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Farhana Safa

Key details


  • 28 October 2022


  • Lisa Pierre

Read time

  • 13 minutes

“As a designer, it’s up to you to imagine, propose and be a part of the change you want to see in the world, and that’s a real privilege.”

Farhana Safa Car Designer

A polymath with knowledge in anatomy, psychology, medicine and optics: passions encompassing calligraphy and piano, and skills ranging from surgery to sketching as well as modelling and acting – she was Halle Berry’s stunt double in 'Kingsman, the Golden Circle', and a finalist in the Formula Woman 2022 motor racing competition – Farhana is a truly diverse individual. After years of restoring other people’s visions, the time came to realise her own. A lifelong passion for cars since childhood led her to her self-taught second career, and after graduating she went on to work for Land Rover as the only female in their advanced exterior design team. She is a regular judge at international Concours of Elegance car shows, and is currently a designer at the RCA’s Intelligent Mobility Design Centre (IMDC).

When asked why you left your job as an eye surgeon you said “I feel like I could be very good at something else. I just don’t know what”. Singing, shoe design, creative writing, photography, piano and samurai swordsmanship followed. How did you then get to cars?

When I left medicine it wasn’t because I hated what I did, on the contrary, I loved the thrill of operating and equally loved the human contact and having the honour of treating patients; I left because I had a deep inner stirring that I was meant for something else, a yearning to open my wings and fly creatively, to work across a broader remit, and to actively create and innovate as a part of my job which necessitated a move into the creative sector. It took me some time to admit to myself that deep down I wasn’t happy despite investing so much time into my medical career and having gotten so far; it then took a huge amount of courage to listen to that inner voice and do something about it. The fear of leaving, losing my identity and jumping into the unknown was terrifying, but I live by the principle that I would rather try and fail, than not try at all- in fact, not trying is the only definition of failure in my book. I started exploring a wide range of creative outlets just for the experience and to try and find myself again, my motto at this time being ‘Say yes to everything’. I found myself walking the runways of London Fashion Week, working on the sets of Hollywood movies, photographing car shows, and writing for magazines. The intent was to explore, learn, and experience what I hadn’t been exposed to thus far, and to keep an open mind as to my next steps. After 10 months of this, I had no lightbulb moments as to my next career and only a list of things I had ruled out. Going forward, I wanted to choose something I had a real passion for, something I’d always had a natural interest in that would keep me going even when the path became tough, and I realised my lifelong love of cars since childhood was that subject.

Car design was something I had never heard of, never even knew could be a career and I knew nobody in the automotive industry at all. But the idea of a job where you can draw something from your imagination and then be involved in the making of it appealed greatly to me. It’s a niche area that involves so many aspects I enjoy- from creating beautiful shapes and volumes, to understanding business and branding, the technical complexity of surfacing and resolving challenges in 3D, and of course just being around cars- it felt right. As a surgeon, I’m highly technical, have a love of form and manual craft, and need something challenging to keep me interested. In car design, you will never design the same thing twice, and the industry being at step change with things like electrification and autonomy felt like a great time to come on board. As a designer, it’s up to you to imagine, propose and be a part of the change you want to see in the world, and that’s a real privilege.

You work across multiple agencies to provide strategy solutions to automotive clients on their vehicles, design and brands. What does the future of automotive design look like? Do you think that a car is more than simply a mode of transport?

The car is and has always been more than simply a mode of transport. Historically it has represented freedom, autonomy and independence, but it also represents status and achievement to those who view its acquisition as a life goal, and of course it represents beauty and desire, to those who appreciate its sculptural forms. It is inextricably linked to our emotions, be it from childhood memories and pin up posters, to experiences linked to travel, special places, or the people in our lives. Having said that, there are of course those who view cars simply as a means of getting from A to B with a much more practical focus. Unfortunately, the success of the car for any one of the reasons above has led to the creation and consumption of so many vehicles that have been damaging our planet, that it remains a legacy we now need to correct.

