Girls, we run the world. Never has Beyoncé been more accurate, as women are definitely making moves in all manner of industries — including the auto world. Once seen as an impenetrable boys club, the ladies are paving their path, accounting for 27% of the auto industry workforce. Yes, that percentage is nowhere near where it should be, but more and more women are looking to tip the scales in our favor. Women like Katharina Sachs. As the senior exterior designer at Volvo Cars, the German-born professional knows she has a big job — but also knows she’s more than capable of handling it.

“I’m here to prove [people] wrong, and I think I have proven many, many wrong,” says Sachs, whose latest project, the Volvo’s EX30, the brand’s first fully electric SUV, will release this summer. “I feel like we, as women, are equally educated and equipped to do this profession. You need a diverse mindset if you want to create a product that is diverse and attracts everyone. So why should there only be a man behind it?”

Sachs, who’s been with the Swedish brand for six years, says her journey in car design originally started with a love for architecture and interior design. “I really love the technical aspect of design,” she explains to TZR. “I am not really a free artist. I love the problem-solving [component] and creating something meaningful and functional.”

@katharinasachs

That’s not to say her process is all logic. Sachs’ love of nature and the outdoors is a constant source of inspiration. For the new EX30, for example, the designer ensured as much open window space as possible to allow for maximum natural light in the vehicle (something that is a key factor in traditional Scandi design and architecture). The car’s exterior and interior color palettes also align with the hues found in the Swedish landscape: think shades of moss, crystal, pine, and indigo. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s even interior sound and light options to conjure the soothing ambiance of Scandinavia. Finding this connection of heart and mind is a top priority in car design, says Sachs. “That really makes a difference for me in the end, the quality of the product and the emotional connection you find in the end,” she says.

Ahead, the designer talks more about her day-to-day work routine and how she finds balance in a deadline-driven, high-pressure industry.

Can you walk TZR readers through a typical workday/week?

If I’m in the design phase of a car, I go to the office and I’m most likely working with a team of clay modelers, digital modelers, engineers. [We] also come together and discuss any possible problem areas. Then I would make some design proposals on how we can change certain areas of concern. We’ll draw out new sketch ideas in 3D, as well as physical. So we work a lot in digital, as well as on physical clay models.

Every day is just really so different because sometimes you can be sitting there for four days, working on a really big problem you need to solve. [In these instances] I need silence to get focused and understand the issue to then find a solution for it. If I need help, then I reach out to colleagues and get feedback. Then, there’s days where I’m working on presentation material to sell what I’m doing. So, here, I’m more interested in creating amazing visuals that will convince higher management to go in a particular direction.

But my day-to-day work is a lot of 2D work, sketching, and Photoshop, as well as 3D models. It’s like visualization. Also, [there’s a lot of] talking with the engineers. So these are my frequent connection points throughout a typical workday.

@katharinasachs

How does work stress manifest for you and what do those symptoms or signs look like?

[When I’m stressed] I get very focused. I tend to shut down everything around me because I want to solve a problem. I really dig into the stress and try to work it out. I think there needs to be a certain level of stress because it always drives you, right? I think a certain amount is healthy, but it should not be too much, because then it affects you negatively. It’s OK if it’s for a certain amount of time. You can say, ‘OK, I have a deadline, I need to push through it.’ But it should be more exceptional than average.

What are some of the common things that stress you out?

When [the executives] are unsure about the direction we have chosen [for a car]. For example, let’s say this was the front [of a car I’m designing] and they say, ‘It’s not working. We need to have new ideas.’ This really freaks me out, if it’s something I’m really convinced about. Then I need to find something different to present to them, which will be equally as good.

That’s the problem with creativity. [Feedback is] probably the biggest trigger. No one can tell you what is wrong and right. But you need to work accordingly with this feedback to apply it to your design. You have to be like, ‘OK, how can I change it but stay authentic to my vision?’ This is the big challenge. So how can I protect what I want but still deliver what the upper management wants to express with this car?

So when stress-inducing situations like this arise, what’s your approach?

First thing is finding a good argument for my original idea. This is why functional design is so important because usually there’s a specific practical reason behind it. So having a strong argument for your process is super important. Having a story behind it that they cannot tear apart.

Then, I usually provide alternatives. I think it’s always good to work very broad and deliver different options. You should always obviously believe in what you create and what you think is right, but then you should also be open to feedback and not be too narrow-minded. Instead of being like, ‘This is the only thing I want to do,’ you should think, ‘OK, why are they actually not liking it? And why don’t they think it’s the right way to go?’

So analyze, get the feedback, and really reflect. Reflecting is the most important thing, taking the design apart and understanding what needs to be done to change it in order to develop it further.

What do weekends look like for you?

Sweden has changed my way of living — I really mean it. It has actually made quite a massive impact on my lifestyle. I just love the outdoors. I have a little sailing boat that I’ll take out with a friend. I love to go out. Also, [the dock is] like 10 minutes away from work so, after work on the weekdays, I’ll go sailing. Where else can you do that?

On the weekend, I’ll take my tent and go out with friends on a kayak. We’ll go to an island nearby and stay there overnight, do a nice campfire. The only thing you see is nature. It really helps me to wind down. The nature experience I feel here is so intense it really triggers a lot of emotions. It’s so beautiful. I never had that before. I grew up in the countryside, but not exposed in this way. So I just really love to spend as much time outside as possible.

Do you make a point to respect that time off by staying off of email and such?

I really try to keep that work balance intact. [There are days or seasons when] I have to work for longer stretches of time during the day because we need to have certain deliverables ready. That’s OK. But, when I’m off, I’m off. I really shut down. I’m not thinking about anything, and I just enjoy my surroundings.

Do you have any strict rules you abide by during the weekends or OOO days to avoid working or thinking about work?

Not really. Maybe I should. I just let myself sleep in and try to get a good amount of sleep. I also make time for working out, which is really important to me because it also helps me to wind down. My body feels different when I’m not exercising.

What is your workout of choice?

CrossFit. You know why I love it? Because it challenges me. I am a very challenge-driven person. I do that three to four times a week. And then I love to do yoga as well.

Do you do anything in particular to mentally prepare yourself for the week ahead?

If I know I have a really stressful week ahead, I try to have my Sunday be as calm as possible. I let myself sleep in, have a nice breakfast or brunch with friends. I would also make a point to not do any work. I would not even think about it because I know there’s a lot coming up. I’ll go work out, clean my apartment, get things prepared for the week, maybe prep some food and get groceries sorted. So you feel like, ‘OK, I can go into this week fully mentally prepared.’


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