BMW: Driven by Design

Chris Bangle and his design gurus are the creative engine inside the hottest car company in the world. But BMW’s most breathtaking design may well be its strategy for growth. At the height of its success, when many of its rivals are hunkering down, BMW is making risky bets and unveiling a collection of bold new models. Who says you shouldn’t mess with success?

The room is called, appropriately enough, the Penthouse. It takes up about 14,000 square meters atop the Forschungs- und Innovationszentrum, better known as the FIZ, BMW’s sprawling, glass-and-steel R&D center in Munich, Germany. The Penthouse stands empty, save for a lone car cloaked in silver canvas. Parked on the west side of the room, the car is backed by floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal a great dome of sky filled with roiling thunderheads. Standing next to the car is a 45-year-old native of Wausau, Wisconsin named Chris Bangle.


Blond, blue-eyed, and bearded, Bangle is carefully assembled in a gray pin-striped suit, a blue-and-white-striped shirt, and a tie bearing a jazzy geometric pattern. He has a hardwired intensity about him, and his words take on an even greater urgency as he lifts a corner of the canvas and begins to assist in what can only be described as a striptease.

Bangle reveals first the wheels of the car, then its flanks, and on up to the hood, all the while acting as a kind of master of ceremonies in overdrive: “We call this ‘flame design’ . . . the splines hold the tension . . . these are surfaces that move; it’s ‘ooh, here we go’ . . . proportion, surface, and detail all convey emotion, and yet they are all under control . . . control, control, control — it’s the most important thing.” But then he stops. It turns out that this is a bit of a strip but more of a tease, for Bangle resists baring the entire car, BMW’s 2003 Z4 sports convertible. There will be no full-frontal display of the Z4 before it makes its official debut at the Paris auto show in late September. At the push of a button, the Z4 takes a slow turn on a revolving platform. “This is it!” Bangle exclaims. “An absolutely hyper-modern roadster, full of mega-emotion.”

Bangle is amped about the Z4 — as well he should be. He oversaw the team that designed it. As BMW’s chief of design, Bangle leads all 250 of the German carmaker’s design engineers and artists, color experts, ergonomic specialists, materials scientists, clay modelers, and computer wizards, all of whom work in the FIZ and in the company’s Designworks/USA subsidiary, located in southern California. Ultimately, he is the point man for the look and feel of every car and motorcycle that bears BMW’s distinctive blue-and-white roundel, as well as the Mini brand and, as of next year, the ultra-luxury Rolls-Royce.


Every model launch at every car company represents a big bet, and the Z4 is no exception: It took a minimum of $1 billion to design and engineer the coupe and ready it for production. But there’s far more at stake here than return on investment. The Z4 is BMW’s radical follow-up to the January launch of its redesigned flagship, the 7 Series luxury sedan, which is arguably the most controversial model that the German carmaker has ever put before the public. Taken together, the Z4 and the 7 are at the forefront of a make-or-break attempt by BMW to reinvent its entire spectrum of cars. Such a gamble arrives at a perilous moment in Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s 86-year history: The company is coming off of a record-breaking year. And as anyone in the car business will tell you, nothing is tougher than surpassing past success.

Just consider this: While the U.S. auto market was down 1.3% in 2001, BMW posted a 10% sales gain in the United States and a 12% gain worldwide. In the United States, BMW roared past Mercedes-Benz to become the second-best-selling premium brand behind Lexus. And it beat all automakers in PricewaterhouseCoopers’s annual survey on shareholder return.

At a time when many global companies are hunkering down and retrenching, BMW is moving forward, placing a big bet that it has a winning design for future growth. Companies typically take risks because there is no other option: Their backs are against the wall and there’s no choice but to change. BMW is making bold moves at the very peak of its success. “Carmakers are running up against a very tough choice,” observes brand analyst Will Rodgers, cofounder of SHR Perceptual Management. “Either they protect their market share and play not to lose, like GM and Toyota, or they go all out, place some big bets, and play to win. BMW is playing to win.”


BMW’s Design for the Future

It’s just around midnight, and Bangle is lingering over a Weiss beer in a trendy Munich restaurant. He is thinking about Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned author and paleontologist who died this past May. Or rather, he is thinking about Gould’s controversial theory known as punctuated equilibrium, which argues that evolution proceeds slowly, but not always steadily; it is sometimes interrupted by sudden, rapid change. Bangle believes that cars evolve in a similar fashion. And he is convinced that BMWs are entering a period of abrupt, accelerated change in their own evolution.

