Cynics might say that being the head of design at Audi AG has to be a largely undemanding job as nothing much changes when it comes to projecting a face that every onlooker will know belongs to an Audi. Over the years, those same cynics might well opine that there’s been no need even to attach the famed four-ringed logo to any Ingolstadt product as the Audi gene pool has been preserved with unwavering consistency.
Such comments are not entirely without foundation but there has been good reason for Audi’s consistent approach over the years. After all, being the premium image flag-bearer in the huge VW empire has not been a bed of roses given that two stalwarts of the German motor industry, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, had strutted within the upper echelons of customers’ minds for many years before Volkswagen expanded the Audi offering to cover every niche from compact hatchback to super-luxury saloon.
All the while, that corporate face and the cars that carry the logo that encapsulates the values founded in the Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer pre-war days, has been carefully nurtured and developed through the application of a philosophy dubbed Vorsprung durch Technik or Progress through Technology.
Continuous improvement is the name of the game and that applies just as much to exterior and interior design and to tactility as it does to pure technology historically best encapsulated in the quattro system.
The man entrusted with preserving and progressing Audi brand values is Mark Lichte who was born in Arnsberg in 1969 and who started his career with Volkswagen in 1996 while still studying Transportation Design at Pforzheim University.
Of interest is that while he was head of VW’s Exterior Design Studio, he had a hand in the development of the enduring Golf 7 and the eye-catching Arteon, among many others. His talents were such that he moved to Ingolstadt in February 2014 as the Head of Audi Design.
His responsibilities include Exterior and Interior Design, Colour and Trim, racing cars and concept cars. Based at a large new design complex in Ingolstadt, Lichte has a very clear and well-defined philosophy about how to create the right environment for good design to flourish. It’s called ‘team work.’
Unlike some famous designers of the past, Lichte is quick to play down his functional role as the conductor in the design centre, preferring instead to play with his ever-growing orchestra made up of surprisingly young creative minds.
‘We are one team,’ says Lichte and ‘the car is always a team result.’ What seems all-important is to nurture an atmosphere that engenders creativity among the staff of the huge, multi-story studio and to facilitate that all-important sense of belonging and of equal participation. There are no internal walls – just one big office.
If any one design element of relatively recent times has defined Audi cars, it’s the single-frame grille introduced by Walter de Silva in 2004. Lichte rightly points out that the Mercedes face, albeit somewhat diluted in recent times, has been around for more than 100 years and has consistently defined the brand.
It’s fair to say that new Audi face created a tide of opposing views as it was rather radical at the time, but with the passing of the years, it has become brand-defining as well as trend-setting as many other manufacturers quickly moved from the plain aero-inspired visages of the late 1990s to faces dominated by air intakes of one form or another.
While Lichte is happy that the De Siva grille provided Audi with an unmistakable visual identity, he has also recognised that nothing can stay the same forever, so he and his team have ‘navigated ahead’ – Lichte is a keen sailor – by introducing new grille designs that take the brand into the future.
A quick glance at the new A8 or the A6 or the very fresh A1 are testimony to the philosophy of advancement just as they telegraph a need recognised by Lichte to provide greater differentiation between model ranges.
To Lichte, it’s important to ensure the harmonisation of technology and design to keep ahead of the pursuing pack. The integration of new headlight technology, and how this element has changed frontal appearances, is a very good example. ‘We are always doing new things’ says Lichte, ‘but while we are very aware of the need to preserve an overall brand language, each new model will have its own character.’
When it comes to interior execution, few will argue that it is Audi that has led the way in terms of quality perceptions, choice of materials and precision fit. It is perhaps the blend of sportiness and elegance that has defined the visual appeal of Audi interiors, but the advances in technology bring new challenges, in particular, the integration of digitisation.
Lichte’s approach will be to create a dash layout that closely parallels the functionality of a smartphone but as with the introduction of especially compact headlight clusters, space will be freed up to allow for greater design differentiation between different models.
As a senior employee in Lichte’s interior design department noted, Audi interiors give a lot but not to an overwhelming degree. Along the road, expect to see more emotional surfacing on display but not to the detriment of functionality or precision. Just what you’d expect from the Vorsprung durch Technik philosophy!