NIO: Means of Expression

Kris Tomasson, NIO’s Vice President of Design, has been shaping the globally active company’s identity with his ideas since 2015. The New York native previously worked for BMW, Gulfstream Aerospace, Ford and Coca-Cola.

Our interview touched on design as a global form of communication – and why it helps that he hasn’t always just designed cars.

  • Interview
    Michael Köckritz
  • Fotos
    NIO
Let’s start with a simple question: How important is design for a brand? 

I consider design to sort of be the language in which a brand speaks to its users. Not only with the design of the cars and the vehicles, obviously, but also in terms of any other user touchpoints like the logo design, the website or our NIO House, a world of experiences for our community that goes beyond the car. The goal is to have a strong, connected, holistic brand and design experience.

And how would you describe the design language at NIO?

I think our language conveys three key elements: On the one hand, we have to convey a good sense of aesthetic. But the design also has to express the quality of the product, so you feel confident that this is a product that is trustworthy. And we need to convey the sense that this is a modern product as well.

“From the beginning, I have always taken the approach that we’re not going to create a specific design for any particular market, but we’re just going to do good design.”
Kris Tomasson
You’re American, NIO is Chinese by origin. Last fall, the brand began expanding into the European market. Will this language be understood worldwide?

That is an interesting point. Obviously, the communication lines between the different countries were much more difficult to overcome in the past; but in today’s age of the internet, news travels fast and good design has really become universal. We see that with many products that are just as popular in Asia, the U.S. and Europe. From the beginning, I have always taken the approach that we’re not going to create a specific design for any particular market, but we’re just going to do good design.

And what is good design?

Good question. I think it’s really about going back to the roots of what I believe is good design. And that seems to be those universal things about good proportions. We really strive to ensure that the car looks right on the wheels, that we have the right size wheels and that the overhangs are proper. For the interior we looked at furniture design and consumer electronics, because these have become the benchmarks of good design.

Is it true that you helped develop the design principles at NIO?

Even in the early days of NIO, it was really important from my perspective that we had a structured design DNA. And this sort of evolved out of our NIO value system and the brand message of shaping a joyful lifestyle. From that we basically developed our four key principles for design: pure, human, progressive and sophisticated. For us, it’s really about striking the right balance of those four elements.

The guiding philosophy of NIO is Blue Sky Coming. What does that mean?

What’s nice about this statement is that it has a couple of meanings. Obviously, we’re an electric car brand, so we’re looking at a cleaner future. On the other hand, Blue Sky Coming also is like a metaphor for a brighter and more optimistic tomorrow, which fits in nicely with the notion that we’re a very progressive brand.

How would you say does the NIO ET5 represent those criteria?

We could break it down again to those design principles we just talked about: When we talk about pure, I see pure as not really being about simple or basic; actually, it is about essence. If you look to the exterior design, the forms are very pure, very organic. There aren’t a lot of extraneous lines. Then there are those elements that it has from the human side, our design DNA. We also strive to make the form very sculpted as if it’s been shaped by human hand. The progressive part comes out in the way we integrate all of our technology. And when we talk about sophisticated, it’s really about celebrating the attention to detail and the level of precision that goes with it. One example of this is how we beautifully integrate the logo into the hood.

“To be honest, when we look at the ­mid-size sedan segment, it’s not really very exciting. The time was ripe to do something unique.”
Kris Tomasson
What would you say sets the NIO ET5 apart from others in its class?

To be honest, when we look at the mid-size sedan segment, it’s not really very exciting. The time was ripe to do something unique. So we set out to create a car that was really dynamic, beautiful, emotional, but also was functional and could deal with the use cases of a sedan. And I think the fact that we’ve achieved this is really what’s unique about this car in the segment.

What, in your opinion, is boring design?

I think design gets boring when it gets harder for users to really differentiate one vehicle from another. That’s why it was really important for us that we created a strong statement with the NIO ET5, something that people would recognize.

You started working on the design of electric cars early on. First at BMW, now at NIO, a brand-new company. What was that like?

It was a very challenging exercise at first, because we basically started with a clean sheet of paper. We had no history really. We had to create a new brand and a brand language and develop a product. And very early on it was understood that we needed to do something that was recognizable. The early cars really embodied the initial DNA that we started with – and we’re trying to continue to develop from there.

In your career, you haven’t just designed cars, but also bottles and airplanes. Do you benefit from that in your ongoing creativity? 

Oh, yeah, for sure. My firm belief is that as a designer you need to draw experiences from everything we look at and experience in daily life. These design experiences in my career have helped me to look at things from a different angle or from a different perspective, to break out of the mold and take applied learnings to somewhere completely different. I worked on the design of the Coca-Cola bottle, probably the most duplicated piece of design worldwide. And it has a certain aesthetic that needs to be conveyed to the consumer very quickly. I’ve also designed business jets, multi-million-dollar products with a sense of luxury and premium. And combining all this and these previous experiences from my past has really helped to define our products here.

Is there some product you would like to design or reimagine? 

The good thing about NIO is that we consider ourselves to be a lifestyle brand. I’ve already had my hand in things like NIO House or NIO Life, so I think the sky’s the limit. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll do spaceships or boats. Anything’s possible.

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.
ramp #61 Love Is in the Air + Porsche LeMans-Special

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Ein blauer Himmel, der Duft des frischen Grases, Sonne und die Wärme des Augenblicks, vor allem Licht. Das Licht der Sonnenstrahlen, erklären die Wissenschaftler, ist der entscheidende Faktor, wenn uns zu Beginn der warmen Jahreszeit ein flotter Gute-Laune-Mix aus Glückshormonen energisch in den Sommer lockt.

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