Spring 2021

Mini Vision Urbanaut concept

Addressing lifestyle, habits and feelings of people in 2030 – Oliver Heilmer (pictured left) head of design at Mini, talks us through the ideas offered by the company’s latest concept, the Vision Urbanaut

Tearing up the handbook and starting again – not a notion that would normally be linked to a company with extremely strong heritage. But with the Vision Next 100 concept back in 2016, Mini demonstrated its intention to create fresh interior designs and push the boundaries. The Vision Urbanaut concept showcases the company’s latest efforts. 
“The project started with a question,” Oliver Heilmer, head of design at Mini, tells Interior Motives. “We asked ourselves, “How will our customers want to experience mobility in the year 2030 and beyond?” More than 30 designers, engineers and marketing colleagues came together for a three-day workshop to tackle the question. We did a deep-dive into how we would like to feel as customers, rather than approaching it from the perspective of designers or engineers.”

An entire wall was quickly covered in post-it notes depicting a variety of ideas and scenarios, as well as more broad thoughts and feelings surrounding travel in the future. Through a process of elimination, the team was able to distill two main concepts. The first was based on living situations, with the idea that people may come together more often as friends and groups as well as those in more traditional family circles. The second was the importance of retaining Mini’s sense of heritage while simultaneously implementing new technologies and innovations.

With these concepts and words in mind, Heilmer and his team decided it would make more sense to tackle the interior before looking at the exterior. A minimum size requirement for inside was identified and the process of selecting key elements began. But instead of reaching for the sketch book or computer, the team used physical furniture and wooden scale models spread out on the floor. In stark contrast to using furniture in a courtyard, the team also used augmented reality headsets to visualise the design. The combination of these approaches led to some intriguing discoveries. 

“There are areas in the car that we don’t use at all today, so we started looking at what could be moveable within the interior,” Heilmer says. “We decided we wouldn’t have a classic steering column so we could use the space when the Urbanaut isn’t in motion, which is where the idea of the daybed and street balcony came up. We got inspiration from tiny homes and old MPV concepts that were customised by people with love for details, and then translated these into features that would make sense for the Mini brand.” 

The entire dash can be lowered when the Urbanaut is stationary, becoming a seating area or “daybed”, and the windscreen can be opened upwards to create a “street balcony”. The latter has been done to bring occupants closer to nature and the outdoors. Other seats can rotate, and the rear seating bench can be altered with backrests or transform into a ‘cosy corner’. Between the rear seats and dash is an open area that has a table and accompanying plant, designed to mimic a lounge space where passengers meet and engage with one another, and again adding to the natural feel. As well as maximising the use of space, all of these elements are designed to aid both comfort and socialisation. 

"There are areas in the car that we don’t use at all today, so we started looking at what could be moveable within the interior"

By applying a practical approach to layout, the design team are very subtly hinting to Mini’s long heritage of making small spaces seem roomy. But there are more obvious features that have clearly been influenced by the history of the brand ‑ the circular screen in the centre of the cabin a case in point.  
“There was a single circular element on the dash of the first 1959 Mini,” Heilmer says. “This has been developed over the years, and it was showcased in many of our previous concepts. We strongly believe this is something that must be there in the future. The circular screen that we have included in the Urbanaut has fantastic detail in terms of technology and user interaction. This is a personal statement, but I think a circle is somehow more friendly than a square, which matches the Mini brand.” 
As well as the two concepts of living space and heritage, there were also three words that consistently came up during the initial brainstorming session: “Chill”, “Wanderlust” and “Vibe”. These have been extended upon and selected as three modes, or what Mini describes as “moments”.

When in “Chill” mode, LED lighting in the ‘cosy corner’ illuminates an arch that extends from either side of the bench and runs across the entire width of the roof. It projects leafy green graphics that have clearly been inspired by a forest canopy, again pushing the link to nature. Ambient music and atmospheric sounds are played too. 

The cabin adapts in “Wanderlust” mode to bring the emphasis on driving, with an animated illustration of the driver’s route displayed on the IP along with other information such as potential hazards. Instead of projecting a forest canopy, the arch simulates movement by portraying blurred scenery, while a circular screen in the centre of the cabin next to the table displays visuals inspired by tourism posters of the 1950s and 60s. Activating automated driving mode prompts the retraction of the steering wheel and pedals and the driver display disappears from the dash. The side door opens fully in “Vibe” mode, as does the windscreen, encouraging a social atmosphere. The circular screen at the heart of the cabin becomes a media control centre, providing access to music and entertainment, while the arch projects animations of graphic equalisers. 

The three modes are activated by placing the Mini “Token” into specific slots on the table in the centre of the vehicle. “The Token could come in the form of a watch or a necklace, but it is a symbol for what a future Mini key could look like,” Heilmer says. “It’s analogue in the sense there is no display on it, but it is intelligent because it stores user preferences.”

Considering the 2030 timeframe, the design team also looked to address issues that are prevalent now but are becoming increasingly vital. Sustainability and the impact that vehicles have on the environment is a topic close to Heilmer’s heart, and in a bid to ensure the concept ticks the eco-friendly box, recycled materials and knitted textiles take the place of chrome and leather. Also, both the floor and steering wheel are made from cork. Heilmer believes this adds to the idea of getting closer to nature, but it will also have a more functional use.

“Cork has multiple benefits,” he says. “It helps with the humidity and provides an aesthetic and a new texture to touch. Also, when the car gets cold during winter months, we may not need a heated steering wheel function because cork won’t get too cold.”

The Mini Vision Urbanaut concept is a breath of fresh air. At a time when socialising and human interaction is extremely limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the concepts and themes explored may seem like a distant pipe dream, but one that brings hope and anticipation. Life could be vibrant again, just like the illustrations the Mini design team conjured up.

A good deal of this optimism stems from Heilmer’s approach to design – one that is inclusive and innovative, eager to mix up the process and obtain insight from the wider design team and beyond.  
“I personally believe that we must jump out of the normal traps we are in as designers,” he says. “We have to think about the process differently. Sometimes it is important that we aren’t too serious and that we are brave enough to try new things, which is what we did with the Urbanaut. It is much easier to do this with a vision car as opposed to a production model, but we are trying to break out of some typical routes of design in our daily work.”

Senior Vice President BMW Group Design: Adrian van Hooydonk
Head of MINI Design: Oliver Heilmer
Exterior Designer MINI Vision Urbanaut: Niels Steinhoff
Interior Designer MINI Vision Urbanaut (Designworks): Christoph Mayr
Design Project Management: Matthias Hoffmann
Lead Designer Concept Cars: Olivier Pitrat
Creative Director Sound BMW, MINI, Rolls-Royce: Renzo Vitale

Text: Michael Nash