October 16 marked the one-year anniversary of the opening of HARMAN’s Design Center at NA automotive headquarters in Novi, Michigan. Not only are we obsessed with engineering and tuning best in class audio systems for automotive, we’re committed to perfecting the look and feel of the system. Our dedicated team of industrial designers collaborate closely with our automotive partners from conception to production, to align on sound, design and brand positioning.

Following Novi, we opened two more studios in Garching, Germany and Suzhou, China in the last year. We caught up with Car Audio Design Director Philipp Siebourg to talk about his role and and how he sees the future of automotive design.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to lead Car Audio Design at HARMAN?

I studied first as an engineer but quickly realized I was more interested in being creative and inspirational than doing calculations. I was a product designer until an internship with BMW made me want to focus on automotive. After I graduated with a master’s in automotive design from the Royal College of Art in London, I saw an opening at Bang & Olufsen, which partners with BMW, Audi and Aston Martin. I had experience working with these automakers through previous internships and a year in industry requirement for my degree. This gave me the edge in landing this dream job. 

While working with Bang & Olufsen, I developed the ethos that guides my team at HARMAN today. Approaching brand partnerships as equals is incredibly important to the success of the product. It should never be a matter of “we want to be in your car!” It’s about coming to the partnership with a mutual respect for the value both OEM and supplier brings.

After Bang & Olufsen Automotive was acquired by HARMAN, I got involved in work for Audi and lead the new partnership between B&O Play and Ford. When the opportunity arose, I volunteered to lead a design team for HARMAN and pushed to establish our first design studio in Novi. No one else is focusing on design to the extent HARMAN is globally.

Why did HARMAN decide to invest in its own Design Center?

HARMAN saw how the emphasis on design capabilities paid off so well for Bang & Olufsen and decided to apply it across the other audio brands. We got to work on creating design guidelines and narratives for JBL, Harman Kardon, etc., and put a lead designer in charge of each to develop wnership over each brand’s DNA to ensure it’s aligned with the brand stories of the vehicles we’re working with. Take our flagship Harman Kardon brand. Automakers want it to be unique to their given model, and it’s through industrial design that we can highlight the synergies between our brands and create the distinctive quality they’re looking for.The success of the Car Audio business depends on the quality and strength of our relationships with our OEM partners. It’s very important for them to see that we have an eye on design and that there are people working specifically on their brands. We also work hard to ensure that our own audio brands are being leveraged and reinforced in the best way possible.

It’s a very creative process that also employs semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols as a function of communication. Everything, from the grid spacing of the speaker overlay to contours of the beveling can make a difference and help tell a story.

When you’re working with a design agency, you may not have learnings from previous OEM projects, and it becomes easier to depart from the core story. Bringing design in-house makes everything more efficient for our audio engineers and the OEM’s designers and manufacturers – you essentially cut out a third party middle man. To my knowledge, HARMAN is unique in the industry for having done this.

Is the advent of the autonomous car changing the way your team is thinking about design or do you just focus on the needs today?

Autonomous cars, hybrids, electric – these all present opportunities and we in the industry are still figuring out the ways in which autonomous cars will impact our lifestyle. The rise of ridesharing also raises the question of how vehicle brands and car audio systems will resonate with “sharers” rather than owners. I think the experience will be even more important triggered in part by the in-car audio – this is what will give the automaker the advantage. Good interior design can create a visual branding to help people recall that specific experience. Think about it, audio is the key feature in the interior of the car that is recognizable and where the brand is clear.

Autonomous cars will also change the car’s architecture and the positioning of the people inside, which will impact speaker design. I liken the change to the recent shift from home audio systems built around the TV to single source loudspeakers, Bluetooth portable speakers and sound bars we prefer today. We’ll soon find more need to have flexibility and mobility with car audio. In general, materials used for the cars are changing as well and require different approaches in sound system applications. As designers, we toe the line between addressing the challenges of the project at hand while anticipating the needs of tomorrow – that’s what make my work so exciting! We're always turning up the volume.