Chris Bangle is one of the most influential designers of the post-war era. He took over as Chief Designer at BMW in the early 1990s and transformed both the brand and the look of cars in general, drawing admiration, and envy, from competitors like Ford. Now running his own consultancy, Bangle talks to IM about innovation from a design perspective.

When Chris Bangle began rewriting the rules of car design in the 1990s, critics were shocked and admirers delighted. Over a period of 18 years his designs steered BMW to the top position in European premium cars, overtaking Mercedes, as well as a leading position in fleet car sales. BMW extended its range to incorporate Rolls Royce and Mini and become joint owners of DesignWorks USA, a major design firm and a partnership that allowed BMW insights into design priorities in fields as diverse as yachts, aeroplane interiors and coffee machines.

Gina modelAt BMW Chris had a mandate to “strategize emotion” through design and he used it to update BMW’s classic design with “bold, sculptural lines” but among the projects that never made the production line were GINA – the fabric car that responded to human gesture and movement and was adaptable by its users, and PiNk, his thoughts on re-energising design with a new sense of purpose derived from what people really want and what manufacturers should really do.

From a functional point of view – getting things done – Bangle has a straighforward if unorthodox approach.

“The rules of the game are simple: work top down, leverage your resources, and do your homework.  Top down implies not only answering the “WHY?” of the issues before you get to the “HOW?” and finally the “WHAT?” (most people do it the other way around and never really have an understanding of the issues that is communicable and usable beyond the one example at hand); but also getting the top of the company involved early and their support from day 1. The top brass needs to know their role; great ideas may be gold to you (the designer) but inside a company they flow by the same rule as raw sewage: always downhill.”

Work top down, leverage your resources, and do your homework.

The advice he has for managers looking to do radical thing is “do lots of studies and tests before you break into the big time. The original study for the BMW X6 which came out in 2008 was done in a project “Deep Blue” in 1996, that we didn’t tell anyone about but that on the outside but it had tremendous influence inside the company.”

There are few companies that are long-term enough to countenance a 12 year lag before pay back on market research.  For much of his career though Bangle has needed and been given the support of top management as he takes on what he refers to as the dogma endemic in large companies.

Chris describes three edges to the world of car production, each of which represents a potential collapse in the relationship between the designer and the production team, all ways that advocates of the brand mantra or the production dogma have of dismissing new ideas.

“I’ve never seen that before.”
“That won’t work.”
“That’s not our brand.”

In contrast Bangle asserts that companies today have to reach beyond these dogmatic responses and find a new sense of purpose, one that reflects what people are actually seeing in their own futures and what they want from their lives, particularly as we begin to feel the impact of a generation that has grown up with the web and the power of mobile communications.

“Communication and information will be embedded everywhere in everything. Things will have identity,” he asserts. “Physicality should be there only when we want it, not for its own sake. What we offer should not only reduce cognitive load but make sharing easier. We don’t make things for sharing right now but people want sharing to be easy. That’s a given if you are in the digital world but here in the physical world it’s not so obvious.”

This near future is already visible in car sharing projects, and in local neighbourhood cooking projects like Tweetjemee, couch-surfing, all projects where people seek each other out rather than a company or service provider. BMW, post the Bangle era, is in fact the first western car company to set up its own car sharing service Drive-Now (launching this month in Munich and Berlin). BMW has also, recently set up a $100 million venture capital fund to explore new personal mobility concepts, another Bangle legacy.

What Bangle achieved at BMW in fact goes far beyond cars. Bangle’s designs challenged the old purist engineering community to reassess the appeal of a car – it became surface and line rather than engine and performance. It appealed to women as much as to men. It was a luxury car yet it replaced the Mondeo as the leading fleet car in Europe. Over the past 20 years BMW has become much more than a brand dependent on engineering. It speaks to emotion, femininity, the family, art, and ideas.

The introduction of projects like GINA though challenged even the new sense of adventure that BMW evolved over the past twenty years.

“Leveraging resources is about the only way to get a USP up and running on your side early before the other guys; in BMW a critical resource was their fantastic metal stamping skills which allowed us to do more complicated shapes before anyone else,” explains Chris.

That metal stamping capability is of course challenged by a project like Gina where metal gives way to fabric and where the designer enables the user to reshape the car and the experience and emotional connection with the object, though as Bangle rightly says people are now looking beyond objects and personal ownership.

It is worth stopping for a moment and reflecting on what it means to a corporate culture that prides itself on its capability in reshaping the car through these unique metal stamping capabilities. Suddenly your Chief Designer says, maybe we don’t need metal. Maybe the future lies elsewhere. Sure we market the world’s most envied premium cars and we create aspiration through ownership but maybe people don’t want to own cars. You get the sense that the top brass would have felt at least some sense of disquiet but maybe that’s also what kept BMW on top and why they are now first of the car producers to move into car sharing and post-car mobility.

Chris also explained that in the management of his design teams he demands absolute accountability for the time they spend on tasks. These mundane elements are critical to his outlook, getting the right level of support and being accountable. But how important is art and creativity?

Creativity is always happening but what you do with it depends on your culture.

“Creativity is always happening but what you do with it depends on your culture. Some companies need help making that corporate culture that they already have a positive one for the inclusion of creativity. Often the problems are simple but embedded in fearful complexities: Management doesn’t understand its roles, no one knows how to handle these pesky creatives, etc.”

Besides designing cool objects and experiences, helping a company understand what is needed to leverage a creative culture and move from ideas action are now a part of the services that Chris’s new company Chris Bangle Associates offer. If your company needs to think ahead and reinvigorate its relationships to customers, objects, purpose, then there could be no better place to go. But it comes with an innovation warning. Be prepared to think differently.

By Haydn Shaughnessy

About the author


Haydn ShaughnessyHaydn Shaughnessy, senior editor, has worked at the epicentre of innovation in a 25 year career spanning journalism, consultancy and research management. He began his technology career as a manager of application research in broadband, mobile and downstream satellite services and has maintained a continuous production of analysis and intellectual material around innovation since then, having written on Wired Cities, Fibre to the Home, Future Search Engines, and international collaboration. He is an emerging thought leader in systemic innovation building on his PhD research in large scale economic transformations. He was previously a parter at The Conversation Group, the leading global social technologies consultancy where he helped companies such as Alcatel Lucent, Volvo, General Motors, Symbian Foundation, and Unilever adapt to the current transformations in the global digital economy. He has written for the Wall St Journal,, Harvard Business Review, and many newspapers as well as making documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and RTE. His consultancy and research work encompasses changing enterprise structures, new business models and long-term trends in attitudes. He is in demand as a speaker on the impact of changing attitudes on business and on gearing innovation to new consumer requirements.