Online Extra: An Interview with BMW's Chief Designer

American Chris Bangle may get all the press, but Adrian van Hooydonk is the man behind BMW's fresh new looks

Dutch-born designer Adrian van Hooydonk raced up the ranks at BMW from his first job sketching cars at BMW's Munich studio to become BMW brand chief designer in only 12 years, including a three-year stint running BMW's California studio, DesignWorksUSA, from 2001-04. Van Hooydonk, now 42, earned a degree in automotive design at the Art Center Europe in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1992. His fast-paced climb reflects the openness to fresh ideas and talent that makes BMW's innovation engine hum constantly at high revs.

Van Hooydonk's first coup at DesignWorks was an early concept car for the Mini (see, 7/11/06, "Maximum Mini"), followed by the Z9 concept car. But his first production-car win was the 7 Series (followed by the 6 Series). In fact, it was van Hooydonk—and not BMW Design Chief Chris Bangle—who penned the lines of the controversial 2002 7 Series and its provocatively heavy back end, since dubbed, erroneously, the "Bangle Butt."

The year was 1997 and Bangle had given a thrilling brief to BMW's Munich and California studios. The company's goal was to make a "design leap" to give BMW's flagship luxury car a silhouette that would match the huge technological leap the car was making. Van Hooydonk, then 33, was one of 20 designers pitted against each other in a heated internal contest. Bangle backed van Hooydonk's early sketches, ensuring that they survived the cuts. But it was van Hooydonk's full-size model that won the unanimous support of top management.

Van Hooydonk recently spoke with Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about how BMW's bottom-up management culture inspires car designs that buyers crave and rivals rush to imitate. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Is BMW different from other auto makers in the way it manages car design?

We brief the entire design team on every new project. All projects are open to everyone. Some are told to submit sketches. Some have projects going, but they're free to submit too if they have time. We want to keep all design projects open to all designers. We don't want to have a "3 Series studio" like some car companies, where all they do is a certain model, where three junior people sit but only the studio chief designs. You can imagine which setup is more motivating.

Our approach gets people to do their best. They stretch themselves because there's so much more to gain. We ask designers for a complete car—not just a headlamp. The winner takes all.

BMW doesn't use consumer clinics to vet new designs. What's the logic there?

Consumers always will give an opinion based on what they know—they can say what they like or don't like today. What we're really asking ourselves today is what cars should be like in 2010. BMW embraces risk. It knows that risk comes with the territory.

It's too scary for some competitors. Other automobile manufacturers won't take that risk. No one likes making mistakes. But BMW knows that's part of doing business.

What role does BMW's California team at DesignWorks play?

DesignWorks is something very unique. No other company has succeeded in setting up a similar model. They're a design consultancy and a profit center. We pay them like companies would pay any external design consultant. DesignWorks does 50% of its work for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. They design cell phones, computers, and airplane interiors—and act as a complete design consultancy.

Because we require DesignWorksUSA to apply itself to as many diverse customer experiences as possible, its approach of using crossover skills to solve its client's problems ensures that everyone benefits from its talents and BMW's own philosophy of design quality.

How does that benefit BMW?

Any company benefits from an outside view. And having to win outside contracts keeps DesignWorks on their toes. It also helps the innovation process. They're market-driven. If there's a faster way to design a model, they will discover it. No other car company has an approach like that. At other auto makers, design houses are cost centers. They get a budget and an assignment. They aren't based on or mixed with any experience outside the car world.

[DesignWorks is] not based on the cost-center approach. Ford (F ) tried to set up something similar in London and they recruited from DesignWorks, but it didn't work out. DesignWorks replaces the need for consumer clinics because they work on futuristic products. We set up our design center in Singapore and DesignWorks both to learn by participating in creating the future.

How do you decide which cars should be designed in California and which cars in Munich?

We want DesignWorks to work on every project we have. DesignWorks is managed outside Munich. I am a client of DesignWorks. I say, "Please give me design proposals."

And then?

At BMW, design happens in a competition. Not only is each studio in Munich, Los Angeles, and Singapore in competition, each designer is in competition with the one sitting next to him. It's an open and true competition. Anyone can enter with their sketches—we aren't biased.

To prove that, just ask other car company studios how many sketches of theirs actually go into production. Normally in the car industry, local studios do designs for local markets [only]. We don't do that. We want the look and feel of BMW to be the same around the world.

So designers in California have the same chances as designers in Munich to win the competition?

If the best idea for a car comes from DesignWorks, it will be chosen. DesignWorks has a very good track record influencing production products. I'm talking about the early design phase—before the car is in development. If DesignWorks wins the competition, we ask the model designer to come here to Munich and work on the car for a year, so that the net result is that people here in Munich feel as much ownership of the new model as DesignWorks.

Which Bimmers has DesignWorks produced?

The previous 3 Series—until then, no one expected California could really do a core product. They had done the X5, X3, and Z4—so they already had a track record higher than any other California studio I know. (Ask other brands—and you will find a sense of frustration among designers in outpost studios.)

O.K., so a new car is in the pipeline and you've briefed the teams. How do you keep the team spirit that drives BMW's culture when everyone is competing with each other?

The competition is extremely intense. People go the extra mile. That's because people know the competition is extremely fair. They know BMW is looking for the best solution, so if they lose, they can deal with that message, too. It's part of how you keep people motivated and performing at a high level for the next competition.

What was it like when you got the briefing for the new 7 Series?

It was very exciting. It was clear BMW wanted to make a technology leap with the car, which was also to be expressed in a design leap. The assumption was if we offer a car with new technology, we need a breakaway design. It would be weird to package new tech with old design. That would have been a nonstarter.

