Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

BMW i: a vision of premium urban mobility

Today sees the launch of perhaps one of the most important developments in the automotive sector in its 100 year-plus history. After much speculation, fuelled by a drip feed of information from BMW, the Munich-based company has pulled the wraps off BMW i.

Much more than a new car launch, i represents a new way of thinking, not just about personal transport but also urban mobility.

There had been clues all along that BMW wasn’t interested in simply producing a smaller car. The project codename -MegaCity- hinted that the company was well aware that there were some much bigger issues that it would have to deal with to stay relevant long into the future. Read the rest of this entry »

BMW wants to activate the future

UPDATE: So despite Activate The Future appearing engaging and media-rich, the bone heads at BMW and KBS+P wont let me embed the video. That should qualify as an automatic social media fail. Talk about activating the past. But it’s Monday and I’m still feeling generous. Hit the link in the line below…

This trailer ticks so many boxes Drew-shaped boxes it hurts. From the Plymouth Superbird to the plinkety-plonkety music and the cute bon mots, I was hooked before I even realised what everyone was talking about. Which just so happens to be the future of mobility. Booyah!

The result of a partnership between BMW and KBS+P, the series of four movies will investigate the impact of urban density, technology and society on how we get around. The roster of talking heads is rather impressive with Syd Mead and Buzz Aldrin chipping in amongst others like Marissa Mayer (VP, consumer products, Google) and Robin Chase (Co-founder, Zipcar).

What’s most fascinating to me is that, at an industry level, BMW is completely owning the new mobility space. Of course, they have new range of mobility solutions to hype so it makes perfect sense. But, as yet, none of the big league players have taken up the urban mobility bat in such overt, engaging and media-rich manner. Props to little BMW and partner for getting there first.

The first movie The New City: How the way we live will impact the way we move goes live on February 1 at

Nissan Muran-oh-dear-god

As the adage goes, you have some hits and you have some misses.

When it comes to Nissan’s recent history, the hits are manifold (350Z, original Cube, Qashqai, anything called GT-R and, latterly, the Juke).

Therefore, the misses are all the more bizarre and I really can’t think of a miss more spectacular than the Murano Cross Cabriolet. Read the rest of this entry »

Update: An unconventional review: Lexus RX 450 h

The RX at Portishead

It was with genuine surprise that I received a Twitter dm (direct message for the uninitiated) from the ever-friendly @Valvo at Toyota PR asking if I wanted to have a Lexus RX 450 h for a week. Having never experienced a hybrid and having not experienced a Lexus on the road since a mate’s father’s LS400 back in – ooooh – 1990, I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a chance to trial the luxury brand that, to some eyes, changed everything and the drivetrain technology that some believe still will. Read the rest of this entry »

Audi’s Guided Missile: the A1

Working in Germany I was thrown in the deep end of perceived quality research, taking more macro shots of headlamps, instrument panels and door cards than I care to remember. Yet I’m happy to come right out and say it: perceived quality fascinates me.

Gear shifter from the new Audi A8 (click to enlarge with caution, you might wet yourself...)

The way the tricks we use – from the amazingly detailed design of touch zones in a car interior to a superbly detailed tail lamp enclosure – coalesce to convince consumers that a product that feels good must be good, no matter the integrity of the engineering underneath the skin is a delightful thing. Take a look at the gear shift above and you might get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Perceived quality’s a psychological game played by designers and engineers that reaps massive rewards for the companies that do it right. Just ask VW, who started on a head-long rush to improve the improve feel-good factor of everyday cars with a couple of otherwise unremarkable vehicles in ’96-’97. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: The Bertone Pandion “Why Bother?” Edition

Never have two great automotive names been so resolutely underserved by their colaboration.

When I was a kid I was given a book packed to the rafters with images and descriptions of the output of the Italian styling houses up to the mid-80s. Apart from a couple of Pininfarina jobbies like the Ferrari Modulo and Pinin (don’t ask, I love barges hmmmkay?) it was always the sheer audacity and other-worldlieness of the Bertone cars that made me keep turning those pages until the book fell apart.

