Design is one of the key success factors for Mercedes-Benz and is cited ever more frequently as a key consideration in buying decisions — particularly among new customers.
This is attributable in part to Mercedes’ shift from a traditional to modern interpretation of luxury. ‘Sensual Purity’ lends expression to the “bipolarity of intelligence and emotion”, to create products that are at once hot and cool. It’s a new design idiom aimed at creating clear forms and sensuous surfaces that provides a stage for hi-tech accoutrements and arouse emotions at the same time.
Explaining the concept of ‘Sensual Purity’ to a group of media gathered from around the world is chief design officer of Daimler AG, Gordon Wagener, promoted to the post in November last year.
The occasion is Design Essentials, an event aimed at providing a 360-degree view of the world of design at Mercedes-Benz, taking in the designers’ work in the most diverse fields, as well as their sources of inspiration and the tools they employ.
We’re at the heart of design at Mercedes-Benz — the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center (MTC) in Sindelfingen on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. There’s another MTC location in Böblingen and in Ulm (buses and coaches), and Advanced Design Studios scattered across the globe: Carlsbad and Sunnyvale (California, USA), Como (Italy), and Beijing (China).
For commercial vehicles, the global design network extends to Kawasaki (Japan), Portland (USA), Sao Paulo (Brazil), and Chennai (India).
As chief design officer of Daimler AG, Wagener is at the helm of a team of 600 tasked with the design of all brands and vehicles under the Daimler AG banner, using a holistic approach. The focus is not solely on vehicle design, but covers everything that shapes how the company and its brands are perceived.
This also includes products from the fields of mobility, lifestyle and interior design (Mercedes-Benz Style). Along with that, the design philosophy of ‘Sensual Purity’ now also permeates all areas of Mercedes – from cars and commercial vehicles to typefaces used in marketing collateral and what showrooms look like.
The Advanced Design Studios are seismographs for future Mercedes-Benz design trends. At the same time, they provide important stimuli for constantly advancing the Mercedes-Benz design philosophy to create a whole world of modern luxury.
“This all-embracing approach to design covers all the touch points between customers and the company, and creates a common experience,” Wagener explains.
“Design informs all aspects of the brands and a holistic approach is crucial to fashioning a perfect image. We aspire to be perceived as an international luxury label above all, with regard to our core brand, Mercedes-Benz. And for me luxury is not just an automotive statement – it’s a lifestyle.”
Creating Forms No One Expected
For anyone who ever wondered what the biggest challenges car designers are up against, Wagener is letting the cat out of the bag.
“Firstly, as designers, we live in the future. This calls on us to pursue a visionary and innovative approach to our design work – day in, day out. That is certainly one of our most gripping challenges. In addition, the complexity of vehicles has increased. This imposes higher requirements on all areas of Mercedes-Benz design,” he explains.
“New disciplines have arisen, accompanied by a need for ever more extensive networking between the teams. Then there is the interplay between design, development and production. These are the broad terms of reference within which the designers operate. Longevity is also an issue: the answers which we formulate today must still be valid in 10 years’ time.”
Through the course of the day, the phrase ‘Sensual Purity’ reverberates in every workshop in each of the departments we visit – Exterior Design, Interior Design, User Experience Design, Digital Graphic & Corporate Design. Wagener explains: “Sensual Purity is the definition of modern luxury.The aim of our design philosophy is to create clear contours and sensual surfaces that showcase hi-tech while radiating emotive appeal. Our design must be hot and cool. ‘Hot’ is about falling in love with something, it is emotional and irresistible.”
“At the other end of the scale, ‘cool’ is highly technoid and minimalist, something completely new, something surprising – the likes of which have never been seen before. In this way, we create not only automobiles, but a whole world of modern luxury.”
He goes on to explain that Mercedes-Benz has managed to become a leader in design by creating forms that no one expected.
“We demonstrated that it is possible to capture the imagination with avant-garde ideas while remaining true to the spirit of Mercedes’ brand with a history extending back more than 130 years. Mercedes-Benz design has shifted from a traditional to modern interpretation of luxury, and this is certainly one of our success factors.
“At the same time, we have also made incredible advances in the area of the interior. It is the accomplished interplay of form, material and colour that impresses here, and above all the perfect quality and precision,” he says.
Intelligent and Attractive
According to Wagener, the exclusive sporty E-Class Coupé represents the next step in the ongoing development of Mercedes-Benz’s design idiom. “Boasting perfect proportions, it embodies a purist design featuring an emphasis on surfaces, reduced lines and sensual forms. This reduced design idiom is ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ at the same time,” he explains.
