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Embedding Award-Winning Design in Car Audio: Q&A With HARMAN’s Philipp Siebourg

We caught up with Car Audio Design Director Philipp Siebourg to get his impressions and gain insight into what makes HARMAN a cut above the rest when it comes to car audio systems.

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For the first time ever, Car Audio received four iF Design awards this year. How does the Huemen design team feel about this recognition?

We are very proud of these awards. Huemen’s consumer products design department had actually won a huge number of awards prior to these, including Red Dot and Red Star awards, but this was the first time our Car Audio design team submitted projects to iF and we are really proud to have won four awards out of the six projects we submitted. We also need to give credit to the OEM design teams because this is something, in most cases, we develop hand-in-hand with them.

Can you tell us a little about the Huemen design team?

We have around 250 people in the Huemen design team across six studios: Detroit, Mountain View, Bangalore, Shenzhen, Munich, and our brand-new headquarters that just opened in New York City. Huemen is a premiere design agency whose purpose is to design and deliver meaningful experiences that give brands a competitive advantage and long-lasting relevance. We have already won over 290 awards, developed over 200 products and 300 other solutions, and are recognized for best-in-class innovation and premium quality across product and service design.

How do you manage to consistently push the boundaries of contemporary car audio design? What has contributed to your success?

I think first of all it’s about knowing what you do, knowing the brand, knowing what constitutes the essence of each brand and how the brand stands apart from others. By truly knowing the brand, you can continuously find inspiration to underline and support its character. HARMAN understood early on the importance of having a dedicated design team to drive creativity and differentiation for all the audio brands within the company. I think that building a strong team in different geographical locations is an important part of our success. We have around 20 people working on car audio design in three different locations: Munich, Detroit, and Shanghai. Local teams work with regional OEMs.  For example, Infinity audio is managed by team China; JBL, Mark Levinson, and Lexicon are developed in the US, and we develop brands like Harman Kardon, Bang & Olufsen and Bowers & Wilkins in Munich for our European OEMs.

Typically each brand is managed by one single designer. We like to say that we should be able to wake these designers up in the middle of the night and they should know everything about these brands, and should also be able to differentiate them from all other brands. By separating brands by location, and by individual designer, we can drive more differentiation for unique brand character.

What are the specific challenges in sound system design? What role does the OEM play in the development process?

Designing a car audio system is a shared effort between the OEM and audio brand designers. HARMAN briefs the OEM designers on the specifics of the selected audio brand, telling them what the brand stands for and what message we want the audio system to communicate. The designers need to implicitly understand each other and how the OEM and audio brands can work in harmony to optimize unique values of the automotive and audio brand. Ideally, the co-development process begins at the moment the manufacturer starts thinking about how to develop the vehicle including the audio experience as audio should never be an afterthought.

What does meaningful design mean for the automotive businesses? How do you see design evolving in car audio?

Having something that is meaningful means there’s purpose behind it. Our aim is to create integrated solutions that highlight certain components of the audio system, which we use to communicate the values of the brand, so we want emphasize these unique elements. Having an in-house design agency working so closely with OEMs is a competitive advantage.

What do you envision for the next generation of electric, shared, and autonomous vehicles in terms of the design process?

I think we will move toward smarter materials. We will look more into fabrics and illuminations and lightweight materials as a first step. There is a huge trend at the moment for materials that give haptic feedback for example. In terms of shared mobility, we also need to look into materials that are very robust and durable because cars that will be used for smart mobility and ride sharing will be used much more intensely than cars that are in the market today.

You are not only designers, but artists – where do you find your inspiration?

In addition to classic sources of inspiration such as car shows, where we see what’s going on in the market and what car manufacturers envision for the future, we work with school projects and universities. For examples we work with the FH Joanneum in Graz, as well as Umea University in Sweden. We have interns from Graz and the Art Center in Pasadena and we are seeking additional collaborations. Interns provide great inspiration because they are still very open-minded. We value working with students on projects as it is very inspiring because it brings us out of our daily work routine and lets us interact with end consumers.

If you were hosting a dinner party and could invite any three guests, who would you invite and why?

I would choose somebody from design, somebody from music, and someone who is good at storytelling. When I started my career, I was working at BMW and one of the lead designers was Chris Bangle. It was very inspiring to be at BMW at that time, and he would be at my table. I like storytelling straight and simple with lots of room for imagination. Astrid Lindgren comes to mind as a great storyteller who left an impression on me as a child. Finally, the one and only Aretha Franklin would hold a place of honor.  I lived in Detroit for a few years the same time as Aretha and we both witnessed the ongoing renaissance of this soulful city that stands as a beacon for both music and automotive.