Ian Callum is leaving his ‘dream job’. We examine the possible motives.
There many qualities one requires in public life, but the apprehension of the correct moment to leave the stage is perhaps the trickiest to navigate successfully. Five years ago, Ian Callum told an enthusiast publication that he would stay on in his role at Whitley to “set up the next generation of aesthetics” before stepping down as Jaguar’s Director of Design.
Of course it is neither correct nor entirely fair to hold individuals to the letter of their pronouncements; events after all can lead to all manner of undesired outcomes, even if to these eyes at least, his remains a somewhat incomplete mission.
But upon learning of the Scotsman’s decision to step down as Jaguar’s design leader – a position he has held for two decades – I was reminded again of this 2014 statement. Over those twenty years he has overseen a transformation in Jaguar’s visual perception, although one might be forced to insert the caveat that it has been at the expense of quantities of spilt milk along the way.
But I do not intend to present a critique of Mr. Callum’s tenure as keeper of the leaping cat’s creative flame – not today at least. What interests me is the nature and timing of his parting and what this might possibly signify.
The news came as something of a bolt from the blue, and from what can be ascertained, was neither widely telegraphed nor stage managed. Callum’s announcement stated “I feel that now is the right time to move on, both personally and professionally, and explore other design projects.” Which on the face of things suggests a measured decision on the Scotsman’s part. However, its abrupt nature does lend itself to further scrutiny.
Certainly, all is not well at Jaguar, or indeed its JLR mothership – the West Midlands-based carmaker currently having to drastically slash costs under severe commercial constraint. Brand-Jaguar has proven something of a drag upon the JLR business since its 2008 inception, the storied luxury carmaker perennially touted as being on the cusp of a breakthrough, yet never quite delivering upon that potential.
Latterly, sales of Jaguar’s saloon models have not simply plateaued, but by current appearances appear in freefall – a matter which is to no small extent linked to their design, which is either perceived by the wider market as being ungainly [XJ] or somewhat bland [XE/XF]. It wouldn’t be the first time a design director was held accountable for the commercial fate of a model line, and while it’s hardly impossible that responsibility has been laid at the incumbent design chief’s door, on balance this is unlikely to have been a significant factor.
Part of a design director’s remit is of course to both defend his team’s work and to agitate for what he deems the most appropriate creative proposals at the highest level. This comes with no small quantum of heated disagreement and it takes a forceful character to navigate such a frequently adversarial environment.
Over the years, Callum has needed to dig his heels in over a sizeable number of Jaguar design proposals against a senior management (both Ford and JLR) who favoured what may have been safer options – a struggle, if some of Jaguar’s current products are anything to go by, he didn’t always necessarily win. Therefore it’s entirely within reason that he has simply become battle-weary from what is likely to have been an especially bruising period in Jaguar-product terms, and has chosen a less strenuous career path.
But to return to his 2014 statement, given the critical success the I-Pace model has garnered – European and World Car of the Year, to name but two high-profile awards – it’s possible the Dumfries native feels he has ‘set up the next generation of aesthetics‘ and is choosing to go out on a relative high. Or equally, that he had agreed a Gordon Brown/Tony Blair Granita-style pact with his second in command for a scheduled hand-over.
We may never establish exactly why Ian Callum has chosen to step away now – after all, if we apply the Sherlock Holmes principle of deduction, the most plausible rationale is almost always the most likely. Either way, an era (his retention as design consultant notwithstanding), is drawing to a close.
His replacement comes with a notable pedigree, having headed Whitley’s advanced design studio for 18 of the 20 years Callum his been in charge. Julian Thomson has keen eye for aesthetics, and fully grasps Jaguar from a semiotic perspective. But timing is everything in life and notwithstanding his design credentials or the fact that he inherits arguably the toughest job in automotive design, his ascent could hardly come at a less troubled and transitory moment for the leaping cat.
Quote attribution: Jaguar World magazine/ Autocar.