It’s not about the truck

Well, of course it’s about the truck. But, and this is the point, if the truck isn’t right for the person driving it, it simply isn’t good enough. This came out loud and clear when I spoke to Toyota head of design Magnus Oliveira Andersson and fellow designer Mattias Nilsson. “It’s about putting the human being at the centre. It’s about the human dimension,” said Oliveira Andersson.

We bundled into one of those glass-fronted conference rooms with a cup of coffee in front of us. Nice, since I’d been up since five that morning. Oliveira Andersson, comfortably in charge and smiling amiably, kicked the interview off by introducing Mattias Nilsson, who, it turned out, has been at the Design Center for nearly four years. His main job has been to mastermind a new model of the Toyota BT Reflex reach truck. Presumably under the watchful eyes of Oliveira Andersson, with whom he worked in tandem.

So, how had he gone about the job? I asked him. “Ok,” said Mattias Nilsson in a low voice, “there were quite a few things that were… new, but we still called it a facelift.” His task was tweaking a design originating in 1982, and which has undergone any number of changes and improvements since then, the last one in 2008. “We put a lot of effort into the details, like designing a new wavy floor pattern that speaks Toyota, and makes it a member of the product range,” explained Nilsson. This, as I understand it, is just one of any number of examples of how design is meant to facilitate the lot of the working man, the person behind the wheel of a truck somewhere in the world.

BT Reflex R-series truck
BT Reflex R-series truck

Human being at the centre

Ergonomics is not only about the technicalities, the designers told me. “The challenge is expressing the good ergonomics in the actual design, so that the user experiences it,” said Oliveira Andersson. And he went on to talk about a design philosophy he says is Swedish, essentially. That of putting the human being at the centre, of emphasising the human dimension. In the case of the recently updated BT Reflex, it was primarily a question of highlighting the softer values, as the truck structurally remains the same. The new wavy floor pattern design that Mattias Nilsson was responsible for wasn’t just a question of aesthetics, I was told: “The new pattern is a way of helping the driver see where he should put his feet, and get a good grip,” Oliveira Andersson said. “We actually compared with how tennis shoes are patterned.”

“It was about the human factor, and companies wanted to go down that route.”

A crucial aspect of any forklift truck is the driver’s seat. The 2008 version of the Reflex featured the first in-house design of a Toyota forklift seat. But there are always ways of making things better. “There’s a lot of wear and tear, particularly on the corners of the seat, and now we were wondering how we could improve it,” explained Oliveira Andersson and Nilsson, and said that it took quite a bit of work to find a supplier who could deliver the right thing at the right price. “In the end we arrived at a material called Superfabric.”

Looking back over the years you realise the man-versus-machine balance tended to be in favour of the machine. In the case of the reach truck it wasn’t until 1982 that anyone stood up for the driver of the vehicle. “It was the first time the human being was really taken into account,” explained Oliveira Andersson. “It was then that people were put at the centre of the design process. It was about the human factor, and companies wanted to go down that route.”

Reaching for awards

And the new focus bore fruit in the form of an iF design award, in 1982. The prize-winning truck was the BT 1350E, and it was still many years before BT was to be acquired by Toyota Industries. Ergonomics and design now became key pursuits, not least because of the political climate in Sweden, where there was a strong focus on social commitment. Oliveira Andersson: “The person in charge of developing the truck back then was Ralf Rosenberg of the Designkonsulterna agency, in Gothenburg.” (Design of the Toyota range of forklifts was not brought in-house until 2006.) As the assignment became larger the pioneering Formtech agency, where Oliveira Andersson worked, joined as a partner. The company was skilled in 3D design, which at that point was completely new. And the rest is, as they say, history: the BT 95 Reflex won the Excellent Swedish Design Award the year it was launched, to a large extent because of the truck’s tilting cab which made the life of the driver a lot easier. Over the years the BT Reflex has won more awards, the most recent of which is another iF Award earlier this year, and – even more recently – a German Design Award. (See facts box.)

I was curious to know how long you can keep one model of a truck going, by just updating the design. Nilsson and Oliveira Andersson had the answer: “All products have a best-before date. The passage of time clearly makes its mark,” Oliveira Andersson said. Added Nilsson: “This of course goes for design, too, and electronics quickly become outdated and to be replaced.”

Interior design of RT1350E (1982) & Reflex (1995)
Interior design of RT1350E (1982) & Reflex (1995)

When it comes to designing reach trucks, such as the Toyota BT Reflex series, customer productivity is, of course, central said Oliveira Andersson. “It’s largely a question of who can lift the highest in the most stable way.” And he continues to explain that as the products of competing manufacturers are beginning to reach similar standards of performance, the design of the truck becomes more and more crucial. That is how you sell them today. “You’ve got to go a long way back – to the sixties – to find products with no design at all,” Oliveira Andersson explained. The original BT reach truck was born in 1962, and was later (in 1995) to be named the Reflex. The truck has over the years been greatly transformed, so much so that you’d be excused for not recognizing it as the same vehicle. Most of the changes that have been made are based on the concept of the 1995 version of the truck. In 2008 Toyota introduced platform thinking, which means that you can make different products built on the same platform. “It’s the 2008 BT Reflex that we’ve done the recent facelift on,” Nilsson said.

