Gerry McGovern: Why design should never be done by committee

We asked the Chief Designer at Land Rover what it takes to stand apart from the crowd...

In an upper room of Kensington’s majestic Design Museum, Gerry McGovern is considering autumn. But don’t worry — the famously straight-talking polymath hasn’t suddenly developed an obsession with suburban sycamores. Rather, as he gazes out of the window, Land Rover’s ideas man is wondering why any designer would use the natural world as inspiration.

“I’m not one of those designers who will sit there looking at the falling leaves in a park and think ‘how could that manifest itself into the design of a particular material or a grill?’” says McGovern, “I’m not into any of that.”

Strange then, perhaps, that we meet Land Rover’s Chief Designer (under whose watch the company has reported record annual sales of their iconic cars) in such artistic circumstances.

We are here to discuss the 2018 BORN Design Awards, an annual competition celebrating exceptional creative achievements in design — founded by businessman Jean-Christophe Chopin and supported by McGovern and Land Rover.

Gerry McGovern

For McGovern, BORN is an opportunity to celebrate design across all industries. It’s a chance to champion that which not only looks good, but also serves to transform business — whilst simultaneously enriching people’s lives. In other words, McGovern wouldn’t argue if you took your inspiration from falling leaves — as long as you did something useful with it.

So, as the theme of this year’s BORN awards is ‘Peerless Design’, we sat down with McGovern to discuss what it takes to be a successful, unique designer in today’s world — and ask how he managed it himself.

A lifelong passion for Modernism...

“I have had a love of modern design ever since I was a kid growing up in Coventry,” reveals McGovern. “I like everything to be paired back and simple, and for every line to be doing a job. That job might well be purely aesthetic, it doesn’t have to be functional, but it must do a job.”   

“Emotional connection is what differentiates great products from average products...”

“Emotional connection is what differentiates great products from average products,” he says, adding that there are many designers — especially in the automotive world — who still fail to recognise this.

“There are a lot of designs out there that look as though they have been designed by a committee — and by the people at the top who feel they deserve to have a view,” he continues. “But they aren’t design literate, and their products are testament to that.”

Sadly, when probed for examples of these oversights, McGovern is uncharacteristically (and disappointingly) quiet. “I have to be careful here,” he laughs, “because the automotive design world is fairly small, and every designer seems to know one another!”

A respect for heritage…

But few companies in the automotive design world have a history as storied as Land Rover’s. In his current position at the wheel of one of Britain’s most iconic brands, McGovern has access to the carmaker’s complete archive; a wealth of inspiration.

“Inspiration comes from two places; within, and from the brand itself. That rich heritage is crucial — it’s all about taking what they have already have and blending it with new ingredients.”

"I sometimes wonder what ‘Britishness’ actually is, and I think it’s a level of eccentricity..."

So what does it take to master that key skill of design — of maintaining the traditional British identity while offering something fresh? 

“I sometimes wonder what ‘Britishness’ actually is,” ponders McGovern, “and I think it’s a level of eccentricity. My favourite British brand would have to be Henry Poole & Co., because they still maintain that British sensibility — but cut suits in a distinctively British way.”

Gerry McGovern giving a speech at the Land Rover Born Awards, London, UK, 4th October 2018

“It’s also about the relationship they have with their customers,” he adds. “There’s something nice about visiting a tailor on Savile Row and being treated the way that people would have been treated in there buying a suit 50 years ago.”  

Looking forward to the future…

So you must revere the past, and respect the traditions that come with creating great design. But, of course, there is an element of all great design that looks to the future. Fifteen years into his sparkling tenure as Chief Designer, is McGovern still brimming with zeal and ideas for the years to come? What’s next for Land Rover?

"That would be the ultimate luxury experience within a car; to have it as an extension of your own home..."

“We want to reduce levels of visual and functional complexity,” he reveals. “We want to make it more tangible. Ultimately, I want to be able to get into the car and tell it what to do: ‘turn the temperature up, and I’ll tell you when it’s hot enough!’

“Almost like a butler,” he laughs. “To me, that would be the ultimate luxury experience within a car; to have it as an extension of your own home”.

The BORN Awards winners, alongside Co-Presidents Jean-Christophe Chopin and Gerry McGovern.

It seems like quite a decadent vision for someone following in the footsteps of pure modernists. What would they say about such a glamorous vision?

McGovern laughs again.

“They would say form follows function! But, actually, if the result provides you with something cold and cheerless — then what’s the point?”

Believe us, Britain is a bastion of great design. Here’s our pick of the 50 best brands below…

Further Reading