It can’t be argued that a vehicle’s appearance induces an emotional response. Creating desirability is one of the primary tasks of the Mercedes-Benz design team – and for that, proportions, surfaces and details are the crucial elements.
Indeed, the forms and proportions of all vehicles from the Daimler group are defined in the area of exterior design. From A-Class to Actros: every vehicle sporting the Mercedes star must embody and communicate the Mercedes’ core values of emotion and intelligence in convincing fashion.
“A car must be intelligent and attractive,” says Robert Lesnik, head of Exterior Design. “All good vehicle designs of the past were lavish and sensual – that is what makes the classic vehicles so sought-after today.
“We strive for exciting, muscular forms, complemented by enlivening contrasts between material, colour and form. Precision and sophisticated hi-tech are brought to life by vital lines. Exciting proportions manifest energy and hold everything together.”
Work begins in the conceptual phase with the first proportion studies and finishes with the formal release for production of the fully developed Mercedes vehicle.
This includes all details, as these influence the customer’s overall experience. The principle of ‘Sensual Purity’ also applies to headlamps, wheels, grilles and different model variants. The challenge is to design something new and surprising which is nevertheless immediately recognisable as being Mercedes.
The Six Commandments of Design
The design philosophy is defined by firmly established principles. All Mercedes-Benz model series are designed according to six guidelines of the Design Code: Unexpected Moments, Stimulating Contrasts, Stunning Proportions, Freeform & Geometry, Significant Graphics and Natural Attraction.
Similarly, when it comes to interior design, there is perfection in every detail, with a scope of design that comprises the entire interior, including seats, doors, roof liner, instrument panel and control elements of each Mercedes.
Specialists are required for all the areas involved, such as automotive, product, textile and fashion designers. Surface finishing specialists create the colours and all the materials for the interior.
From grained leather through metal structures to the lustre of the surfaces, every detail is carefully selected and coordinated. A sense of harmony and coherence often hinges on the finest nuances. The attributes and the design idiom of each model are continually redefined. Creative interior design concepts are developed and implemented not only in Sindelfingen, but also at the Advanced Interior Studio in Como, Italy.
The rigour that Mercedes-Benz designers apply to their work is also tangible in the interior – quality and precision being key aspects of luxury. The designers travel all over the world in search of trends and new materials.
For the surface finishing, the ‘colour & trim’ designers choose materials and colours from hundreds of fabric, leather, wood and metal samples – much in the manner of an haute couture fashion designer. Work at Mercedes-Benz also gives rise to new designs and processes, such as the patented “flowing lines” of exclusive trim elements.
The effects of the materials’ touch and feel and the employed colours are configured and defined in realistic conditions in 1:1 interior mock-ups. This also calls for handiwork – in the form of the needlework required to sew together the individual leather pieces for the dashboard, for example.
Digital UX Design, in a Car? Yes.
The “Concept EQ” (premiered at the 2016 Paris Motor Show) provides an example of how vehicle interiors are heralding a paradigm shift as they evolve into living and working environments.
The electric car with the look of a sporty SUV coupé offers an innovative interior, fitted with four individual seats. A tailored sound experience is provided by speakers integrated into the head restraints. The side bolsters are covered in light-white leather, while perforations with a pixel rain look reveal particles in rose gold.
When it comes to user experience – also known as UX – the focus is on providing intuitive operating concepts for added safety, comfort and convenience. Daimler plays a pioneering role in shaping the digital world on board cars: it was the first automobile manufacturer in the world to open a research and development centre (in Silicon Valley, back in 1995).
The Digital Graphic & Corporate Design Center was established within the Design unit for this specific purpose in the summer of 2015. In the face of the increasing complexity for the user as a result of digitisation, the experts here are concerned with making operation of the vehicle as user-friendly as possible, with an innate sensual appeal. The merging of the real and virtual worlds opens up new dimensions in the areas of comfort, safety and modern luxury.
UX designers conceive the relationships between man and machine and vice-versa. While user interface design (UI design) relates only to user interfaces, UX design creates an all-embracing experience.
“One of our primary tasks in recent years has been to enable the user to operate and control the new on-board digital facilities in the most intuitive fashion possible, thereby providing the driver with complete control,” explains Klaus Frenzel, head of Digital Graphic & Corporate Design.
“Today we are shaping the paradigm shift to the machine that understands people and makes their lives easier and indeed more pleasant. The philosophy of ‘Sensual Purity’ applies here, too – in the interests of simple, intuitive operation which is enjoyable for the user.”
Indeed, welcome to the future.