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Designers have to wear a lot of hats these days. In addition to cooperating with each other on the design of a car, they also have to work with engineers, bean counters, the higher-ups and the marketers to help develop a car that’s stylish without compromising on function or breaking the bank.

UPDATE: The Proton Design Competition 2014 closing date has been extended by a week, from August 11 to August 18.

To get you further fired up in designing a Proton city car for 2020 as part of the ongoing Proton Design Competition 2014 (better hurry, submissions close August 11), we sit down with Azlan Othman, head of styling at Proton, to give us an insight into the process of designing a Proton and hopefully give you some helpful tips in the process.

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We know that a lot of development and refinement happens in a car’s design between the first sketch and the time the first car rolls off the production line. How much of the designer’s initial idea survives onto the final product?

A lot, actually. Very rarely does the product turn out to be something totally different. That said, movements in proportions and surfaces, as well as some of the details, always happen. Over the years – it takes 18-24 months to develop a car – there is so much input from manufacturing, sales and especially engineering, so there are bound to be changes.

But usually the integrity of the main character line is what we will ensure makes it to the end, like the generic silhouette and very unique characteristics, such as the lights and grille.

How do you see Proton’s design language evolving? Will we see a more cohesive corporate look beyond the design traits currently shared among Proton’s existing products?

Absolutely. We knew we had to have a new corporate look when we designed the EMAS concept back in 2010, and the Prevé cemented the look as a manufacturable piece of design. At the time, our design philosophy was about timelessness, but as we moved on, we wanted something more competitive in the market.

Hence, moving forward we are developing what we refer to as “progressive design,” something that is more in tune with the contemporary needs of the market, because it progresses – it doesn’t stagnate.

We are going into a more exciting phase of our design DNA. You will see elements such as the “Proton Wings,” the single-graphic front face, the dynamic arrow on the side and the horizontal connecting bar at the rear becoming more refined, more exciting and more dynamic.

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Proton has said that it designs its cars specifically for the local market, and we have seen instances of that such as the “teh tarik hook” on the Exora. What other design features have been tailored to the Malaysian buying public’s needs and wants?

One of the things that not just Malaysians, but Asians in general, really appreciate is space. So our cars are actually designed in such a way that they offer a lot of space for the money you pay for. For example, the Exora in its segment is the biggest in its class. As for the interior colours, we have progressively gone for more practical colour schemes, as this market understandably prefers darker interiors.

But as for specific pieces of design, there are none that are designed specifically for Malaysia. For example, the hook [in the Exora], besides the fact that you call it a “teh tarik hook,” can be used for anything, really.

In recent years we have seen the launch of the Prevé and the Suprima S. Tell us about the rationale behind the designs of the two cars and how they resonate with the target market.

As a company, we always listen to the voice of the customers. And with the Prevé specifically, we wanted a globally-acceptable car. Styling-wise, that meant we wanted it to be timeless. So, from the demographics we knew we wanted to penetrate, the designers made sure that we met most of the criteria as well as come up with a product that was exciting in the customer’s eyes.

Obviously we can’t follow exactly what the customer wants, because the customer doesn’t really know what they want say two to three years down the line. Case in point was the Suprima. We had a very interesting brief whereby half the car was obviously the Prevé, which is a more formal sedan.

So instead of purely relying on customer feedback on what a hatchback should be like in Malaysia, we thought about expanding the design language beyond what the Prevé already had. And you can clearly see, the Suprima S is a far more exciting product than what the Prevé is.

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How has the feedback been so far for these models?

Let me answer purely from a design standpoint, as the chief designer. The response has been extremely positive – in fact, for the past few products, we know for a fact that design-wise we are already giving what the customers are looking for.

They were excited when they saw the Suprima S, and even until today they appreciate the elegant nature of the Prevé. So we know we don’t really have a problem with the design and it’s actually been getting stronger and stronger.

Even with issues such as “plasticky” interiors – there was a time where that became the buzzword [to describe Proton’s interiors] – you hardly hear that anymore. So we’ve improved not just in terms of the exterior part of the design, but also with the interior, primarily with the implementation of textures and colours. We’ve been listening, we’ve been breaking ground, we’ve been working with the right people.

The design brief for the Proton Design Competition 2014 is to design a city car for the year 2020. Obviously, in 2020 we will see things like alternative propulsion and autonomous driving. How do you expect the proportions, the surfacing and the lines to evolve as we adapt to new technologies?

I think we are already seeing it today. A lot of the current styling cues are actually born from legislative or regulatory requirements, as well as the customer’s expectations, for example in terms of fuel efficiency. So yes, the designs will be strongly tied to these restraints, and designers will have to be smart enough to work around them and still achieve their vision of what the car should be.

As an example, pedestrian impact requirements mean that we can no longer have sleek and edgy front-end designs because everything has to be so rounded and tall so that the pedestrian does not impact the bonnet too strongly. But we will have to find other ways to exude that personality.

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What advice would you give to budding designers for this competition?

The competition is about innovation. Now, 2020 is not that far off, so we don’t expect flying cars or submersibles or anything like that. But we’re looking at innovation in terms of the originality of your design and we want you to focus on good ol’ aesthetics, because that’s the first thing that people look at and will pull them into the showrooms.

We’re not looking at a technically perfect vehicle; that’s not what we’re expecting from the two categories. So let’s look for something innovative instead.

As for their careers? What would you say to those who want to make it in the automotive design world?

Career-wise, obviously, the basic rule is to get the right qualifications, then you have to have a lot of perseverance, because it’s not an easy job to be in. Design is not about you as one single person, and automotive design is even more so as you work with thousands of people and it takes so long just to get a product out.

So even though the industry and the public love to idolise one single person as a designer of a car, the reality isn’t like that. It’s more team-driven, and you need to have a team player mentality as well as being able to communicate. No matter how good your design is, if you are unable to share and sell your design, then you would have effectively failed as a designer.