Detroit Auto Show gave us an unique opportunity to speak with the BMW Design Director and the man in charge of BMW’s future design language, Adrian Von Hooydonk.

Born in the Netherlands, Adrian Von Hooydonk studied at Delft Polytechnic University in Holland and later at the Art Center Europe in Vevey, Switzerland, until 1992. From there he came to Munich, where he joined BMW as a designer. In the year 2000 he went to California to work for the BMW Group subsidiary Designworks USA. He was Director of the internationally renowned design agency from 2001 to 2004.

Then, under Bangle as the BMW Group’s Head of Design, he became Head of the Brand Design Studio for BMW Automobiles.


Some of the cars “penned” under his design influence are the BMW 6 and 7 Series lines, as well the Z9 Concept Car, the BMW Concept CS and the M1 Hommage Study.

In February 2009, BMW AG named Van Hooydonk the BMW Design Director and a new era began for the Bavarian automaker.

What design trends (outside of automotive design) do you see showing up soon in automotive designs ? (Sculpting, machine tools, appliances, colors, fabrics, metal surface details, wood)

Adrian Von Hooydonk: That is really a big question, I have a team of 450 designers working on just that. For the BMW brand, it will always be about emotional design, we know that we design cars for people that love to drive and this is something that our customers will see on our cars. When you see a BMW parked, you should already start thinking about how it would be to drive that car, to be emotional with that vehicle.

…BMW brand, it will always be about emotional design

I think we have fine tuned our design language, it is still very sculptured and now we are able to make the surface changes in a very very subtle way. We are launching one new car after another in the next couple of years and that means the design team has been super busy in the past three years. Right now I am looking forward to the launch of the new 5 Series which I believe it will look very good on the road.

How has the current economic outlook influenced colors in design? There is a belief that we are seeing many more ‘grays’ available as color options on cars in the past couple of years.

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I think color is making a comeback. Over the last years, and you probably haven’t seen that yet here, especially since in this country, and I’ve lived here for 5 years, you see a lot of black and silver BMWs. This is typically also the color the dealers or the leasing companies specify. But I think the consumers are having a great interest in colors now and we’re going to offer more interesting choices in the future. The very sporty Z4 we’re launching here in Detroit, features a metallic red which I think it is a very nice color and very strong color statement.

How will increasing ‘by-wire’ features (braking, steering) influence interior design?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: All these drive-by wire features influence design. They require a little bit less interior package space, so this will free up some space, but typically safety features need more space. We have now a lot of airbags in the interior, but so far we haven’t been able to make cars more compact because of that and also because some of these drive-by wire features are still extras that you can order; and as long as they are not standard, we cannot really build the car around these smaller technologies.

But I think we are going there and in the next ten years, we will be there.

How are new drivetrain packages changing design, or constricting design freedom (electric vehicles, hybrid powertrains, even alternative fuels with the possibility of high pressure fuel containers)?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I think the new drivetrains, such as electric mobility, are around the corner. When we will get there, we’ll be able to do a completely different car design. The first outlook we gave in Frankfurt last year with the Vision EfficientDynamics. A very low and wide car, very sporty and yet it seats four people. We were only able to do it because of this new  drivetrain that uses a very small three cylinder engine combined with two electric motors. All together, those engines deliver a performance like an M3, but they are much smaller.

This is just around the corner, but it’s coming. Right now, we’re still in a phase where we’re doing hybrid cars. So you have two engines that are fairly large, like in this X6 where you have a conventional V8 engine, very powerful, then you have a big battery in the back. When you do hybrids, you need more space. As soon as we go to this  radically new drivetrains that we’re working on and things like Project i, then we will have more freedom in design.

As soon as we go to this radically new drivetrains that we’re working on and things like Project i, then we will have more freedom in design.

How have pedestrian impact standards effected the ‘F’ code cars?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: These regulations are not making our job easier, that’s for sure. I think what you can see on the F10 5 Series is that we are still able to fulfill all these regulations and make the car look like BMW, make it look really good. The F10 has a very very sporty front-end and you would never imagine that we had to fulfill all these difficult regulations. I’m very optimistic that we, together with our engineers, will still be able to build good looking cars.

