The Millimeter Difference

re:form interviews Karim Habib

PEBBLE BEACH—BMW head designer Karim Habib is explaining how his team develops new cars. We’re in a villa near the famous oceanside golf resort, here for the annual invite-only car show. Relaxed and thoughtful, in a casual blue blazer, khaki pants and carefully groomed beard, Habib is reminiscent of a French movie actor, familiar but not so famous that you’d recognize the name.

BMW has partnered with Medium’s design hub, re:form, to help explain its design process (see related article, “The Typography of Speed”). We’ve just arrived from San Francisco in a 428i Gran Coupe, on loan for this story. It’s a four-door with a surprisingly roomy trunk, meant to be practical as well as sporty — a trend these days, apparently; four-door coupes are a fast-growing segment, so much so that BMW broke out a whole new designation for the coupe vehicle class.

Habib oversaw the design of the 428i and the 4 series, which itself has sparked some controversy. Fans of the earlier 3 Series kicked up a bit of a fuss over the decision to fork the coupe class into its own designation. Many a pixel was tossed.

In the expansive parking lot, which for today encompasses much of the front lawn, detailing crews swarm around a fleet of about 30 pristine Bimmers, including a BMW i8 and a Vision concept car with a striking oversized grille and impossibly narrow headlamps.

re:form: What is your design process when you are starting a new project? Do you start with current models, and then iterate on that?

Karim Habib: Not really. There’s obviously certain things we would take over from the current model, but in general, we start from scratch.

From the very beginning, we start looking at proportions again. Before we even start drawing, we start looking at height, width, length, wheel size, overhang size in front and the rear, all of the important proportion things. If the proportions are wrong, nothing can save it.

Proportions are obviously done by a designer, but they’re not possible without engineering. So good proportions start with engineering, with where the engine is placed, and wheel size, height, all of that, that has a lot to do with the packaging, where the person sits in the car, height, and so on and so forth.

Then we start sketching and we have an internal pitch process where the whole design team sketches. Each and every one sketches his or her proposal for that particular model, and then we go through a selection process.

We select usually four models, and we do four 1:1 models, or we do the first phase completely virtual, and then we go from four to two, and then from two to one.

That usually lasts about a year and a half to two years.

How do you stress test those ideas when you’re in that phase, when you’re trying to play with very superficially minor differences that designers focus on, those really tiny details which can make a huge difference?

In car design, just a few millimeters actually really make a difference. As odd as it sounds, it is true. We do that virtually. When we have the initial package, we build a model around it, virtually, and then we compare it with other models.

Then we go through an iteration process. For example, we build the first model and we say, with the engineers, well, you know, we would like the car to be a bit lower, or we would like the front overhang to be shorter, or maybe have the possibility to have a rounder front, for example. These kinds of things are things that we do, and we usually, almost always build models because it helps to see it first.

When you’re thinking about things like wanting it lower, less over hang, what’s driving that thinking? Are you trying to anticipate the market, and saying, “Hey, we know there’s this demand now for sleeker cars, and we want to get into that zone?” Or is it something more artistic?

To be honest, the first thing we think about is brand. We try to design the brand values. In the 4 Series, the Gran Coupe is all about BMW dynamics, which means low, wide, very slim looking, very athletic looking.

Obviously, if it’s an X5, it’s quite different from a 4 Series Gran Coupe, but there are certain things that you will recognize in both cars. Not just design features, but even the way we treat proportions, it’s different from one to the other, but similar in certain ratios. There’s no mathematical formula to it, but you can see similarities in the way volumes relate to one another.

It feels like there’s a trend, generally now, among lots of car makers towards the coupe values, in terms of a sleeker profile and longer, yet lower chassis. Where does something like that come from, where everybody seemingly at once starts to pursue the same design thrust? Is that stuff just in the air?

I think in the past you had mass market brands, and they had a certain level of quality. Then you had premium brands that had different qualities. You had the ones that were focused on safety, the ones that were focused on comfort, and the ones that were focused on sportiness, with BMW being mainly focused on sportiness.

But now, I think, in general, all manufacturers actually offer a very good level of quality and safety. And I think the other premium manufacturers, or luxury manufacturers realize that those are necessary factors. They have to be there if you’re building premium or luxury cars.

If you’re buying a car and you’re spending a lot of money, you want it to have the best performance and quality and safety, these are things that have to be in every car today. You cannot sell a car where the pieces are not perfectly assembled or that doesn’t offer you, you know five-star rating in safety, even if you’re a mass market brand.

So does that mean we’re kind of merging into a commodity zone of manufacturing where everyone’s converging on the same or similar values and the differentiation becomes more stylistic?

Part of the reason, I think, why design is becoming more important to the customers, or the story behind design is that, yes, design is a big reason why you’re going to pick one car or another.

Actually, for the brand BMW, the design is the number one reason globally why people buy or don’t buy a car. I think we’re at the cusp of a new era because I don’t believe, in the future, everybody will be in one kind of thing. I think the cars are going to be varied. For example, at BMW sportiness is at the core of what we do, but we don’t believe that you should do sportiness at any cost. It has to be in harmony with the environment, and with values like lightweight and zero emissions and recyclable materials, and those are the things that we think need to be there in the luxury market, or in a premium market.

