THE ENDLESS HORIZON OF TIME: Musings on design from Tom Matano

Musings on design from Tom Matano

“Design is a study of nature and human nature.”
-Tom Matano

Design is the combination of purpose and planning; art and science. Nature is rich with this ether-whisked blend of form and function. In nature, it’s the daintily graceful radii of a rose petal or cunningly incised thorn. Every dandelion that supports atoms of morning dew or sweeping fin of a fish are examples of design sublimated with function. Only a few talented people actually manage to rival the timeless design perfection of Mother Nature.

One gazes upon the MX-5 Miata as an object of function and as well as one of romantic, seemingly anachronistic sentiment. From the outset, the vehicle’s curves were designed to endure for over twenty years…a lifetime in the automotive industry.
This radical objective could’ve only been accomplished by one designer: Tom Matano. His vast career has been filled with wisdom, grace and tact.
The following is a mere sketch of his life experiences.

Miata Founding Father Mr Tom Matano approves.

Miata Founding Father Mr Tom Matano. Photo © Mazda USA

When asked how he’d describe truth in design, and as it pertained to the MX-5, Matano states:

Be truthful to “what it does, how does it work, how does it look in proportion, be truthful in use of technologies and materials of the time”. This leads to the timelessness of the design.

Those are my fundamental design principles that guide me through my design process.

For an example, MX-5/Miata was designed as a pair of jogging shoes. It is an everyday sports-car, unlike other sports-cars with spiked shoes that require a special track to enjoy. The design communicated the essence of the car well and truthfully.

Matano then provides greater insight into his development as a designer:

I learned a lot from the association with the automobile at an early age.

Tom Matano Executive Director, School of Industrial DesignI always try to put things into perspective (from my grandfather’s teaching). He came to Tokyo for his monthly business meeting. He usually took us to a very exclusive restaurant for lunch or dinner. Then, he instructed my mother to make sure that she took us to a neighborhood eatery for contrast. So, we learned range, perspective and balance. I didn’t have a clue about this at that time since I was only 10 to 12 years old. My mother told me about this when I turned 20.

I always developed my own gauges to measure the progress as well as achievements or anything for that matter. Creating your own measurements with good perspective are some of the most important aspects of keeping you honest and provide you with confidence of where you fit in the scheme of things.

After initially attending university in Tokyo, Japan as an analysis engineering major; he left for the United States to study English and design. He was accepted into the Art Center College of Design as a Transportation Design major. Upon graduation, he embarked on his automotive design career:

I was hired by General Motors in 1974 by the Director of Design, Chuck Jordan. At that time, Bill Mitchell was the VP of Design. Mr. Jordan came to review our final presentation of the GM sponsored project at the ACCD [Art Center College of Design]. I had an interview with him after the presentation. He asked me whether I wanted to come to Detroit or not. I said “YES”, thinking that there was going to be a formal interview in Detroit. Three weeks later, I received a letter stating the starting date. I didn’t know that a director could hire someone on the spot. In Japan, I’d have to go through many steps to get a job offer. I drove my Chevy Vega wagon to Detroit and started my design career on March 1, 1974. I was assigned to Advanced Oldsmobile studio.

I started at GM Design in Warren, Michigan when GM had nearly 50% market share. There I learned to design large cars (full size). It takes time to nurture and manage the sense of scale and proportion. I learned a lot about designing details. The rest of the world of car design was rather plain in this regard. (I was eventually part of the 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass, 1978 Oldsmobile 98, and 1978 Oldsmobile Omega design teams.

1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass

The waterfall grille on the 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass was Matano’s work. ©

His observations regarding the American school of design process and organization:

GM Tech Center was an amazing place. Purposely built as creative design studios as well as design development facility. They had a model shop with three shifts (24-7) supporting design studio activities. For example, if you sent a drawing in for parts needed for the clay model when you left in the afternoon it would be waiting for you on the desk the next morning.

Designers’ role was clearly defined as creating design ideas and solutions to our best of knowledge. We had janitor sweeping the floor every few hours where we sat.
We didn’t have to even pick up anything off the floor.

I learned the importance of the Experimental Design studies as well as Advanced Design process being part of the whole design process. GM is the only one that really had those in the R&D processes of design as well as engineering. Having this process would provide much more steady and linear longevity compared to others that didn’t. I was also fortunate to witness the style of the late Bill Mitchell. GM Design Staff was the biggest talent pools in the world. I quickly realized some of my limitations as well as my strengths.

