The interview with BMW DesignWorksUSA President Laurenz Schaffer – titled "Germany + California = Innovation" – was made by Adam Burns, Senior Editor at MeetTheBoss TV, an online resource which features exclusive interviews with renowned global business leaders, as well as a management training program.
Below we report an excerpt from the transcript and a trailer video. The full interview runs about 15 minutes and can be accessed at MeetTheBoss TV upon free registration.
Q: Recently awarded Faas Company most innovative company in design and one of the most innovative companies for 2010, which is a fantastic achievement. You took over as president, I believe, in December, 2009, is that correct? How are you going to maintain those high standards?
Well, first of all, I’m with the organization for quite a while already, for approximately 10-11 years. I built-up the Design Work studio in Munich. We are currently three studios internationally at Designworks. So, I have a bit of a share in the success already.
Obviously, as we move forward, this is something that we wanna keep. We wanna stay at the top notch level of innovative design companies.
I think an important part is that some of the values that we have laid out in the company is really driving the spirit very much in regards to that, so this is really embedded in our basic beliefs and our value setting and our vision and mission, ultimately, as well.
And this is driving the activities and the mentality of the company and each individual very much.
Q: Could you tell us what those values are?
Well, we have a set of values that are very much around addressing the individual spirit of our employees. One is creative collaborative culture, another one is we cherish creative human capital.
The asset of our company, obviously, is not the materials, the hardware around it, but it’s the people, the creative people. And then, there is an aspect that is our true differentiator, which is cross fertilization, which is basically a basic belief that working across different disciplines is what makes up good ideas very much.
And then, a driven-ness to design, which ultimately speaks to the passion of design, the driving aspect, the essence of what we are about. And then, of course, as we move forward, we wanna be a sustainable company in every aspect, in everything we do, so this is the set of basic beliefs and values that everyone follows in the company very much.
Q: I see there’s plaque celebrating 25 years of Design Works, USA. It says, “Great projects, great work,” but then the third pillar is great fun. How do you encapsulate fun? How do you build that in?
Well, I think the diversity of projects that we are doing is encouraging people very much to think out of the box. I think the excitement level, if you imagine that you are working one day on an airplane interior and the other day on a coffee maker and the third day, then, on a car, I think that diversity really keeps up the spirit, then, to – well, the fun aspect of work a lot.
There’s a lot of change from a project landscape that every designer is experiencing, working across different industries, across different clients. So, this is basically the fun aspect. As a designer, you always have a very strong motive to innovate and to work towards the next level. If you can do that across different disciplines, across different industries, this is probably the driving aspect there.
Q: Ho do you manage it? For example, would you take an ergonomics expert and move him into the various ergonomic partsof the different projects? Or do people go, quite literally, from one completely different area of a design project to another different area of a design on another project?
I think it’s both. We have a good balance of specialists in very particular fields. The area of strategy and design strategy, obviously, is something you need to have a lot of process knowledge on how you do it all.
Research is another area where we have specialists that are only active in that very specific discipline. In the design area it’s a lot more broad. We have people who can work on car interiors as on computers, or other things.
So, there is a certain balance about specialists who contribute in particular fields and the teams that work across disciplines and with a wider spectrum of understanding.
Q: live any other company, you need to measure the value of every activity. As a creative, innovative company, what are your most valuable metrics?
There are a couple of things. First of all, it is our deep belief that there is not only one solution for success, but there needs to be a certain bandwidth of options. And this is a good portion of our process, that we are creating multiple solutions, multiple options that our client can choose from. We also are backing up the different design solutions with the proper rationale on why there is an impact on a business case or an impact on a strategy or an impact on a plan. There is always a target setting, and the different design options then fulfill the target setting in a very different manner.
A metric, there is certainly – also a couple of them. Usually, we get a quite good understanding of the monetary goal setting, the volume turnover that our client wants to achieve with a new product, or the revenue increase, or a certain strategy for market entry, and that can be measured then. There are other areas, like increase of brand value that can be measured. There is a third area around how well a design solution fits consumer needs. So, we’re putting a design in front of customers and ask them whether that fits at all, whether that is a good response to their either aesthetic requirements or functional requirements, or whatever it might be. So, this can be measured in a quantitative way.
