Derek Jenkins joined Mazda in 2009 as Design Director for North American Operations and is now charged with leading the Irvine, CA-based team that is developing advanced ideas for the automaker’s next generation of vehicles. AEI recently sat down with Jenkins at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit to get his take on the current design landscape. How have you seen the relationship between design and engineering change?
What’s happening, not just in Mazda but industry-wide, is a much earlier collaboration with engineering, where design is trying to set early on a benchmark for proportions, and that’s getting into everything from wheel size, track width, A-post positions, etc. At Mazda, we’re pushing for a more cab-rearward proportion, and we’ve had to work with our engineering partners years in advance to achieve that. That just means design has to know where they want to go proportionally and they have to have studied that and be working with engineering to find out how they can implement that.
In your opinion, does Mazda place a greater emphasis on design than some other automakers?
I think, generally, that’s the case. It’s a major pillar for the brand. It’s not something new for us. Everybody wants to have great design, that’s a given, but Mazda truly lives it and drives for that, and I think it gives the design group within Mazda a lot of influence, and I think that’s really beneficial for us.
With design studios in Irvine, Frankfurt, and Hiroshima, what’s it like to work on such a global scale?
There’s still a cultural gap, there’s the time gap, but that’s to me what makes it Mazda because even though we’re this small company from Japan, it is a global company and it’s very dynamic and there’s a kind of interesting balance between the Japanese side and the American and European sides, and that ultimately is what I think makes us different from the other Japanese brands. Even though it’s this small company, it is truly global.
How has the design process itself changed over the years, with clay vs. computer modeling?
The clay process everywhere I’ve been is still a major part of the process and absolutely is at Mazda. It’s really about getting the proportions of the car right and getting the sculptural aspect of the car and being able to review those in outdoor conditions and in full size, being able to compare to the competitive set or multiple proposals. The computer and projection systems and virtual reality, that part of it is not there yet. Having said that, for all the in-between steps, it’s helping us to compress. I don’t know what we would do without the clay model. It’s such a major part of it, and I hope it stays that way.
Did you always know that you wanted to design cars?
Once I knew that you could do that, yeah. But before the Internet, in the '80s, we didn’t have access to that. There was just the occasional story; it was kind of elusive what a car designer was. It was like where do these things actually come from? Now it’s like kind of common knowledge, and that’s great.
What advice do you offer young designers?
Find what really motivates you and what you’re passionate about in design and try to find a way to bring that influence into what you do. I grew up in Southern California around a lot of customizing and the early compact car scene, with European and Asian imports, and that’s what I was excited about and that’s kind of what I pursued as a career. I’ve been able to take what I liked as a teenager and keep doing it.