Head of MINI Design Oliver Heilmer is an incredibly thoughtful and considerate designer. You can see it in the decisions he and his team have made with the highly anticipated refresh of the current small car line-up announced this week. So when the subject turns to the size of front overhang on the current car, he chooses his words carefully.

MINI Design

It’s one of my main tasks to get (the overhang) more properly inline with typical MINI proportions,” Heilmer told us. But action is not just words and you could tell this was a personal pain point of his.

“With the current MINI, the platform dictates that we can’t change much. And yes crash requirements are getting harder and harder to comply with. And to change the overhang in the current chassis, it’s unfortunately not possible. But still we pushed things. For example we wondered if the positioning and fog lights are still required with the improved LED lights? Then we began to look at how aero could be improved in that area. So in the end we did shorten the overhang in that area despite the chassis.”

This dedication is born out of a true love of the MINI brand. In Heilmer the brand has a head of MINI design that is not just committed to the heritage of the brand but the future of it.

No one expected the original MINI. Issigonis started with something totally new and original. Part of the heritage of the MINI brand is change.

Oliver Heilmer, Head of MINI Design

On the eve of the LCI a launch we sat down with Oliver Heilmer to talk about all things MINI from the new LCI to where the brand is going and what it’s inspired by.

MotoringFile: What have you done with this new LCI to change the proportions or visual enhance them?

Oliver Heilmer: The side marker is a good example as we used LED technology to reduce the visual size. We also eliminated the lower lights which allow us to improve aero and reduce that part of the bumper. So that area we actually did shorten the overhang slightly. 

MF: What is it like to work with a brand that has a such a strict design language? 

OH: It’s something I take very seriously and have since the day I started in 2017. I’m not asked to preserve what’s given, but to define the future of the MINI brand. So keeping what is iconic but also seeking out what is new. 

But iconic doesn’t always mean from the past. One example that wasn’t an iconic until recently are the Union Jack taillights… and now it’s a new iconic element for the brand.

Personally I’m such a strong MINI fan… I’m probably the toughest in terms of trying to preserve the classic MINI elements. So I’m always asking how far we can go while preserving the brand as we know it. 

MF: How do you design with a clean sheet of paper while using a common platform that is designed for both BMWs and MINI? 

OH: For one we have to try to stop the growing and growing with every generation. It’s my job to dial that wheel back into a small approach and into opimizting proportions. 

But you have to look at MINI in the context of the entire car industry. Despite the growth MINI is still very small and often the smallest in each category. 

I would choose to always work on a brand that’s strong than invent something that’s new. Part of the heritage of the brand is change. 

No one expected the original Mini when it launched. Alec Issigonis started with something totally new and original. It was so original that I could imagine if there was social media in 1959, people would been asking… is this even a car?

MF: Tell us where the idea for the multi-tone roof came from?

OH: The inspiration stated 3 years ago. It came from a design concept. We asked; is a contrast roof still unique? If not what else can we do? To bring the idea to life we worked directly with Oxford – something we really enjoyed. We’ve learned a lot in terms of colors in the process!

MF: Where do you see inspiration in reducing elements and simplification?

OH: Everything is getting more intense in terms of inspiration. I carry two phone with me and we all have so many devices. Yet you often feel like you need to calm down. Yes devices are becoming simpler (no button on an iPhone etc). But focusing on what’s important.. .this is a trend we see emerging. From one year to another it’s a wish of everyone.

In the furniture industry we already see this concept happening. But it’s not to leave things out but focusing on the details that remain. 

I tried to reduce MINIs design exactly for that reason. The elements that are still there are important. And we need to pay much more attention on what matters in order to enhance what matters for the customer. It’s not a new idea. We’re always reflecting on the first Mini in 1959 and trying to analyze what the first Mini had and if that’s something we need to have in the future. 

We look at what’s is ornamental and what do we need to take out? There’s still a need for differentiation between models… but on the other hand looking into each of those characters, we need to try to reduce things as much possible. 

