The Hofmeister Kink: A Lasting BMW Design Detail
Sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest differences. They can carry powerful associations that aren't immediately obvious. Some good examples are:
The idea that a detail can make a big difference has always been fascinating to me. I've also always been really fascinated by cars and automotive design. So a few months ago when I saw that Jalopnik named "The Hofmeister Kink" the number one design element of all time I was interested. I had never heard of it before and I couldn't see how it could make much of a difference at all in the overall design of a car.
Below is my attempt to figure out what this detail is and how it can make a difference.
What is the Hofmeister Kink?
The Hofmeister kink is a small design feature of BMWs. It is the name for the small cutout of the rear side windows on the C-pillar of the car. Rather than having the rear side window extend all the way down as might be expected, it angles back toward the front of the car. It is named after the legendary Director of Design at BMW, Wilhelm Hofmeister. It first appeared on the 1961 BMW 1500. You can see this on the 1500 in the image below. (Circled in blue)
The Hofmeister kink has become a signature design element of all BMWs. BMW claims that it "subtly highlights" that the cars are rear-wheel drive. Since it first appeared, the kink has appeared on every BMW manufactured. Below is the C-Pillar of all of the BMW "Compact Exec" type cars since the 1500. (The modern model is the 3-Series)
During that time BMW has become synonomous with quality; the 3-Series is a legend and has been named to the Car and Driver Ten Best list every year since 1992. As expected, the Hofmeister kink is now appearing on all kinds of cars. My hypothesis was that it would appear most on cars that were meant to seem luxurious, or high-end. Naturally, it wouldn't appear on a Mercedes, being rivals with BMW and I would be surprised to see it on any car or make with a strong design history.
How Manufacturers Use the Kink to Distinguish Marques
Auto manufacturers typically have more than one marque of car so that they can target both luxury car buyers as well as more value-minded consumers. A manufacturer often competes with itself, offering similar cars across marques that differ primarily in levels of luxury. Some examples of differet lines from different manufacturers are:
- Ford - Mercury/Lincoln
- Chevy - Oldsmobile - Buick - Cadillac
- Honda - Acura
- Toyota - Lexus
- Nissan - Infinity
I've noticed that many of these brands has been the use of the Hofmeister Kink to distinguish between similar models of different marques. Below are some examples:
There are many other examples (and a couple counter-examples) but the trend is clear, particularly when looking at cars made after the mid 1990s. Some notable exceptions are:
- Mercedes - As mentioned above they are unlikey to use a signature design feature from BMW.
- Cadillac - They currently have a very strong design language of their own.
- Honda/Acura - The Accord and its Acura equivalents all have the Kink
- Nissan/Infiniti - All of their cars have the kink (not true a decade ago)
Korean Manufacturers Try to Move Upmarket
The Korean auto manufacturers, Hyundai and Kia are seemingly trying to duplicate the path to success that Honda used. Start with cheap economy cars, earn a reputation for quality and move upmarket into more expensive luxury models. In the last couple of years, both Hyundai and Kia have introduced more luxurious sedans and SUVs. While the Kia Amanti has clearly taken heavy design inspiration from Mercedes (no kink!), its Optima sedan is more in line with other manufacturers. Below are two examples:
This seemingly inconsequential detail has developed into a key theme of automotive design. It is clear that automotive designers work within a set of guidelines they understand well, knowing how the details impact public perception. This aspect of design is certainly not only relegated to cars, but is carried through other design mediums as well. Web design is no exception. There are features of a site that can be used to instantly exude professionalism and sophistication.
I wanted to take this time to turn it over to the readers and get your thoughts on your favorite subtle design techniques, only noticeable to a very discerning eye, that instantly convey a level of beauty to the site's visitors. What elements come to mind?