And then, of course, there is a lot of qualitative aspects from the client’s side in regards to how improvements are done when it comes to moving the company forward, and certainly this is never an achievement of one area alone, but it’s really the collaborative aspect where design speaks to a marketing goal, where a marketing goal speaks to a business goal and a strategy in general. And this is basically the approach there.
Q: In the design field, what’s the equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar?
There are a couple of international design awards. Here, in the U.S., there is Good Design Award, for example, IDSA is another organization that selects good designs. In Europe, there is IF, or Red Dot, so there are a couple of design awards, organizations that are, in the meantime, internationally known as well.
nterviewer: How do you manage innovation? Do you have to be a relationship builder? What are your particular skills?
First of all, managing creativity and innovation is people management very much. So, it’s a good awareness of the properly selected teams from a hiring standpoint, first, and then from a development standpoint, second, in a project which is very much what we are about.
Whenever we are doing something in a design area we talk of projects. In the projects, it’s a matter of selecting the proper teams as well. This aspect around collaboration gets a big emphasis. There are personalities that need to tick and click very much, that people tend to brainstorm, to bridge on each other’s ideas, to basically push boundaries in teams. Managing that process is a very important aspect of it.
The second thing is, process – the design process in itself is – has a couple of aspects around fostering innovation. Many of our projects have a very deep strategy phase and a research phase that we create the right understanding of the framework of, basically, the knowledge fundaments, either when it comes to trends, technologies, demographics, all sorts of areas that need to be known as a starting point for new ideas. And then, within the consequent project, there are a couple of milestones where we make sure that’s the nouveau of ideas, the innovation level is properly achieved.
Q: What makes you enthused and engaged? Because people respond to enthusiasm and they respond to that engagement, especially from the leaders. What keeps you excited?
I think everything that’s new and that tends to shape the future of the world around this. This is essentially, also, what we are about. We’re really good in understanding what the future, potentially, can look like and why that is the case, and I think that keeps me spiritually healthy, and I guess this is the same with our teams as well. They’re simply interested in understanding a time span in the context that is far out.
Q: It must feel great when you’re effectively defining some sense of the future, for example with the BMW Gina Vision Light.
I think big ideas must be seen, and they must be put in the right spot. In the case of the GINA concept, the original idea was more about moving structures with a construction principle around bones and skin, very much like a hand would look like a body part, for example.
And that was then transferred to the area of car design, where that aspect around replacing sheet metal with fabrics and replacing rigid structures with something that can move to provide new functions and new aerodynamics, for example, was so paradigm shifting as a starting point.
Q: What happens when you get something like that? How do you use it for the benefit of BMW Group Design Works?
Well, some of these projects serve as internal benchmarks. They are used to understand how the success came across it all – right? – how the idea was developed, what the process was behind it, why someone came up with the ideas at all and how the path was then to a fully developed product.
Q: If we look at the opposite side of things, how do designers feel when somebody else comes up with a brilliant piece of innovation like, for example the iPhone?
It feels good. It makes us congratulate, first of all, because every innovative idea is good in any sense, even if it’s competition. And it also serves as a reference point, of course. As we want to understand our internal successes, we also wanna understand the competitive successes and see what we do about it in regards to our further development. So, it’s important that not only we innovate, but the world around us does as well.
Q: Do you have a signature? Is there any essence that pervades every single project?
I think future and understanding that is something that all of our projects somehow incorporate. The aspect around understanding premium and how that can be done with a means of design is something that many of the projects incorporate. I think complexity and dealing with complexity in a design is something that we’re doing naturally when it comes to cars. This is certainly an industry that is very complex, so there are a couple of these elements that are really across our projects very much.
Q: What about the future?
Our future is very much about understanding new and different markets. So, with our three studios this is certainly a starting point. We are looking at a better footprint into new markets. The area of England we are covering with our Munich studio, actually, pretty well. However, we are looking into a better expansion in all of these regions as well. Europe is one of our core model – our existing core markets, certainly. We’re also looking into new services.
Our current core is about design and design consulting. As we move forward, we wanna look into other areas such as branding a little better, the area of research and strategy is something that is certainly growing with that, and that will ultimately create new products that are future oriented, that satisfy customers as you.