This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with Habib. Part 1 ran Thursday, Jan. 20.
TheDetroitBureau.com had the chance to speak with Kia’s Karim Habib, senior vice president and head of Kia Design Center in Namyang, South Korea. Habib has held the post since 2019, after stints with Infiniti, BMW and Daimler. Born in Lebanon, Habib studied Mechanical Engineering in Canada, as well as Transportation Design at the Art Center College of Design in California.
This interview is the second of two parts, where Habib talks about Kia design as well as his thoughts on what the future holds.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TDB: Describe the essence of Kia’s design.
HK: As you know, I’ve been here now for two years and my role has been to help transform the brand. And in that sense, it’s a mass market product, right? We sell almost 3 million cars a year. And it’s not a premium product, our price point is so that not everybody, but hopefully a lot of people, can access that. So we’re trying — to put things simply — to make a good design that improves your life, whether it’s at an emotional level or at an ergonomic level or at a safety level, and is available to as many people as possible. In that sense, I don’t want to be too abstract.
But I really think that’s kind of our job. We have to do products that people enjoy, and have enjoyed driving, whether they consciously realize it or not. So it has to do with aesthetics, emotion, but also usability, ergonomics and safety. And yeah, I would say that that is what drives us and the “Opposites United” idea. It’s really about the fact that the world is so complex, with so many different perspectives and so many different ways of seeing things that we are a brand that has to be present at many levels. So we really believe that you can combine a lot of things and by combining them, it can make for a rich experience.
TDB: Has the success of the Telluride design, changed some of your approach to what you’re doing with Kia’s design or has it just reinforced what you’re already doing?
KH: Interesting that you’re asking that because I can maybe relate to one discussion I had with the U.S. studio. We were talking about the future of the Soul and what the Soul means to Kia. And at the same time, we were talking about the fact that Kia is maybe becoming — at least in the U.S. — a brand more known for Telluride than for Soul, which is kind of shifting the character of the brand a little bit. So in that sense, where Telluride is not only influencing the design, and to that point, it’s such a clear and pure design, but at the same time has a few quirks and features around it that make it quite unique. But you know, Telluride is becoming a little bit more of a flagship for us — a kind of a spirit for the brand.
TDB: So, what is it about Koreans and the lack of color on their automobiles? You could level the same charge at Germans; I know it’s not just the Koreans. But why is there such a fear of color? Is it economic? Is it social? Why? Why are we stuck with black, white and gray or beige?
KH: We put a lot of a lot of effort into developing new colors. And there’s always a glimmer of hope every few (years). But no, I think honestly, it’s a global phenomenon for good or for bad. But I don’t know. At least in my days in Germany, we thought that it had a lot to do with the fact that cars were leased and that when cars are leased, the resale value is so important. It’s much easier to resell a black, white or gray car than a pink or a green car. But it depends. Maybe the really expensive ones that are definitely owned by people, colors are much more adventurous.
TDB: Is there a sort of a wild kind of material that you would always want to use in a car, just something outrageous?
KH: Just from a discussion I had with the team yesterday. We were talking about autonomous vehicles and how they will be in the future. And we’re talking about the fact that we’re always talking about living room and lounge and so on. And they were saying okay, but we’ve been talking about this now for a while and we want to think of different things. And one designer talked about this translucent sphere with wheels. It’s a bit of a future kind of thing, but I was like, yes; why not? Why don’t we do just this tranceslucent dematerializing design; this kind of non-surface surface? This is transparent, blobby thing just seemed, at that moment, very much like that is part of our future — at least it should be.
TDB: When you think about them, between electrification and autonomy, the current forms we have for vehicles are pretty much at an end, because there’s no reason for them to be shaped that way.
KH: Yeah, exactly. Once we go to autonomous driving, and we get to accident-free driving, then a lot of what we’re doing basically becomes irrelevant. So yeah, the last cube is really maybe somewhere in the future there for us.
TDB: What’s so ironic is when you look at the very earliest cars, when they were still trying to figure out how a car should be configured. They often have seats facing each other, the front seat facing the rear seat. And the driver’s in the backseat steering the car with a tiller. And what’s so funny is that as archaic as that is, it’s very easy to imagine some modern form of that returning, but in a much more modern way.
KH: Yeah, that’s the fun part. You know, that’s ahead of us. So let’s definitely be part of the people who have the courage to try these things.
TDB: We’re looking forward to that. Mr. Habib, thank you for your time today.
KH: Thank you.