It would be hard to overstate the importance of design as a component of Kia and Hyundai’s amazing Horatio Alger story, one that took it from sideshow car company for people who couldn't swing a Honda, to main act. Peter Schreyer has been a key driver of that success, particularly at Kia, which he joined as chief designer nine years ago. He created a family look for the brand, with sleek styling, and elements like the famed “tiger nose” grill. In 2012 he became the first non-Korean president of Kia, and two weeks later was promoted to president of Hyundai Motor Group, with oversight for both Kia and Hyundai design. He speaks to Marketing Daily about his role.
Q: Now that you are doing both Kia and Hyundai, how difficult is it to keep those identities separate?
A: You have to kind of move in both worlds somehow, like shifting between the left and right sides of the brain. Especially when I'm in Korea, the design centers are very close to each other; you either walk through the red door [Kia] or the blue door [Hyundai], and it just works. You're in the red world or the blue world. While we developed Kia over the years, Hyundai has gone another way with the “fluidic sculpture” [design language], which at the time, was quite daring. It created a lot of discussion and also a lot of attention to the extent that other companies started going in the same direction. And I think this is why it is important to have two different attitudes.
Q: What sort of thematic ideas do you use to keep the brands unique?
A: It’s two very different philosophies. A clearness and crispness fits very well with the way we are doing cars at Kia: a sober, clear architecture; very logical and simple surfaces, but with tension. The Hyundai brand is a little more playful. Fluidic sculpture really is a quite nice description. We have always said, from very beginning, that Kia is more like a snow crystal, very constructed, and Hyundai is more like a water drop that changes and can flow. That is a quite good comparison.
Q: General ideas for how you'd like Hyundai to evolve, from a design perspective?
A: I think that, to me, I want to combine this way of doing things, very smooth and very fluidic, but bring it back a little more so we have architecture with it, and not only for sake of shape, so you have structure underneath, the way that, under muscular body, you need a skeleton providing stature.
Q: Should designers “listen” to mass opinion expressed through channels like social media, the way marketers do?
A: Customers can only compare design to what they already know on the market, so I consider this dangerous. They don't know the other products we are working on; it is only what they see on the street. It is very tricky.Sometimes it is interesting to listen to people, and see what their feelings and expectations are. But they can't design a car. Picasso didn't give people his brush. Miles Davis didn’t give his trumpet to someone else and say, “Could you show me what you expect?” That does not work.
Q: Same question with regard to Kia or Hyundai executives, who certainly have strong opinions.
A: They sometimes understand, sometimes not. I think it is very important to have executives on your side, and not have them go “No, no, no.” It is just very important that there is a strong relationship up to the CEO, who has final responsibility.
Q: A bit like the owner of a restaurant needs to trust the chef.
A: If you are owner of a restaurant, you have a final responsibility. You need a strong bond with those people. But you need to have discussions about the menu.