An interview with Mercedes Benz designer Wini Camacho

It is not everyday that we are given an opportunity to make it big in a very competitive world. But what if you started in one career and later decide to shift to a different one late in your 30’s? It is something out of the ordinary to begin with, but succeeding in that new chosen career and becoming famous in the process, is one in a million.

Such is the case with Winifredo ‘Wini’ Camacho, the famous Filipino Styling Manager of the Mercedes Benz design team.

Wini happens to be my former schoolmate and brother of my high school classmate Wilfredo ‘Willie’, at Victoria School Foundation, a small private school in Cubao, Quezon City.

We caught up with Wini during his free time and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. He gave us an insight on how he started, how it is like to follow a career patch such as his, and offers his own advice to readers who may be interested in following his footsteps:

The Camacho siblings
The Camacho siblings

DF: Can you please share with us your personal background (parents, childhood, family, education)?

Wini: My parents are Godofredo Camacho, Sr. and Ma. Dalisay Tongko. My father’s from Bataan and my mother’s from Rizal province. I was born in Manila. I’m the 4th among 5 children. I have 3 older brothers and one younger sister. My family and I lived in San Juan until I was 3-4 years old. After that, we moved to an apartment in San Francisco del Monte (Frisco) Q.C. A few years later, we moved to a nearby house where I spent the rest of my childhood. I lived there until I left for Hong Kong in 1989. This was just after I turned 24. To this day, my parents still live there.

I was educated at Victoria School Foundation in Cubao from nursery until high school. I studied Industrial design (graduated cum laude) at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in 1986-89. Upon graduation, I worked briefly as furniture and interior designer for Moebel Systema in Makati. After that, I was hired as an industrial/graphic designer at Tritech Design Studios, also in Makati. After a year, I set up my own design consultancy, Hugis Design. This lasted for a couple of years until I got hired as a product designer by a small firm in Hong Kong. After a year and a half, I was hired by a HK toy company, also as a product designer.

In 1995, I left HK and moved to Vevey, Switzerland to study Transportation Design at Art Center College of Design (Europe). After a year, the school closed (due to lack of funds) and I transferred to the Pasadena, CA campus of Art Center. I graduated, with honors, in 1997.

A few months later, I was hired as jr. transportation designer by Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design of North America. In October 1998, I was sent to the MB design HQ in Sindelfingen, Germany. I stayed there until July 2011 as a Sr. Auto Exterior Designer. During this period, I did short stints in our design studios and subcontractors in Turin (Italy), Yokohama (Japan) and Carlsbad (California).

In August 2011, I was assigned to our newest design studio in Beijing as styling manager. It’s worth noting that China is now the largest and fastest growing car market in the world and, hence, one of the most important for MB.

DF: You’re the only known Filipino to make it big in the international car design industry and the first to join the Mercedes-Benz design team. How do you feel about that?

Wini: When I was studying in California, I’ve met a few Filipino car designers and students. Obviously, I’m not the only one. In fact, when I was hired by MB design in California, one of their managers was a Filipino named Benjamin Dimson.

I don’t really feel it’s a big deal to be a car designer at MB (or any other car brand). Don’t get me wrong, It’s a job I truly love and I’m very passionate about it but it’s not something to brag about. It’s definitely not as glamorous as some people think it is. I actually feel uncomfortable (sometimes to the point of being embarrassed!) when people ask me what I do for a living because of the all sorts of reaction I get when I tell them I’m car designer.

A day at the office

DF: How did you become a part of Mercedes-Benz? Can you tell us your experiences during your first year in the company?

Wini: Studying Transportation Design at Art Center College of Design, is for me, the key to getting a job at MB. The school is renowned for producing world-class car designers and supplies a big chunk of the car designers around the world.

When I was new at MB and to this kind of work, I was naturally intimidated and overwhelmed by the whole thing. I was basically going to work and compete with the ‘best of the best’. I had a lot of self doubts. I’m not sure if I have what it takes, talent- and skill-wise, to compete with the experienced designers. Fortunately, I was able to dig in and raise my level as a designer. After a few months, I’ve gained enough confidence to know that I can compete with them.

DF: How did/does Mercedes-Benz help you in honing your craft?

Wini: It takes years to become proficient in all aspects of car design. Moreover, it takes a while to assimilate the core values of the Mercedes design philosophy. It’s not something tangible or can simply be explained through words or by a series of mathematical formulas. By working day in and day out on MB design projects, a designer will slowly get the feel of what a Mercedes is, or what makes a Mercedes a Mercedes. At MB we are constantly taught and made aware of such things as car proportions, volume, stance, sculpture, etc. Through constant exposure to various design projects, one becomes highly competent in the different aspects of car design.

DF: What are the greatest struggles you had to overcome before reaching this crucial point in your career?

Wini: The first of many struggles on the road to become a car designer started when I was applying for a place at Art Center. To get into a school such as Art Center is very difficult because of the competition among applicants is very intense and the design portfolio requirements by the school are extremely high.

The next big struggle is during my tenure at Art Center itself. It has one of the most difficult and demanding curriculums in any school in the world. It’s also very expensive. I almost didn’t finish school as I run out of funds during my senior year.

After school comes another big struggle: to get a job. You see, the car design industry is relatively small. There are a lot more design graduates than there are actual car design jobs available. Only a small portion of each graduating class gets a car design job. In this respect, I’m very lucky.

DF: How do you define an “ideal car designer”?