“When you spend an enormous amount of money developing a new model, you don’t just throw all that money out the window seven years later and do something completely different,” he says. “Instead, you refine the car, you improve it, and you get your money out of it. Ultimately, you develop two generations of cars that are very close in their evolutionary nature. But then, 14 years later, the conditions have changed so radically — competitive pressures, technological advances, safety and environmental regulations, consumer preferences — that it’s time to make the big jump.”

For BMW, it’s time to make that jump. The company is resisting the lemming-like move of so many carmakers to target every sector of the industry and pump out high volumes of product. BMW has mapped out a different route, attacking one end of the industry: the high end. The company’s new chairman and CEO, Helmut Panke, explains BMW’s decision to stick with what it knows best: “I cannot recall having ever seen a clear and convincing correlation between size and success. At the moment, it seems as though the greater the size, the greater the number of problems. Our own goal is clear: to be the leader in every premium segment of the international automotive industry.”


BMW’s executives are gambling that a profound shift among consumer preferences will mean that in the next decade, the worldwide market for luxury cars could grow by as much as 50%. (BMW expects that the demand for mass-market cars will grow by just 25%.) “The car market seems to be bifurcating between more expensive, prestige products and very inexpensive, high-volume products,” says Tom Purves, chairman and CEO of BMW North America. “The middle ground is the killing fields — the worst business to be in. You have to achieve enormous numbers to make any money at all.”

With a global recession under way and many carmakers awash in red ink, BMW has decided that now is the time to unleash an extraordinary product offensive on the luxury and near-luxury end. In the early 1980s, it produced four lines of cars: the 3, 5, 6, and 7 Series. Within the next six years, it will break out 20 new models and 3 new engine series, including the 1 Series, which will target young buyers; a new 6 Series, which will be aimed squarely at high-end Mercedes models; an X3, which will take on premium SUVs; variants of the Mini; and a new generation of super-luxury Rolls-Royces.

The redesigned 7 Series is leading the charge, and it has met with plenty of return fire. Bangle’s design team reshaped the 7’s back end by raising the trunk lid and widening the opening. It also introduced a digitized system, dubbed iDrive, which enables drivers to control 270 features — from the navigation system to the built-in phone to the surround-sound stereo — by using a mouse-like device to scroll through menus on a screen situated atop the dashboard. The radical look and the attempt to reimagine the human-computer interface in a car have shocked some critics and buyers. More than 2,000 people have signed a “Stop Chris Bangle” petition on, calling on BMW to fire its design chief. (Presumably, the entry “I hate myself for that design!” signed by one “Chris Bangle” is a fake.)


BMW counters that sales are running 17% ahead of those for the previous 7 Series during the same early months of its life in the mid-1990s. Adrian Van Hooydonk, president of Designworks and the man who first sketched the new 7 and developed its styling, contends that BMW’s flagship car was in danger of being stifled by the weight of its own history.

“Over the years, we’ve been very successful in defining the BMW look, which we’ve done by being very precise in our designs,” he says. “But when you make only incremental changes, you find yourself in a corridor that gets narrower and narrower. Finally, you reach a dead end, and by then, the customer has abandoned you for a car that’s fresh and new. We had to break through that corridor. The goal for the new 7 was to push the boundaries as far as we could. You can’t be a leader if you’re not out in front.”

“One Sausage, Three Different Lengths”

The effort to envision a new generation of BMWs began a decade ago. Soon after Bangle joined the company in October 1992, he participated in an upper-management workshop that attempted to look 10 years out and pinpoint what premium-car buyers would want. They concluded that the first decade of the new millennium — the time we live in now — would be a dynamic world of near-constant movement. BMW would have to build products that move people both physically and emotionally. It could no longer be just a car company. It had to be a mobility company. It had to become a company that let people motor.


This new vision finds its purest expression in the ad copy for the Mini Cooper: “When you drive, you go from A to B. When you motor, you go from A to Z. . . . Nobody can tell you when you’re motoring. You just know.” The brief for Bangle and his team was straightforward: Design cars that give people the motoring spirit.