But it is not getting easier, that’s for sure.

Are we going to see more cars being designed from the inside out, as we have seen with the 5 Series GT?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: It could be. Our customers expect more from their cars. They want to be able to do more with their vehicles, the 5 Series GT is a great example of a car that drives and handles like a BMW, very sporty, looks elegant from the outside, but it is much more versatile. This is the first car that we built from inside out and we would like to see how it’s being received. Until now, we’re very happy, there are more orders than we planned for at this point in time, and that’s always a good sign. But it’s still early days and if it continues, we can very well imagine doing more cars having these kind of functionality.

Besides the kidney grille and Hofmeister kink, what other design elements are common across the BMW lineup?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I think you and your readers know all of them.

Certainly, but we’re trying to introduce the new readers and fans to the brand.

Adrian Von Hooydonk: In BMW design, we always talk about proportions, surface and details, in that order. I think there is no other company like BMW that spends so much time looking at proportions, the relation between length, width and height. If you look at the new 5 Series, for example, I think that is going to be the sedan with the best proportion on the market. It has a very long wheelbase, very big wheels, the length compared to the height of the car looks really good with a very long hood. We spent a lot of time getting the proportions right.

After that, we look at surface, and of course, we are very good at making these subtle surface changes.

In BMW design, we always talk about proportions, surface and details

The 5 series doesn’t have many lines, only two of them in the body side, just like the 7 Series, the rest is sculpture. We are able to make the 5 Series look very dynamic and lightweight. Afterward come the details, we talk about the things you mentioned, kidneys, double-round headlamp with the corona rings which are going to be fed by LEDs starting with the 5 GT. Therefore, even during the day, BMWs will be easily recognizable.

You have already mentioned the Hofmeister Kink. Then we have what we call, L-shape taillights. Starting with the 7 Series, in those taillights we have included these light bars, same as we did in the Z4 and 5 GT, fed by LED, so also at night you will be able to recognize a BMW in traffic.

All of these, we call icons in BMW car design.

Would you say that the new 5 Series is making a comeback to the more classic BMW design?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: Compared to the E60, maybe the F10 is more evolutionary than revolutionary. But I think it’s an evolution in the BMW sense because this car has been developed in a direction of more elegance and sportiness. That’s exactly what BMW stands for, this combination of elegance and sportiness.

The 5 Series is the core of the brand…

The 5 Series is the core of the brand, this is the car that really defines the brand because the 5 Series is being purchased by people that drive long distances, love to drive and people that know our design history as well.

So, the 5 series has to be 120% BMW, that’s what I sometimes say and I think the new 5 Series truly is that.

What company, other than BMW, has a good handle on design?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I’m sure there are good designers in many other companies. In Europe, Renault is doing well, they have a new Dutch Design Chief, so I’m curious to see what they are going to do.

I’m just very happy to be working where I am because I think there is no other company to build a car that handles so well, and that our engineers are also able to understand what we, as designers, want.

This is unique!

If you have that, then engineers really love designers as well, therefore you get the proportions right, you get the engineers to also feel the complex shapes in metal and aluminium. I simply cannot imagine a better company to work for as a designer than BMW.

What concinnity means to BMW’s design team, how do they approach concinnity, what guides them to beauty? ( WIKI link )

Adrian Von Hooydonk: It’s a word that we use a lot. Every new BMW should be unique, recognizable as a BMW, and we already talked about how to make a car look like a BMW. Also, each BMW should have a few features that define its character. After this, what we spent a lot of time on is looking around the car and look at every side again making sure all the things are in harmony with one another.

… each BMW should have a few features that define its character

Once we have found the design idea, we spend almost an year refining it, making sure concinnity is achieved. Sometimes we only move a line by a couple of milliliters to achieve it, but the effect is something that can be quite amazing.

So that was a very good question.

Adrian Von Hooydonk: Yes, you have well informed readers and colleagues.

