An interview with Lincoln’s Director of Design Max Wolff

February 13, 2012
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An interview with Lincoln’s Director of Design Max Wolff

Young. Talented. And then there’s the accent. Automotive designer and Australian native Max Wolff, Lincoln’s Director of Design, is leading the transformation of Lincoln’s lineup of luxury vehicles.

As the luxury automotive brand plans seven significantly refreshed or new vehicles over the next three years, Wolff and his team will be key to creating world-class luxury vehicles.

Wolff, 39, is the product of humble beginnings. The inquisitive young lad grew up in Melbourne, Australia. His parents—each teachers—encouraged his curiosity and creativity. And, after his father brought him an automotive magazine at 12, he realized that he could make a living out of doing what he loved—drawing cars. But the road to success wasn’t as smooth as the ride of the 2013 Lincoln MKS. Wolff’s work history ranges from demolition work and picking grapes to mixing drinks to make ends meet.

The young designer’s eclectic background and international experience from Australia and Asia to North America, with design credits that include Design director for Cadillac Exterior, make him the perfect steward for the Lincoln rebirth.

design, lincoln, wolff

How does your upbringing and where you’re from provide inspiration for who you are as an artist and designer?

Melbourne is a beautiful city and very cosmopolitan. The food is amazing and the coffee culture is incredible. It’s easy to be very independent there because of the public transport—you can just jump on a bus or tram and go anywhere. And then there is the water and climate, which is pretty good. All of those things sort of add up.

What led you to the design world? Did anything in your life push you in that direction?

I think growing up, both of my parents were artistic to some degree. I just loved drawing. I was an only child so I spent a lot of time by myself and I would just draw things. And then, somehow, I just started drawing cars, and then one day I walked past a small design studio in Melbourne, and they had a Group C racecar in the window. I walked in off the street with my school bag in hand and started talking to the people that worked there. And I think I sort of knew it anyway, but I realized that maybe this could potentially be a career and that it was something I’d like to do.

And you went to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia?

Yes.

What design philosophy stands out from your time in college?

Make it look good.

Any professors stand out? Were there any special professors who kind of helped you along the way?

Yes. A guy named Arthur de Bono—no relation to Edward. He was one of my first year professors, and he now runs all of art and design at Monash University. But, he had a very interesting way of thinking about design problems—he was very customer-focused, and I think he broadened my horizons in that aspect. He made me realize that anything I was doing from a design standpoint was not for me but for somebody else. And that’s what design is—it is applied art. It’s not just what the designer wants to do—it’s what the designer feels is right for the end user of the product. If it’s just what the designer wants to do, then it’s art... there’s a big place for that, but it’s not design.

Did you have any weird or odd jobs before your design career took off?

I had a demolition job for a while but that was too much like hard work. I did some freelance design work, but that wasn’t consistent so I had a number of bartending jobs in a number of places. I was also a fruit picker one summer, not really in the Outback of Australia, but up north where I’m from in Melbourne. And I stayed in a little cottage with a guy who was a Buddhist, which was fairly interesting. We picked grapes—picking grapes is really hard. It was 50° C (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The grapes grow on vines that are three or four feet high, and you have to squat down to pick all the grapes. Down in between the vines there is no movement of the air, at all.

design, lincoln, wolff

When did your designing career begin to take off?

After working a few odd jobs I went back to complete college and then I did six months of an internship with Millard Design in Australia. Once that was completed I taught first-year classes at my alma mater—Monash University. From there, the work began to come in.

Have you designed for work outside automobiles, such as logos or for a website?

I’ve done a lot of graphic work—a lot of logo work,and I worked for a while with an architect and consumer products, but nothing nearly as spectacular as the next generation of Lincoln vehicles.

You’ve enjoyed drawing cars since you were a kid. When did you get or own your first car?

The first car that I actually owned was a 1985 Alfa Romeo Sprint. I was 24 or 25. I’d driven cars and borrowed cars before that. My aunt gave me a Nissan Pulsar and I drove that around for a few years—it’s a terrible, terrible thing.

Do you have a standard approach to design? If so, can you give a standard approach to your process?

We have a very standardized creative process. And, of course, there is wiggle room in there. Each individual creative person—I think—brings a little bit of their own creative process to the broader process. But I think any creative field—whether it is fashion design, film, or even music—probably has a similar theme, where you start off with a lot of different ideas sketched out pretty roughly. Slowly but surely you get it down to the final one, and it gets much more development and polish time devoted to it. I think any creative process is very similar. It’s absolutely staggering to me how often the first idea you have is, if not the best, certainly very close to the best.

Cars are an extremely regulated piece of art. There are safety restrictions, aerodynamics, etc. Where does one start? How do you design with so many rules?

