Chris Bangle, is an American automobile designer and currently the chief of design for the BMW Group. Dutch born Adrian van Hooydonk recently took over the position of head of the BMW brand and is currently the main designer of BMW cars.
Wikipedia on Chris: Bangle was born on October 14 1956 in Ravenna, Ohio, raised in Wisconsin, and attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He began his career at Opel where he designed the interior of the Junior concept car. He later moved to Fiat where he became chief designer and was credited with the design of the Fiat Coupé.
When he joined BMW in 1992, he became their first American chief of design. The 1999 Z9 concept car designed by Adrian van Hooydonk marked a departure from BMW’s traditional conservative style, and his latter work has caused some controversy among BMW enthusiasts.
Chris is known for evoking strong reactions. There is even an online petition that tried to stop him from “ruining”? the BMW brand. Nevertheless, BMW sales have never went down and have been increasing steadily. Therefore, it seems there are haters but also (many) lovers of his (and Adrian’s) designs.
Some of the questions seemed to evoke strong emotions with Mr. Bangle. Nevertheless, they are authentic and therefore placed as they were.
In the end, I think it has become an interesting short interview with a very influential design expert and I hope you will all enjoy to read it.
Chris, you are often described as a controversial designer and while I was browsing the web I found about 50% praise and 50% hate. What do you think makes your designs evoke such strong reactions? Is it because of the BMW brand’s long history (the haters are nostalgias enthusiasts) or are the designs really that experimental and provocative?
Passion breeds passion…that is surely the case here . BMW, MINI, Rolls-Royce, these are all marques with great emotional content. This is good!!! No one would want it any other way. But this does not guarantee that a real dialogue takes place, and the internet is a particularly skewed medium to try and take straw polls from. As a journalist you too know these dangers…would any organization rely on uncontrolled ballot stuffing to discern the true representative opinion of a constituency? In the final analysis our customers vote with their pocketbooks, and, for example in the case of the often discussed BMW 7 Series, it is the best selling 7 of all time. Of course there are thousand of other factors at work, but we are not interested in provocation here, we are dedicated to giving our customers and our shareholders the best products possible, period.
When we talk about designing for emotion, it usually concerns a methodological approach to integrate the emotional impact of design in the design process and try to take this impact into account beforehand. Do you recognize any designing for emotion strategy in the design process at BMW?
That Form Follows Function and also Follows Process should come as no surprise. In the same way an impassionate process can only lead to cold and impassionate results, so our “Emotional Strategy” for product begins with a highly emotional process of creation. We run our designers in competition within their own group and with outside designers, and use resources such as Designworks USA to add a global perspective. Decisions are made at Board level outside and viewing full sized models, everything is discussed, refined, presented, and refined again. And again.
What is false I believe is to try and “strategize emotion”…without understanding of spontaneity, context, or serendipity. What is equally false is to try and design without a orientation, without a framework; randomly. Design needs clear borders to push against, only in that way can it be strengthened. And sometimes you wind up moving some borders…that too must be allowed.
Cars are always a great example for comparing the relationships we have with products and brands to the relationship we have with real people. You have stated once that cars are just like people: Some you want to get close to and discover more over time, and with some you just prefer to keep it superficial.
I have always found these types of comparisons a bit vague. Is there a way to explain why it is more likely that we will feel more intimate with a Z4 than with an Opel Astra? Isn’t this just because we look better in it (for the neighbours) or is there more to it?
If you think that is vague, I can only say, welcome to the world of Design Meets Semantics. Pictures (our business) say a thousand words (your business), so don’t be surprised if the 1000:1 efficiency we have over you leaves your word count short. Explanations are great time fillers between experiences, but I doubt embraced in a passionate kiss or terrified on a rollercoaster has much attention left over to dedicate to the narrative in the background. But if you must fill YOUR word count, I would suggest first reading Sir Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and substituting the term “Car” for “Nude”…in about 5 chapters you will know all about Z4s and how they break away from the world of the everyday.