What’s your job? If you had to boil it down to an essence, what is your value add?

To use a metaphor, my favorite metaphor, I feel my role is to be like a film director. I’m in charge of a team, and we’re here to illustrate a vision. So we get, if you will, a script. The next 4 Series Gran Coupe, that’s our script, and I work with a team, let’s say you have your director of photography, your sound person, your lighting person, and so on. You have the actors. The actors are the designers, and they’re the ones who are going to be in front of the camera.

My role is to make sure that the vision and the script are there, and to formulate the vision that works around that script. That is, I believe, the best way to describe it.

If you look at how technology has changed the way films get made, do you feel that the car industry is in a similar moment? When there are these amazing new abilities to create new visions that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago?

I mean, there is a lot, and the tools that we use allow us to create these visions much faster, that’s one thing. It allows us to create, maybe, a more concrete vision as well, earlier.

For example, now we use a lot more animation where we design our cars pretty quickly in the first phase, and we put them in an environment that we know, in movement, to sort of better understand the way this design actually works. And it’s very different from the past where we used to just build a clay model, put it in the studio, and study that thing to perfection.

That’s still essential, we still do that, but I think that computer visualization has been really a great tool because it helps us understand the bigger gestures before we move to the details.

The bigger gestures are what you need to make a big difference, I think, design-wise, to make bigger steps. And today, we have to make quicker, bigger steps.

Would you say that it’s really new materials that are driving most of the innovation around new car design ideas, at this point?

There are a lot of things, actually. There are the materials, and for us, that’s very important. We believe in carbon fiber, but we also believe that it’s not just carbon fiber. It’s like an intelligent mixture of the right material at the right place, and the way we work with those materials has changed the way we design things.

But there are other factors. For example, aerodynamics: because we want to build efficient cars, that’s super important — much more important than when I started, and that has driven us to very different solutions than we’ve had in the past.

Also pedestrian safety, for example. All these laws are becoming very intense and are shaping the way we design cars.

This gets us back to the commodity question. Everybody is probably thinking about aerodynamics. Aerodynamics is physics. So do people start to converge inevitably on the same kinds of lines?

There are some basics that you will find in different cars from different companies. But like everything, the challenge is often to create something new with the same restrictions.

Like the Formula One cars, they all have a very, very precise set of rules, and there’s always some guy who comes up with a crazy solution, and that’s pretty satisfying when you do manage to do that.

Is there an example of that in some of your recent work?

Yes. On the 6 Series, it’s a subtle feature. You don’t notice it if you don’t really look closely.

For example, we usually take the bumper line with the edge of the bumper, and turn it around to the side, and do it horizontally so that it makes the car look wider.

In this case, we turned the line down, and didn’t take it around the corner just because we needed a surface in front of the front wheel. And just by doing that, it gives the car a totally different character, and that’s a little thing, but I think it’s just one of the things that makes that front typically BMW.

Actually, the interesting thing is by doing that we amplified another typical BMW feature. Most BMW’s have what we call a shark nose, where the kidneys — the grill — are angled towards the front. And with this line, on the 6 Series, we turned it around, but we gave it that same angle, so it works with the kidneys, and that way it makes the whole thing look even more like BMWs of the 70s, for example.

That really, to me, is the essence of design, thinking about these really intricate details. There’s a guy at Medium I work with who is really into typography. And the kinds of treatments that typographers get into to try to really find the optical volumes that work to perfection — it’s fascinating.

In my first semester [at Art Center of Design in Switzerland], we drew letters by hand and with brushes, just to understand the thick-to-thin, and the serif, and sans serif, and how you work with that. I will always remember this class.

A lot of guys came in and wanted to do cars, and they thought, I don’t want to draw letters, and the teacher was like…you better know how to draw letters if you want to do cars. And she was right.

Because of that sense of proportionality?

Exactly. It really is that. Proportions and line and the relationship between them. I mean you could do a letter with a tiny serif, and it’s going to look odd, so you have to be able to proportion one to the other. And if you have that, I don’t think it matters what it is, you learn proportions.

It’s not a science, and everybody will have their special way of seeing it, but those are part of the basics that I think you have to learn if you want to be a designer.

Are there elements of that…are there, like, actual letters or fonts that influenced you working on the 4 Series?

The 4 Series, especially the Gran Coupe, is one of the cars we have out there today, that is the most concentrated BMW character in one package. It was very thorough, almost perfect proportions.

Because it’s really what BMW is all about, you know? It’s a four-door coupe. It’s a very sporty car. It’s got typical BMW architecture with a very short front overhang. Obviously, the big wheels at every corner, and a long hood.

The reason why the BMWs have always had that is because we place the engine behind the front axle. So it’s physics. You put it behind the front axle, you have a long engine, it gives you a long hood. And because it’s behind the front axle, you can have a shorter front overhang.

Actually, you can trace it to the 3.0 CS. You can basically trace the same proportions that we had then to today. Or you can find a parallel. The 4 Series is one of those cars that do that really to perfection.

