How Pinky Lai transcends industries with cohesive work
If you caught part one of our interview with PINKY LAI here, you know that his decades of design experience across industries has led him to take on projects that have revolutionized some of the most iconic automotive brands in the world.
We went even further back in time with the designer, following his diverse path of international experience that allowed him to cultivate a style and process that’s 100% his own.
Scroll down to see how the prolific creative got started, and where he’s headed next.
How do you apply aspects of product design to your practice as a car designer, in order to achieve the fresh perspective that you’ve become known for?
It's been a long journey to understand that "Oh, Italy doesn't work with architecture.", because it was chaos, it may still be chaotic today at the University of Architecture. I was lucky and an Italian friend got me into an experimental product design college, and it turned out I was the only foreigner and we didn't really learn how to design products. But, we learned how to argue, how to talk about design and how to understand the theory of design, from day to night we’d just talk about design and projects. But you wouldn’t really work on a project, you’d just talk about projects. After four years, I was more or less the only student who came up with a project-looking kind of project ― going through the process of conceiving an idea, visualizing it with 2Ds, and then building a model. I was the first one to hand in the finished project for the exam.
Luckily enough that project got me an interview in Germany at Ford. They were looking for a young and talented designer, but with professional experience, and that drove me to ask a very aggressive question to the interviewer. First he looked at my portfolio, the graduation project from the Italian college and asked "Oh, have you been to any Toyota studio, Honda studio, something like that?” He assumed I had some experience working in the car industry, and I told him that this was my first time ever entering a car studio. He said they wouldn’t offer me a designer position but instead a full scholarship to the Royal College of Art to specialize in car design. I was so upset, and I was sort of angry they advertised that they were looking for a young and talented designer, and I thought "Hey, that's me!". But at the same time, you're looking for a designer with experience, so they offered me an opportunity to get some experience, because otherwise I could never be that person.
He made me the offer because he was stunned, but I was so angry, so sad and disappointed that I left the interview, and that's how it started. A week after that, on a rainy Sunday in Germany, there was a special delivery at the door with a big envelope and a one-way ticket to London along with all the registration info for the college, they had already done it for me. I didn’t remember saying yes to them, but they just did it for me. It was like a Disney cartoon character moment, when you get lightbulbs in the air. At that moment I thought, "Wow, they're really serious!" and then I just took off and went to college.
Speaking of big companies, how do you find a way to add your own signature style to the designs you create for iconic companies that already have a strong identity?
I can do different styles when I have to, but I just don't feel comfortable doing any other style except my own, just being myself. I was able to do that all the time at Porsche, just be myself, and that's all I care about. In fact, one of the big bosses once said, "Hey, Pinky. It is your handwriting that I'm after." you know? That's why he didn't call out the competition, normally a project like that is open for the whole team and everybody submits their proposal, but for that project he said, "Hey, skip the process. Pinky, you got the project, because I want your handwriting in this project." That’s a really nice confirmation, and I just took off from there.
Could that be one of your design principles, creating in your own style?
Yes, design is never democratic. Mark my word. If you want a powerful design, a powerful statement, don't go into committee design. Committee is comparable to saying that you just need one very good cook in the kitchen. Anything more than one good cook will just spoil the soup, I think that’s a universal concept. It’s like if you have a project, you just ask your favorite designer to do it, and you realize that’s better than putting a lot of top designers on the project ― it’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of fighting and emotional moments, at least that's my experience. A successful and powerful design statement is never a committee design. It has to be almost a dictator kind of design.
Speaking of luxury, let's focus on your work at Porsche. You were responsible for a big turning point in the brand's history, what were the main factors behind finding a new path for them? And how important was teamwork in helping you get there?
In my time there I only experienced two turning points. One was when they were all over the headlines in German newspapers when it was rumored that Porsche would be sold to Toyota or Mercedes. At the time, the 993 model was not selling, one year after dropping the model sales dropped to only 50% of the same period as last year, and they were really in a cash flow problem. I was lucky enough that my design was picked for the first water-cooled 911 and that sort of made the turnaround for the company. From one day to the next, they started turning the red balance sheet back to the black balance sheet, and every year has been a record selling year since then. Nobody talks about that moment for Porsche anymore and you have to be aware that year after year at that period, all the German car brands were in red, losing money. Porsche was the only one experiencing record selling years, and it’s almost surreal to see that impact last for almost a decade.
The second turning point was the excitement around the opportunity that Porsche, as a small company, was going to buy Volkswagen. We were so excited and we were having the illusion that we could use the Bugatti engine to put into our 911, because at the time Volkswagen already bought Bugatti. But slowly, month after month the needle started turning the other way around, and Volkswagen ended up buying Porsche. That was the biggest turning point I could imagine, even after experiencing a change in CEO four times in two or three years at Porsche back when I joined at the end of the 80s. You can't really expect anything like that from any other company, but after that we experienced one turning point after the other, so I was really the lucky one.
Why did you feel the need to create Brainchild Design Group and what is the next step of that journey?
This is something I had to learn after leaving Porsche, that I have to think like an entrepreneur and think responsibly to talk to business people. No, I just have responsibility for all the shareholders, I'm not supposed to expose or disclose too much of the fantastic project. It's taking a little bit longer than usual but it's nothing to worry about because the design is so timeless. You know, I watch all these so-called start-ups and new electric cars, but we’re taking our time, It’s going to happen pretty soon, and you can be sure that it’ll be disruptive. It’s going to have nothing to do with the traditional automobile business ― it’s still the car business, but very disruptive.
Lastly, if you could leave a few words to sprout the imagination and creativity of young designers today, what message would you send?
It's the same message as ten years ago. The usual message would be to think big and dream big, but specifically, don't just think one step ahead. If that’s what all of the competitors are doing, then you have to think two steps ahead. That's what I've been saying to all the interviewers and questioners. It's always true and it always works, but that's the challenge.
We'll be ready for whatever groundbreaking move comes next, Pinky.
Meet more designers who operate two steps ahead of the crowd at our [metcha originals].