General Motors Holden’s in Melbourne, Australia:

Due to the energy crisis in the States that blocked my working visa application, I went to GM Holden in Australia to learn how to design with less (less resources, less new body changes, less technologies and so on).

There are only 3 studios (Advance, Production, Interior Color & Trim), 4-5 car line ups with far fewer variations. Also, the model change cycle is much longer than the American market. The production volume is small without much investment available for minor changes.

I had to work on minor changes (no sheet metal change) every two years with some appearance packages twice a year. Designing the minor changes gave me great learning opportunity in terms of design with tight constraints very quickly. Hard points on minor changes are the hard points, no two ways about it.

We were on the third floor with Full Engineering on the second floor and the prototype shop and other testing facilities on the ground floor and attached to our building. That was a small operation. Being a much smaller organization, I got to learn about the inner workings of the product development processes much faster than in Detroit. I also got to do more things and was given more responsibilities than my mere 18 months experience would have provided back in the States.

I spent almost 7 years at GM Holden. I gained knowledge and experience that could have taken me twice as long if I stayed in GM’s Tech Center. I had a hand in almost every full-size clay model. I learned about design strategy while working closely with the Director of Design. My boss had trusted me to do some graphic design work as well as interior design and color and trim.

After a while, I realized that there were limitations that would limit my design scope such as the newest technologies or materials and processes that would take many years to become available in Australia. That made me decide to seek a job opportunity in Germany to gain design advancements with technologies.

I left GM’s Holden in Australia to work for BMW AG in Munich, Germany. I wanted to learn the longevity of design life. I wanted to learn the secret of developing the long life design as well as maintaining strict brand essence while moving design forward to the future models.

Another reason why I left Australia was the lack of a wind tunnel to learn aerodynamics. Fuel economy became top of the list of “must haves” on new models as aerodynamics had gotten more attention. I wanted to learn in the real wind tunnel how I could design great aesthetics with knowledge of aerodynamics.


BMW AG, Munich, Germany and the German school of design process:

I was fortunate that three sedans (3,5 and 7 series) were in various stages of development. I started working for BMW in October, 1982 when the 3 series (E30) was almost ready to be released. The 7 series (E32) design was chosen and was in its development stage. It was introduced in 1986. The 5 series (E34) was also in the midst of the design theme development stage. It was later introduced in 1988. I was assigned to the beginning of the next 3 series (E36) that came out in 1992. There were also other projects like M3 on E30 and 8 Series Coupe project.

I also served on the investigative team for the E36. We were to use the wind tunnel extensively to determine that the base form that was dynamically tested to create a base geometry and dimensions prior to Styling gets to work on it. For E36, this initial aerodynamic tuning of the base form was added to the process to meet the future requirements.

I had opportunity to work at a tunnel in Stuttgart where Dr. Kamm developed his Kamm back theories. There were many wooden scale models of his experiments as well as Mercedes speed record car models in the storage room. It was like discovering the hidden treasures of aerodynamics study. We also went to Goettingen that the “Goettingen Method Closed Wind Tunnel” was named after. There were the earlier fluid dynamic testing tubs as well. I thought that I stepped into a time tunnel. I was blown away by the historical treasures.

After 8-9 months in Munich, I got a call from my friend, Bob Hall, who was working for Mazda R&D in the States.
He stated that they were looking for a chief designer to start the advance design development in Irvine, California. He and Mark Jordan, who moved from Opel (and a son of the late Chuck Jordan, GM VP of Design; who hired me to GM in the first place) were recommending me for the job.
In Germany, I went to work in the dark and came home in the dark. At the time, the temperature outside was 10 degrees below zero….Just the thought of blue sky and 70- degrees in the winter made me wanted to go back.

I reviewed my situation at BMW. My assigned project, E36, was on its first year of the design development and it wasn’t going to be ready until 1992. I would be in charge of that car until the E46 replaced it. I was also involved in the sketch phase of the 8 series and a couple of sketches were chosen for the next round. Additionally, my work visa would expire in 2 years. I was concerned that BMW’s initial handling of the visa (when I started) wouldn’t warrant a long-term permit. I didn’t want to leave the project in the midst of the development in 3 to 5 years, if the visa wasn’t going to work out.

Thankfully, I had got a good idea of how the process gave design its longevity. I was fortunate to have witnessed the various stages of development. I felt that this would be a good time to leave before I got involved too deep and attached to it. There was another aspect to this: I wanted to design a car with history and a strong brand identity. I realized that it required my life time commitment as well…I was about 35 years old by then. I might be lucky to be in charge of the 3 series for 20 years and may have a hand in a few more projects. That was the commitment if I decided I needed to stay with BMW.

