Sporting two days’ worth of stubble, a pin-striped Hugo Boss suit, and a vintage Tag Heuer watch, Adrian van Hooydonk sits at a table in a semidarkened conference room deep within DesignworksUSA’s bunkerlike headquarters in Newbury Park, California. A soft-spoken native of Echt, Holland, van Hooydonk is tall and rawboned, with a hank of brown hair that sweeps across his forehead. He is holding an Intel Personal Media Player–a kind of iPod for movies–which can store and play up to 80 hours of digital video. Developed by Designworks as a concept product to showcase Intel’s new digital-media technology, the paperback-sized device, with its twisting convex and concave surfaces, is strikingly sculptural.
“Intel asked us to create something that would get people excited,” he says. “When you put it on a table, you want people to ask one question: ‘Wow, what does it do?’ “
For more than 25 years, Designworks has created a breathtaking array of wow products: Villeroy & Boch bath fixtures; Star Trac treadmills and exercise bicycles; Ernie Ball guitars; John Deere tractors; even the seminal Nokia Communicator, one of the first cell phones to feature Internet access. Taken together, Designworks has arguably fashioned as diverse an array of products as any studio around.
But that’s not the half of it. For all of its eclecticism, Designworks is a subsidiary of the German carmaker BMW. In addition to designing industrial products, the 100-plus craftspeople who work behind Designworks’ frosted windows also design cars. They produced the exterior design of BMW’s hypermodern Z4 roadster and conceived the look and feel of BMW’s X5 sports-activity vehicle, as well as the 3 Series sedan.
Van Hooydonk is helping BMW create a new template for innovation. By combining product design with car design, he has built a talent factory for BMW. How so? For starters, BMW is a global brand that needs to live in many different cultures and contexts. Van Hooydonk understands that diversity is key to a winning performance. And so, through Designworks, he has brought all the diversity the world has to offer into the world of BMW design– Designworks’ staff members come from 14 different countries.
Something else that van Hooydonk understands: In design, as in all of business, innovation is often sparked by confronting the unfamiliar. At Designworks, product folks frequently contribute to car projects; car types often work on products. The constant round of new challenges–designing a new printing system or redesigning a computer maker’s entire product line–keeps everybody fresh.
“We want people to work on as many different products as they can,” he says. “Out of that, BMW gets what it really wants: maximum creativity.”
Van Hooydonk, who was designing cars for BMW, first connected with Designworks in 1996, one year after the carmaker bought the studio from its founder, Charles Pelly. Working on a three-month project, he was struck by the studio’s open, collaborative culture. “I knew that Designworks was the right place for me,” he says. “Ever since, I tried to find my way back.”
He succeeded in 2001, when he took the helm at Designworks. Under his tenure, the studio has evolved from a design company to an international strategic-design consultancy, adding the likes of Intel and Kyocera to its client portfolio. Now, van Hooydonk faces his biggest challenge to date: This fall, he will return to BMW’s R&D headquarters to head its automobile-brand studio. After three years of leading product-design efforts for scores of different companies, van Hooydonk will narrow his focus to cars–but he’ll bring the rest of the design world with him.