Design combines functionality and aesthetics, design is emotional, particularly when it comes to cars. Motorists who think a car is ugly are unlikely to buy it and drive it. So how will the changes to the drivetrain influence automobile design? VDMAimpulse asked design experts.

By Katrin Pudenz

"Design theories have a long history," says Professor Klaus Klemp from the Offenbach Academy of Art & Design. This history goes all the way back to the Roman architect Vitruvius in the 1st century BC, who stated that design must be solid, useful and beautiful. In an interview with VDMAimpulse, Klemp explains that beauty, however it manifests itself, still plays a major role today. He also believes that Vitruvius' other two demands have also not lost any of their significance, provided that they are updated for a modern audience.

"Solidity in the sense of technical and visual durability that saves resources and protects the environment from unnecessary waste," explains Klemp. "Given the speed at which technical performance is increasing today and the fact that an ever increasing proportion of the world’s population is acting as consumers, this is a major challenge that forces us to think and act in completely new ways." Indeed, he believes that usefulness should not merely be perceived as manageability, but above all lies in the creation of functional interfaces between humans and machines all over the world.

Design influences product perception

In the "Formen und Konzepte" ["Forms and concepts"] chapter of the "Kraftfahrzeugtechnik" ["Automobile Technology”" handbook (2007, Vieweg+Teubner Verlag, now Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, design is described as one of the most important means for differentiating a brand and raising its profile. In fact, design is a perceptual environment that potential customers assign to a specific manufacturer. The perception of a product is defined through its design.

Design gains strategic importance

The aim of design is to maximize differentiation. Or at least it is today. In the past, design was a downstream process for shaping the visual appearance of a technically oriented concept. This approach began to change in the 1930s, starting in the USA, where companies began to focus on design by hiring specialists. Accordingly, design gained in strategic importance throughout the decade. Only in the 1950s did this trend cross the Atlantic and become established in Europe. Initially, designers were generally affiliated to technical development within organizations. However, as the companies grew, so did the importance of design as a discipline in its own right.

Today, the task of design is no longer to merely shape the appearance of planned products; rather, designers are also involved during product planning and when drawing up product strategies. Automobile design has evolved in accordance with this trend over recent years. Today, it no longer merely comprises the actual aesthetics of specified products, but is a strategic factor in the orientation of a company.

Good design cannot be too complicated

However, the strategic importance of design does not inevitably lead to good design. When asked what makes a good automobile design, Adrian van Hooydonk, Head of BMW Group Design, answers: "There is no such thing as a set formula." Instead, he believes that in design, a good draft is constituted by a combination of rationale and intuition. "First and foremost, however, design must be authentic. Authentic regarding a brand and its history, but also authentic regarding existing technologies. This may sound simple, but it can quickly become complex. If something is fast, it should look fast. If a car handles sharply, the design should express this. Good design must never be too complicated, and that is an art."

The rules of vehicle design are changing

Regarding the current transformation of the drivetrain, van Hooydonk explains: "We are currently experiencing an extremely exciting time in vehicle design. I know that many people say that cars are becoming ever more similar in looks. In this context, I sometimes draw parallels from motorsport. If the rules and regulations in a series remain unchanged for a long time, all racing cars will look very similar at some point, as the engineers and technologies all move more or less in the same direction. Regarding vehicle design, the rules are figuratively changing at the moment, as technology is also changing. In the future, we will use ever more electric motors and hybrid engines; a development which can clearly be seen as we want to provide 25 models with electric drive by the year 2025" With the i3 and i8, BMW has now launched a city car and a sports car that give this evolving segment an entirely new face.

Regarding the fact that automated or semi-automated driving systems will increasingly become part of the automobile of the future, the design expert comments that this will make the vehicle interior much more important than is currently the case. "People will suddenly have the time to look around and do other things than concentrate on traffic. This means that they will appreciate the interior equipment and details far more in the future and this aspect will place new demands on cars. Currently, 80 percent of driving a car is the actual driving experience and everything else is only a small part of the overall experience. This balance will change."

Alongside technical development, nature and new materials will also influence the new direction taken by design. Although bionics might be relatively new as a scientific discipline, its roots can be traced as far back as Alberti and Leonardo, states Professor Klaus Klemp from the Offenbach Academy of Art & Design. He sees the discipline as a natural factor for engineers and, albeit in a different form, for designers, too. For example, automotive design has always played with the human face, stresses Klemp: "Headlights representing eyes, radiator grilles the mouth and side mirrors as ears that are reminiscent of anything from infantile features (Mini) to dragon eyes (Audi)." BMW head designer van Hooydonk adds: "Design evokes emotions. Not just the geometry of shapes, but the materials used all contribute to the experience. Here at BMW, specialist teams develop all surface materials, from exterior paints and special paints, seat cushions designs and special door and steering wheel trims, up to decorative trims. We talk a lot about 'vehicle characters' internally and the teams constantly work on developing the character of a car as best as possible using the materials at hand (…)."

Innovative product design cannot be delegated

Professor Klemp also feels it is important to emphasize that innovative product design cannot be delegated behind the marketing department. Otherwise, it is merely packaging design. He stresses: "Well-founded design, especially in industry, carries significant social responsibility. From smartphones to mobility concepts, design has a lasting effect on society. We are now living through the 'fourth industrial revolution based on cyber-physical systems'. The idea behind it is to work with engineers, digital experts and producers to tap the world of artifacts and the nature around us, so that we can make better use of them - and increasingly, protect nature from ourselves."

Further Information

BMW Group   |   HfG Offenbach   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "There is no such thing as a set formula for good vehicle design"   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "Product design cannot be left to the marketing department"   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "Change in the drive train"