How does BMW ensure that the initial joy of purchasing a BMW remains once it becomes familiar to the user?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: That’s a good question also. For me, the design is the promise and then when you drive the car, we have to deliver that promise and typically, BMW does. We talked about how BMW looks like it would drive very well also; we also have sharp lines in exterior design and those are for us an expression of precision. This is a precision you will experience when you drive the car, precision in steering, shifting gears, braking, everything you operate in a BMW has very precise feedback. The design can already communicate that from the exterior, then you drive the car and you can actually experience it.

Then we of course, we look at the small details that at first, you won’t even notice. You will only notice over time. On the 7 Series, I think one such detail is around the Hofmeister Kink where we put a line above it, right in the metal. This is the biggest piece of metal in the car, so it’s really hard to accomplish from an engineering point of view.

…you will see this very subtle shape that gives the Hofmeister Kink a 3-Dimensional look.

We did it as one of those things that maybe one day, after you purchased the 7 Series and as you walk back to your car, the sun setting on it, you will see this very subtle shape that gives the Hofmeister Kink a 3-Dimensional look. Up until this point, it was a 2-Dimensional graphic. We also put many little details, like the aerodynamic feature on the taillights.

So there are a lot of things to be discovered on the car, even after several years, and one could think “This is very nice that the designers thought about this”.

What kind of car guy would you say you are?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I love design and I love cars, always loved them and enjoy driving them. I drive an M3 Coupe, so I like sporty driving as well with more compact, powerful cars. My M3 has an experimental body color on it, matte Black metallic. If you’re wondering already, then yes, you probably are going to see this paint since the M guys decided do a limited edition of the particular color materials that I specified for my car, together with my team.

What do you think will happen to automotive design in the future? What do you think of Bono from U2 saying that cars need to “get back to being sexy”? (New York Times article )

Adrian Von Hooydonk:I read his interview and was very happy since I couldn’t agree more. If you look at Vision EfficientDynamics, this was exactly our mission, the task I gave my design team. Because everybody knows that, YES, mobility will change, YES, we are going to see more hybrid and electric cars, but none of this makes sense if those cars don’t look higly desirable.

YES, it is possible to make cars that are desirable and green.

In that car, we wanted to do something that first and  foremost is very emotional, desirable. If people absolutely wanted the design, then the question about technology comes later. With that car, you can drive out of your neighborhood electrically powered, zero emission, then out in the open road, you use a conventional engine and go as fast as you are used to going with a BMW.

So YES, it is possible to make cars that are desirable and green. That’s what Bono was referring to and we are going to deliver.

What are some of your favorite BMWs of all time?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: That’s an easy question to answer. It’s the BMW 3.0CS…..that to me is still the car that has the entire BMW DNA built in it. It has sharp lines, looks very stretched, light and nimble, it has driver orientation inside, and I just think it’s very sporty and an elegant looking car.

A  beautiful car!

Of course I like the 2002 as well. I LIKE the M1, these are my favorites. And I might be a little biased now, but I like the 6 Series as well.

I wonder who designed it?! (Note: Adrian penned the 6 Series)

Since we’re on this topic with a personal approach, what other cars are in your garage?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: 2002 and a BMW classic motorcycle, R69S.

Outside of automotive design, what are some of your favorite hobbies and things to do?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: I like traveling, architecture, arts, love visiting museum, industrial design as well or designs in general. I designed more than just cars, e.g. a chair, a couch and others. And as I said, I like driving.

Since we mentioned Designworks, do you see a lot of value coming out of there?

Adrian Von Hooydonk: Designworks has a very high hit rate in terms of design. The upcoming X3 was initially drawn by a Designworks designer, so they have strong skills. They always contribute to our design competitions and get a design proposal from California as well; and they have been very succesful.

I dont think there is any other California-based studio that has been so successful. The X5, X6, first designs came from California. Many car companies have design studios in the area , but not many of these contribute to production cars.

Designworks has.

Thank you again for your time and the great answers.

Adrian Von Hooydonk: Anytime, please give my regards to your readers.

A special thanks to BMW North America for setting up the interview!