My life as a designer was set to creating well-executed, long-life designs for the rest of my career. I had a lot more creative interest in future concept design…other types of cars; not just sedans. I knew I wanted to design small cars, trucks, vans, SUVs and sports cars. I also knew Mazda had those vehicles in their portfolio. Best of all, we could create a new design entity to transform Mazda Design into a true global standard. After GM Design Headquarters in Detroit, GM’s Holden satellite studio and BMW…I was ready for the job. What more could I ask for?

Tom Matano & Bob Hall

Tom Matano & Bob Hall. ©

The Japanese school of design process:

Most of Japanese automotive design organizations were under their engineering umbrella. They were part of the product development process with strict milestones.
Design groups were more or less design factories rather than more creative design studios. They didn’t have studio engineers like American or European studios. Designers were part studio engineer/liaison. The real creative designers are a very small portion of the designer pool.
Developing unique, original design theme wasn’t the major task in the design factory situation. It is to develop a design that meets all the engineering and marketing requirements as well meets cost targets and launch timing. Designers were given detailed design briefs from product planners. Design started with very narrowly focused target. This helped meet all the critical milestones. In the meantime, this process would deliver very predictable but timely designs. This wouldn’t produce groundbreaking design or long-life design by default of the process. It was a very efficient design factory.

Another interesting thing was that Mazda had used only 3 views of a car for customer research (front view, side view and rear view). That is the way Japanese project objects were flattened to a 2D plane. This will give you a great proportional balance. On the other hand, this way is not going to produce cohesive 3⁄4 views; which is how Americans view cars.

Mazda North American Design:

At Mazda, there wasn’t a studio setup when I arrived in Irvine, California in December 1983. Two designers were placed in the office of the Product Planning and Research group. The whole group consisted of a VP, two product planners, two testing engineers and three designers.

They were more or less an outpost for watching the US market trends and such. It wasn’t the entity to propose concepts and designs. We quickly upgraded our deliverable capability from sketch proposals up to full-size, mock-up models. The first full scale model was a see- through foam model of MPV concept produced at an outside facility. Because of the impact and ease of understanding the concept, we were given the go-ahead to have a studio capable of full-size clay models in the adjacent rotary engine reconditioning plant. LWS (Light Weight Sports) was the first clay model from that studio.

After the great reception for the MPV concept and Miata proposal (by the headquarter management) within the first 6 months from this one room studio; the chairman gave us a “GO” sign to build a full-fledged R&D center. I got the chance to design the building in both studio functions/layout and aesthetics. With this new facility, I got to demonstrate experimental design and advance design processes with real examples.

We also answered the challenge from the chairman’s call to create a vision of the future. He asked each of the division heads to come up with a vision based on his “Kansei Engineering”. We came up with “The Romantic Engineering and Inspired Sensation Design”. This became the design philosophy to develop our design strategy. The first product was the MX-5 Miata that was introduced in 1989. Then, the fully managed corporate design line-up of cars rolled out in the early nineties. The Third Generation RX-7, MX-6 and RX-3 Coupes, 626 and 929 Sedans followed. This was the first time any Japanese car company approached the design philosophy as part of the corporate philosophy. The Design Division manager was elevated to the Director of Design as a board member. Again, this was the first in any major Japanese corporation.

Consequently, this was to become the corporate wide Mazda philosophy…the “Zoom-Zoom” story in the year 2000. I was part of the task force from design to developing this strategy.



After joining Mazda in 1983, Tom Matano would forever change the course of automotive history. Yet, even with his staggering portfolio, one has to wonder what would be the ideal automotive design project for him today. When asked, this was his response:

It would be either a world-sized, refined sedan or be challenged and make a car like Citroen 2CV or little, multi- purpose truck.

Mr. Matano realized that the thread of his grandfather’s wisdom had continued throughout his career and coincidentally even defined his ideal projects today. His current design choices (much like the restaurants of his youth) span the full spectrum: spartan and utilitarian to sophisticated and luxuriously elegant. It’s evident by his early development, amazing career and life choices…that his grandfather was also a visionary.

Tom Matano continues his legacy of timeless inspiration as the Executive Director of the School of Industrial Design at the acclaimed Academy of Art University in San Francisco. There he helps countless other designers hone their talents. Much like his grandfather’s wisdom and the cars he’s designed; Matano’s positive influence is destined to endure for generations to come.

Mazda Miata MX-5

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