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Gert Hildebrand, chief designer for MINI, is somewhat taken aback when asked to talk about the design of the new MINI, the second generation of the product since becoming a part of the BMW Group. “You shouldn’t talk about design,” he insists. You should look at it. Design should be self-explanatory.”
And while arguably the new MINI is somewhat self-explanatory—that is, it hews very closely to its predecessor, particular on the exterior—Hildebrand’s approach to design is worth understanding.
Hildebrand said that they started working on the vehicle back in 2001-2002, when the first vehicle was still new. “An early decision we made was that we didn’t want to change it dramatically, that we wanted to have an evolutionary design process.” He cites the examples of vehicles like the Porsche 911 and the VW Golf, cars that have advanced through gradual though perceptible changes, or what Hildebrand describes as “steps big enough to create desire, but safe enough to have recognizability for the customers.”
In fact, the perceptions of customers are crucial to Hildebrand’s approach to design. Speaking of when changes are proposed during a development program, he says, “When we go through the design process with my team, I question them until they convince me they’ve done something for a reason, not just because ‘I like it.’ ‘I like it’ is not enough. The customer has to like it. My designers don’t have to like it.”
He suggests that one of the problems that some vehicle manufacturers have is that they are too frequently changing their designs. “I was born in ’53, and I saw cars from Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes having a constant design development, and I saw the Fords and the Opels and the French cars changing every year. Who survives the best?” Hildebrand suggests that the vehicle manufacturers that make regular and massive changes to their products actually risk losing customers because the customer feels that what is a “new” car to him is suddenly old because there is a completely different version.
Hildebrand says that there is a distinct difference between “styling,” which he interprets as being more along the lines of art as in Art pour l’amour d’art, and design, which relates more to more of a functional, technical point of view, one wherein there are defined boundaries. “It is very easy for me or any other designer to work on a white piece of paper. But that is not what a customer wants and what our job is.”
Rather, “We serve the product and the brand, and that has a certain potential and a certain form language. My job is to analyze the potential and the uniqueness that makes this brand and this product. It is not my job to create the Hildebrand or the MINI design that’s my personal twist. My job is not to make my own monument.”
Yes, there is a case to be made for change, Hildebrand admits: when there are changes in technology (new materials, electronics, etc.) or in regulations (e.g., the new MINI was lengthened, in part, to accommodate pedestrian safety regulations). “Then it makes sense to change something. But not styling for no other reason than to change.”