From BAT to Marzal (stylishly accessorised above) to Carabo to Camargue to Sibilo… the list goes on and on… Bertone was largely responsible for me wanting to become a car designer.

It’s only natural, therefore, that I expect a great deal of Bertone, and while they’ve wavered in the last couple of years, the news that they would be teaming up with Alfa Romeo for Geneva had my heart a-flutter.

Consider that heart shot out of the sky and in the mouth of a rabid dog. I’m hurt and I’m mad. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: A small car in a big car’s pants: the new Ford Focus

Ford’s new Focus has been unleashed a full year ahead of it’s European on-sale date and it’s already generating substantial comment in the sphere of the blogs. Ed Stubbs and Dustin Shedlarski have both written interesting critiques of a design that I, personally, find a little schizophrenic. But let’s face it: when you’re trying to design one C-Segment product for two markets – one that’s been downsized for decades and another that’s only just coming to terms with the concept – things are bound to get a little hectic. Read the rest of this entry »

Luxury is out and Premium is in: a riff on Audi lamp graphics

Living in Germany, I became increasingly perturbed by the proliferation of LED daylight running lamps on Audis of all shapes and sizes. Always on, always glaring – sometimes painfully so – and always screaming “look at me, look at me!” like the cleaning lady in TittyTittyBangBang, I would pray that I was driving slow enough to force an overtaking maneuver (not too challenging given the 90 asthmatic horsepower I was – sometimes literally –  pedaling back then).


From the luminous slashes on the A3 and Q5, which simultaneously manage to make the cars appear cross-eyed, centre-heavy and like an automotive tribute to Dame Edna Everage to the baseball-player warpaint on the R8, these glaring light signatures made me long for the Audi of years gone by when the brand stood for discretion and quiet sophistication.


The same devolution of Audi’s trademark understatement has also become evident in their tail lamps. Bare-bulbed LEDs now blink in their psychotically digital way, forming shapes that would make Edward Scissorhands feel completely à l’aise. To sit behind an LED besmirched Q5 is an exercise in keeping my blood to a low simmer.


I’ve wondered wheather I’m alone in my fall-out with Audi on the basis of it’s new found crassitude, yet given some recent consumer research that was presented at BMW’s university day at their US headquarters, I wonder if some prospective customers might soon recoil in much the same way I have.

The key takeaway from a presentation, given by Madeleine Hochstein of DYG Inc., is that luxury, at least by that name, is dead. Would luxury by any other name smell as sweet? If we start talking in terms of premium, then yes. There’s clearly a battle of semantics going on here but the research behind it, conducted since the financial shit/fan interface that was late 2008, holds some fascinating insights, particularly for the design teams of premium brands.

Take in the fact that 49% of U.S. adults earning $100-$150,000 are now describing themselves as thrifty, up 12% from 2005. Or that the proportion of people earning over $150,000 who would describe themselves as humble has grown from 31% in 2006 to 50% in 2009. Those same people are now increasingly shopping with social, political or environmental concerns as drivers for their purchases, the percentage swelling from 44% to 63% from 2008 to 2009. Surely these figures represent a pretty substantial shift away from the me-ism of the last decade.

Stepping away from the numbers for a minute, Hochstein talks about the emergence of a responsibility revolution which will see some significant, and permanent, shifts in consumer self perception. No longer will premium consumers galavant through life with a sense of entitlement. They are learning that rewards must be worked for and when those rewards come around, excess is passé. Premium consumers are now looking to brands and products that speak of ethical values.

Then comes the kicker, the single point, hammered home in terms we automotive designers can easily get our heads around: Luxury is being recast. Gone will be the preponderance of price, size or brand name as we transition to “to muted, almost secret signals to others “in the know” – about design, engineering, sustainability and fuel breakthroughs, ethical company behavior.” We’re now dealing with premium, a taste world where products have to clearly demonstrate their worth and communicate what Hochstein calls “…dog whistle taste”.