Sometimes you’ve got to move

We still had lots more to discuss when, all of a sudden, there was a knock on the door of our conference glass cubicle. It was a colleague of Magnus Oliveira Andersson and Mattias Nilsson, who politely but firmly pointed out that he’d booked the room we were in. We were sorry and quickly bundled out of there. Still, it seemed timely, because we needed to refill our coffee cups, anyway. Minutes later we were safely ensconced in a new room. Properly booked, as well.

I wanted to know the difference between the relatively well-known idea of the forklift truck as opposed to the more obscure reach truck. Nilsson and Oliveira Andersson seemed to anticipate the question and readily explained that forklifts, which became an established product in the 1940s and 50s, were fitted with a weight at the back to balance the load carried on the fork. These counterbalance trucks were quite unwieldy in tight warehouse spaces, and so there was a need for a shorter vehicle. (Also, there was a wish to replace the combustion engine with a battery.)

So, the balance weight was eliminated and the centre of gravity was moved forward, by extending the fork carriage. Voila! The reach truck in its most basic form was born. Around the same time BTs Rune Monö, Sweden’s leading industrial designer, introduced a new kind of thinking: the human dimension. Oliveira Andersson: “By putting the human being at the centre of the design process, he lay the foundation for what later became the celebrated RT1350E.” By 1982 BT had left the competition behind and the reach truck won an if Design Award.

Designer’s sketch & early design mock-up
Designer’s sketch & early design mock-up

What we’ve got in common

BT originally was a company based in the Bromma suburb of Stockholm. In 1952 it moved its operations to Mjölby, where the railway was an added value to its logistic network at the time, and in 2000 Toyota Industries acquired the forklift manufacturer. Toyota Material Handling Europe was launched in 2006, and that year also saw the birth of the in-house design department, in Mjölby.

So, how did the BT Reflex morph into the Toyota BT Reflex? It took quite a while, said Oliveira Andersson, who seemed to have company history at his fingertips. But then, of course, he’s worked on the Reflex since the early days of 1993. “The Reflex is now a Toyota product, which, to a large extent, we can thank the Toyota Design Review Process for. It took a while for us to learn the process,” he explained, “and for the latest facelift we used the DR process all the way.”

What’s the difference between how they used to work and the present process, I asked. “Well, the review process is very precise, to start with. It’s linear and very straightforward,” said design head Oliveira Andersson. “Before you begin the actual design review process, all ideas have to be in place. We call this pre-DR.”

“Simplicity can be about designing an uncluttered environment, so as not to distract the driver unnecessarily.”

It came up time and again as I talked to these industrial designers: the idea of simplicity. The courage of eliminating rather than adding. A sentiment often expressed in a number of areas, from architecture and cooking, to fashion and literature. And in this regard the Japanese and the Swedes have a meeting of minds, suggested Oliveira Andersson.

Time we had a look at the very things we had been talking about. But first we were confronted with some of the inventions that didn’t hold water. “You can’t always stay in the same track,” Oliveira Andersson pointed out, as we pondered a string of trucks from the fifties in front of us. “To remain at the forefront, you have to be open. That’s how you survive.” Now, finally here was the machine that had been our main focus this morning. “Yeah, this is our flagship,” Mattias Nilsson said, not without a hint of pride. “The design is meant to highlight functions like how you can raise or lower the floor. And you can also see how the wave pattern is integrated in the floor of the truck,” he explained. And there, I noticed, was that seat with the corners clad in Superfabric that we’d been talking about.

Oliveira Andersson moved us back to the concept of simplicity again, by pointing to the mast of the gleaming new BT Reflex. Again, it was a case of cleaning up the design, he said. “Like the hydraulics and cables, which I’m pleased with. It’s pretty clean, and frankly the best mast in the world.” Nilsson chimed in: “Simplicity can be about designing an uncluttered environment, so as not to distract the driver unnecessarily.”

I’d turned my tape machine off and we were ready to wind up a long and eventful morning. We were still parked in front of the Reflex, and I looked at the rather full-sized Magnus Oliveira Andersson next to me. “Yes,” he said, laughing heartily, “I definitely fit in too.”

The human dimension, I thought to myself.

Reach truck models

1962 RT 12/RTT 12
1971 RT 1350, 1600, 2000
1976 RT 1350, 1600, 2000
1983 RT 1350E, 1600E, 2000E
1988 RT 2500E
1991 RT 1350SE-2500SE
1993 RT 1350SE/SEi-2500SE/SEi (first tilting cab)
1995 Reflex RR B/E1-8
2004 Reflex RRE140-250
2008 BT Reflex RRE140-250
2017 BT Reflex R,E and O-series


Rune Monö
1965 – 1973

Designkonsulterna, Ralf Rosenberg
1977 – 1999

1994 – 2005

in-house Design Center
2006 – present

Design Awards

1982 iF Design Award

1995 Excellent Swedish Design (Utmärkt svensk form)

2017 iF Design Award

2018 German Design Award

2018 Red Dot Best of the Best