FRANKFURT, Germany – It’s the end of our interview and BMW’s top designer, Adrian van Hooydonk, leans across the table and reaches for the notepad he’s been sketching on.
“These maybe no, huh?” he says, and slowly tears two sheets off the notepad and tucks them into the pocket of his suit. Short of grabbing the paper out of his hands and making an embarrassing dash for the door, there’s nothing I can do. He must’ve been planning this.
“Nope, these are not good enough,” he says.
“I need it for the story,” I plead.
“It’s not good enough!”
“But, it’s supposed to be a drawing lesson,” I demand.
“There’s better books about that,” he replies.
“You’re the head designer of a big company, you’re still worried about not being good enough?”
“No, I want to be fair to my designers. I lead a team of 500 designers and they do great sketches, so I don’t want to be in the press with a crappy one, because my team will go – and it’s not the buying public – my team will go, ‘Here we are, working day and night to make the most beautiful sketches and he’s giving us criticism that the perspective is not right and look what he does!’ Okay? That’s what I want to avoid.”
Hooydonk took the Director of BMW Group Design position in 2009 following the resignation of his boss, the controversial Chris Bangle. So far, it would seem Hooydonk has reversed popular perception* of BMW’s cars from, “weird!” to “oooohhh.” From Bangle’s deconstructivist designs come Hooydonk’s neoclassicism.
(*This writer, though, always admired Bangle’s work. His cars at BMW had a visible influence on nearly every design from every big manufacturer that has come since. Bangle moved the game on. But, I digress.)
Getting a designer to sketch isn’t as easy as getting a racercar driver to do hotlaps. There’s a bit of negotiation involved. When Hooydonk and his PR handler sit down for our brief interview, I hand him a notepad and a pen. Hooydonk knows what’s coming, and he’s weary.
“I don’t want it to end up on eBay or something like that,” he says. He doesn’t know me, I don’t know him. It has been known to happen – hacks selling press kits, branded hats, and whatever other free crap they can get their hands on. And so, lets get this out of the way now, the sketch is not for sale.
The first thing Hooydonk does is politely reject the pen I offer and instead pulls out his own marker. I wonder if he always keeps it in his jacket pocket?
On choosing the right tools
“I leave the designers free to choose their own tools. And over time you develop your own style and your favourite tools. It’s all about coming up with good ideas, and I don’t want to tell the designers what to think, and how to think it, and how to sketch it. They should come up with good ideas. That’s what matters most.”
And then, Adrian van Hooydonk puts marker to paper. When BMW’s top designer does this, people begin to linger over the table, look over his shoulder – everyone wants to see what the next 10 years of BMW might look like.
“I just start somewhere,” he explains while he scribbles. “This is a perspective I often use. Of course, it’s gonna be a BMW.” It takes a moment, but his hastily drawn lines quickly materialize into a car. When he outlines the kidney-shaped grill, it’s obvious this is a head-on view of the front.
“I like this kind of perspective. It would, lets say, be what you would see in the rearview mirror,” he says, looking up from the sketch only occasionally. “For BMW, I think it’s important. We call it ‘overtaking prestige’ – and you want it. You have good brakes, but you don’t want to use them when you’re on the Autobahn – that’s the idea.”
Hooydonk speaks with a distinctly un-corporate sort of voice. Certainly not like any CEO I’ve encountered. His English carries an obvious German accent, and maybe a hint of his native Dutch too, but he has this laid-back tone, a relaxed, thoughtful rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place on a surf beach in Southern California. One look at the impeccably tailored skinny grey suit though, and the illusion is gone.
“To do a design you can’t just sit there and think it all up in your head and sketch it. It’s not like that, like a mathematical problem that you have to work out in your head and then you write down the solution. It is something that you have to get into this state of… yeah, some call it flow or whatever, where you have all the things in your head that you want to do or solve, but then you have to maybe almost forget about them and start sketching. And then it will come.”
“And actually – you should also try this – what I tell my designers is not to judge, and this is very hard because I’m being filmed and all that, but you should not judge what you’re sketching while you’re sketching it. Because that’s really going to cramp your style. You need to be so relaxed that you don’t care. When you’re no longer thinking about what you’re actually doing then you do the best work.” Hooydonk is prone to these sort of professorly quotes.
On knowing when to stop
Hooydonk’s sketch is looking pretty finished, but he keeps adding shadows and details and fleshing it out.