You see this in the LCI in the interior where we tried to reduce shut lines and eliminate small parts.  

It’s often the past that inspires us. We actually looked at the 8 track player recently. They are so simple! There’s so much love in those details. It’s not necessarily in design perspective but functional perspective. They just work. It’s exactly what we are trying to achieve.

MF: How does feedback from customers reflect in MINIs design? 

OH: The recent feedback is generally good. But there was feedback that the inside appeared too complicated. So we simplified things… the center vents are integrated and the switches are one surface.  

The steering wheel didn’t feel that modern. So we cleaned it up as much as possible to coincide with new functionality. With these change we took the chance to reduce the interior visually as well. Same goes for the exterior which was really about reduction.

MF: What is essential and non-negotiable in terms of MINI design?

OH: We’ve looked at everything. We’ve even looked at … do we need round headlights? What if we got rid of everything? We’re constantly working with engineering, marketing and even customers when we think about the future. Within that process we’re coming conclusions on what elements are non negotiable. And since MINI isn’t one car, it’s not always one answer. 

The hatch there’s a lot of things I don’t want to touch because of how iconic it is. We’re adjusting those elements in the future but not eliminating them. In the Countryman there could be a different approach.

But it’s a process that starts with this refresh and something we’re working on now for the next generation MINI.

MF: How does electrification help design?

OH: First of all there’s the proportion. We’re looking into the future… with electrification it’s a perfect match with the brand. In fact I believe it’s a given for MINI to be electrified. 

For the current Mini Cooper SE customer they have told us they like the car as is. They don’t want a spaceship. Instead we focused on the small details on that car in this LCI. 

With a new architecture you’re getting rid of the constraints you had in the past. The result will be a revolution in detail and more of an evolution in the big picture of the design. With a new architecture you’re getting rid of the constraints you had in the past. The result will be a revolution in detail and more of an evolution in the big picture of the design. 

MF: How does MINI reflect on models that didn’t work like the Paceman, the Coupe and the Roadster?

OH: In developing the brand for the future we believe in seeking out the characters that illustrate what the brand can be.

We did an analysis on the Paceman, Spyder and Coupe to try to understand if was a conceptual issue or if it was a design issue… or perhaps they weren’t not differentiated enough?

I believe from a design POV they are beautiful and they fit perfectly into what MINI was at that time. But two door concepts are becoming less and less successful. That’s true everywhere. Especially with two seaters. The market was shrinking and continues to shrink further today. But that’s my guess personally. 

In the future we’re looking at many characters and possibilities of what customers will want. But we are very keen on expierimenting. You need to seek out and touch areas that will cause people to say… this is definitely not a MINI anymore. I’m sure that was the reaction of the first countryman… but that didn’t stop us. 

In the end we need to expand the brand to a wider footprint without losing its soul. 

MF: how do you make the infotainment system simple with so much functionality. 

OH: For car manufacturers, it’s really tough to keep the pace with mobile manufactures. We need to be automotive-grade so it all has to work at -30c as well as 80c.

And the systems are getting more complex. But the user interface needs to appear less complex. One area that we’ve done this is the live widgets that we’re offering in the new 2022 MINIs. It’s a type of interaction you might already be used to with your mobile device. If someone wants to dig deeper there’s a normal menu structure underneath but we tried to combine as much functionality as possible. So if you’re going to sport mode, the ambient light changes along with it. 

MF: When did the idea of a second LCI first come up and why was it needed?

OH: It’s a bit foggy but I think around 10/17. When we started project it was a tough one. The car is already pretty good. But within the process we realized there were potential opportunities to revise things.

The substance in the current platform is pretty good and the quality is perfect. But from a design perspective we needed subtle modernization to keep it at the level of the rest of the market (even though we say it has its own market).

So we knew we needed a second LCI. But It’s not just a new look… it’s a technical LCI as well. It’s important that we keep these cars competitive and that’s why the management decided to go for a second LCI. As you see it’s still a MINI but more modern. Or as modern as we’re able to be until the new platform.