The future of automotive design lies in designing responsibly, and in creating desirable alternatives to what we have now, be it in better public/shared transportation services, to more responsibly designed private vehicles. A conscious employment of strategy going forward is needed to help relieve the problems of congestion, air pollution, and waste, with a prioritisation of circularity and sustainability (drivetrain, materials, usage and ownership models). Advances in technology are being used to make travel safer, design is being employed to make travel seamless, and engineering is creating solutions toward a net zero future. The challenge is to action these changes, whilst not completely eradicating the pleasure of driving, and preserving the joy that cars bring to so many.

Farhana Safa - I am Change

What drives change and innovation in automotive design?

Everything from social and cultural context, shifts in values, attitudes, and behaviours, to technological advances and their applications, and the awareness of environmental issues and the importance of acting on them. Put shortly- context matters. At the IMDC we have an in-depth body of work looking at trends across society, technology, and design which provides useful insights into why certain vehicles are successful at the time they are launched and why others were not so. Observing and assimilating what is happening globally with regards to shifts in attitudes, behaviours and values is imperative to deciding what to create next and how to influence its uptake, hence why strategy is so important coming from within design, at its core, not just alongside it. I have always been a critical thinker, thus design to me is not just about creating beautiful forms and volumes, but about proposing useful solutions that help to solve a problem, and how brands can use this to set them apart from their competition.

Does climate change push forward a want and need for electric cars? Do you think we will move completely to electric from petrol/diesel?

Yes, I believe it’s both the knowledge of climate change along with the awareness and observation of its effects that is pushing forward electrification, along with legislation from governments and a global commitment to net zero targets. Electric cars have been around for decades, and there have been many notable electric concepts that didn’t quite take off, (for example the GM EV1 in the mid 1990s) that came at a time where society was not willing to act on climate change with regards to cars. We are now at a time where personal responsibility is taken seriously, where corporate responsibility is demanded, and where transparency drives sales and secures trust- the ideal environment to create vehicles of change (pun fully intended).

One of the issues with electric car uptake is inadequate infrastructure, which doesn’t help to inspire confidence in the user. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation where without the infrastructure the uptake is poor, and without uptake there isn’t as much investment in infrastructure. We simply must stop burning fossil fuels as our predominant choice of powering vehicles, and electric is a great step forward but isn’t without its challenges, be it regarding battery recycling, mining of raw materials, pressures on the grid, or expansion of adequate infrastructure to encourage use, all of which need to be addressed. I believe the future may hold a diversity of solutions made up of other alternatives too like hydrogen or biofuels as we continue to advance and problem solve. Either way, nobody expected the UK to be sweltering in over 40 degrees heat, so the recent heatwave is the real wake-up call that more needs to be done about this, and quickly.

The IMDC is an interdisciplinary centre exploring, experimenting, prototyping and evaluating new mobility and automotive transitions via the synthesis of design and research methods. It integrates design and technology with insights into people and the social, environmental and economic context to enable a 360-degree view on the design of future mobility. Do you think that future mobility will be centred around ground transport, or do you think we are about to see many other types of transportation?

I think in order to make real advances, we need to see change across all modes of transport across road, rail and air so they can be integrated into making more seamless journeys. I think future mobility will see advances in all these areas, from Advanced Air Mobility including eVTOLs, more inclusive micro mobility options on the road, and short haul air travel being replaced with high-speed underground/overground solutions like the Hyperloop. Many new city designs are incorporating better designed services so traditional travel is not as necessary, or mass transit is better provided, as exemplified by radical and ambitious projects like The Line in Saudi Arabia, but the challenge remains of how to improve transportation in highly built-up existing cities where expansion outwards may be replaced with expansion upwards.