You have said that the Z4 marked a turning point in car design, away from pure rationalism into rationalism-based emotionalism. Could you explain what this means and why especially the Z4 initiated this turn?
To be fair perhaps it was our Concept Car, the X Coupe, from 2001, that really was the turning point. One way to consider the change it heralded is to look at a detail like the door openers inside the car…sounds pretty insignificant, don’t you think? But until this car came along forms, particularly technical forms like handles, were created following formal rules and vocabularies from the Great Age of Modernism…in short, within the limits of the geometries of the Twenties. That is why you used to see so much knurled aluminium, because the lathe was one of the Machine Age standards back then used to break away from the naturalistic shapes of Art Neveu and other humanistic styles that came before. But we live in the Digital age, which means that 5-Axis milling is more representative of our times than a lathe. Look at the shapes of the X Coupe, starting with the door openers and going out all the way to the exterior (asymmetry and all) of the exterior…do you see the free flow of surface pulled into tension over the spline ridges? This is definitely only possible by profiting from what “5-Axis Freedom of Expression”? can bring to your mind, even better if the forms were worked (as in the case of the body) by the hands of men. In fact, that is the way it flowed, from the hands of our modellers into the computer generated surfaces and then back in wonderfully intensifying loops. Computer Surfaces have their place, but the Formal Vocabularies we are talking about here have nothing to do with the computer. The Greeks could have carved them. But with the computer we have a fantastic enabler in our hands that has lain dormant due to the conservative pressure of Modernist Geometries on our imaginations. In this sense, as usual, the architects were way ahead of us.
But back to the cars. The Z4 was the precursor to all this, but because of the rythm of Show Cars to Production Cars the X Coupe was seen first. Look at the crossing of splines through the car, implying a sub structure at work, a skeleton on the move pulling the skin into tension. Notice the diagonal of the extended A Pillar with a shockingly geometric side marker smack in the middle holding the emblem; a gesture in metal that evokes all of the concentrated energy of the grill air-outled without the questionableness of a plugged hole and chromed ribs. Graphic by Formal Intonation…very new. The sensuous flow of the shoulders and hips of the classic roadster and the perfect proportions of true roadsters is all there to be seen in the Z4, but with a modern flair that is really unmatched.
I have read that you compared some of the lines in your designs of the later BMW series with the lines in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Do you often look into other design areas to get inspiration for a new car design?
Understanding comes through such inspirations and observations, and that in turn builds puzzle pieces for later intuitive insights. NOTHING IS UNINTERESTING, NOTHING IS UNIMPORTANT. What was that that Arthur Miller says in Death of a Salesman? “Attention must be paid”? Yes, I take a lot of notes on the world, there WILL be a test afterwards, I am sure.
I have received some questions by readers of this website. The most interesting one was by Frank Spillers about i-drive. BMW lost brand recognition from i-drive, a computer-like system, which is used to control most secondary vehicle systems – people didn’t seem to accept it. Usability guru Don Norman even criticized it. Jakob Nielsen said his wife didn’t like it and won’t buy another BMW again. How has BMW recovered from the i-drive and the decision to go with design choices based on sensory overload (tactile-kinaesthetic) vs. a multi-modal interface?
Our customers cover a wide spectrum of experience and expectations, but usually they rely on BMW engineers to “do the right thing”. The fact that all premium manufacturers have some sort of I-Drive probably shows we were on the right track, just ahead of the game. I wouldn’t want a car without it and neither would my wife (I asked), so is this a question about scorecards or about what is the proper way to multitask on the current and future driving environment? Criticism is welcome and feedback is useful, and I guarantee you it will be developed and improved and evolved until it really is near perfect…(how many Amendments does the US Constitution have now, or would you dismiss that innovative document as an incorrect concept?)
Thanks Chris, for your time and the opportunity to have this interview.
Want to read more? Have a look at AskMen.com – Chris Bangle