Boyke Boyer, head of exterior design, recalls that BMW’s design team was woefully unprepared for this new world. A rumpled man with tousled silver hair, a two-day beard, and a big laugh, Boyer is a 30-year veteran of BMW. Sitting in his office at the FIZ, chain-smoking Marlboros, he says that at the time of Bangle’s arrival, the design team was near the bottom of the corporate food chain. The designers had worked for two years without a design director; they lacked a leader to champion their cause and nurture a point of view. As a result, the team fell under the thumb of BMW’s justly famous engineering department. “You’d never have a voice at meetings,” Boyer exclaims, waving his hands dismissively. “The attitude was, ‘Oh, those designers, pshh, pshh. They’re nothing but a bunch of picture makers!’ ”

Not surprisingly, BMW design stagnated. The German auto press sometimes derided its conservative approach as “eine Wurst, drei Größe” — “one sausage, three different lengths” — implying that its cars were cast from the same mold. “When we’d launch new models at an automobile exhibition,” explains Boyer, “our colleagues from competing companies would come by and say, ‘Are those all of your ideas? What do you do all day?’ We couldn’t tell them that we’d tried radical approaches but they had all been turned down.”


BMW won’t comment on why it recruited Bangle, but it’s clear that the company had to quash the practice of grinding out different-sized sausages. To ensure a future of successful styling at BMW, Bangle and his team would have to expand the palette and develop a distinct look and feel for each model. But first he had to meet an even tougher challenge: Find a way to elevate the department to the same lofty level as the engineers. Design had to speak with a forceful voice throughout the 97,000-person company. Which meant that Bangle had to speak forcefully for design.

Behold the Invisible Man

BMW wraps everything relating to its R&D efforts in a veil of secrecy, and the selection of its new design chief was no exception. The October 1992 announcement that Bangle had won the prestigious position was sudden and unexpected. The auto press was incredulous. Even though he was the director of the Fiat Design Centre, in Turin, Italy, none of the models that bear his imprint — notably the Coupe Fiat of 1993 and the Alfa Romeo 145 of 1994 — had made their debut yet. Outside of European design circles, Bangle was largely an unknown — and an American, no less. One magazine promptly dubbed him the Invisible Man.

Bangle says that he was humbled to have won the job, and no doubt he was. But his humility might in part have been a subtle ploy to win over BMW’s senior designers — possibly a gambit to lead them by first letting them lead him. At the same time, Bangle had to find a way to fend off the suffocating effects of what he calls the “Festung [fortress] design culture” that permeated the FIZ. BMW is the antithesis of the boundless organization. Hierarchies and lines of authority are a real, even physical presence at BMW, especially so at its vaunted R&D center. Visitors are required to surrender their passports at the front desk; they must then walk through a labyrinth of corridors and electronically alarmed doors before gaining entry to the design studios. And no outsiders — not even employees from other departments — are allowed inside the center unaccompanied. When they are finally invited in, their entrance is accompanied by a loud, less-than-welcoming shouted greeting: “Outsiders!”


It was Bangle’s responsibility to safeguard the creative process while simultaneously building bridges to the rest of the organization. His first step was to push his designers to take risks — and to be prepared to defend the results. “Leaders dare to take you to where you don’t want to go,” he exclaims. “And that’s true for a design department. People tend to work backward into their comfort zones, and they have to be prodded out of them.”

Bangle also set out to build what he calls a dutzen culture: an open, informal place where people aren’t afraid to say what they really think. “Chris expects people to disagree with him from time to time,” explains Sabine Zemelka, head of material and color design. “We can all get pretty impassioned about the decision making, and there’s a reason for it: We understand that good design comes from making the right choices.”

Then there was the matter of working effectively with the engineers. Instead of attempting to conquer engineering — to bend it to a design point of view — Bangle half-jokingly says that he tried to co-opt it. He made his move in 1996, when he formed a project team that was led jointly by a designer and an engineer and was composed of members from both groups. He carved out a seven-figure budget and sent the team to work in the United States at a secret location of its own choosing. He called the project “Deep Blue.”


The goal was to come up with a radical successor to the X5 sport-utility vehicle, which was being readied for production in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But there was another equally critical goal: to get engineers to advocate for design and to get designers to champion engineering. Deep Blue’s members were cut free of the FIZ and allowed to relocate so that they could work far from prying eyes — including, says Bangle, his own eyes. The team leased Elizabeth Taylor’s former home in Malibu, California. After six months of grueling work, it had produced six product statements for what would eventually become the X3 SUV.