“Oh, yeah, this is the danger. If I continue this then I will ruin it. But, okay, like I said, it’s hard knowing when to stop. Some designers do it all in one go. But for the most part, it’s an iterative process. You do a sketch, you go home, you do another sketch, or 10 sketches or 100 sketches until late at night. You think you’ve got it all figured out and next morning, you come in and you look at it, and you’re like, ‘no, that’s not right.’ And you start changing again. But that’s normal.”
On the most interesting phase of the design process
“The most interesting phase in a design program is when you go from 2D, from sketch, to the 3D. It comes alive.” He motions towards his sketch. “Here you are dealing with lines in two dimensions. That’s fairly easy. When you have that same line on the bonnet of a car, it curves this way, it curves that way in all directions. And then, it’s much harder to control that curve. You have to control the curve precisely because you want to have tension from every viewing angle. It should never have a wriggle or something like that, or it should never look saggy or you know, lazy."
On working with the engineers
“It’s not difficult to work with the engineers because they are all highly motivated people that love cars at BMW. And, they want the car to be beautiful in the end. They want to take it home and show it off to their family and say, ‘I worked on this.’ And if the family says, well…. You know, then they have a lot to answer to. So, you know, they want to help us in a sense.”
On controversy, taking responsibility, and Bangle
Many of the same critics who bashed Bangle and applauded Hooydonk fail to realize it was Hooydonk who actually penned many of those designs – including the much ridiculed “Bangle Butt” rear end of the 2002-2008 7 Series.
“Yeah, I drew it,” Hooydonk says. “I think that it moved the game on. I think that it moved BMW on. I am happy that those cars sold well. I am aware that it was criticized, as well.”
“[Bangle] had to take responsibility because when you’re the boss you take the responsibility. That’s just the way it is. I’m in this roll now. So whatever happens under Mini, Rolls-Royce and BMW, I get the praise or I get the criticism. The praise I give to the team, the criticism I guess stays with me. That’s the way it works.”
“But, what I learned from it was that the BMW brand is something that we don’t own. It is so well known that it has become part of the public domain. And it means that everybody, even people that don’t buy our products, has an opinion or a feeling towards this brand. This is actually a good position to be in. There’s many brands that people don’t care about.”
On the state of design and the evolution of green
“By nature, I’m an optimist. I always think we can make things better. That’s sort of what drives you as a designer. Otherwise, you couldn’t design yourself out of a paper bag, lets say. So, in that sense, I see now a lot of technological changes and as a result, I see more opportunity to do different or new types of vehicles.”
He uses the upcoming i3 and i8 as examples. Both hybrids (one city car, the other a pure sports car) use a singular carbon-fibre monocoque frame on top of a metal chassis that hold the batteries. The i3's hybrid system is actually optional, so buyers with a short commute can order the car as a pure, 10-percent electric EV.
“The market opportunity will be premium electric mobility. What do we need to do? Our engineers then came up with carbon-fibre structure, big wheels – it led to a completely different architecture and we did this design, which is I think very futuristic and radical.”
“Design can communicate so much. Design can even communicate what kind of technology is underneath without really people having to dig deep into how it really works.” (You can see the cars for yourself in our gallery above.)
On the easiest way to draw a car
“Car design happens a lot in side view. And so, I would start like this. You know, there you go.” He sketches one line with a hump in the middle, a couple circles. It looks like a sports car. “It can be done pretty easily. And then, you can turn that into a perspective. Just by adding.” He adds lines to the side of the profile view, so we’re now looking down on the car. “These are sort of some basics that you learn in design school.”
“In the beginning for design students, you say, don’t do too complicated perspectives because you’ll be struggling getting the perspectives right and all the while you won’t be thinking of design.”
“And then, in the end of course, it’s going to be about more adventurous perspectives.” He gets quiet as a starts drawing something more abstract. “I don’t know if I can still do it. Maybe I can.” Quiet again. A radical front three-quarter view emerges. “And then of course you have these perspectives where cars are flying or something, then it’s more exciting. Those are the sketches that we like to see more because it’s more spectacular. But, I wouldn’t advise people to start with that.”
Our time is up, but Hooydonk wants to keep drawing, to keep talking it seems like. His PR handler is checking her watch, looking at her Blackberry. These last few sketches are the pages he will eventually rip of the notepad because he thinks they’re not good enough.