Which brings me neatly back to Audi’s LED eyeware. Is it the embodiment of Hochstein’s dog whistle taste? What about that dramatic, double-decker grille? Does it communicate ultrasonic signals about the fuel-sipping technology sited just behind? Come on, together they’re about as subtle as a Russian hooker at an Oxfordshire church tea. And if recent Audi concepts like the A7 Sportback and the truly ghoulish eTron are anything to go by, there’s plenty more of this particular brand of Bavarian bling to come.

Which means BMW must be feeling rather smug right now.


After the visual orgy that was the original Z4, X3, X5, 5er, 6er and 7er, the crowd in Munich have toned things right back to the point where some members of the automotive press have bemoaned the lack of drama in the newest 3s and 7s. Fear not, the drama is still there, you just have to know where to look, surely the very definition of dog whistle taste. I now get the same feeling of awe with the new 7 that I used to get with Audi A8s and while it’s not a reaction of the jaw dropping variety, there’s a deep satisfaction gained from the quiet, internal realisation that I’m looking upon something seriously… well… cool. One look at a 7er tail lamp will let you know that BMW has subtlety down for, despite being LED powered, they emit a warm glow through a set of beautifully resolved light pipes.


As I finish this piece, I wonder what the future holds for Audi’s increasingly expressive design language. And then I remember the VW Phaeton, the car that replaced the A8 in the under-the-radar cool stakes, and the fact that it’s due for rebirth in the next couple of years. I’ve no doubt that the Volkswagen group will be able to nail the impending premium bandwagon, just probably not with Audi as it stands today.

Quick musings: BMW’s Open and Shutlines


Volkswagen-Golf_2004_1600x1200_wallpaper_17As any automotive designer will tell you, drawing shutlines on a car is black art unto itself. Get them right and you can hinge an marketing campaign on them or, indeed, an entire iconic design, like the VW Golf and it’s C Pillar. Get them wrong and you’ll have pedants like me gibbering like a junky as we try to right the wrongs in our head (I almost had an accident the other day while pondering a VZ Holden Commodore’s rear door…).

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Graphic composition of panel gaps aside, it’s been generally accepted that the tighter the gap, the higher quality the vehicle (thus Lexus’ famed Ball Bearing campaign) and the better the aerodynamic performance (Series 1 Range Rovers, which have gaps so voluminous as to be able to accommodate whole fingers, have always provided an amusing counterpoint to this fact…)

BMW’s new concept, the Vision Efficient Dynamics, therefore, has me in a bit of a quandary. Read the rest of this entry »

Usain Bolt = worlds fastest man. Ferrari California = world’s most challenging butt

People used to get all uppity about the appearance of the full-blooded Bangle-butt on BMWs of yore. No matter how many times I talked about how it was defining a new proportion for luxury saloons and had demonstrable benefits in terms of trunk space, I’d always get shot down trying to justify it.

Well, all of a sudden, Bangle’s bottom is looking a sinuous and seductive as the c-pillar/haunch interface on an air-cooled 911 ’cause Ferrari done got a whole lotta booty-clappin’ going on.

I’ve no doubt there are those who will tell me that the Cali’s trunk can swallow 2 golf bags with room for the owner’s ego to spare while giving the ultimate in security and pose-ability. Those same folk will also opine on how it opens up a whole new market (of desperate housewives) to the illustrious Prancing Horse brand by virtue of it’s accessibility and versatility. They’ll also talk about just how hard it is to manage the volumes and shut lines when working with folding hard tops. Whatever.

Ferraris are meant to be avant-garde poetry in motion. The California’s butt is cockney rhyming slang after one too many ciders.

Indeed, on reflection it’s funny how things come full circle. The best hard-top cabriolet butt in the business? Why, that would belong to the BMW Z4

P.S I know the trunk is popped. It’s still not cool…

[Image Source: WENN via Jalopnik]

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.