BMW i Design – a family with character

7 min reading time
Head of BMW i Design Kai Langer and his team are responsible for the design of the fully electric BMW i family. More than anything else, these cars embody emotion, streamlined shapes and authentic values. Kai Langer uses the new BMW i4 as an example to explain exactly what this means.

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When BMW set up the “project i” think tank in 2008 (➜ See also: The story of BMW i), nobody could have foreseen the road it would take. But the goal back then was nothing less than to become a pioneer of sustainable mobility for the future. A decade has now passed, and the think tank has given rise not only to numerous mobility concepts, but also to the electromobility sub-brand BMW i.

Kai Langer is the head of BMW i Design, the man who decides with his team how BMW i will shape mobility in the future. Kai Langer has been part of the sub-brand ever since its early days; in 2013, he witnessed the furore that greeted the launch of the BMW i3, which set new standards in terms of design.

At first glance, the BMW i4 appears to be a classic Gran Coupé, but the familiar design is complemented by carefully selected and very discreet BMW i elements with futuristic technology in the interior.
Kai Langer

Head of BMW i Design

Electricity consumption in kWh/100km (WLTP): 22.5-16.1
Electric range (WLTP) in km: 416-590
CO2 emissions in g/km: 0*

What makes BMW i design stand out?

“Visually, the BMW i3 was a big step forward, too big for some people. But it was important for us to press ahead with our groundbreaking thinking,” explains Kai Langer today. “We’re taking a less drastic approach with other models in order to get the people on board who don’t like the futuristic look.” Kai Langer calls this “soft transformation” and cites the new BMW i4 as a good example of what this can look like.

“At first glance, the BMW i4 (➜ See also: “Design should reflect identity”) appears to be a classic Gran Coupé, but the familiar design is complemented by carefully selected and very discreet BMW i elements with futuristic technology in the interior,” explains Kai Langer. “This is particularly important for long-standing customers and fans of the brand, plus it makes the step from a fuel burner to an electric car much easier.” Even though the designs of the BMW i3 and BMW i4 are worlds apart, they are still members of the same family – which is growing all the time. But what exactly makes the design of this family stand out?

If you look at all the BMW i models, you can see that this is a growing family.
Kai Langer

Head of BMW i Design

Only authentic design is sustainable

As is to be expected from pioneers, Kai Langer and his team believe that design goes far beyond the appearance of the vehicle and is not limited to individual design elements specific to the BMW i series. Rather, it aims to convey values and establish timeless elements that suit the character of individual models while fitting into the overarching design language of the i family. According to Kai Langer, this is the only authentic and – above all – the only sustainable way.

“If you look at all the BMW i models (➜ See also: How to read BMW model names), you can see that this is a growing family. They share visual features, but we didn’t want to create symbols that had to be the same for all models or fix on one that would define BMW i. That wouldn’t be sustainable, because there's no guarantee that these elements won’t change in the future.”

Anyone who fears that iconic features like the Hofmeister kink and the kidney will disappear needn’t worry, because the BMW i is and will remain BMW. However, there will be new features that point the way forward. The front panel, for example: it will become a closed, homogeneous surface that serves as a setting for an i-specific kidney. The familiar kidney will be given a new design and become an intelligence panel for important sensors (➜ See also: How BMW designs are created).

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Fun and sustainability aren’t contradictions in terms

The striking i Blue is also subtly integrated into the entire aesthetic, from the frame surrounding the kidney and a ring around the logo to the door sill, which hints at the battery technology in the floor, and the blue diffuser elements where the exhaust system would normally be. Moreover, the futuristic design of the wheel rims serves two purposes: it optimises the aerodynamics and thus improves the car’s range.

“Ultimately, everything we do serves the so-called ‘human-centred approach’,” adds Kai Langer, referring to the need to focus on human requirements. “We don’t install technology for its own sake or add design elements that serve no purpose. Instead, we show that driving will still be fun in the future – not despite the fact that it has become more sustainable, but because of it,” says Kai Langer succinctly.

And he frequently comes back to one theme: human emotions. These define all his work, because a human’s interaction with a car is an immersive experience: “We look at and touch the car from outside, we sit in it and use it every day. There’s hardly any other product we interact with as much,” explains Kai Langer. This makes cars the ultimate discipline for designers and a highly emotional object for users.

A feeling for good design

Before studying transport design and joining BMW, Kai Langer designed covers for record labels, drew cartoons and belonged to a rock band. He frequently uses analogies from this time to explain how emotion is created when designing cars.