And there are also certain things I quite like that are a bit different. It’s got a hatch trunk. That’s one of the things I quite like about it, because you don’t quite see it, and also, BMW’s always built sporty cars, but they’ve always been practical.

The idea started in the late 60s, early 70s, of putting a sports car engine in what I know, at the time, for American taste, was a quirky, very boxy compact thing. You put in a sports car engine, and it drives almost like a racecar but it has four doors, and you have headroom, and luggage room.

I think this kind of paradox of things has always been part of BMW’s character. And the 4 Series Gran Coupe has that as well.

Then there are new aspects that are very important for us. We want our cars to look sporty. So we shaped a muscular volume above and around the rear wheels as strongly as we could to also illustrate that rear-wheel drive sportiness, that muscular character.

Then, there’s precision, which is a very important aspect for us. They are these driving machines, and BMWs have very, very precise, very clear response in the steering. You want the car to emanate that, design-wise, that it is precise to drive, and it can do precisely what you want it to do when you’re on that edge in the curve. That’s actually part of safety in a way, as well, that it responds exactly the way you expect it to.

Talk a little bit about the decision to fork the 3 and the 4 Series, and how much does the 4 still owe to the basic design of 3?

Today we have the 3 Series Coupe. The previous iteration was completely different in body style than the 3 Series Sedan, but it was similar in proportions.

And in this case, when we started the 4 Series, we first started with proportions, and we knew we wanted to make it much sportier than the previous 3 Series Coupe. So we actually made the car lower and wider and longer.

So, then, when you have a car that’s lower, wider, longer than the 3 Series, then you start thinking if it’s appropriate that it’s still called a 3 Series. In the end, that’s what happened. It just made sense that it was something more, because it is more car than the 3 Series.

You were talking about how we may be on the cusp of a very frothy period of new design ideas in cars. What kinds of things do you think might emerge out of that? Do you have any specific ideas?

I can talk about our show car, Vision Future Luxury. It is literally a vision. It’s our way of bringing all of our ideas into one vehicle, and we do that for different reasons. We do that, sometimes, to test our own ideas, and see if they’re well perceived or not, within and without the company, because show cars also have a pretty strong effect within the company in sort of mobilizing the forces.

The amazing thing, for me, about showing this car here today is that the first Vision show car we did was called the Vision EfficientDynamics, which actually became the BMW i8.

It did not look very different from the BMW i8, and that’s still amazing to me, people still don’t quite believe that that’s a production car. I think that’s the strength of Vision show cars, and it’s the strength of BMW that we usually don’t show something that we can’t build.

Here, what was interesting to us, the reason why we decided to build this car, is that when you talk about BMW, you usually don’t say luxury, you don’t associate BMW with luxury, per se, because the connotation of luxury has often to do with, sort of, weight, and lots of leather, and lots of wood, and plush seats and things like that, and BMW is more premium, more about sportiness and driving experience.

But what we said is that we believe the brand can grow above the 7 Series. It could be a 9 Series or a 10 Series, but if we do that, it’s not just about more mass, it’s about innovation.

For example, laser headlamps. The BMW i8 is the first car ever in production with laser headlamps. Here, we wanted to use that, and laser headlamps give us the ability to have much slimmer, much thinner headlamps.

Through these very thin headlamps, with these very big kidneys, you create a very different presence, a very different identity, and the kidneys are also big, because we want presence.

It was a big thing, to be honest, as we were designing [the headlamps], because we were wondering, just at the end, if it is going to look too thin, and then it starts looking a bit odd. But it’s on the border, and I think that’s what’s cool about it.

This car is also, if you will, an expression of our manifesto: “precision in poetry.” We talked about precision and why it’s so important for BMW. So you see these very thorough, very simple lines going front to rear with as small a radius as possible. The edges are very clean.

Then, the surfaces in between, it’s all about sensual play of light and surfaces, the poetry aspect. Why poetry? It may be a bit of a metaphor for the fact that if you buy a BMW it’s because you want a certain experience. You wanted to create a certain emotion, and that’s an illustration of that emotion.

Are there other elements of the car that are concepts, in terms of the engine, or any of the engineering of the car?

The other thing, which is a big thing with this car, and a very important thing for our future is connectivity and information.

So BMW’s a brand that’s obviously about driving, first and foremost, but today, and in the future, you can’t offer a car that doesn’t allow you to have all your life information seamlessly be in your car.

You have to have whatever it is you need, whether it’s emails or whatever communication necessary. But we were asking ourselves the question, how do you do it? Especially if driving is still supposed to be the most important thing you do when you’re in the car, when you’re not in automated driving.

You have a head-up display, and you have the instrument display in front of you, and you have a center display in the middle, and we created a display as well for the passenger.

Our idea was, as designers, our job has to do with information. We have the advantage that we don’t have everything just on one tablet. We have these different displays, and our job is to choreograph the amount of information that the passenger or driver gets in the right place at the right time.

It’s something quite new for us. Quite challenging. We’re still learning a lot, but that’s the future of interacting with cars. That is definitely the new frontier for us, and what better for designers than a new challenge.

Photos by Matthew Reamer