That’s a pretty good question, and I think to some extent that is where the people aspect comes into it. There are a lot of elements. Cars are not only extremely regulated, but they are extremely complicated.

And, there are so many different sorts of work streams that come together in putting a car out. Design is obviously the visual aspect of that, and, to some extent, we are the compilers of all the different inputs—we put them together and out comes the product. But, there are a lot of different things that can happen, too. There are safety regulations, there are aerodynamic principles, chassis and power trains, and the fact that you have to fit people in there.

But, there are also a lot of creative people that work in engineering, that work in manufacturing, that work in other aspects that we have to deal with. So, often there will be a new solution to a common problem that will allow the design team to do something a little bit different. Sometimes the design team will be the ones to spearhead that—we’re looking at doing this and then engineering and manufacturing will go off and try to work out how to do it. But sometimes it works the other way as well, where someone will come to us and say “hey, we have this idea with a new way of doing something,” and then we as a design organization would take that and mold it into a different thing. One example of that would be the center console on the interior of the MKZ Concept—where we no longer have this mechanical linkage between the gear shift and the transmission, which allowed us to free up some space in the center console area. We’ve designed this beautiful sculptural piece of art inside the interior that not only looks beautiful but also helps with function, and it liberates an extra storage space. So, there is a combination of a number of different things—engineering, manufacturing and design, to working within those restrictions and still yielding something very new and very different.

design, lincoln, wolff

What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being an automotive designer?

I don’t know…One of the best things, for me, is that I’ve always been a fan of cars, the industry and automobiles. So, I am able to do the thing that I am passionate about every day. That is probably the best thing for me, personally. Another aspect is being able to work with a bunch of other really talented and creative people—we have a great design team here. The worst thing about being a designer in the automotive field—and I think this is just our lot in life as designers—is that we are never entirely happy. There is always one little thing that we look at and think, “Wow, if I had done it this way, or if we would have gotten relief from this restriction, or had a little bit more money...” Whatever it is, there’s always that little thing in the back of your mind. And, that’s why we do other products. As a designer you always want to push the envelope, and you are always learning. That’s not really a bad thing. There’s no worse thing.

What’s something the average person wouldn’t know or wouldn’t guess about designing a vehicle?

If I have the opportunity to bring people to the studio who haven’t been exposed to the automotive studio experience before, I think they are surprised by the way that we do things in terms of the fact that we use clay as a medium to sculpt the surfaces of the vehicle exterior and interior. People are surprised by the amount of technology that we use in terms of the software and some of the machines that we use in order to work between computers and the physical properties seen on the studio floor. I think people are also surprised when [describe the process as] "dressing up a model," and [how close an early model presentation is to the real car]. Again, technology is a big part of that.

Another thing that is somewhat surprising is when people see just how much sort-of old-school technology—if you like—that we still use. At the end of the day, you have all those fantastic computers. But, for me, the fastest way to communicate is to pick a pen and a piece of paper and just literally do a small thumbnail sketch of what I am thinking about.

Similarly, if we are working with the models on the floor and doing surface development, whether it be interior or exterior, sometimes the fastest thing for a clay sculptor to do—or the best way to get it just right—is to have the sculptor working with the designer on a model. So there is a bit of a dichotomy between the technologies we use versus the old school methodology that make it work in the end.

How important is an international perspective when you are designing for a luxury brand?

The most successful luxury brands are also successful internationally, whether in automotive, fashion or product design. I think some sort of international outlook is important. However, we want to get ourselves established in North America—I think it is important that you are successful in your home base. But, we still want to have an eye out to be a more international brand.

What is the car going to mean to the average human 20 years from now with energy, space and design becoming more and more important in the everyday lives of people?

I think all of those things are pragmatic, and we’re still going to deal with those things as they come up. But I think the car, to some extent, is going to mean the same thing that it does now—it liberates you somehow, gives you this sense of freedom and the ability to sort-of travel from one spot to the other, which people use in very different ways. That’s the core of the automobile, and that’s going to stay consistent. Who knows what’s going to happen? But—whatever happens—I think that liberating factor and that sense of freedom is going to remain constant.

Along the lines of your childhood and your love for drawing cars, do you still get to do any sketching during your off time or any projects at home that you’re currently working on?

I grew up drawing cars as a little kid as a hobby and now I get to spend 10, 11 or 12 hours a day doing it working with the design team at Lincoln. This is my creative outlet. So, there’s no burning desire to go home and sketch cars. When I get home I want to do something else. My wife would like me to fix the house, but I don’t want to do that, either.

Thanks Max!

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Cory Skaaren

Cory Skaaren

Creative Director. Problem Solver. Thinker. Principal at Skaaren Design. Follow me at @skaarendesign.

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