“When you want to create emotion in comics, you work with contrasts of light and dark, sunlight and shade; this produces a feeling of tension. The same applies to cars; you can use mystery to intrigue the viewer by adding shadow to the volume.”

Anyone who thinks that mystery is the same as beauty is wrong. According to Kai Langer, beauty is much more difficult to create: “If you want to inspire a feeling of love and beauty in the viewer, the ingredients have to be subtler and more sincere.” The way from cartoons to car design appears to be a long one, and when we try to grasp these subtle, authentic ingredients, it becomes clear that far more is involved than just the appearance of an object (➜ See also: 7 steps to the car of tomorrow).

To make it more tangible, Kai Langer provides insight into the design process using the BMW i4 as an example and explains some of the car’s special design features.

Futuristic music – the sound

“The power that sound has over our emotions is incredible! We all know that music can make us happy or sad, and that a really irritating noise can drive us crazy within half a second. BMW i gives us the first ever opportunity to use sound any way we like, because the engine no longer dictates it.”

“That means we can create a relaxed environment for the driver, because he no longer feels the pressure of the outside world. At the same time, we can take the pleasure of driving to a new level, because the sound develops as the car goes faster, which means it represents much more than just the pressure of your foot on the accelerator. There’s dynamic sound that you hear in the foreground, and there’s sound that floats discreetly in the background.”

A familiar acquaintance – the kidney

“I love how enthusiastic people are about the kidney. That’s why we definitely want to keep the typical ’BMW face’ – including the double headlights – even though the kidney will no longer be performing its classic cooling function. We’ve now closed it, because that’s more aerodynamically efficient. At the same time, it’s the ideal place to integrate sensors in a way that will be even more helpful to the driver.”

“The transformation of the kidney (➜ See also: The design of the BMW kidney) has always been a key topic of discussion, but we constantly reinvent it so that it suits the character of the car. After all, each BMW has a different character. People don’t usually realise this until afterwards, when they have become accustomed to the new version. And that’s perfectly normal: if people didn’t need time to get accustomed to a new design, it wouldn’t be new.”

Beautiful and intelligent – the wheel rims

“The wheel rims of the i4 have a very unusual design (➜ See also: BMW iX3 between design and art), not least because they have to bring various worlds together. On the one hand, they have to carry large, robust tyres that suit the dynamic of the BMW i4 and can take sharp bends. On the other, they have to be efficient, flat and aerodynamic without blocking the air flow that cools the brakes.”

“It’s hard to believe, but when it comes to rims, all kinds of demands come together and all of them are important. In this situation, it’s good that we designers aren’t too heavily involved with the technology, because this means we can rethink these processes from a distance. Where rims are concerned, I have to mediate between engineering, performance, dynamics and aesthetics.”

“In the case of the BMW i4, this means that the classic rim shines through in the background, and its appearance has been radically changed by the application of futuristic aluminium parts. This is a good example of how the racing world and futuristic efficiency can come together. Besides making the tyres stand out visually, this design also makes the rims incredibly practical. And they’re such a striking design feature of the i4 that you can recognise the car by its tyres alone.”

Efficiency not empty space – the aero diffuser

“The aero diffuser is a special design feature in many respects, and symbolises both the soft transformation and the sportiness of the car. In fuel burners, the exhaust is indispensable and emphasises the car’s performance. In the future, there will be an empty space there, and for the i4 we deliberately fill it with efficiency. Large diffusers for better aerodynamics are familiar from motor sport, and the same principle is applied to the BMW i4. The diffuser replaces the exhaust system with an efficiency that also looks very sporty. The diffuser is also a good example of how electromobility doesn't have to mean doing without. We give a familiar, much-loved element a better purpose, and I think that drivers will be happy about the extra enjoyment this will give them.”

Just a heartbeat away – the rear lights

“The BMW i4’s minimalist rear end is noted above all for its broad shoulders featuring an important visual highlight: the graphic rear lights. In principle, BMW rear lights are just as recognisable as the front. Anyone who approaches a BMW from the rear at night will instantly recognise the iconic curve. In the case of the i4, the rear lights are reminiscent of a heartbeat. This reason for this is quite straightforward: our hearts beat faster as soon as we feel emotion; there is no more direct way in which emotion can be transmitted. That might sound corny, but it inspired us and it fits with the authenticity of the BMW i Design.”

Photos: BMW; Author: Jelena Pecic; Illustrations: Carolin Wabra; 3D model: Nicolas Guyon

*The values of the vehicles labelled with * are preliminary.