We caught up with Skoda’s head of design, Oliver Stefani, after the recent reveal of the Kodiaq SUV’s facelift to talk about the COVID challenges, aggressive design and whether Skoda suffers from sharing cars with other Volkswagen Group brands.
Top Gear: Has it been a strange time for you?
Oliver Stefani: Yes and no. It’s not so easy when you’re not in front of a physical design, but we’re using digital modelling more. Design is a team effort. Everyone sees different good and bad things and I miss that, getting people around a model. On the other hand it’s opened up possibilities – we’ve got people stuck in different countries but we can still work together. It’s a new kind of working, I hope we keep that spirit going.
Have there been any surprises?
We used the time to learn how to do digital modelling ourselves. We’re seeing those models much earlier, rather than using sketches. The digital work has brought a grounding in reality earlier in the process.
Will the pandemic change the way you design in the future?
Already health and wellbeing have become more important – your car should be a safe space, the same as your home. We’re very environmentally conscious at Skoda, using sustainable materials, but health is now at the front of our minds.
Will there be a reaction against the idea of shared mobility?
You could see it either way – people are depending more now on personal transport than public transport, but car sharing is still very big.
What’s the biggest long-term design challenge otherwise?
UX/UI design is one of the big challenges for the future – making the brand tangible. It has to be visible and it’s the same for ICE and electric cars.
Why have cars got so bold and aggressive?
I can’t speak for other brands…
But even the Skoda grille has got larger, hasn’t it?
Yes, larger, but I hope it isn’t more aggressive. What we wanted to achieve on the new Kodiaq, for example, was to give it more character. Self-confidence is a big part of this car, it’s our flagship, so it has to make a statement.
Is it difficult to maintain a Skoda identity with so many cars being spun off the same platforms?
No, I don’t think so. We’re aware we need to differentiate our designs within the Volkswagen Group, every brand has its own DNA and strategy. We have regular meetings where we present our ideas so there’s no overlap. If you compare the Enyaq with other cars in the Group, it looks totally different.
Buyers love SUVs, but what would be your dream car to design?
I could say a coupe, but that would be too easy. My dream car is always the next project. We have a lot of interesting products, and it’s a challenge to invest all our creativity into these cars so they’ll be a successful part of the family. There’s nothing where I’ll say “oh no, not this again”, we designers like doing our job.
Would you personally prefer that people moved away from SUVs?
That’s beyond a designer’s remit! It’s down to what the customer would like to have. We have to be environmentally conscious whatever we do, but we have to give customers the choice.
What’s your favourite feature on a Skoda, anything you’re particularly proud of?
What I like at Skoda is that we’re not fashion-led. We keep it modern, but it has to be functional, and value for money is important. We’re fond of the ‘Simply Clever’ ideas we have here. Everyone knows us for these things, and we’re trying to expand that to the digital world.
Who comes up with the Simply Clever ideas?
Everyone in the company does, it’s not like we have a Simply Clever department. Sometimes the designers suggest things – we’ve been thinking about big screens inside cars, and the fingerprints you get on them. Why not incorporate some sort of screen cleaner so you can wipe them off? Another idea on the new Kodiaq was plastic aero covers that clip onto the alloy wheels and reduce CO2.
Is it satisfying to be able to sort out things that annoy you in the car?
Of course – almost every weekend I drive back to Germany, we do test drives with different departments across the company. We’re always finding things that annoy us, we find good things too. We’re always trying to improve.
BEVs are distinct now, presumably they’ll have to become mainstream at some point?
Of course, we’re thinking about that. The Enyaq is the only standalone BEV we’ve got at the moment, but every Skoda has to look like a Skoda, it’s still related to the rest of the family. That could change soon, that BEVs will take the lead. For the moment we’re happy they’re both influencing each other in terms of aerodynamics, styling and so on.
What excites you the most when you start work in the morning?
When I’m in the office I like to go to the model shop first. Seeing the cars, even if they’re not finished, gets me excited, keeps the creative spirit going. Sometimes you look at a model and say “right, now we’ve got it”. It takes a lot of time. Some models need more time… but getting to that point is exciting.
STORY Sam Burnett