People Stories

Designing the Future

March 6, 2018

As Senior Creative Designer for MBRDNA, Christopher Thoms designs the future. Along with the Advanced Design Team in Carlsbad, he creates concept cars that are presented in auto shows, news, and perhaps even production. And as both an artist and engineer, Thoms seems well designed for the job he has.

“I took a lot of detours to get to where I am right now,” Thoms says. Originally, Thoms sketched and painted landscapes. “But I couldn’t see how I’d make a living at it.” In college, he therefore studied aeronautical engineering — and somewhere along the way, he fell in love with automobiles. “Cars are more than just things. They’re highly personal and a big part of our lives. I think we just love them more than other things, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he says.

Thoms points out that his job calls on all of his life experience, because car design is both an art and science.

“You want a car to have an emotional appeal, but you have to remember that it’s also not only an artistic sculpture. Designing cars lets me combine sketching with engineering.”

How a Sketch Becomes a Car

After the basic specs for the vehicle are defined – what type of car and a basic technical package with hard points to be considered – Thoms starts sketching. “There’s probably always the engineering part of me in the background, even in the early stage, but I want to think freely at first. I don’t want to think about engineering. I want to allow myself to stay open,” he says. “I want to think as freely as I can.”

For Thoms, the secret to innovative design is to be open to the world around him, “You have to consider all possibilities.” Inspiration can come to him from anywhere — from yacht design, architecture, or the groundbreaking designs of the classic Mercedes-Benz models. He works continually, until he “falls in love with the sketch.”

As an example of the process, Thoms and the team worked on Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6, introduced as a coupe at last year’s , and reintroduced recently as a 750 BHP convertible, the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet.

Early in that design process, Thoms was given certain specs for the vehicle and told, “Make it ‘Wow.’ ” He sketched out designs that seemed appropriate for the specs. After he was happy with his ideas the team got together to discuss each designers ideas and pick the best ones to be further developed.

As with all of his designs, Thoms and his team in Carlsbad collaborated intensely on the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6. Designing every car is a detailed process: Everything must be well thought-through from marketing to design and engineering to UX — alongside the MBRDNA team in Sunnyvale and teams in China, Germany and elsewhere.

“There is a creative competition in the studio and we are pushing each other. It makes us create better designs. As the process continues, there are many design iterations because one person can’t design a car anymore — they’re just too complex.” Throughout the process, Thoms always remembers that ultimately, Mercedes-Benz vehicles are meant for much more than being admired in the driveway — they are to be experienced. That’s where an engineering background helps him, because his cars have to actually move.

Throughout the process — even after the models have been made —  Thoms stays “both attached and unbiased.” He wants to be inspired, but also to be able to change the design at a moment’s notice. “You have to love your idea, but always be ready to abandon it if someone has a better one,” he says.

The end-result of Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 looks both classic and futuristic. It’s sleek and aerodynamic with a long, boat-tail rear. As aerodynamic as a speedboat, the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet seems like it might be from a sci-fi film, but also like it might be from a classic film, driven by some 1930s Hollywood movie star. “There is a Gatsby feel to it,” Thoms says with a certain amount of pride.

But that’s just one of many cars he has worked on, he says. “I love how I don’t work on just one type of car. Tomorrow, it could be an SUV. Then after that, a coupe.”

The Philosophy

No matter the vehicle, every design at Mercedes-Benz must retain the design philosophy of “Sensual Purity.” To Mercedes-Benz designers, this means their work should have an emotional appeal that comes not from some design whim, but from a purity of purpose backed by solid engineering. Everything must feel seamless, intuitive, and grounded. For Thoms, that’s just fine. “Our cars are special,” he says.

So what kind of car will we be driving in the coming decades? “It’s hard to say, because you can’t completely predict technology. It’s been ten years since the smartphone was introduced. Could we have predicted how many uses we’ve since found for it? Ten years ago, it was a nice phone. And it was a nice object to own. Now, it’s a part of our lives. The same may happen when cars start driving themselves.”

Thoms points out that an autonomous car “may not require the classic proportions.” The seating arrangement may change as shown in the Mercedes Benz Concept F015, he says. “Cars could become new living spaces where we can work and interact. They could become living rooms, even. The commute can already be used productively so that part of the day is no longer wasted and can be added to your free time. It’s a luxury to have more time at your disposal. It could change the way we live.”

But that’s the appeal for thinking years ahead: the possibilities are endless, and it’s up to Christopher Thoms an to imagine it.