Ep. 52: Oliver Heilmer

Car designer Oliver Heilmer has known he wanted to go into auto design since he was a little kid fascinated by tractors on his grandmother’s farm. He grew up in Munich, Germany drawing machines and vehicles on any paper available, and then studied industrial and automobile design in school. Soon after graduation, he landed a job with BMW Group and has been there ever since. Now, as the head of MINI Design, he’s dedicated to designing for innovation and emotion. This is a long-term love affair, indeed.


What is your earliest memory?

I can still remember quite clearly when my Mum’s red Renault R5 was resprayed silver by my uncle. I have particularly strong memories of the car’s taped-over windows and very distinct smell.

How do you feel about democratic design?

Democratic design is one potential way of appealing to the majority of people.

However, it also threatens anonymity and a lack of character. And for the designer that means the risk of creating something boring. Democratic design is therefore not an option for me, as a matter of principle. I look for that element of challenge in every project, the opportunity to question what I know or have become accustomed to, to push the limits and discover new things.

MINI Electric Concept

MINI Electric Concept


What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was an intern at BMW I talked to an exterior designer about my work. He gave me a simple piece of advice “Do what you feel”. After graduating, I worked at an internet company. But when an offer came in from BMW, I talked with my manager at the time and he advised me to follow my gut instinct – i.e. to do what I felt. I decided to go to BMW. So “Do what you feel” has turned out to be the best advice I’ve ever received.

How do you record your ideas?

I scribble things down or make short notes, ideally just after an idea has come to me.


What’s currently your favorite tool or material to work with?

I’m fascinated by fabric at the moment and its characteristics. Especially using techniques such as 3D knitting to create the sort of forms you don’t normally find yet in car design.

Which books do you have on your bedside table?

Right now I’ve got a whole heap of Science Fiction novels on my Kindle.

Why is authenticity in design important?

Design needs to be authentic if it’s going to endure. Anything else is “disguise“ or styling, and that’s not what I’m trying to achieve.


What’s your favorite restaurant in your home city?

My favourite restaurant locally is Chang CITY. It has Munich’s best Sushi and unbelievably good Asian fusion cuisine.

What might we find on your desk right now?

Pictures of my kids and a LEGO MINI, which was a present from my team.

Who do you look up to and why?

Adrian van Hooydonk (Senior Vice President BMW Group Design). I like his natural presence and the calm he sends out. And I’m still learning a lot from him as far as strategy and timing are concerned.

MINI Electric Concept interior

MINI Electric Concept interior

New MINI designs

New MINI designs

Which of your projects is your favorite and why?

I still remember the very first project I was handed at the BMW Group – in July 2000. I designed three virtual MINIs for the world premiere of the new MINI in Paris. I was asked to design a Cabriolet, Clubman and Pick-up derivative of the MINI Hatch, which was a really exciting experience. However, I’d have to say that every one of the projects I’ve worked on has been very special in itself.

What are the last five songs you listened to?

Gregory Porter, Water under Bridges (Liquid Spirit); Ahmad Jamal, April in Paris; Drake, Passionfruit; Citizen Cope, The Rainwater LP, I couldn’t explain why; Miguel, Sure Thin

Special thanks to Tai Navares and Alex Perez for editing this episode.
Music in this episode courtesy of El Ten Eleven—hear more on Bandcamp.
Shoutout to Jenny Rask for designing the Clever logo.