Northern lights

Volvo Trucks’ headlight design was inspired by ice. Senior Designer Maria Balthammar explains how nature shaped one of Volvo Trucks’ most distinctive features.
Volvo headlight
The iconic design of Volvo Trucks’ headlights was directly inspired by the look and feel of hard ice.

When snow and ice blanket the Swedish landscape each winter it changes everything.
“Winter brings back the light,” says Maria Balthammar, Senior Designer at Volvo Trucks. “It transforms the familiar and new forms emerge.” 

Volvo Trucks’ headlights emerged straight from this frozen scenery. The iconic design was directly inspired by the look and feel of hard ice.

“At Volvo Trucks we always strive to simplify design,” says Maria Balthammar.
“We ask ourselves, how can we scale this design back and make it even clearer and well defined? That’s why nature is a major source of inspiration for us.”

The headlight’s distinctive V–shaped running light, which shows that the vehicle is in motion, has a milky quality to it, like a glacier. The rest of the light’s shell is see-through, like thin, newly formed ice on a lake. 

It’s a design that makes the Volvo headlight instantly recognisable on the road. “Most vehicle headlights are horizontal, and they have a frosted cover, which makes it hard to see what’s beneath the plastic shell,” says Maria Balthammar. “But the Volvo headlight is different. Its clear exterior means that each element in the light is compartmentalised and visible. Meanwhile the vertical shape, outlined by the running light, gives it a unique contour. When you see a Volvo truck, you know directly from the headlight – ‘that’s a Volvo’.”

We are constantly exploring how to use light as a tool to improve the life of the driver and increase safety.

Creating a strong design is as much about practical considerations as finding a beautiful and distinctive form.

“A design of a truck feature has to look good, but every part of the design also has to be structurally stable,” says Maria Balthammar. 

“For a headlight design, you need to be able to open it up, and change a light bulb or LED. A truck also needs to withstand extreme heat and extreme cold. And you have to take that into account for each element of the vehicle because material expands and contracts when the temperature changes. That can leave gaps and spaces between parts as material shifts in size,” she says.

To add resilience and bring together the different elements of the light, the Volvo Trucks design team relied on another form found in nature – layering.

How can you retain the strength and shape of something that retracts and expands? Looking at nature, structures are often layered, which is what makes them strong. With this lamp, the separate layered elements come together to be part of the whole. 

Headlights are critical for safety, especially in the rugged northern winter, when the days are short and drivers need to navigate many of their shifts in the dark. So lighting will continue to be an area where Volvo Trucks’ designers develop and innovate new design.

“New LED technologies bring opportunities,” says Maria Balthammar. “We are constantly exploring how to use light as a tool to improve the life of the driver and increase safety. The right type of light can make you more alert, for example. There are a lot of possibilities opening up."

Maria Balthammar

Title: Senior Designer at Volvo Trucks.
Age: 41.
Years at Volvo: 6.