BMW perceived a growing desire in society for greater individualism. People were beginning to make more individual choices—car buyers were becoming increasingly difficult to pigeonhole. They were making more discerning choices and car choices were no longer homogenous, based on your job and salary. This translated into the need to do more individualistic cars.

It was also a time of a lot of mergers in the auto industry, and BMW wanted to maintain its independence. So it decided it had to grow its product range. The danger was stretching our design language over a greater range of products which all looked the same.

What were the specific instructions for the competition?

Chris Bangle came out to DesignWorks in 1997 to give us the brief for the exterior designers, of which we had 20 to 25. We all heard the words "design leap" and "top-of-the-line product," and you knew it was important. They took 12 sketches of scale models. There were five cuts. Near the end, we still had three full-size clay models in competition. It became scarier and more exciting toward the end, when there were only two exteriors competing.

What's it like leading the design effort now for the BMW brand?

At BMW, you can't do design in a dark corner. There's a team of 80 people behind me developing designs. I'm not a designer anymore. I'm the design director [as Chris Bangle was earlier]. I guide the competition.

Didn't you go back and tone down the controversial lines in the 7 Series when it came time for the facelift?

BMW approaches facelifts as a way to inject models with new impulse and generate interest. We want even the people who bought the car to start thinking about buying the facelifted version. We want them to say, "I like this one—it has more power, better handling, and interesting design."

Four years after the launch of the 7, we coupled the new version with a new look again. Why? To give it a lifecycle impulse. That gives us the opportunity to streamline again. The new 7 had more engine power and was sportier. We changed the look of the front bumper to be sportier and the hood sharper. The rear looks wider and lower. That reflected the car's improved handling with a wider stance. We emphasized the new rear design as lower and wider—that's exactly what we wanted to show the car handled better.

Design should help communicate technology better. People say we pulled back on the design, but that wasn't relevant. Overall, we know the facelift was good for sales. What's impossible to do is to make everyone happy.

You've been at BMW for 14 years. Is it true BMW throws you in the water to sink or swim?

Yes. They delegate responsibility early on—and you deal with it. No matter how young you are, BMW gives you a rough description of the goal—you aren't told how to get there. The manager watches to see if you can do it. If you're able to deal with responsibility independently, your career develops very rapidly. What's important is your ability to be self-critical. Typically, new people want more feedback. They're just told to get on with the task. The first question is, "Is this all I get as a briefing? Isn't there a boot camp?"

BMW prides itself on a management culture where conflict is allowed and even encouraged. How does that actually work? It must produce awkward clashes at times.

There's a heartfelt belief at BMW that people be taught a difference of opinion is O.K. Some conflict is bound to happen. Everyone is working wholeheartedly—and if they're given free rein to individuality, inevitably people will clash. The clash may escalate. If so, you call meetings and make a decision.

What happens is that people aren't punished for disagreeing. They aren't told, "We don't want to see you doing this again." The rule is that you can make mistakes. At BMW, you aren't trained to avoid conflict. If something is brewing, you bring it out in the open, deal with it, and move on.

In other organizations, the conflicts have such a negative impact. We believe rather than talking in the kitchen behind people's backs about your frustrations, which is what happens in most big companies, you get everything out in the open.

So how are decisions actually taken in this free-flowing, unhierarchical world of opinion?

I'm the design director. I manage a competition. I don't say, "The design should be like this." He who interprets the idea of the new product best, wins. We state a very open goal with a rough target. You fill it in to the best of your capability. It's an open discussion. I get 20 different opinions back. That diversity helps me form my opinion about what's best.

Twenty team opinions from designers are better than a consumer consensus about what's best. Then I voice the opinion [to the board] of the entire design team. If, by contrast, I give my opinion about the design of the car at the beginning of the competition, I train my people to have my opinion. They would then try to please me. They should focus on the BMW brand and the future, not me.

BMW encourages individuals to build personal networks across the company and to use them informally to solve problems and innovate. Do you have a "network" and do you use it?

At BMW, you experience the network every day. People are always talking—always "on." Every lunch, people are meeting and talking about their project or about one that they want to make happen. It's somewhat manic. But you can't help it. It makes things move very quickly.

The first thing you do when you have an idea is pick up the phone and call someone or discuss it over lunch—rather than get your calendars to match for a formal meeting. BMW's history says good ideas can come from anywhere. That's accepted. Everyone knows if you have a good idea and a good network, you can get things moving.

Does BMW really break down the barriers, say, between designers and engineers?

What I tell designers is that their task isn't just to do cool sketches that impress me. If they're attractive and filled with emotion, I will be drawn to them. But another task is to get other people excited. They could say, "That's not my job." One could be very hierarchical. But I have to take the sketch and go to the engineering chief and make it happen. The task for us is to help create excitement around ideas, so every engineer that walks by the model has to be pulled in. The designer at BMW who says, "Here's a sketch, build it," won't get very far.

BMW designed the Project House where models are actually developed to force a lot of togetherness—of engineers, designers, marketing managers, accountants, and production people. How does that "closeness" help you work better and faster?

The success of the whole [development] story depends on chemistry. The team of 300 people working on a new model is based in the Project House. The clay model, the virtual model, the computer data is all close at hand. We have a power wall 20 meters wide to display the car virtually, near the clay models. We can work quickly and you have to—suppliers, tooling, everything has to come together.

Having everything so closely linked speeds the process. The project leader has everyone [involved in the car] just a few steps outside his office—it's "product central." At that point, there is no possibility for [divisional] kingdoms to exist anymore. There are no turfs—each specialty has sent people to the team. At most companies, engineers sit in one place and the clay studio is elsewhere.

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