in the auto industry who must do something first.  Maybe the stimulus from Apple could produce new creative activities within the auto industry as a whole, affecting the industry's character and nature as well.

I spoke of this because it is very easy to understand, and it does not necessarily have to be Apple.  There is no sense for Toyota or Nissan to bring out a next generation vehicle with the same "conventional corporate nature" as before.  If they do so, the EV's ten years from now could well be just trash.  Unless new values are created with a new company nature, new vehicles are meaningless.I believe that a new vehicle must create a new life and a new sense of values for people.  For this to be possible, corporate characters and natures must change.  This is the most difficult part, and this is my message for managers with vision.

This is what I feel very frankly right now, and I believe that basically I am right.  If there are companies that bring out electric vehicles without changing the nature of their company, I think it is dangerous if they consider their electric vehicles as business.  They must be not commercial elements, but parts of the real life of the future.  This is essential.I believe that companies like Apple have had a major influence in the way our lifestyles are starting to change, that they deserve more recognition.Business is not all that is involved in this balance of spirit, hardware and software.  This is a symbol of an age in which lifestyles are being formed.  I believe this is a perfect opportunity for a change in nature.  In any case companies probably don't have money, so they must remain compact.  With what sort of vision should things be kept compact?  How to regenerate from there?  Or what should be regenerated to create something that carries over your DNA?  Without keeping this sort of question in mind, I don't think we will make any major progress.

These ideas will be particularly important in Asia and Africa.  The Western style of business by power must not spread in Asia and Africa.

Finally, tell us the future plans for SW Design Tokyo.

Wada:  The basic stance is that this year is a preparatory period with a provisional start, but things will officially start off next year, when I plan to take action on what can be prepared this year.

   So there's the question, "What can I do?"  You can't do much alone, to be honest.  But there are things you can do.  I want to do them one by one, on a minimal basis.  And I am eager to use the "door" that those before me opened to create for "something" for the people of the future.  And most of all I want to be flexible.  It could be that my design studio will only be on the net.  With only an office on the net, I can travel to Germany or to India.  I want to move as Satoshi Wada.  That is how I feel.

Satoshi Wada

Born 1961, currently 47.  After graduating from Musashino Art University, joined the Nissandesign division, where he worked on the exterior designs of such cars as the Cefiro, Presea,Cedric and Hypermini electric vehicle.  He was subsequently sent to study at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the UK from 1989 to 1991.  In the summer of 1998, he moved to Audi AG at the request of his friend Stefan Sielaff (now Chief Designer for Audi Design), where he designed such show cars as the "Avantissimo" and "Pikes Peak Quattro", as well as such production models as the A6, Q7 and A5/S5.

Satoshi Wada | SWdesign co.,ltd | TOKYO

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