rampdesign #3

Design Is Communication

Volkswagen is a multi-brand group. Each brand is to have a unique appearance - and the respective design is to be given a holistic meaning. This was emphasised yesterday by Group Chairman Oliver Blume at the Volkswagen Group Design Night. We spoke exclusively with him and the Head of Group Design, Michael Mauer.

  • Interview
    Michael Köckritz
  • Fotos
    Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures
Mr. Blume, why is design important, especially for a premium or luxury brand? What about design in general, outside of the world of cars?

Oliver Blume: Design is emotional and an expression of life. I also associate design with specific eras. When you see a design from the sixties or the eighties, for example, you automatically associate it with the lifeworld of that era. That’s why I think design is an important element of language. Design is emotional and speaks to people, it moves them, especially when they are doing something creative. That’s where I think design is extremely significant.

Michael Mauer: I find this thought very exciting. If you compare design with language, you automatically end up at the topic of communication. And in this respect, design is a way of communicating, through the product, what the brand stands for, what its values are, and what sets it apart from other brands.

OB: In this context, design is also a form of visual and haptic communication. Of course, you can describe a Porsche 911 in thousands of words. But you can also just present one to look at. At that moment, design becomes language, another form of expressing thoughts.

“Creating something new is one of the main drivers of design. Design wants to surprise – and that means you have to think ahead.”
Michael Mauer
It’s an extremely fast form of communi­cation though, isn’t it? An idea is translated into something concrete through design, and that’s how people start to engage with it. And with the 911, the result is: you want to get in and drive off.

MM: If we look at the German automotive industry, it has always been very tech-driven, a leader in this field, whether it’s engines, chassis or brakes. We communicated that as well. At a time when technological innovations are available at an accelerated pace and at an increasingly affordable price, design ensures maximum differentiation and emotional appeal for a brand and its products.

Market research tells us why people buy a particular car. And the fact is that design is the real reason.

OB: Of course, we perform such assessments as well. And yes, design is still the number one reason why people buy a certain car. This brings me back to what I said earlier: I show people who I am with the kind of car I drive. This also applies in a broader sense to design in general. Fashion is a good example of this: people buy certain items of clothing because they identify with them and want to express their personality with them. Especially as the technology is becoming more and more alike in various places, I have to differentiate myself through other aspects. That’s precisely why design plays such a big role.

What makes the design brand-specific? Let’s take a look at Porsche as an example and then draw a comparison from here to the other brands in the Volkswagen Group.

MM: In design terms, a Porsche is rather restrained, coherently reduced, if you compare it with vehicles from the same performance class. That, in turn, is something that appeals precisely to ­Porsche customers who don’t necessarily want to show off what they have, but are more focused on inner values. The philosopher Lambert Wiesing says that luxury in the strictest sense is something I do only for myself. And in the sense of this definition, Porsche is luxury. At least compared to other brands, it’s about exuding a certain calm and restraint through design, but also a qualitative impression.

OB: At Porsche, we stand by our values, our identity – after all, that’s also what makes good design. Today, I can still ­recognize a 911 as such and compare it with the first 911. Because Porsche is ­t­­imeless and has always remained true to its roots, a Porsche has a very high­ ­recognition factor. This is also due to the clarity of its shape and the simplicity of its design. Anyone can be complicated. The art is keeping the design simple.


“Design is emotional and an expression of life. I also associate design with specific eras. That’s why I think design is an important element of language.”
Oliver Blume
What about Volkswagen and the various VW Group brands? To what degree can they be allowed to follow the trend? The art is to always develop product design in the spirit of the brand.

OB: That’s why we attach such great importance to the word “identity”. The important thing is to stay true to your brand identity, including its roots. If brands neglect their history, they lose their identity. At Porsche, we have always succeeded in communicating this message in our design. With the other VW Group brands, we are also striving for differentiated brand identities. Identities that make the brands recognizable. No matter which model you look at. It’s not just our brands that are unique. It’s all our cars as well. From the brand identity, we derive the product design identity. This brings the soul of each brand into a car. In doing so, we consistently focus on a modern user experience that is tailor-made for product and brand. This is also an important aspect of a contemporary design culture.

MM: Creating something new is one of the main drivers of design. What are the next trends, what are the next innovations, what are the new tools? Design wants to surprise – and that means you have to think ahead. The biggest challenge is to find the right balance. Good design should survive short-lived trends. At the same time, however, the latest trends and aesthetic preferences are important to ensure contemporary appeal. How much of this is incorporated depends on the brand in question. Balancing innovation with brand identity requires a clear vision that preserves core features and design elements which define the brand or model. At the same time, there needs to be room for creative evolution and technological advancement. It is a fine art to find the right balance here and ensure that innovations strengthen the brand’s identity instead of diluting it. For a brand like Porsche, design creates a harmonious link between tradition and innovation. The DNA remains the same. With a brand like CUPRA, there is no reference to the past, and that allows this brand to reinvent itself with a progressive design.

“We attach great importance to the word ‘identity’.

The important thing is to stay true to your brand identity, including its roots.”
Oliver Blume
Let’s think about the touchpoints with the brand beyond the product. How far should designers go here, starting with the visuals for the product, to the dealerships, to brand events?

MM: Brand awareness is often the first touchpoint, the product usually comes later. That means you have to think about the brand design. Design first shapes the brand identity, for example through personification, value images and keywords such as sporty, useful, likeable or unexpected. This then results in a product identity. The design of a brand can therefore serve as a ­compass to provide a fundamental sense of orientation. In concrete terms, many other corporate divisions that are also involved in touchpoints with customers and fans can use the strategic orientation of the designers as the basis for their work.

