A look into the automotive world through a designer’s eyes.
Design is subjective; what excites one person might not inspire another. The same is true for the automotive industry where designers attempt to create a vehicle that appeals to the masses. Some may draw upon history or heritage while others attempt to blaze a new trail forward using a blank canvas.
The world of automotive design can be a special, unique place, where one creation can become an iconic piece of road-going art that is recognizable and remembered around the globe. The world of automotive design isn’t just a one-person show, but rather a collaborative process involving multiple teams of people from different design houses along with manufacturing, engineering, and management working together to create the final masterpiece.
Kurt Kahl, Senior Design Manager, Kia Design Center America, has seen ideas and concepts grow from sketches to reality and become a source of pride and passion for driving. During his career, Kahl has had a hand in or lead the design of such vehicles as the Ford GT40 Concept, Kia Forte, Kia Trail’ster e-AWD Concept, Kia Telluride Concept, Kia Niro, and Kia GT4 Stinger Concept among many others.
These designs were passionate collaborations that brought ideas and inspirations together to create eye-catching products that evoke emotion. Kahl took some time to answer a few of our questions on the design process, his career, and what he sees in the future for Kia and the automotive industry.
How did you get your start in the automotive industry?
My high school art teacher saw me drawing nothing but cars and told me about a college called the Art Center where you could study car design. I didn’t even know car design was a profession but this sounded like a dream job to me. First I wanted a university experience, so I studied design and architecture at University of California at Davis. I received a job offer at an architectural firm upon graduation but I knew I had to try becoming a car designer or I would always regret it. I moved down to Southern California and was soon studying at the Art Center in Pasadena. Close to graduation, I interned with Ford in Michigan which led to my first job out of school. Unbelievably to me, on my first day with Ford, I was walked into the Advanced Studio and told I was going to work on the Ford GT40 concept for the next nine months. As a beginning car designer, it didn’t get much better!
Where do you find inspiration when designing a vehicle?
It is difficult to quantify what can inspire you during the creative phase. Many times you can have a creative breakthrough outside the studio when you’re not focusing on work and allowed to daydream. I love to surf, and I find myself coming up with ideas while waiting out in the water for the next set of waves. Even doing mundane things like commuting home can allow down time for a creative spark.
I feel my background in architecture always influences me. I’m a big fan of modern architecture like that from Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Koolhaas. I also love listening to electronic music when I draw. I feel it puts me in the right headspace and mood to create and come up with new ideas.
With a resume as diverse as yours (and great designs like the Ford GT40 Concept, KIA GT4 Stinger Concept, and Telluride Concept), what was the most challenging aspect in getting KIA Motors to where it is today?
The biggest challenge is designing for a brand that doesn’t have a distinct historical identity to draw upon. With the GT40, the DNA was there and the challenge was to modernize and repackage a racing icon. With Kia, most of our vehicles have begun with a blank sheet of paper. For a designer, this can be exciting and liberating because there are few constraints. When we designed the GT4 Stinger, for example, we were able to create our ideal of a daily drivable sports car. In other cases, this amount of freedom can be daunting because there is no tangible basis to begin the design process. As our designs mature, however, we are slowly building a foundation of solid design that can be evolved and shaped to create our future.
KIA Motors has design houses in Europe, Korea, and the U.S. that submit their own designs for new models. Is there a healthy competition between the three planned into the design program?
Absolutely. This competition definitely pushes designers to create more innovative and attractive designs. At the same time, there is camaraderie between all of the Kia designers in trying to achieve overall success for the company. Whichever studio’s design is successful, ultimately we always rely on the expertise of the Korea studio for final feasibility work. At that stage there is a very close and collaborative relationship to get the design through to production.
How have these three design houses benefited the company’s overall product goals?
I think each studio brings a different flavor to our products. Each studio is geographically unique and absorbs the local trends and customs which are then reflected in their designs. The studio in Germany is right in the city center of Frankfurt and they are able to maintain a pulse on European city living. Here in Irvine, we are influenced by Southern California culture from the vibrant community of Venice to the surf culture in Huntington Beach. The studio in Namyang offers an Asian market viewpoint and is inspired by the atmosphere of Seoul and neighboring cities. Having these different perspectives from each studio offers more design diversity to influence our products.
There has to be a hidden message or reasoning behind the “Z” in the Cadenza’s design elements. Can you give us a hint?
The ‘Z’ daytime running light and tail lamp elements came about in creating a distinct ‘down the road’ presence at night. This shape is an evolution of what was first seen in the previous Cadenza headlamp DRL shape. It is an unmistakable and instantly recognizable graphic when lit.
Automakers seem to have a “design language” throughout their lineup these days. With KIA’s diverse lineup, will future models sport a recognizable element across the brand?
We have had a signature Kia grille for quite some time that is recognizable across our lineup. Whenever designing a new model, we are also focused on some principles that we feel Kia should possess. Solidity, simplicity and precision are important characteristics of the Kia design language. You will see greater integration of these ideals in future products. We are always evolving our style and form language to further establish a distinct Kia appearance.
Every designer appreciates good design. What automotive designs do you most appreciate (past or present)?
I’m a true car lover so I appreciate a wide variety of automobiles. I do have an affinity for the creativity and freedom expressed in many Italian concept cars of the 1970s. There was a real feeling of freshness and experimentation with designs such as the Lamborghini Bravo and Maserati Boomerang. I also admire some older curvaceous designs from Scaglione and Zagato, such as the much lauded Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale and Aston Martin DB4 Zagato.
What are some things that we can expect in the future from KIA Motors in terms of styling and design?
Although I can’t speak directly to new product, Kia will continue to create beautifully designed and well thought out vehicles. With the rapidly changing marketplace and constant arrival of new technology, it continues to be an exciting time to be an automotive designer. We hope to surprise and impress with groundbreaking products in new and varied segments.
Where do you see the automotive design heading in the future with hybrid/electric powertrains, new technology, and even self-driving systems?
We will see many more all-electric vehicles very soon from a variety of automakers. Self-driving is just beginning to appear and most likely will only become more prevalent. I can see a great improvement in convenience and productivity with self-driving cars especially for commuting purposes. As a car enthusiast, however, I believe and hope that there will still be a niche market for people that still enjoy driving.
We’d like to personally thank Kurt Kahl of Kia Design Center America for taking the time to answer our questions!