“Both the designers and the engineers learned that the key to a passionate BMW is a synthesis of engineering passion and design passion,” says Bangle. “They saw that engineers do a better job when they work with designers, and designers do a better job when they work with engineers. You can’t teach that. They had to learn it for themselves.”

Rival Designs: My Colleague, My Competitor

If collaboration is a crucial piece of the design process at BMW, then so too is internal competition. Just as BMW’s designers compete against Mercedes-Benz and Audi, they battle each other to create a winning car. Bangle typically assigns as many as six teams to develop concepts for a single new BMW. The competition can be intense, but it all plays to BMW’s advantage. While the designers work out their visions for the next coupe or sedan, the company leverages all of their ideas.


“The key here is diversity. If our people all thought the same way, we wouldn’t have a design culture; we’d just have mass opinion,” explains Bangle. “That’s why internal competition is a fundamental premise of this organization: It gives us this dynamic exchange of viewpoints. The outcome is far more powerful than what a single person could produce.”

It’s up to Bangle to draw the best designs out of each artist and keep his teams fresh over the three-to-four-year process of evolving a new car. It’s a complex challenge. Experience has shown him that the early front-runner often will not turn out to be the winning design. Bangle prepares for such an outcome by instructing another team to come up with a concept that’s diametrically opposed to the front-runner’s model. Such was the case in the competition to design the new 7 Series. While the early leader followed the middle road, Van Hooydonk chose to take the road less traveled. There were many setbacks along the way, but eventually, his unconventional design emerged as the winner.

Bangle contends that BMW is willing to live with this high-risk strategy over the short term, in hopes of nailing big, long-term gains. Ultimately, the market will decide whether the 7 and the Z4 are the right cars for the time. Bangle’s thoughts are on the future. “BMW’s mandatory retirement age is 60 for senior management, which means that I’ve got just 14 years left here,” he says while exiting the FIZ. “That’s two generations in car years — just two shots at making an impact.” And with that, he was gone. He was last seen heading west, head held high, driving a bold, red 7.


Sidebar: “Take Notes on the World. There Will Be a Test.”

Where do car designers get their inspiration? It’s a mystery even to the designers themselves. As they once stood looking at the final prototype for the new 7 Series, Chris Bangle turned to Adrian Van Hooydonk, the 7’s designer, and asked, “Where did this come from?” Van Hooydonk shrugged; he really couldn’t say.

In broad terms, BMW’s designers get their ideas from the world around them — though not, they hasten to add, from the world of cars. “If I were to list my influences in car design, I’m afraid you’d have to think pretty synthetically to make sense of them,” says Bangle. “Architecture, airplanes, boats, botany, cathedrals, domes . . . just go through the alphabet.”

Bangle fills notebooks with cartoon-like sketches of his travels and observations, with quick captions written in German and English. There’s a star chart for locating the Southern Cross; there are notes from last year’s World Economic Forum, including a whimsical sketch of Hillary Clinton’s begrimed high heels and a free-flowing illustration of the gateway to the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas. Tellingly, there’s not a single sketch of a car. Bangle won’t comment on his jottings (too personal), but as he closes the journal, he offers a cryptic bit of advice: “Take notes on the world. There will be a test.”


Ultimately, argues Bangle, a car designer is really a sculptor. “To paraphrase Michelangelo, We try to reveal the figure within the stone. That’s what a boy does with a girl in the backseat of a car on a Saturday night — he’s trying to reveal the figure within. And that’s what a designer does when he confronts that block of clay.”

As the model begins to take shape, the designers stand back and cast a critical eye on the process. To fine-tune a car’s large, gestural surfaces, the designers communicate in a vernacular that they’ve dubbed “Banglish”: a combination of German, English, Italian, onomatopoeia, and ultrademonstrative hand gestures. They spend hours debating whether there’s enough “scccmt” in the lines — that is, whether the lines need to accelerate more. Bangle is particularly concerned with the “visual energy” and tension in a car’s surfaces, and he will use a series of plucked-string sounds (“ding-di-ding, ding ding”) that rise in pitch to imply changes of tension in a line. “There’s no single language that can express what we’re trying to do,” says Boyke Boyer, who is unquestionably the king of onomatopoeia. “So we make up our own language.”

Bangle puts it another way: “The definition that semanticists use for ‘design’ is meaning. Where there is meaning, there is design.”

Bill Breen ( is a Fast Company senior editor.