Wini: An ideal car designer can evolve with the fast-paced and constantly changing car design world. Not only should he be able to react or adjust to new design trends but should also have the initiative to create new ones. He has to have a clear vision(s) for the company he works for. A car designer should continuously evolve and, from time to time, should be able to reinvent himself. Moreover, to be able to succeed as a car designer, one has to have highly competitive instincts. Competition among designers, which is an intrinsic part of car design, is very intense. I t brings out the best out of each designer.

DF: For the benefit of our readers who are interested in following a similar career path, can you give us an idea of the benefits, both financial and personal, as Mercedes-Benz’s style manager?

Wini: I can’t divulge anything specific on the financial aspect of my job. It’s sufficient to say that my family lives a relatively comfortable life/lifestyle.

As a senior designer in Germany, I’ve always strived to influence the design philosophy of MB. I haven’t succeeded as much as I want to. Now that I’m styling manager of our Beijing design studio, I’ve been a lot more influential in this respect (in no small part due to my more senior position).

DF: Car designers always give emphasis on the importance of having an emotional connection when creating their designs. Who or what is your usual inspiration in creating your masterpiece?

Wini: I consider a car as more than a mere inanimate object or machine. I see it more as a living creature that has its own personality and emotional character. I try to convey this from my initial design sketches. I have a natural instinct for this. Having said this, I derive a lot of my inspiration from my instincts. A small and seemingly simple idea or inspiration can easily snowball into something big.

DF: As a veteran car designer, you must have your own style in making car designs. Can you describe us your style and tell us what makes it unique?

Wini: There is this Tibetan Buddhist saying which I very much relate to: “think only of the absolute”. In any design task or project I tackle, I always seek the most minimalistic and absolute solution I can find. I consider design in its most absolute and purest form (after taking into account real-world constraints and the brand’s core values) as the highest form of design.

In conjunction with this thinking, I always think and believe that design is never a finished business. This means that no particular design is ever perfect; hence, there is always room for improvement. With this kind of mindset, I always challenge myself to outdo my best efforts and hopefully get closer to being perfect – and achieve absoluteness.

DF: When did you discover your passion for car designs? Have you ever dreamed of becoming a car designer when you were a child?

Wini: I was working and living in Hong Kong in the early 90’s when I came across the Japanese magazine Car Styling. It was back then the foremost car design magazine. I was dazzled and amazed when I saw the flashy and futuristic car renderings and designs in it. I just fell in love with car design.

When I was a kid, I was actually crazy with airplanes. My dream was to become an aeronautical engineer.

DF: You started to explore the industry at the age of 30. Did you encounter any setbacks for being a “late bloomer”?

Wini: When I started at Art Center, one of my instructors thought that I was too old to change my ways or style as a designer. This, initially, dented my confidence. But Art Center, through its tough and demanding curriculum, proved him wrong as I’ve changed and improved my design skills tremendously in a very short period of time. Being a late bloomer actually made me work harder than the average student because I knew this was my last chance to shape a decent career path. Moreover, by investing my life savings (and borrowing money on top of this), I was taking a very big risk on something that might not work in the end. I was really desperate and I got very little choice other than to work real hard and ensure that I get a job afterwards (and pay my debts!).

Wini with one of his breath-taking designs.

DF: Can you describe your typical day at work?

Wini: As styling manager, my work involves managing projects and a team of designers as well as doing actual design work. With my busy schedule, finding time to do the latter is terribly difficult. This is a real pity because sketching and designing is the most enjoyable and gratifying part of my work. To be able to this, I come an hour or an hour and a half early (before our normal 9 am start). This is also the best time for me to do creative work as my mind is still very fresh. I cherish this early morning part of my day. Around 930 am, I’ll start doing my rounds checking on the status and progress of each designers’ and modelers’ projects. Around mid-morning, if my boss is around (he’s on a business trip half of the time), we’ll have a general studio meeting. After lunch, when my creative productivity is at its lowest, I’ll do most of my administrative paper work. Around mid to late afternoon, I’ll do a second check on all ongoing projects. In between all these, I try to squeeze as much creative work (sketching, rendering, concept ideation, etc.) as possible. My work day normally ends at around 7pm – that is if we don’t have pending deadlines which is a rarity in our line of work.

If we are doing a big project, like the showcar I’m working on right now, then I’m required to travel a lot as most of our suppliers and subcontractors are located outside of Beijing.

DF: What are your common objectives in designing a car?

Wini: At the beginning of a car design project, we are given an overview of the target market, lifestyle, government regulations, engineering constraints and requirements. On top of this, we are briefed as to where and how this particular car will fit in the family of MB cars. During the design phase, the designers’ task and objective is to take all this in consideration and at the same time apply MB’s design philosophy. Another important objective is how to reinterpret, evolve, reinvent and/or improve MB’s design while still remaining faithful to its design philosophy and core values.

DF: Aside from the E-Class, do you have any other designs in store for the future? Can you give us a little bit of an overview?

Wini: Recently, I’ve worked on a couple of showcars (one-off cars used to showcase a company’s vision), one in Germany and one in China and Taiwan, which will come out very soon.

Just after I left Germany last year, my design proposal for the next generation Mercedes GLK (compact SUV) was chosen for production. Expect that to come out in 3-4 years.
studio where I can influence the future design direction of car company.

DF: What is your advice for budding and struggling Filipino car designers?

Wini: If you think you have enough talent, go apply to one of the top design schools in U.S., Europe or Japan. This will require a lot of time, money, sacrifices, persistence, perseverance and dedication. You should be very focused with what you want to accomplish and should have a good plan how to execute it.