Future by Design

Creative consultancy Designworks envisions the next frontier.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Darren Yasukochi

The striking BMW i8 in the studio. The hybrid electric sports car embodies the style, sophistication and innovation that are hallmarks of the Designworks aesthetic.

"Design has to imagine the future,” says Laura Robin. “People have to put their imaginations into something that’s not out there yet.” 

Robin is the studio director for Designworks, a global design consultancy in Newbury Park. From the minds of its designers, engineers, modelers, researchers, strategists and other industrial design professionals spring inspiration for products that affect the way we live — everything from cosmetic tools to furniture to automobiles — today and in the years to come. For Designworks, the future is now . . . and the studio intends to bring the rest of us up to speed.

Robin describes this concept of constantly thinking decades ahead as Fixstern (“fixed star” in German), and it’s been Designworks’ operating principle for many years. Under this premise, new ideas are first imagined within a “future context,” Robin says. That means taking into consideration things like emerging technologies, consumer needs (and expectations), economics, the environment. “We’re designing to a 10- to 15-year mark,” she explains. “You have to understand the future at a really meta level.” Within that context, designs must reflect something modern and innovative. “Our designers draw on a highly developed intuition for visual newness,” Robin says, “and create a new future expression that is at once emotional and functional.”

Fixstern is a BMW design philosophy as well; Designworks has been part of the BMW Group since 1995. Founded in 1972 by Charles “Chuck” Pelly in Malibu, the independent studio had a reputation for innovative design, particularly in the field of ergonomics. Clients included Otis Elevator Company, Nokia, Adidas and Siemens as well as BMW, which acquired Designworks in 1995 after nearly a decade of collaboration. 

The studio still operates a robust consultancy side (it’s designed a variety of consumer and industrial products, for companies like Revlon, Panasonic, Puma and Singapore Airlines), but some of its most visionary work has been in the service of its parent company. Cross-fertilization among Designworks studios in Munich, Shanghai and California helps with this. “Global is important for us,” Robin says. “All three studios work in all spheres and share their knowledge. Designworks is windows on the world for BMW Design Group.”

Designworks has been responsible for significant shifts in the luxury carmaker’s designs. It was instrumental in creating BMW’s X models — “Sport Activity Vehicles” based on the SoCal lifestyle that were BMW’s stylish answer to the SUV. And it was deeply involved in the initial development of the BMW i electric vehicles. 

But it’s the studio’s conceptual (i.e., not available on the market) work that is the most exciting. 

The BMW Group DesignworksUSA E-Patrol (Human-Drone Pursuit Vehicle) seems like something straight out of science fiction. Designed for the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show Design Challenge, “Highway Patrol Vehicle 2025,” this vision for an ultramodern, aerodynamic vehicle was built for speed and maneuverability, and featured integrated drone technology. 

More recently, Designworks played a key role in the design and development of the BMW i Inside Future sculpture, which debuted at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in January. This model of a car interior showcases BMW’s vision for the future of driving — which it expects to be autonomous, at least in part. The result is something like a lounge on wheels. It’s roomy, for one thing, and BMW presented it with throw pillows, a bookshelf and other homey touches. “We’re creating a new experience in a roomlike space,” Robin says of Inside Future. “We’re designing for something other than moving from point A to point B.” 

There’s a direct line between Inside Future and BMW’s VISION NEXT 100 project, undertaken in 2016 in celebration of the company’s 100-year anniversary. These concept cars are not available to consumers, but they represent the direction BMW intends to head in “the next 100 years” to come. “It was a collaboration to reinterpret something,” Designworks President Oliver Heilmer says of the project. Heilmer came on in August after three years as the head of BMW’s Interior Design Group in Munich, and has been heavily involved with NEXT 100 since its inception. “We wanted to show iconic change based on BMW principles. What does this car look like in 30 years? Not just a vehicle with four wheels, but an entire concept . . . something with intelligence.”

And by intelligence, he means real-time information — speed, navigation, driving conditions, the movement of other vehicles on the road and more — provided on the windshield by the Companion, a digital “assistant” built into the vehicle that intuits the driver’s needs (and has some capacity to learn from input it receives to better “understand” the driver). This information is meant to improve the driver’s performance and pleasure during fully automated driving.

But Heilmer also pictures a future where driving is optional, and many of the NEXT 100 features are meant to support this reality as well. “BMW is the ultimate driving machine,” he says, “but this is something different. What if you’re not driving? There is duality in the car — Boost and Ease Modes. The geometry of the car changes based on the mode, and the environment.” Boost Mode provides a configuration for enhanced driving, with suitable information displayed. In Ease Mode, the steering wheel retracts, seat configuration changes and the Companion provides information on places of interest, taking attention away from the road so that the driver can relax and be entertained. 

The futuristic GINA Light Visionary Model plays with reconfiguration, too. This shape-shifting sports vehicle has a (waterproof and durable) fabric body that alters its structure according to exterior conditions and speed, taking on an anthropomorphic quality, with an exterior that moves like skin and headlights that mimic eyelids opening and closing. “What if steel wasn’t an option?” Robin posits as the design philosophy. 

What keeps these far-out projects rooted in reality is a carefully calibrated relationship between man and machine. The human element always comes first at Designworks. No matter how technical a design might be, the product must serve its customer and operate on a very personal level. “Design is about creating an emotional connection,” Robin says. Heilmer agrees, adding, “There’s always this effort to bring emotion and aesthetics into the technology.” 

Designworks’ involvement with the Olympics is a perfect example. The studio developed a two-man bobsled for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, in which “The U.S. men’s team broke a 60-year medal drought,” says Brad Cracchiola, associate director. But the racing wheelchairs used in the 2016 Paralympic Games posed an even bigger design challenge. “The wheelchair is a very intimate piece of equipment for the athlete,” Cracchiola says. Involving the athletes themselves throughout the two-year process, Designworks carefully studied how team members used their wheelchairs, and determined each racer’s individual needs. Cracchiola and his team hit on a mix of high-tech design, ergonomics and customization (custom body molds and 3-D printed gloves, for example) to completely reimagine the mobility device. “We reinvented the wheelchair,” Cracchiola says with pride.

Not just what athletes race, but how. Not just the shape of a car, but the experience of driving it. What technologies will be available decades from now, and how will they ultimately serve the people that rely on them? These are the questions Designworks asks. And in answering them, designers look beyond the blueprint to something more visceral, anchored by flesh and blood and emotion. In placing people before product, Designworks reminds us that while the future may already be here, it’s still ours to command. 

For more information, visit Designworks at 

Designworks “reinvented” the racing wheelchair used for the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio, crafting an aerodynamic personal mobility device that works seamlessly with the athlete.

BMW’s shape-shifting GINA Light Visionary Model, a concept car encased in a fabric body with the ability to alter its configuration.

The U.S. men’s two-man bobsled team broke a decades-long medal drought in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in a bobsled developed by Designworks.

The BMW bobsled in action.

Interaction Designer Franziska Lang experiments with immersive technology during an interior experience workshop.

Collaboration is a key component of Designworks’ creative process. Front to back: Daniel Hahn (Creative Director, Automotive), Matthew Potter (Creative Director, Interaction Design) and Echo Kao (Senior Designer, Color Materials and Finishes) discuss BMW i Inside Future with President Oliver Heilmer.


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