OB: If I could touch on the topic of language again in this context: the clearer the language, the clearer the brand. Design forms a parenthesis around the brand. It’s not just about the product, but also about other touchpoints: How do we appear in retail, in online stores, in social media? Different dialects enrich the whole thing, but in the end, it has to be one language, not two, because otherwise you lose conciseness and clarity.

Isn’t it a Herculean task to convey this awareness of the value of design to all these brands, many of which date back to the old days – even the good old days – of the automobile?

OB: Design can also be a kind of guiding principle. We define a set of guard rails – and make it narrow enough to create a language, yet wide enough to realize the brand. It is up to the individual designer to find the right balance.

But achieving this acceptance of the value of design in other fields takes time, usually five to six years. Or what do you think?

OB: It’s important that the entire organization understands the importance of design. To change a mindset, I always need to have the entire team on board. I can achieve that by consistently setting an example. The question is, of course, what my priorities are. As a business leader, I look at the biggest levers for change – and design is one of them. The others are the right products and quality. But setting priorities also means setting an example. I’ve always said that we have to continue to develop icons. Take the Golf. Volkswagen wanted to discontinue it. Now there will continue to be a Golf in the future. The Golf is an icon. Customers buy a brand because it stands for a clear message. And icons shape the brand. In our case, products like the Porsche 911, the VW van, the GTI, the Tiguan or the Audi quattro help to define their respective brands. Because cars need a face and a story. At Volkswagen we have a strong heritage, and that’s very important for us. There are newcomers in the market who respond to trends. We have a great opportunity to evolve our tradition even ­further.

“The design of a brand can serve as a compass to provide a fundamental sense of orientation, especially in areas that are involved in touchpoints with customers and fans.”
Michael Mauer
To what extent are designers at Volkswagen part of an interdisciplinary culture of innovation?

OB: I see designers as a source of inspiration for a company. Creativity is the key here: thinking outside the box for a change and doing bold things, but always in keeping with the identity. Good examples from the world of fashion, with designers such as Tom Ford or Yves Saint Laurent, show how great the influence of first-class designers can be on a company’s success. Or Louis Vuitton. Here, the designers are right at the forefront, because when it comes to products, it’s the design that counts.

MM: That’s exactly where we want to be: The designer creates the strategic direction for the entire brand presence at each touchpoint. Then the associated products and experiences follow. From a single source, from a single mold. The only limits are technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness. Interdisciplinary teamwork is also very important here, as is the close coordination with the CEO.

OB: Because design is one of our biggest levers for change, it’s clearly one of our priorities. But in addition to this rational side, there’s also an emotional one: the passion for good design. I’ve always been interested in art and design. I even considered becoming a designer at one point. Even though I ended up studying mechanical engineering and clearly have an entrepreneurial mindset, this passion for design is important. Because it’s the only way I can convince others of how important design is.

MM: I can confirm that Oliver Blume always surprises me when he sees something on a model that I think I should have seen myself.

The world of mobility is changing. How boldly can an automotive group change in this world? What about branching out in the direction of airplanes or boats?
MM: That brings us back to the topic of past and future. Of course, it’s interesting to look at other possibilities for mobility. But here, too, brand identity plays an important role: Where does a brand come from? What does it stand for? And what alternative means of mobility would make sense if implemented within this spirit? After all, it has to be credible. Simply sticking the brand name on another product won’t work. With Porsche Design and its lifestyle products, which are clearly and successfully aligned with our brand identity, Porsche shows that design can have a profound impact on the brand beyond the world of the car.
What, in your opinion, is good design? Do you have any personal design icons?

OB: When I was younger, my first VW Beetle certainly left its mark on me. A design icon in black. I still have that Beetle. I was also strongly influenced by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The clarity of the Barcelona Pavilion impressed me greatly. I own one of his Barcelona Chairs, though I have since reupholstered it in beige. We can learn from role models like Mies van der Rohe and Norman Foster. The clarity and timelessness of the Reichstag Dome or Apple Park show what good design is all about. I wear one of my personal design icons myself: the Chronograph 1 from Porsche Design, All Black Edition.

What role do colors play for you in design? And what is your favorite color?

OB: Colors are extremely important – and very emotional. At Porsche, for example, we offer our customers 160 different colors, and we celebrated the anniversary “75 Years of Porsche Sports Cars” under the motto “Dream in Full Color”. Each era has its own defining colors. With some colors, for example, you know exactly that they come from the seventies. That’s why the heritage models we offer at Porsche are so ­successful in expressing this zeitgeist not only through the product substance, but also through the colors. Affinities with colors also change over time. I can see that in my personal life, too. I am very fond of shades of blue, which have become darker and darker over the course of my life. Almost twenty years ago, there was this Spanish film called Dark Blue Almost Black. The title also happens to reflect how my taste in color has changed over the years.

“It’s important that the entire organization understands the importance of design. To change a mindset, I always need to have the entire team on board.”
Oliver Blume
What color is your Porsche?

OB: I just bought myself a 911 Targa in Frozen Berry with black appliqués, but I also own a white 991 R, very classic. When I’m in Wolfsburg, I drive an ID. Buzz, dark blue and white, or a green CUPRA with bronze rims.

Did you drive that one on holiday in ­Barcelona?

OB: No, there I spent the whole time riding a Vespa. [laughs]

Michael Köckritz

Michael Köckritz

Editor in Chief
As a journalist, author, artist and media maker, Michael Köckritz succeeds time and again in creating both attention-grabbing and sustainably stimulating impulses in the context of contemporary and future topics as well as lifestyle and luxury worlds. As publisher and editor-in-chief, he has realised a whole series of book and lifestyle magazine formats that have regularly won numerous national and international awards over the years. The car culture magazine ramp, the men's lifestyle magazine rampstyle and the design magazine ramp.design are published internationally and are considered style-setting.

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