Derek Jenkins is what you would call a designer‘s designer. As the VP of Design at , Jenkins is tasked with bringing the company’s first luxury EV sedan, the to market by 2019. He holds a B.S. from the Art Center College of Design in Transportation Design and has spent time in the design studios at and . If you like the look of the , thank Jenkins.
I spoke with Jenkins over the phone to find out how he got to be top design dog at a start-up car company and how he sees technology impacting future car design.
Roadshow: What was your first car?
Jenkins: A 1974 Volkswagen Thing. It’s one of the most undesigned cars on the road, but I just loved it. My father was really into baja bugs in the ’70s and ’80s, and I was just drawn to that kind of minimalist usability. I grew up in Orange County, Calif. in Huntington Beach and the Thing was the ultimate surfmobile. I got it out of this guy’s back yard where it had been sitting for years, filled with leaves and holes in the floor. From when I was 14 to 16 I cleaned it up and got it painted and once I turned 16, that’s what I was driving. It looked pretty stock but it was the ’80s so I put a big stereo in it.
Q. What was your first automotive job, and how did you get it?
A: While I was at Art Center, I interned withfor the summer at the technical and design center outside of Stuttgart. That was my first exposure to a professional design studio. Later in college, I interned at the Volkswagen studio.
When I came out of school, I went straight to work forin Germany. Most of that was based on my internships. I always stress with students in design that those intern programs are critical. We were able to develop a great working relationship during the internship, so right off the bat they said, “Hey, when you get done with school, come work for us.” The internship really led to that employment.
Q:Take me through an average day at Lucid.
A: My average day is a little different from working at a traditional car company. My role spans all the core design disciplines with exterior and interior design, color and materials, and user experience. Beyond that I am doing a lot of strategy work like product planning and our branding efforts. I work on everything aesthetic about the company: website, photography style, videos, the whole look and feel and personality of how this brand is visually represented. That’s typically not handled by design directors, but all that is the creative soul of the company. It’s important that they all align.
In addition I oversee the production development of the Lucid Air. I work with engineers and our marketing team to develop what features we’re pushing into production, how many variants of the vehicle will be available, as well as the ongoing refinement and evolution of the the design.
We also have a series of concepts that would come afterthat I am responsible for. They will help establish what our second and third products will be.
I’m also deeply involved in sharing the company’s mission and vision with key potential investors. As a start-up, you’re often looking toward your next round of funding, and you need to prepare for that by sharing the company with investors who have shown preliminary interest. We bring them in for a deeper dive and give them a full idea of what they can expect from their potential investment. That takes up quite a bit of my time, and it’s not something I would traditionally do working ator GM.
Q: What is the most tedious thing about your current job?
A: I don’t like the term tedious, but not everything about designing cars is super-sexy. There are some aspects that are arduous. Often it’s trying to realize the most you can from a particular design. Lucid has an advantage because the design and engineering staff are more or less one team, all working under the same roof and in most cases in the same room. Bigger car companies have evolved into big silos where all the different disciplines that go into making a car are in their own departments, and they work to some extent as adversaries. It limits innovation and good design. That said, I am confronted at every turn to get the most out of the design, the look, the feel as well as the engineering of the Lucid Air, and when that is combined with cost and manufacturing, it’s a big challenge. There are days when it does wear you out.
Q: How does tech affect the future of your job?
A: At this point I’d argue that technology is pretty much everything. Technical innovation and application are at the very core of everything we do. I see our approach toward design as subservient to technology and innovation, and I personally think that’s what will lead to breakthrough in design. If you look at key breakthroughs in the automobile or any other consumer product where the design was well received, often times there is an underpinning of a technology that helped enable that design. We try to take that to heart and make that a part of the design process.
Then there are the broader changes happening with electrification, autonomy, connected tech; all of those things that now have to be considered in the fundamental architecture and layout of a vehicle. I can clearly point out where the Lucid Air has been aesthetically directly influenced by technology. Nearly every aspect of the aesthetic has some technical foundation. I think we are in a massive revolution as we speak, and technology is driving it.
Q: What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
A: My biggest peeve right now with the current state of car design is big fake air intakes and fake grilles. We went through an era in the ’80s and part of the ’90s where the face expression of the automobile was somewhat sedate. Then cars like the Dodge , even the new put the face and expression back on cars. This was part of this retro revolution that happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So we spent the next 15 years and more making automobiles more and more expressive from the face. Now it’s kind of out of control; where we have these big gaping holes, not really holes, just black plastic. It’s almost like a Jack-o-lantern approach to car design, where you just cut out big areas to make the car even more expressive. My sense is that it’s just reached a point of absurdity when any given car, even a car that has barely over 120 horsepower, has enough black space on its face to cool a V12. That’s when you know the trend is done., the
Q: What is the one project you’ve always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?
A: There are certainly some products that I took a stab at that never came to market. When I was at Volkswagen, I worked on that microbus concept in 2001. Here we are 16 years later and there is still nothing like that on the market. The vans to the market.will show up in 2023, and then they’ll kill it again. It’s VW’s fifth attempt, including the one I worked on, to bring it to market. I hope they do, but I am shocked that nobody else has tried to bring cool
I grew up in the ’70s, and my parents had a van with shag carpeting and bean bags in the bag. I wonder why everyone is driving around in these crossovers when there could be a cool version of something like that. I still feel like there is an untapped market for a cool van. As an industry we continue to find finite iterations of the crossover when there is this blatant opportunity and nobody is doing it.
Q. If you weren’t working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?
A: Sometimes I think I would be screwed if I weren’t doing this. I probably would have pursued something in architecture. I also like apparel, especially shoe design. I’ve dabbled in that a little bit. Neither are really big stretches from what I’m doing now. I’ve also appreciated boat and yacht design. Art Center had a marine and yacht design program that I looked into, but ultimately the car thing was more of a burning passion than those other areas. To work in car design, you just have to want it badly enough because there are so many people who are trying to do it. The people that are successful are obsessed.