Smooth operation: BMW design chief Adrian Van Hooydonk (right) with conceptual sketches for future car models.
Car design is in a state of flux. The designer’s job used to be about tail fins and chrome. Then it was all about cup holders and plastics. Today, as communication technology invades the vehicle, it’s just as much about user interfaces, flat-panel displays, and Hollywood animation tricks.
At BMW, the job of reimagining the relationship between car and driver belongs to Adrian Van Hooydonk, a 47-year-old industrial designer who was named the company’s design chief in 2009. Van Hooydonk oversees 500 designers worldwide from his headquarters at BMW DesignworksUSA, the Los Angeles studio that also plans the look of boats, planes, trains, and cell phones.
As a designer, Van Hooydonk says, he has always had to “live in the future.” The job, after all, is to imagine the style consumers will want in future vehicles and to guard that vision until the company reveals the product to the public. His fingerprints are on everything from the curves of BMW’s flagship 7 series sedans to sub-brands like Mini, Rolls-Royce, and a future line of hybrid-electric cars known as the iBrand.
Today, Van Hooydonk agrees, rapid developments in smart phones and consumer electronics have been challenging automakers to keep up. He spoke to reporter Tamara Warren at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
TR: Why did you become a car designer?
Van Hooydonk: I became an industrial designer first. I like to draw and to sketch and was always interested in the shape of things, the way things look and also the way things are made. I’m interested in cars because they are quite complicated, and they move under their own power. As a designer, then, you can see your work coming around the corner in any city around the world. You see the product in a different light when it’s on the move.
Good design sells cars. Is there evidence that good technology design also does?
We know that great technology design sells products. Apple is a big example. I think what’s happening in the consumer electronics business is that the way you operate cell phones is more of a character-defining factor than the form, or actual shape, of the cell phone. All cell phones are going to look like two pieces of glass. The user interface is becoming more important.
People will expect that same kind of seamlessness in the car. The steering wheel won’t go away for a while, but then how do you access all the other information? That is changing very rapidly. Right now in all our BMWs we have a big screen in the middle. In most of our cars we offer heads-up display, which is just like in a jet fighter. The most important information is right in front of you, projected on the road. In the future we’re going to do a whole lot more with displays in the car.
What will dashboard displays look like in 10 years?
I can very well imagine flexible displays. We will be able to integrate the displays into the shape of the dashboard. I hope that displays will get larger as well. There won’t be such a clear delineation between what is a button, what is a screen, and what is décor in a dashboard.
Now you have separate areas of buttons and controls on a dashboard. We hope that the dashboard becomes less of a block, and that it will be lighter. Another thing that will change in displays is the way we operate them. Voice control and gesture control are on the horizon already. This whole idea of pushing a button has already changed on computers, and it’s about to change on TVs. It will also change in cars.