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California’s ArtCenter College of Design faculty, students, alumni and enthusiasts were given a chance to learn what is at the core of NIO design during the fourth ‘Virtual Car Classic’. Kris Tomasson, Vice President of Design, reveals the core features of NIO’s design philosophy.

Ganesh Iyer, EVP, Managing Director, NIO USA & Global CIO, explains how technology plays a role in bringing forth the NIO design vision.

Tomasson grew up in New York. He studied industrial design. Then he visited the gallery at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.

“I was blown away. I knew that was what I wanted to do,” says Tomasson.

He studied at the ArtCenter Pasadena campus and at the satellite Swiss centre for transportation. Right out of college, he got a job at BMW. Then he worked at Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, Gulfstream Aerospace and eventually went back to BMW to design the i-series before joining NIO.

“NIO is at the forefront of design and technology. Kris has had the opportunity to play a key role from the very beginning. We are naturally very proud of him as an alumnus of ArtCenter. It is always an inspiration for our students to interact with the men and women who were once in their shoes and now are leading the industry,” says, Jay Sanders, Executive Director, Transportation Design Department at ArtCenter.

Electric Car Classics to Today

The event started off with a tour of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s alternative fuel exhibition. It showed the evolution of EVs and how far design has come segueing into electric vehicles today.

“Now is the right time for EVs. The technology is here,” says Tomasson.

“All the issues we are having with climate are driving EV adoption as well. We are at the dawn of electric cars. It’s a big opportunity for design to change the paradigm for design. We are just on the cusp of it. Most electric cars today still look like conventional combustion cars. I think it is now up to designers to start to look into what we can push to maximize the interior.”.

“Now also is the dawn of autonomy. For car design, it could not be a better time to be a designer.  Electrification and autonomous driving open up a whole new world. A whole new world of what a car can be, how it is used, what the experience should be,” says Tomasson, “I think it is one of the most exciting times to be a designer and design cars.”

He says there is an opportunity to change what a car can be with the next big iteration in the development of the automobile.

“We’ve got a lot of new things. We should not be looking at it with the same lens as a combustion car. I think you are going to see a lot of new things coming out,” adds Tomasson.

Kris Tomasson Nio

In the Beginning…

“I’ve been with the company since the very first day of design, six years in total. I was tasked with bringing a design identity and brand identity to the company, as well as building a design team,” says Tomasson.

“For me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As a designer, if you are given a clean sheet of paper, and told that you can design your own brand and car company, that’s a dream job. I saw it as an amazing opportunity to bring all my past experiences together and embark on this adventure.” 

He says he has an amazing design team of over 150 employees. There are NIO centres in Munich, Shanghai and London.

“We all develop the brand together. At the heart of NIO is that we are a design company, Design is at the forefront of everything we do,” he explains.

Design is a language, says Tomasson who described the early days at NIO.

“We spent a two-day full workshop with 12 people to identify the brand fundamentals. It is important for designers to fully understand the brand. Designers are the custodians of the brand,” he explains.

“NIO mapped out its company vision from the beginning – what we wanted to express. It is our design DNA. It all starts in these three principles – Is it pure? Is it human? Is it progressive/sophisticated?”

In six years, the design team developed a show car, a hypercar and revealed their fourth production car the ET7. Another model is coming soon.

“The ET7 is the first car almost entirely designed in Covid situations. We had to learn how to work via Zoom. A lot of the early development was done in  Munich. Then we have a studio in Shanghai, where things were milled out. We did all our reviews virtually,” says Tomasson.

He calls the ET7 a representation of NIO’s next-generation DNA as the company evolves. The designs can’t be accomplished without the technology and engineering teams, notes Ganesh Iyer.


How Does it All Work at NIO?

Iyer says that a key success feature at NIO is that all teams work closely together, the engineering, the manufacturing and design teams all work hand in hand together. When the design team has a concept about what a car or feature should be, all the teams collaborate to make sure it can be engineered, built and enable the technology and AI to make it work.

Key points of NIO engineering are smartness, says Iyer such as Nomi and emoji-like smartness.

“Nomi is your companion when you are driving. She helps you. She guides you. Nomi is contextual, emotional and physical. Nomi is a friend,” says Iyer.

“It is an extreme partnership with our design team, engineering team and technologies,” he adds.

NIO is also working on using sustainable materials.

“We take sustainability seriously. With the new rattan interior. It is not just to be sustainable it has to be aesthetic,” says Tomasson.

Nio Norway Battery Swap

“From the start, we knew we wanted to be a global brand. It was a challenge.”

“Vision to action is what our company is about. It is what our logo represents too. If you look at our logo. It is the horizon line with a vision on the upper side with a road which is our action, leading to our future,” says Tomasson.

 NIO on 22 July started shipping NIO ES8’s to Norway from Shanghai.

“NIO has been successful in China but will the brand translate when it arrives in Norway?” wondered a workshop participant.

“From the start, we knew we wanted to be a global brand. It was a challenge. We find that people in localized markets don’t want a local vehicle – they want a global vehicle design,” says Tomasson. He adds that the regulations for China and Europe are almost the same.


What is Next for NIO?

The future is here today, when cars are upgradable, says Iyer, because NIO continually upgrades its firmware over the air. Users can get a new battery to upgrade. The software is always upgradable

Tomasson sees the future of design with autonomous vehicles and electrification opening up how people are seated. He remembers the pulldown seat in the back of the car when he was a child in New York, where he could look out the back. He mentions the double-decker buses in London that you can see things differently from.

The NIO team is working on new innovations right now – which they can’t talk about, yet, says Tomasson.

He advises design students that they also have to know how to sell their designs.

“It’s one of the things I have to do every day. I have to believe in what I am doing and also convince the rest of the team,” adds Tomasson.

NIO and Tomasson are supporting his alma mater now and in the future. NIO has hired three ArtCenter graduates in China and is sponsoring a program at ArtCenter.

“We think it’s important to nurture new talent to improve the future of transportation design,” says Tomasson.

 “We look forward to having more engagement with Kris and his team in the months ahead with the NIO project at ArtCenter this Fall,” says Sanders.

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