Feature: Design makes a difference – even for trucks

Trucks are typical commercial vehicles. In light of this, one might expect truck buyers’ purchasing decisions to be based entirely on rational factors such as fuel consumption, payload, service costs and transport kilometres per euro. Well, think again. Truck design is more important that you may imagine.

At Volvo’s design studio, around 60 people work with product design for different Volvo companies – Volvo Trucks, Volvo Buses, Volvo Construction Equipment and Volvo Penta.

Patrik Palovaara specialises in truck design. His latest creation is Volvo Trucks’ new construction truck, the Volvo FMX.

“It’s true that truck design is largely about rational factors like aerodynamics and ergonomics,” he says. “But there's also an emotional dimension. The truck’s appearance is strongly linked to both its function and its identity and, by extension, to its brand.”

Details accentuate the truck’s characteristics
The Volvo FMX is an excellent example of this. Palovaara and his team based the truck’s design on its predecessor, the Volvo FM, but accentuated its robust, rugged characteristics by introducing external changes that clearly express certain qualities.

New functionality was also added in several key areas, including a completely new central towing device on the front with a stronger fastening point. This resulted in a new front with a powerful lower section that clearly distinguishes the Volvo FMX from its predecessor.

“Volvo Trucks commissioned us to design a product that would appeal to construction customers,” says Palovaara. “The market’s response proves that we succeeded.”

Interpretation, vision and form
A truck designer’s first challenge in a new project is to interpret the client’s requirements and preferences and the results of user studies, and then create his or her own personal vision of the new truck. The designer may draw inspiration from countless sources, for example the animal kingdom, film, fashion or extreme sports.

During this phase, countless sketches are produced. The designer can give free rein to his or her imagination and challenge traditional concepts of how a truck should look – while always remaining realistic.

“When making strategic sketches, I often work with three themes,” says Palovaara.  “An extreme visionary theme, a basic theme and a theme that falls somewhere in between the two.”

From drawing to full-scale model
After this initial period of sketching, the team chooses a design theme to develop further. Now they start producing CAD models to verify factors such as ergonomics, aerodynamics and functionality for the new truck.

“Air resistance is of strategic importance because it is critical to fuel consumption,” explains Palovaara.

The team includes surface modellers and studio engineers who are responsible for regularly reviewing the design process with Volvo Trucks’ production technicians and ergonomics, aerodynamics and technical design experts. A team of clay modellers at the design studio build a full-scale clay model of the new truck that allows everyone involved to follow the verifications made with the CAD model.

“Many people only fully realise what the new truck will look like when they see the full-scale model,” says Palovaara. “The model provides a reference point for everybody, from Volvo’s CEO to tool makers and subcontractors. And many people have their say before the shape, colour and surface of the design are finalised.

A creative competitive factor
So everybody has an opinion about design. But is it possible to define what makes a good truck design? And how important is the design from a larger perspective?

The Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University has collaborated closely with Volvo Trucks for many years, and is one of the world’s leading study institutes in this field. Tapio Alakörkkö, Department Head at the Umeå Institute of Design, comments:

“Design is a creative discipline that improves a company’s competitiveness. In Scandinavia, we have a tradition of creating functional designs. For us, a good truck design is about focusing on the driver and finding out how we can make his working day easier and develop his work routines –  not least so that more women will choose to become truck drivers.

Arousing the desire to buy
Even if a design is primarily functional, its success also depends on arousing consumers’ desire to have it. Purchasing decisions are not only made by the logical left brain.

“Good design is to do with the dreams a product evokes in people, what they hope to get out of it,” explains Alakörkkö. ”Design is what makes people tick”, it’s that simple.

Another factor that drives development forward is the link between concrete product design and visionary concept design.

“Concept design is important in getting people’s brains to think outside the box,” says Alakörkkö. “By discussing the design on the basis of a common vision, we can move the goal posts forward. Concept design also serves as a sounding board for our views – do we like this vision or not?”

At the forefront of development
Needless to say, designers who work for a leading truck manufacturer must always remain at the forefront of development. They keep abreast by reading the industrial press and attending trade fairs, but it takes more than this to know how trucks will develop by the year 2020.

“Trends in truck design are driven by technical development,” explains Palovaara. “New fuels, new materials and logistics solutions influence the commercial vehicles of the future.

He should know. In the design studio, concealed behind long curtains, are models of future Volvo trucks that few human eyes have seen – yet.

Text: Sören Svanlund

May 3, 2010

For further information, please contact:
Marie Vassiliadis, Media Relations Europe, phone +46 31 322 41 27, e-mail