The CAR In­qui­si­tion: Mini’s de­signer

New de­sign chief Oliver Heilmer be­lieves fu­ture Mi­nis should pri­ori­tise char­ac­ter and clever pack­ag­ing, with­out be­ing con­strained by the past

CAR (UK) - - Contents -

JUST OVER A year ago, BMW Group de­sign boss Adrian van Hooy­donk ad­mit­ted to CAR that of all the brands un­der his re­mit it was Mini – at that time with­out a head of de­sign – that re­quired the most help. ‘I think it’s the one that needs the big­gest push,’ he told us. ‘After its re­launch, Mini stayed on its track for just a lit­tle too long. Now it’s time to make a de­par­ture.’

While Mini keeps grow­ing – it topped 360,000 sales world­wide in 2016, and neared 380,000 in 2017 – some afi­ciona­dos be­lieve that the brand has strayed too far from its orig­i­nal ethos; the cur­rent range is too big, as are the cars them­selves.

In Septem­ber 2017, group vet­eran Oliver Heilmer was brought in from his role as pres­i­dent of BMW’s De­sign­works divi­sion in LA to take Mini to its next stage. He’ll be lead­ing the change – but in which di­rec­tion?

‘For me, it’s less about whether Mini is a small-car brand and more about work­ing to ful­fil cus­tomers’ fu­ture needs,’ he be­gins. ‘In the late ’50s there was a spe­cific need for Is­sigo­nis to in­vent that size of car, but maybe fu­ture de­mands will be dif­fer­ent. And it was just one car. The ad­van­tage we have is a range of spe­cific

char­ac­ters within the brand. The small one has to stay small but with the oth­ers we are able to ex­pand into other mar­kets where size is not the big­gest is­sue. That’s why the Coun­try­man is so suc­cess­ful. If you have a fam­ily it’s a fan­tas­tic car; the Club­man too.’

On that ba­sis, could a Mini big­ger than the Coun­try­man be on the cards for the US, where the Coun­try­man still ap­pears small?

‘I think any Mini should feel “mini” and be a re­ally clever use of space. Mak­ing cars big­ger but keep­ing the same con­cept is not a clever thing. And we have the BMW X1, so nat­u­rally we’d like to avoid over­lap­ping.’

What about some of those retro fea­tures in­spired by older Mi­nis that have had mixed suc­cess – such as the tog­gle switches (now ditched), the car­toon­ish, ever-ex­pand­ing cen­tre dial and the Club­man’s rear barn doors? Is Heilmer con­cerned too many Mini fea­tures try too hard to be dif­fer­ent when cus­tomers sim­ply need more prac­ti­cal­ity? ‘My aim is to do things that are pur­pose­ful, au­then­tic and easy to un­der­stand. I strongly be­lieve that has to be the fu­ture. As for the dial, there are many things that could af­fect it, such as speech, ges­ture and touch, so it’s not de­fined yet. The Vi­sion Next 100 con­cept didn’t even have a screen.’

Mi­nis are cur­rently de­signed in Mu­nich by a 40-strong team, and a per­ma­nent UK stu­dio for this quintessen­tially Bri­tish brand isn’t on Heilmer’s wish­list, al­though he does con­cede it’s a valid ques­tion: ‘In terms of un­der­stand­ing the cul­ture, we run projects here and have reg­u­lar con­tact with our UK-based agen­cies.’

So, what’s most im­por­tant to Heilmer? ‘You fall in love with a prod­uct be­cause of the hu­man touch within its de­sign,’ says the man who ap­pre­ci­ates the func­tion of ar­chi­tect Mies van der Rohe as well as the fea­si­ble fan­tasy of good sci-fi books and films. ‘It could be in the ex­e­cu­tion or the ma­te­ri­als. And the more you re­duce the ge­om­e­try, which I be­lieve in, the more you have to take care of the de­tails. Our team is not com­ing from the clas­sic path of ex­te­rior, in­te­rior, colour and trim and then vi­su­al­i­sa­tion. It’s the other way around. The user ex­pe­ri­ence is how we “go in” now.’

Heilmer is en­thu­si­as­tic about the 2019 pro­duc­tion Mini EV – ‘tech­nol­ogy, com­bined with that char­ac­ter and size of car is unique’ – and fur­ther off, Vi­sion Next 100 ideas such as AI, mem­ber­ship-not-own­er­ship and greater per­son­al­i­sa­tion.

The op­por­tu­nity for Mini as an elec­tric and con­nected ur­ban brand is huge. The chal­lenge for Heilmer will be de­liv­er­ing glob­ally de­sir­able de­signs while skil­fully tread­ing the line be­tween au­then­tic her­itage and nasty pas­tiche.

GUY BIRD

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