How car designers at Audi China find the trends of the future

What do Hutongs, skyscrapers and hair sprays have in common? For Audi China’s designers, they all are unexpected sources of inspiration. Learn how the Audi experts identify the trends of the future and incorporate them into their designs.

04/27/2017 Reading Time: 5 min

Designer Guo Ke

It’s Friday night at 798 Art Zone in Beijing. The graduation show of the China Graduate Fashion Week is currently taking place in the middle of the hip artist district. The former gasometer in the north of the art zone shines in bright blue. Here, the graduates from the most prestigious fashion universities from all over China and abroad present their final works. 150,000 cubic meters full of creativity, play of colors and material experiments.

Journalists and fashion experts have come to check out the latest collections of the young design talents. Among them are Guo Ke and Zhang Lisui. But they aren’t worried about finding the hippest new outfit. The two Audi designers on looking for inspirational new trends — for modern car designs that goes beyond ordinary.

Zhang Lisui: Automotive interior design expert.
Zhang Lisui: “China has been an influential startup paradise for a long time now. The innovations created here spread throughout the world — and that is also true of car design.”

One day after the show, Guo Ke and Zhang Lisui put their impressions on paper, pin post its on the wall and cluster them into categories, and create imagery and mood boards. While Guo Ke looks for inspiration for the form language of new models, the Color & Trim expert Zhang Lisui is on the search for new colors and materials.

Cars from China: New trends and standards in the world of design

Six years ago, Guo Ke was the first exterior designer at Audi China. The world’s largest new car market sets its own benchmarks and trends. That is why Audi China, the wholly-owned subsidiary of AUDI AG, owns the largest research and development center outside of Germany, including an own design area. In the meantime, under the direction of Sandra Hartmann, the design team has grown to ten experts for Color & Trim, exterior and interior design.

The Audi office is located within the immediate vicinity of the 798 Art Zone, a district in Beijing known for its artists’ studios and galleries. There, the young creative talents explore new vehicle designs for the Chinese market. “Our task is to translate the brand values of Audi into a design language that fits to the Chinese market and to our customers in China,” says Sandra Hartmann.

For this, they identify local trends, which are then implemented in the design of the cars through a close cooperation with colleagues in Ingolstadt. A real challenge: “We start with the new model’s exterior design five years before the car arrives on the market. To be successful, we have to discover the preferences of our Chinese customers even before they have discovered them.”

Successful car design in China means understanding and interpreting the rapid changes in taste

Car designer at Audi China look at color samples

The right mix of colors and materials are essential in the design concept. The designers analyze the latest trends using market research methodology.

For this reason, the young creative team visits the places where trends are born. “Last year we were at the China Graduate Fashion Week, where we took part in a ceramics workshop, talked to architects, designers and artists, and explored traditional residential disctricts, Hutongs, as well as Beijing’s modern architecture wonders”, Guo Ke explains.

Her search for Chinese language of form led the exterior designer to the shopping and office complex Galaxy SOHO, whose design architect Zaha Hadid derived from rice terraces, or to the Olympic stadium, also known as “bird’s nest”.

Also for the Color & Trim expert Zhang Lisui, Peking is an endless source of inspiration. She just recently completed her internal trend book “New Luxury in China”, in which she presents color and material trends for the next five years. Before embarking her quest for trends, Zhang Lisui wanted to get to know the Chinese customers more closely.

Thanks to her colleagues at Audi Innovation Research, this proved to be no problem. The team has been conducting market and trend research and has already examined how Chinese pioneers define the term “premium”, which expectations Audi customers have in the Middle Kingdom and how they spend their free time.

To empathize the inspirational sources of our customers, I immense into their world.

Zhang Lisui, Color & Trim expert at Audi China

Chinese car design: A deep dive into the world of the customer

“Chinese customers love experimenting with colors and material. Even when it comes to cars — the more daring, colorful and conspicuous, the better!”

Zhang Lisui, Color & Trim expert at Audi China

“The average Audi customer is in his mid-30s and therefore much younger than in other countries. And he is constantly online”, says Zhang Lisui. For the 743 million mobile Internet users in China, the smartphone is an indispensable life companion. They use apps to order everything ranging from a toothbrush to a car, to post and share experiences, and to maintain friendships and business contacts.

The Chinese also love so-called mega malls: huge shrines of consumerism that offer everything – from fashion stores and restaurants, all the way up to spas – all in one place. “To empathize the inspirational sources of our customers, I immense into their world. I carry out research on the same online platforms, feel the fabrics of their favorite fashion brands, eat in trendy restaurants and visit artists’ studios”, Zhang Lisui explains. “Chinese customers love experimenting with colors and material. The more daring, colorful and conspicuous, the better!”

Inspiration for the perfect color or the right fabric often comes to Zhang Lisui when she least expects it. “Just recently, I sent a bottle of hair spray as a color sample to one of our suppliers”, Zhang tells with a laugh. “The supplier and I experimented until we found the right mix of pigment and color for the unique Audi hue.”

From chrome radiator grilles to Hainan blue – Chinese car trends in serial production

Before the ideas of Guo Ke and his colleagues can be implemented into a series, they must first prove themselves in international competition. Each year, the design team in Peking works out suggestions for the exterior and interior designs of new models and presents them to the design headquarter in Ingolstadt. The hard part: their designs compete with designs from other Audi design studios.

In addition, the designers adapt individual elements to the needs of the market. The product upgrade of the Audi A3 included the introduction of a radiator grille, which was developed based on market analysis.

Car Design: color samples at Audi China
Hainan Blue (second color sample from the front) is Audi’s first China-specific color

The additional chrome application contributes to the radiator grille’s stronger contrast in form and material. This complexity and high level of detail suits to the Chinese customer’s taste, for whom the car represents an important status symbol.

Unique in China: The Radiator Grille Design

And even whole concept studios are being developed in China. A real eye-catcher at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 was the “Connected Mobility Concept”: an Audi Q3 with an integrated longboard, developed by the Audi China design team. If the rush hour in Peking, a metropolis that consists of 21.5 million inhabitants, does not allow for traffic to move along, the customer can maneuver his way through the narrow alleyways to the next hip restaurant on the electrically driven, foldable board. Even the Hainan blue color of the show car derives from the Chinese design studio. The color was named after the Chinese island of Hainan, a popular holiday destination in southern China.

Remarkable Automotive Design: From China to the rest of the world

While Chinese radiator grille designs are only available here, other Chinese trends from the Middle Kingdom have long prevailed throughout the whole world, chief designer Sandra Hartmann explains. “Our Hainan blue is now available at Audi worldwide.  Even the trend for yellow colors has its origin in China, a color American and European roads are hard to imagine without.”

Car designers in China on a quest for inspiration


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