Designing the Future

25 Aug, 2021
by Natascha Zeljko

You’ve seen sleek Mazda cars darting around the world. Now meet Luciana Silvares, the designer behind Mazda’s unique brand style. She discusses current trends in the art of product design, and why the time is ripe for female leadership

You've been with Mazda for 20 years. As a designer, what fascinates you about the automotive industry?

Actually, I wasn’t planning to get into it. Because I originally studied Architecture in Brazil and then got a Master's in Industrial Design in Munich. For the first few years, I worked at a small, two-person architecture office. The impulse to switch came from my husband, who is also a designer. He suggested that I get into color and material design, and that's how I came to Mazda. My 20 years there have flown by, because it never gets boring. I currently work in the Brand Style department, where we deal with trends, with new ideas.

Good point – what are the big trends right now? When you look at e-cars, for example, it seems to me that the dominant trend is purism.

Yes, purism is one prominent style. But to every trend there is a countertrend: purism is contrasted by the new opulence, a movement toward a more baroque aesthetic. This is expressed, for example, by materials such as suede and strong, dark colors in the interior. At Mazda, we do tend to follow the purist trend, which is strongly influenced by "Japandi," the fusion between Scandinavian and Japanese design. I believe that digitalization is reinforcing our longing for the tactile, and thus for sensuality; or rather, it has a polarizing effect on fields like mine.

All areas of life and all industries are changing at an incredibly fast pace, and this is especially true of the automotive industry. How do you perceive this change?

Everything is changing at breakneck speed, yet we often hear that practically nothing has been going on in the car industry. Supposedly, the electrification of cars only really took off with Tesla and “saved” us. But this perception is completely distorted. The e-car existed before that company. Also, our immense progress in terms of safety remains completely ignored. In the last 20 years, the number of accident fatalities has been cut in half. This is due to technical innovations, but it also has to do with the materials used for the interior and exterior parts.

The boundaries between each individual field are increasingly blurred – and tech is a crucial aspect of this transformation. How has this changed your work? What are the challenges?

This innovation process essentially started 21 years ago for me. Back then, when I went to trade fairs, I wrote my reports in HTML and sent them to our headquarters in Japan. They were burned onto CDs, there was no cloud back then. This is to say that we designers have always been involved with new technologies: it’s part of the job. And I’m a big a fan of digitization in my private life too. At home, I'm the one who's enthusiastic about new applications and uses social media intensively. My husband is more typically German: skeptical and extremely careful with data. Between you and me, he's right, of course. My strategy is to embrace it all. Digitization has made a lot of things easier for us, but it has also made them more complicated.

Let's talk about remote work, which poses great challenges for managers.

This transitional shift from working in-house to working from home has already been an extreme one for employees. The new situation was also overlaid with fundamental uncertainties and fears: What is in store for us? On the whole, we have coped really well at Mazda. What helps are spontaneous chats with colleagues after the long video calls, just as if you were having a short conversation in the kitchenette. But you still miss the "real" office, of course!

What are the most important skills that a modern leader must have?

There are two things in particular: resilience and empathy. Two strengths that are predominantly attributed to us women. So there’s a lot to suggest that the time for women has come. As well as in leadership, these skills are becoming more and more important on the job. In addition, especially in these fast-moving times, you have to respond quickly to any situation and be pragmatic; resilience and empathy are necessary for this. COVID was just the icing on the cake. Modern leadership also means developing a sense of what people really need. Not titles or money, but first and foremost recognition and trust that you're doing the right thing as an employee. We will see more of this in the future, when robots will take over many of our jobs. Then the human element and everything that has to do with ideas, new approaches and worldviews will become even more important. Robots do not yet have consciousness – even though that will come about too. And then we'll have to come up with something else. But what will always remain is the principle that people need people. They can't be replaced by tools. Tools are there to serve and help us, not the other way around.

Another issue that has gained traction in recent years is diversity. Where do you think Germany stands? What still needs to be done?

The issue is of course very topical right now, especially in the urban, enlightened circles. Germany has really developed in this respect, despite all the opposing tendencies that exist in parallel. Or rather, they exist precisely as a reflex against this positive shift. There’s a certain polarization. I listened to an interesting lecture some time ago by trend researcher Li Edelkoort. According to her, we’re in the middle of a transformation that triggers fear in many people: of loss of income, autonomy and voice. Fear that others can take these things away from you.

To some extent, of course, that's the case; for example, men have to give up privileges.

Yes, but I don't think of it like a cake that we have to cut slices from. I think that's the wrong approach. Feminism is often misunderstood: it's not about taking anything away from men. We want the same working conditions and rights. Fortunately, a lot of changes are happening in Germany right now. Take parental leave, for example: in the past, women stayed at home for three years, and when they wanted to return to work it was too late, they had missed the boat. For a few years now, we've been seeing a countertrend: more and more men are taking parental leave these days. In my home country of Brazil, this has always been the case. There, it is customary for mothers to go to work. But there's a nasty nickname for women who take on the role of providers: turkeys.

You have two sons, how did you deal with maternal leave?

I returned to work after six months, but at 80% capacity. To be fair, I have to say that I had a good example at home. My mother has always worked and had a successful career. This is quite an unpopular opinion in Germany, but I think it's even better to put the child in daycare when they're six months old, because it's easier for them to get used to it. At the age of one, the pain of separation is already great, which causes stress for the little ones. In our case, it went really well. My husband took our child to daycare in the mornings, I worked for six hours and picked him up at 3 pm. It's nice to think back to that time. Reducing my working hours a little bit was an advantage which I was grateful to have in Germany. In São Paulo, I wouldn't have been home until half past seven in the evening.

What advice would you like to give young women?

They should know their worth and not sell themselves short. There’s an interesting term in psychology: gaslighting. It's when someone manipulates another person and deliberately keeps him or her down. This is the worst thing that can happen to you. In principle, women can do anything. There is no gender difference. It's a question of will and, of course, of brains. And it's also a question of resilience not to give up, but to keep trying. It is crucial that women support each other. English has the beautiful word sorority, similar to sisterhood, to describe this mutual support. I think that's what sets younger women apart. In the past, the women who made it to the top didn't want anything to do with female empowerment. They preferred to stick close to men, or even behave like men, and saw other women as competition. That's a shame, because it weakens us as a group. But as I said, the younger generation is smarter. Fortunately.

Luciana Silvares, who is responsible for Brand Style at Mazda, was born in Boston. At the age of three, she moved back to Brazil with her family and grew up in São Paulo. She studied Architecture, and after moving to Munich, she completed a Master's degree in Industrial Design. In 2013, she completed another Master's in General Management at the University of Warwick in England. Luciana Silvares lives in Stuttgart with her husband and two children and commutes between her home, Frankfurt and Leverkusen.

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