Anki’s Creative Car Guru on What Makes Good Product Design
Automotive designer Harald Belker has dreamt up and created everything from high-end consumer vehicles for Porsche and Mercedes Benz to slick, futuristic cars for Hollywood.
Automotive designer Harald Belker has dreamt up and created everything from high-end consumer vehicles for Porsche and Mercedes Benz to slick, futuristic cars for Hollywood. Now, as the head of industrial design for robotics company Anki, Belker, 54, is still designing cool cars—albeit at a much smaller scale and in the innovative hub that is Silicon Valley.
As the primary designer for all of Anki’s toy racecars, including the six new models being introduced as part of next month’s Overdrive launch, Belker says that thinking in miniature was a challenge at first. But after three years with the company, he notes, the process is now second nature—especially since the core of his creative process remains the same.
“The key to designing any cool vehicle shape is the harmonious integration of the four tires at the corners of the body,” says Belker. “This is because the car’s basic overall shape has to become one with the fenders that grow out of the tires, and that’s true for any car, not matter the scale.”
His approach changes, naturally, with the details. With full-size cars, Belker says, he “can go nuts on the side panels, for example, with intakes and beautifully sculpted panels.” On miniature cars, however, he only has about 20 millimeters (¾ inch) to accomplish the same thing, keeping in mind the draft angles and minimum thicknesses of the material in mind—though “none of that should be obvious once the cars are inspected.”
We recently spoke to Belker about his approach to product design and how Silicon Valley differs from Hollywood.
How would you define good design?
Good design occurs when the product works well and there is a logic to all of the shapes and cut lines that have to be recognized and harmoniously combined. If a designer is innovative in the way he or she packages a brilliant new technology, it becomes instantly great design. One doesn’t work without the other—meaning that a beautiful body over a lame chassis or engine would be dismissed by performance. On the other hand, an incoherent design over a marvel of engineering would still not make anyone fall in love with the car.
What were your specific influences for the supercars of Anki Overdrive?
Early on, we established a list of all the different kinds of cars that we could see working for our miniature race machines. This included everything from luxury supercars to LeMans-inspired race cars. Over the past 12 months, however, Anki added some new characters to their game play and changed their approach to designing different vehicles. Different attributes like speed or fire power, for example, are now part of the design and are realized in different body shapes. This has freed me up from simply designing fast cars, to to being able to introduce new cars that reflect those attributes.
How many different cars did you design before settling on the final 6 supercars?
In reality, there are no final designs because as soon as I am done with one design, the next is already waiting for me. But looking back, I designed a handful of cars in the beginning that had a short lifespan, simply because I wasn’t sure what would work and what wouldn’t. With the help of a fantastic 3D modeler, who turned my modo models into ProE tooling models, important things like draft angles and material thicknesses became much easier to understand and work with. This second round of digital modeling often resulted in making the design even better.
What lessons have you taken away from Hollywood that apply to your experiences at Anki?
In Hollywood, the sky’s the limit because nothing has to really work. If you have a director who shares your vision of doing something extraordinary, then it will be an amazing time and process. Most often than not, though, that is not the case. Limited knowledge and the fear of choosing a design before the story has revealed itself are both obstacles that are hard to overcome.
Yet, the desire to create something that is cool is something that gets most people—and very importantly, kids—excited and inspired. These little racecar machines have to evoke an emotion—ideally the same feeling one would get when looking at a real, full-size supercar.
Is it easier to work with PhDs, like the founders of Anki, or Production Designers?
Working with PhDs is wonderfully refreshing. In car or vehicle design, everyone is an expert, whereas in film, the pecking order is very clear. Everything starts with the director, and I, as a creative element, have to find out what the director likes, how I can make sense of it and how I can make it look cool. When working for PhDs, as you put it—they have given me the proper respect that I believe I have earned after doing this for 25 years and trust me to generate one awesome design after another. [Anki Co-founder and President] Hanns Tappeiner and I communicate really well and I have encouraged him to speak up if he doesn’t like something. So far I have managed to deliver and hope to continue to do so.
What have you learned after almost three years at Anki?
To stay in a positive state of mind, you have to work with people that not only appreciate your work, but they have to push you to do better. Anki is committed to producing the best product possible, so when I wake up in the mornings, I’m excited to contribute and make my latest car design even better than the last car that made it into production.