Creative Drive

BMW’s Designworks/USA studio has a formula for profitable creativity that involves working on everything from tractors to goggles. Which may be why it designs such cool cars.


Henrik Fisker noses the silver-and-red BMW Z-8 up a Northbound ramp and onto L.A.’s Ventura Freeway: In less time than it takes to grip the sides of your leather seat. He’s got the car slammed into sixth and hurtling past 100 MPH, and there’s a wide grin spread across his face.


Fisker slows down (whew!) and settles in at the speed limit as he explains his theory of creativity, taking America’s roadways to task. “Here, it is all about limits,” complains the Denmark native. “You get dulled, because you have the responsibility taken away from you. You can only go so fast. In Europe, I go as fast as I want, but I’m responsible for what I do. So that means I focus only on driving.”

Given that our bullet ride in the sensuous roadster, designed by Fisker and featured in the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, comes on the heels of an hour-long discussion about the need for time and reflection in the creative process, Fisker’s yen for speed seems antithetical to his convictions. But it is this combination of contemplation mixed with velocity that has made BMW’s Designworks/USA studio in Newbury Park, California — where Fisker, 38, has presided as president and CEO since last year — a profitable design center. Indeed, at Designworks, BMW’s U.S. design headquarters, the drive for profit may actually serve to spark creativity.

“We have to compete with the rest of the world,” Fisker says. “It keeps us efficient. If design isn’t profitable, then it’s art.” Designworks knows the difference. After all, they created the initial styling concept for the 3 Series sedan — BMW’s current number-one seller.

Car design, which usually takes place deep inside huge companies not known for being nimble, has traditionally been a cost center for auto manufacturers, not a source of revenue. But Designworks, which was bought by BMW in 1995, has a long history of pulling creativity out of its designers while also boosting profit margins. The studio’s founder, veteran industrial designer Charles Pelly, started Designworks with just that in mind some 30 years ago. But Fisker and his boss, BMW design chief and Pelly protégé Chris Bangle, have supercharged this philosophy of profitable creativity.

Part of their success has come from handing over the burdens of administrative duties — which typically bog down car designers — to the project managers. “We want to pull out the essence of the person,” Fisker says. “In most businesses, you promote managers, and they take on new tasks. Not here. I want my designers to design. That’s the career path.”

The other key to the studio’s success is that beyond the work on automobiles, designers are given a variety of external projects to work on, everything from ski goggles to tractors. In fact, BMW requires that 50% of Designworks’ business come from outside clients, a roster that currently includes Adidas and Peterbilt. In the very cyclical world of car manufacturing, such work is helpful when times are tough. But it also energizes designers.


“The challenge is the unknown,” says Greg Brew, Designworks’ director of transportation design (that is, everything that isn’t a car). One of Brew’s first assignments was to work on refurbishing the interior of a Boeing 747 — even though he knew nothing about airplane design.

That’s the sort of project that gives Designworks — and, by osmosis, BMW — insight into areas that are off-limits to most in-house auto-design departments. Instead of just reading up on furniture and interior design, Designworks lives with these processes every day. And that kind of knowledge spreads across the entire company — giving scale and scope to the often elusive creative process.

The advanced-communications unit, for example, is working on virtual realities, including short films about what life may be like in 20 or 30 years. For designers, this is the ultimate test of their creativity. Says unit head Alec Bernstein: “You give them the parameters of the project. Then you just let them imagine.”

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Sidebar: Design Principal

Chris Bangle, BMW’s design chief, is known for shielding his designers from the ugly world of balance sheets. So how does he square his warm-and-fuzzy design philosophy with the gritty world of profit? With three little words.

Understand. In the car business, cutting costs often means cutting time out of the design process. But Bangle builds in time for reflection, because he thinks it’s important — to his customers: “How would you feel if a chef walked out and said, ‘I cooked your meal in 15 seconds in the microwave’? Our customer may be looking at that car for 50 years — it’s a BMW, after all — so I want my designers to put 50 years of understanding into the vehicle.”


Believe. Bangle isn’t much for “being teamy.” But he makes a point of pairing up engineers and finance experts with members of the design team to hang out at car shows and other events. Why? On the business side, it helps the suits understand what the designers are doing. Plus, it’s good for designers to have a friend or two who sees why you must use leather that costs three times more than the budget calls for.

See. “Humans need time to get used to newness,” even if that’s something that they themselves created. If you don’t give designers time to get comfortable with their own creation, they will keep second-guessing the curve of a roof or the shape of a grill — even after it’s been cast in metal. By then it’s too late or too costly to implement those changes that would make the design perfect.

Contact Chris Bangle by email (