“The automotive world has traditionally been exclusively male oriented, from the designers and marketing material, to engineering, manufacture and motor sport. Historically it has not been an area where women are encouraged into, or actively recruited, but thankfully this is slowly changing”

Farhana Safa Car Designer

As a visiting tutor on the Intelligent Mobility Master’s programme what do you see differently now the roles are reversed?

I had the opportunity to have regular tutorials with the students just before the pandemic for an OEM sponsored project which meant the shoe was on the other foot having come full circle. Having done the course myself, I understand the emotions and pressures that come along with what is expected of you, as well as the challenges of what it means to push yourself creatively. I believe my role as a tutor is to actively challenge, offer an alternative perspective, and to help my students grow enough to think independently outside the box. I’m grateful to have been taken on all those years ago at the RCA with such little experience, so I have a particular soft spot for helping to nurture growth in others like me.

You changed your career to focus on something more creative. How do you think you have changed as a person?

Honestly, I’ve changed so much I don’t recognise myself anymore and I almost feel the need to reintroduce myself to people who knew me a long time ago! Regardless of what this career change brings me professionally, the personal growth I’ve experienced and who I’ve become as a person has become the most rewarding result. Perhaps that comes with age and life experience too, but really pushing yourself out of your comfort zone moulds and shapes you in a way that is impossible without the pain of the challenge. It’s only in the face of fear that you truly get to practice courage, and it’s only in the clutches of failure that you realise not giving up is the success you seek. I’ve truly learned that it's the journey not the destination that matters, it’s the path that shapes you not the prize at the end, and it’s all the hurdles along the way that go on to make the most interesting pages in the story of your life.

Beauty is often defined by society. You design things which are beautiful, and you model across a variety of industries. Why the interest in this? Is there a desire to also be seen as such personally?

Not at all! Working as a model is not about being, or perceived as, beautiful, it’s a job that requires the same level of professionalism as being a doctor or a designer and gives me a different set of challenges. Your role as a model is to embody the product you are advertising in a way that shows it in its most favourable light, creating desirability and consequently making it successful. In a way, it’s no different from creating a beautiful sketch to illustrate the best features of a car that a brand ought to be making in order to elevate its profile. In both cases, you are an ambassador for the brand in different ways. But for me modelling takes me out of my everyday world in cars and opens my eyes to other things. My main motivation for working as a model and across film and TV is twofold- firstly it’s a hugely inspiring environment as a creative, and secondly, it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn. Everything in life is about learning for me, including being on set of a film or shooting a campaign. In turn, everything I’ve learned across these industries then feeds back into my work in design. For me an essential part of being a creative is constantly feeding myself with new and varied experiences which becomes my source of inspiration that I then take into the design studio to enrich what I create. Being on the set of Star Wars and spending time in the costume department, being a part of a Sci-Fi series with set design intended to be 100 years in the future, or working with stunt and special effect directors has all given me so much creatively and is something I love to dip in and out of. Of course, being completely transformed with hair, make-up and costume into characters for these films is one of the favourite parts of my creative journey, and an escapism I absolutely love for the sheer fun of it too!

You were named in the 2018 British Bangladeshi Power and Inspiration list as one of the 100 leading British Bangladeshi figures shaping Britain for the better with their ideas, example, talent and success. Things have obviously changed a lot since your parent’s generation came to the UK, what are some of the significant changes you have seen, particularly for women?

Like many others in this country, I am a child of immigrants who entered a new unfamiliar life on arrival to the UK. I love listening to and learning from my parents’ stories about their experiences of leaving everything behind and moving to a new country without knowing anyone, where communicating back home wasn’t as easy as it is now, what it was like trying to fit in and how they coped with all the challenges. My parents came from a different time where survival was the key driving force in their lives, and their sacrifices have meant that I am free to chase fulfilment, a privilege they didn’t have, so for that I’m deeply grateful.

