BMW’s Designworks spends 50% of its time working for non-BMW brands. We see how such designs feed back into the car side
You’ve probably heard that car companies no longer wish to be known as car companies. These days, it is de rigueur to present yourself as a mobility company, unconstrained by the metaphorical straitjackets of four wheels and an engine.
What you may not know is that many car companies, and especially design divisions, have long had the freedom to move outside established automotive circles – and few more so than Designworks, a California-based design consultancy set up in 1972 and bought by BMW in 1995 after it had built its reputation for forward thinking.
In essence, it’s a subsidiary of BMW that is open for business to outsiders. So while its headline credits include early iterations of the BMW 3 and 8 Series and X5 and more recent work on the 5 Series, it is just as likely to be working on cabin designs for Singapore Airlines or a vision of the future of camping for The North Face.
“We work to a 50:50 model of working for BMW Group brands and for outside brands,” says Designworks president Holger Hampf. “For BMW projects, we must compete internally to win the right to keep moving forward with designs, while for outside projects we operate with the aim of extending our learning but also of being a profit centre.
“In that sense, we are about entrepreneurial design. We don’t want to work for anyone, but we do set ambitious financial targets that drive us into spaces of interest and allow us to provoke and learn in areas of mobility that perhaps the group wouldn’t have time or resource to look at otherwise.”
So here is a selection of some of the eye-catching projects that it has worked on.
Skai passenger drone
Clean, sustainable transport needs a radical rethink and this is Designworks’ interpretation: a five-passenger drone propelled by six hydrogen-powered rotors. The target flight time is four hours and – before your eyebrows rise too far – working prototypes are being readied.
“Everyone wants to hear BMW’s interpretation of the future of the car, but that’s not what this is about,” says Hampf. “This is about immersing ourselves in another world so that we have thought leadership in getting from A to B by other means.”
The biggest challenge, says Hampf, is getting the weight down so that the drones can lift the pod and passengers: “Battery electric would never have worked, but liquid hydrogen is interesting. There is some serious investment behind that technology.”
Possible insights: Lightweight materials, hydrogen power, customer acceptance of new tech, ride-hailing insight, design reassurance.
USOC Paralympic wheelchair
Sport is rarely just about physical endeavour: be it a swimming suit, running shoe or racing car, there are always variables that distort the balance. In most sports, that’s actively encouraged, including in Paralympic wheelchair racing.
“We started as an Olympic sponsor in 2010 and started working with Team USA,” says Hampf. “From a design perspective, it was interesting to conceive everything from the perspective of function over form – but never to the abandonment of form.”
Perhaps inevitably, that led initially to the wind tunnel and carbonfibre workshop, and then on to a chassis redesign and insights into making customised chairs for each athlete, designed following 3D body scans, to reduce drag and achieve perfect weight distribution.
“The beauty was the passion of our clients,” says Hampf. “They wanted perfection and the outcome was very rewarding.”
In 2012, Team USA won seven medals and set four Paralympian world records. Designworks continues to perfect the chairs today, as well as working on a bobsleigh design and improvements in prosthetics for athletes.
Possible insights: Prototyping, lightweight materials, ergonomics, mobility challenges.
Ionity charging station
You are likely to have heard of Ionity, the firm initially set up by BMW, Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen to roll out fast-charging stations for electric cars and taking on new automotive partners all the time as its ambition gathers momentum.
Given the competing brands, settling on a design for the charging stations could have been a political nightmare. Step forward Designworks. “The initial thought might be it’s a box in the ground, but think deeper and it is the touchpoint between our brand and our customers,” says Hampf. “So the brief was actually quite complex: it had to convey quality but be durable and deliver the easiest user experience possible.”
The result is rolling out for all to see: a clean, futuristic design that incorporates a touchscreen and LED lights. Four hundred Ionity charging stations will be installed in Europe by the end of the year.
Possible insights: Prototyping, industrial design themes, user interaction and experiences.
The North Face Futurelight Camper
The trend towards underlining just what a future-thinking car company you are by attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas each January began about a decade ago. But while many car companies made their point by getting senior leaders to give keynote addresses, Designworks and its clients have been displaying real concepts.
Futurelight is currently used for high-end North Face clothing and billed as the world’s most advanced breathable waterproof outerwear. In other words, it can allow airflow in and out but keep water out. Designworks took the material and applied it to a camper concept, stretching the material over a dome that could provide protection in any environment – all of which were displayed in a virtual reality environment.
Possible insights: Business strategy, industrial design, virtual design techniques.
Singapore Airlines first class cabin
It makes sense that a firm rooted in a car company would know a thing or two about making luxurious cabins – especially one that owns Rolls Royce and has been commissioned to recreate the first class experience.
The restrictions were space and brand guidelines, the solution to create a theme that delivered the comfort and warmth of a living room through the use of colours, materials and especially lighting, with an added layer of hospitality, conveyed by the wraparound arms enveloping the seat.
Possible insights: Materials and lighting in autonomous space, industrial design.
BMW Vision Ride Helmet
One of the biggest causes of motorbike accidents is a rider taking his or her eyes off the road ahead to look at various dials and displays. It therefore sounds obvious enough to incorporate car-like head-up displays into helmets.
The technical solution wasn’t so simple, of course, with cost-effective car units requiring more space than is available in a crash helmet. The end solution combines the best of the now-defunct Google Glasses concept but with an emphasis on ease of use while on the move.