Season 4

When the CEO is also a designer: An interview with Polestar boss Thomas Ingenlath

When the CEO is also a designer: An interview with Polestar boss Thomas Ingenlath

Until now, there have only been a few designers who also run a company. Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath is one of them. In an interview with the IAA MOBILITY Visionary Club, he tells how his career background enriches his leadership role – and why the sector would benefit from more designers at top management level.

His resumé reads like the dream of a rapidly-rising career in automotive design: He studied at the School of Design at Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences and at the Royal College of Art in London, which was followed by management roles in design (including at Volkswagen and Skoda), Director of the Volkswagen Design Center in Potsdam, and then Senior Vice President Design at Volvo – it’s not really possible to achieve more. But Thomas Ingenlath did: In June 2017, the German was appointed as CEO of Polestar, which Volvo originally established as an in-house brand for sports hybrids and electric cars. Since then, he has run the company whilst also having a dual role as Chief Design Officer for Polestar and Volvo.

How good is a design CEO for the automotive sector?

That makes Ingenlath one of few CEOs with a design background. Is that perhaps a combination from which the automotive sector could benefit even more? Of course, it’s part of this leadership role to have a lot of knowledge and a special understanding for the internal ways of working of a company, says Ingenlath, speaking to the IAA MOBILITY Visionary Club. What profession could be better preparation than that of a designer for leading a company into an innovative future? Ingenlath immediately gives the answer to this rhetorical question. Because, even if key economic and technological questions present themselves for a CEO, to his mind “the most important thing today is to understand the direction in which society, the culture, the customers are developing.” You need to recognize the environment you are operating in, and how to be successful here. “As a designer, you are equipped to take a visionary look at future trends and the customer opinions of tomorrow – and to have these on the radar earlier than any statistics might be able to do.” 

Making technology intelligible for customers

Analyzing the customer’s access to technology and designing successful products: That’s a designer’s craft. And Ingenlath adds it is precisely this craft characteristic that is very important for leading a business in the right direction, even if design is not the primary focus of an automotive brand. “It is no longer the technology you have invented that defines a brand, but how you make it usable for the customer. This interpretation of technology is something you learn as a designer.”

A modern take on the tuning expert

Ingenlath heads up a company that places particular value on design. Having emerged from the Volvo tuning experts Polestar, the joint venture between Volvo and Geely continues to put an emphasis on sports features and performance, but with a modern twist: sustainable, and with its own esthetics. That fits with Ingenlath’s understanding of good design – and the fact that he sets high design standards. Design needs to follow fundamental rules and ideas on proportions, make functions easy to understand, whilst also conveying a meaning, a cultural context. “And I expect design to be relevant over a long time.”

Design starts with language

At Polestar, he says, it is therefore not just every vehicle in the brand, but every individual aspect of the company that stands for high requirements in design and esthetics. That starts with the language and encompasses every individual point of contact that customers have with the company. “As CEO, it is my task to firmly anchor this standard in all departments.”, Ingenlath says. “It’s precisely the fact that, as CEO, I have a background in design which makes this very unique way of how we work as a company at all possible.”