As a first-generation British Bangladeshi, there is more acceptance, visibility and opportunity now than there was growing up, however I think we have a long way to go in creating equal opportunities for people of colour. Diversity is key and representation really matters, but for this to change we need everyone on board. We are slowly starting to see more South Asian faces in mainstream acting, fashion, and film production, and I recently played a ‘Lady of the Court’ in Season 2 of Bridgerton- the record-breaking Netflix Period Drama that featured people of colour for the first time. This level of visibility helps to break barriers and crucially creates opportunities and inspiration for the next generation.

FS Car

You are about to hit the track as a competitor in Formula Woman- a competition to find the next female motor racing champion. Why do you think this sport has been so male dominated?

After lockdown and a vast period of stillness, I decided I needed a meaty challenge to throw myself into, so I joined a competition called Formula Woman, open only to women to encourage females into this heavily male dominated sport, and to find the next female motor racing champion. Of the 1000 women who took part internationally I eventually finished 20th, just narrowly missing out on the very last stage of the competition, but it was a great experience and a steep learning curve being a total novice! The automotive world has traditionally been exclusively male oriented, from the designers and marketing material, to engineering, manufacture and motor sport. Historically it has not been an area where women are encouraged into, or actively recruited, but thankfully this is slowly changing. I think many women don’t even consider the automotive world as an option professionally as it’s not hugely inclusive, but the more women that come in, and the more visible they are, the more confidence, options, and opportunities it creates for the upcoming generations, and this is something I am very passionate about. Role models are key, and there is a scarce number of overtly visible female faces across the automotive industry compared to men, and this has a knock-on effect on recruitment. As they say, if you see it, you can be it. Thankfully there are now active initiatives that specifically recruit women into motorsport, STEM, engineering and other areas of the automotive industry, although there is still a very limited number of women at higher positions of influence and at board level, so there are glass ceilings that need poking into and I look forward to some change on that front!

As a doctor and car designer, is your experience of Formula One divided? Do you see danger and risk, skill and design, or a combination of things?

I’m a huge fan of Formula One and spent many childhood Sundays glued to the TV with my sister whilst regretfully berating my mother if she were to accidentally pass in front of the TV blocking our view (what terrors we were... but a lot can happen in a 10th of a second in motor sport that you don’t want to miss!). I see a combination of elements- danger and risk, which is the thrill for the driver, and the draw for the fans watching, and incredible design and immense skill, something I have a newfound respect for having learned the skills myself recently. Formula One is one of the few sports where no matter how talented a driver you are, without the right car (design, engineering, and team) you cannot reach the top, so it’s a wildly intricate balance of many factors that leads to success. If you’ve never watched it and feel like you don’t have a clue, I highly recommend the recent Netflix documentary ‘Drive to Survive’ which portrays the human side to racing, the characters, the competition, the politics, and the high-octane drama that makes this sport so unique. I promise you’ll be enthralled!

You describe yourself as a polymath. Polymaths are said to bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field. Would you agree?

I’m a bit of an unintended career collector, largely driven by my curiosity and thirst for knowledge and learning, and I believe that there is great value in bringing lessons learned not only to your core field, but to the outlying ones too. For instance, on the face of it, surgery and motor racing seem to have nothing in common, however, my recent journey into competitive motorsport had me reflecting on the commonalities that helped me succeed in a sport I had never even tried. When I entered motor racing, I assumed that speed was the most important thing to conquer, but every time I tried to go faster, I lost control. It is in fact accuracy, consistency, and composure that need conquering which leads to a natural increase in speed without trying. Interestingly, it’s these three skills which make a great surgeon too, so tapping into years of experience in a stiflingly hot high-pressure environment where every millimetre is the difference between life and death, and having the mental reserve to stay calm in such situations became a useful asset to progression. I scored the highest in the competition in mental cognition which spans focus, reaction time, decision making speed and accuracy, memory, divided attention, and hand eye coordination- clearly all those skills were honed over years as a surgeon, but I would never have predicted that years later they would come in great use in the driving seat!!