“I think when a lot of people picture a designer, they picture a guy with sort of like these really delicate frames and a scarf and a little cap that’s pulled back showing part of the front of their hair and skinny jeans,” joked Matt Sperling, the senior exterior designer of the 2014 Toyota Tundra. “I think most creative people aren’t really like that. A lot of creative designers are maybe a little antisocial, a little introverted, dressed kind of normal, trying to fit in, and they work their butts off.”
Four Wheeler had a chance to spend time with Matt at Toyota’s Calty Design Research in California, where he’s worked for 11 years. We can tell you he wasn’t nerdy. He was actually downright cool. Like, he’s not just a designer, he’s a 4x4 and outdoor nut. He goes four-wheeling and mountain biking. Therefore, he gets it when it comes to designing what four wheelers want a real truck to look like.
Calty, by the way, is one of six design studios Toyota has worldwide—three are in the US, while the others are based in Tokyo, France, and Japan. At the Calty studio, there’s plenty of research going on, as well as advance design, competition design, and production design of experimental concepts and production vehicles. But think of it simply as a top-secret joint where doodling takes place.
It’s funny, 9 times out of 10, people will gravitate to the little tiny thumbnail that you start with, and that’s usually what they call a key sketch.
Matt told us he got his start like most vehicle designers, sitting in the classroom sketching cars in the back of a notebook. He also took to Highlights magazine. “I’d see a series of letters and I’d find ways to make them into wheels and draw a car around them. I remember my mom was telling me that when I was really young, like 2, I drew a car in perspective and I didn’t know I was doing it. She asked me, ‘Why did you do that?’ and I said ‘Oh, that’s how it looks.’ So, I was always a car guy.”
We sat down with Matt for the scoop on vehicle design and to learn what might have inspired the 2014 Toyota Tundra.
Four Wheeler: Looks like you’ve turned into a truck guy.
Matt Sperling: I kind of turned into that by accident. I love drawing sport cars. Everybody loves to draw sports cars. That’s usually one of the first things we draw, sports cars, because it’s cool to draw lean, long, dynamic shapes. But I like doing activities that are more sort of outdoorsy. I own a couple trucks now, actually. They’re just big and chunky and muscular and kind of cool. They’re not super athletic like a sports car and I’m not super athletic either, so it’s kind of like when you see people who have a dog that looks like them; it’s sort of the same.
FW: Growing up, what was your favorite car design?
MS: I always liked as a kid the Marty McFly Toyota pickup that was in Back to the Future. It’s funny, because I just ordered a Tacoma and I’m picking it up today at lunch and I got it almost as close to that as I could—the black pickup truck with the black deep-dish and chrome wheels. I think every little boy in the ’80s had a little toy truck that kind of looked like that—I know I did. I think that was one of the clearest memories of me falling in love with cars, when Biff at the end of the movie rolls up the garage door and there it is, all fresh in wax. I grabbed that DVD image and I kind of look at it once in awhile just to kind of get inspired. I think everybody, whether they know it or not, has gravitated toward that part of car design.
FW: What’s more difficult, being told you have to redesign a hot, in-demand truck like or starting a concept vehicle?
MS: The concept vehicle is way easier. When there’s already a vehicle that has a reputation, and a positive reputation, it’s way more difficult to sort of build on top of that. I mean the expectations are just going to be higher and the process is just going to be more difficult. If you’re doing something from scratch, there are no expectations.
FW: Are you old school and prefer to start with pencil and paper, or do you prefer to go right to the modern technology?
MS: I go back and forth. It depends. If time is a factor, which a lot of the times it is, it’s easier to just sketch on the tablet and go from there, but if I have more time I prefer to do mechanical—you know, just thinking, pencil, and paper. If I do something I like on a piece of paper, I’ll scan it in and bring it up on Photoshop, which is the program we usually use and sketch over, or just use that as a little thumbnail and then do a nicer version of that as kind of a main sketch. Photoshop is cool because you can just change it. You can edit the layers as you go. It’s funny, 9 times out of 10, people will gravitate to the little tiny thumbnail that you start with, and that’s usually what they call a key sketch. Even as late as the fullsize model process, if there’s any question about what’s going on in the modeling process, they’ll say, “Look at the key sketch.”
FW: Do The Suits ever simply give you words to base your new design ideas from, like, “We want it to be more sexy”?
MS: Yeah, typically. I mean, everything is interpretive, but I would think if you’re looking at something that had a little bit more curve to the surfacing, a little more voluptuous sectioning, that’s considered sexy versus maybe something a little more blockier, more truck-like, that’s not sexy.
FW: Do designers say words like “swoopy”?
MS: Yeah, more in sort of a tongue-and-cheek way, but we’ll say things like “swoopy.” I think if we want to be a little bit more serious about it, we’ll say “more dynamic” or “more gestural,” things like that.
FW: If you read comments like, “Oh, it looks ugly,” do you take it personally, or do you say, “Yeah, maybe now that I look at it, maybe they’re right about this,” or do you say, “Whatever”?
MS: I take it really personally, but I shouldn’t. I think everybody kind of does. I was worse, reading on the Internet when things that I’ve worked on would come out. A lot of people don’t know the story of what’s really going on behind the scenes or what the project is actually about and what’s involved in making it come to that point.
FW: Is that the hardest part of your job?
MS: For me, the hardest is that I’ve dealt with a lot of production vehicles lately, like the Tundra and the Highlander. Since they’re production vehicles, you have to work with engineering a lot, so millimeters matter. I never thought millimeters could matter so much. You don’t fight with the engineering staff, but you have to work with them because it’s in their best interest to get a certain number, and it’s in our best interest to make the vehicle look as good as it can, and sometimes the two don’t overlap. That can be the most difficult, for me anyway.
FW: If you weren’t designing cars, what would you design?
MS: I think designing tools would be kind of fun. Hand tools, drills, and things like that. The problem is a lot of that stuff is set up with engineering and I would probably mess it up with my styling. I’d make it too pretty instead of functional. That’s what’s kind of cool about trucks—they’re sort of honest and functional.
Here’s What an Original Concept Truck Designed for Four Wheeler Looks Like
We asked Matt to do an original concept design based on our desire to see a modern-retro truck. Matt immediately corrected us: “Retro can have a negative connotation; vintage is cool.” We told him we dig the old FJ; he does, too. He walked us through his thought process as he drew:
“I just think it’s the simplicity of those kinds of shapes. It’s a vintage-y look, I guess, but I think it’s because maybe back then they just didn’t know any better. They didn’t have a lot of time to sit there and overstylize things and overthink things. It looks like it was a natural thing that just kind of happened. All the shapes and all the elements are there for a reason. There’s nothing excessive or unnecessary.
“The wheels are important because it sets up the stance. The most important part is kind of the stance and the profile and the silhouette. All the lines that go in the middle of it are sort of icing on the cake, and the less-is-more thing really applies to car design. The less lines you use, the more impact you get, because you see more of the silhouette and you see more of the outside of the vehicle.
“So with this sketch, we cheat everything. Cheating, meaning like exaggerating wheel size, exaggerating ride height, so it’s going to seem higher than you’re actually going to make it, like if it were to have a lift kit on it.
“I hope it’s vintage enough. I’m trying to convey the old square grilles from the ’80s, where the headlamp and the grille were one simple kind of shape, and people still really like that. I personally really love that.”