How Designworks is combining tomorrow’s mobility with sustainability.


As the water taxi accelerates, a plume of spray rises and the hull lifts out of the water. It glides over the water on three slim foils, which create far less wake than conventional vessels and generate uplift in a similar way to aircraft wings. Named The Icon, this is the first electrically powered water vessel to feature the hydrofoiling principle, which has long been in use on sailing yachts and some passenger boats.

The future-facing solution for water mobility is proof of what can happen when inventors think outside the box and carry innovations from one area over to a completely different one. But that is Designworks’ hallmark. The 100-percent subsidiary of BMW was founded half a century ago in California and has further offices in Munich and Shanghai. Designworks’ design brief is extremely broad, from lifestyle products to aircraft interiors, digital user experiences and all forms of mobility – including car design for the BMW Group. The company’s three studios are hotbeds of completely new concepts, including hydrogen-powered electric vertical take off and landing vehicles. No ideas are off limits. Quite the opposite, in fact; BMW sends its best designers over to encourage them to develop new perspectives. Holger Hampf, President of Designworks since 2017, has the goal of uniting high-tech and sustainability to benefit humans and nature alike. Mobility is no longer restricted to four wheels and a driver’s seat. It can now be an app, or part of a logistics system moving goods from A to B. “There’s so much service design behind it, so much systemic thinking.”

Los Angeles, Shanghai and Munich are ideally distributed around the world. But not only that: the locations and their extremely different cultures also bounce inspiration, ideas and market changes back to Munich. Adrian van Hooydonk, Vice President Design BMW Group, once described Designworks as BMW’s eyes and ears onto the world. In this role, Designworks need not strive for perpetual growth, but must primarily focus on developing an understanding of the markets and of exciting technologies – in other words, function as an agent for change and a think tank in a rapidly evolving world.



Throw away the blinkers and look far out into the world

Holistic thinking

A huge dark panel stands in the conference room at the Munich office, used as a board for jotting down ideas. Holger Hampf grabs a piece of chalk and sketches out two axes of a graph, a timeline and an innovation trajectory. A vector soars upwards at a 45-degree angle, heading directly for a point of maximum innovation in the not-too-distant future – say, around 2035. The aim of all the designers is now to translate this vision into feasible steps that lead straight to that point. The team always keeps these milestones in view. After all, Designworks has the aim of combining technological and esthetically functional ideas with issues of sustainability, “from designing the façade of Africa’s most sustainable building to developing the Sirius Jet, a hydrogen-powered vertical take-off vehicle, or battery-powered maritime vessels with foiling technology,” says Holger Hampf. All this high tech needs technical expertise and a clear eye for the big picture. “We seek not to view nature as a partner, but to perceive ourselves as part of nature. We believe a paradigm shift will be necessary for humanity to be able to advance.”

One possible solution is modular design, in which objects are no longer created as inseparable units, but are separable and repairable. “Modularity offers the opportunity for new and different ways of thinking, particularly in the case of highly complex integrated products.” The building block or kit concept already enables BMW to recycle over 90 percent of its parts and components. The knack is to incorporate design and sustainability goals into the product development process as early as possible, and the earlier the better. From initial vision to brand strategy, and beyond that to industrial production. In Hampf’s view, Europe draws on a trove of big brands, none of which would likely have emerged without the will to embrace rigorous design: “Design needs to understand contexts and take a holistic view.” Hampf thinks in terms of the emotional worlds that surround us, focusing on the “choreography of different experiences or functions.” The task of design is to bring everything together. Climate change shows that holistic thinking no longer stops with the product. The goal is “to design in harmony with the planet and the needs of our environment from the outset,” says Hampf. “Our considerations must address the needs of our environment and of the planet just as much as those of individual users.”

80 percent less energy consumption

No wonder many projects relate directly to ecology issues – like the maritime vessel mentioned above, which has taken off by using foiling technology to cut around 80 percent of previous energy consumption. Another approach in response to a different task was the electric outboard motor designed for Mercury, where the goal was not to maximize range, but to power low-noise, emission-free short-range travel on rivers and lakes. Even here, the e-motor represents a genuine alternative to combustion engines. The boat can be charged while moored, or the battery can be removed for charging at home and reinstalled the next day. Many of Designworks’ ideas and technologies work along similar lines. Teams roam from cars to aircraft and back to other forms of mobility, taking in electric wingsuits on the way. Projects in widely diverse areas throw open unexpected perspectives, occasionally also short cuts. The “hybrid designers” working at Designworks do more than create products; they think beyond their boundaries, looking out at the world and identifying points of connection. Wherever modern mobility is the focus, trains, aircraft and boats must also be part of the picture in order to design, say, an optimized car interior.

One of the most recent Designworks projects concerns “light productivity” on business class flights, when passengers are relaxing and watching movies or listening to music, but may still want to read through papers and answer mails. Knowledge like this can be important in the design of an autonomous vehicle, as can the ability to transfer questions and solutions from one area of operations to another. Hampf says, “We look at everything. It’s not about one single charging point, one well-designed payment app or isolated product ideas. The goal is to bring everything together into a whole in order to create positive and universal user experiences.” He notes that long product lifespan is still the holy grail of sustainability, citing leather as an example, which even develops an attractive patina over time. However, Hampf warns the material is used too widely and sourcing plant-based alternatives has become vital. Here too, the essential ingredients are technical expertise, an appreciation of tactile quality and, of course, the flashes of inspiration sparked by Designworks’ three very diverse locations.