Great design makes objects speak: Designer Hendrik Fries ensures that details like the smart cockpit air vents immediately suggest their inherent function. At the same time, he contributes the car’s style icon status – both a challenge and a great joy.

With a determined step, the young man crosses the courtyard of the smart Böblingen HQ. He’s clutching a roll of large-format renderings and design sketches that offer a rare glimpse into the secret world of the smart design department. While anyone who drives a smart grasps the car’s shapes and color schemes as elements distinctive to smart, Hendrik Fries’ drawings tell the stories behind the design. Yet it takes a lot of work – and some detours – to turn daydreams and early studies into tangible shapes and, finally, self-evident modules and controls. It’s painstaking work Fries continues to enjoy with a passion.

Hendrik Fries at work
Responsibility and fun are two major aspects of Hendrik Fries’ work.

Let’s start with a classic design question: form or function?
Hendrik Fries: Distinctive product semantics are very important to any designer. If I can’t tell the purpose of a certain element, it’s not a good thing. Design needs to communicate the product’s handling and use in an unambiguous way. At smart, we have coined the term FUNctional Design – fun meets usability. It’s a great way to explain the underlying philosophy at smart: Details matter. I think a quote by author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry pin-points it well: Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. At its core, that’s one of the golden rules of design.

Product design is usually shrouded in a great deal of secrecy. We shall try anyway: What are you currently working on?
Hendrik Fries: Right now, the design department mostly focuses on model upgrades and I mainly deal with interiors. And you’re right – that’s as much as I’m allowed to say for now (laughs).

Do you feel a certain amount of pressure when you’re asked to design something new?
Hendrik Fries: Of course. Responsibility always plays a role, especially when you’re dealing with an almost iconic vehicle like the smart. As designers, we help keep the legend alive. But that’s also part of the appeal.

Where can you spot your own work in the new smart?
Hendrik Fries: I was very involved with the air vent development. A rotating sphere might sound banal, but the actual, technical realization was quite a challenge – you hit the limits of engineering. That’s why close collaboration between design and engineering is a must. Generally speaking, it’s always vital to keep your eyes and mind open and look beyond your own desk or department. Our design department pursues a holistic approach and we tackle many different functions.

glas wall in the smart creative department
With the design team, Hendrik Fries never loses sight of the big picture.
Portrait of Hendrik Fries
FUNctional Design is a great term to describe the underlying philosophy at smart.

Could you walk us through the design process?
Hendrik Fries: Each element, whether interior or exterior, starts with a so-called key sketch. This initial drawing might not actually reveal that much – it’s more of an abstract idea of a shape. It’s selected at the start of the process. Then, we turn this sketch into a two-dimensional draft, which finally becomes a 3-D model. Meanwhile, some details enter the picture – like the previously mentioned air vents. A first, rough view of the interior serves as a base for further discussions. What matches the overall look better – round or angular vents? Slowly, but surely, we move from a rough, general overview to the smaller details. Some choices, like those spherical vents and the fabric framing the cockpit, steering wheel, and multimedia elements, were already visible in the key sketch.

Considering all the fixed steps and processes – is there still room for crazy ideas?
Hendrik Fries: I would even say, it’s absolutely necessary to allow yourself those creative detours and excursions. If you only had one day to finish an air vent design, the world would be a very boring place since you’d only have time to come up with the most obvious solutions. It’s simply not the right climate and setting for novel and progressive ideas.

Hendrik Fries is test driving a smart
Everyday situations inspire the design team for their work.
Touchscreen of a smart
User interface play an increasingly big role for car interiors.
Close up of a smart foldable roof
Close up of the front light design of a smart

How emotional do you get when one of your own ideas doesn’t make the cut?
Hendrik Fries: There are always emotions involved in design. If you spend a certain amount of time sketching a specific detail, you get somewhat attached. You need to learn to let go of some ideas and take the occasional step back. When you have a team of designers, there’s always plenty of output and usually no lack of alternatives. We come up with and develop hundreds of ideas where only one will make it to the final round. It’s great to spot traces of your own early efforts in the final product, but in the end, it all boils down to a team effort.

Hendrik Fries gets into a smart convertible
“It’s necessary to allow yourself creative detours and excursions.”

Do you watch how people move and travel?
Hendrik Fries: Design deals with many very specific questions: Where do we drop our shopping in the car? Where is room for all those little things we carry around with us like pens, phones, wallets? Everyday situations play a major role. And the car’s compact shape offers unique solutions: Which other car lets the driver reach through to the trunk? We also employ ergonomics specialists that keep feeding us the latest information. For example, when we aren’t quite sure how far from the driver to position an element, our first call is to those ergonomics experts.

As a designer, you’re obviously also in constant conflict with engineers and controlling, feasibility and budget.
Hendrik Fries: Those are, without question, different approaches, but in the end we all pursue the same goal: We want to see a fascinating car on the street. As designers, we are part of the development process from the first moment, right down to the mass-produced parts. This gives us a chance to convince our colleagues of our ideas and solutions – and also to try the occasional compromise. It takes a lot of creativity because reconciling all the different demands requires excellent listening skills and coordination with all parties – while never losing sight of our own high design standards. But when I look at the smart, I think we did a great job. Together with the entire team, we’ve achieved a result that easily puts a smile on everyone’s face.

Designer Hendrik Fries at work
Hendrik Fries arrived at smart after stops in Paris and Meissen.

You used to work as a freelancer, a. o. for the famous Meissen porcelain works. Was the work very different to what you do at smart?
Hendrik Fries: In Meissen, I designed exhibition furniture, so it was quite a different field. But since I never studied traditional car design, but industrial design, I’ve always focused on and appreciated a holistic approach. Many amazing industrial products have nothing to do with cars, but might come to influence car development over time.

Such as?
Hendrik Fries: User interfaces, like those on tablets and smartphones, have already entered the arena. Think touch operation, menus, sub menus – these will pop up more and more in cars. In future, people will think less in product categories and more in service categories, networking, and digitalization. The interface needs to be able to reflect the digital services. People want to enjoy things like web radio and other entertainment services in their cars – easily and seamlessly.