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The Car Design Review 5 Interviews: SangYup Lee, Hyundai

10 July 2018 | by CDN Team

When I joined the Hyundai team a year and a half ago, I came back to Korea after 25 years living in eight different countries and it was actually quite a new start for me. The country has changed a lot, the whole culture is a lot richer than it used to be, and everything moves so fast, the trends are unbelievable.

It was a surprise, how Seoul has become a really fascinating city. Like in London, there are a lot of contrasting things, old traditional buildings next to the super-modern, and Korea is famous for its high tech: we have the fastest internet and the fastest wifi you can imagine, companies like Samsung and LG, but at the same time, also a really analogue culture with master craftsmanship.


Design for me is obviously about beautiful shapes, but we often create an interesting story based on such dynamic contrasts that create a tension in between: I like to use the words Jekyll and Hyde, yin and yang, to make the storyline.

Every luxury brand has to have an origin, and the culture of Korea is embedded into Genesis, but Hyundai is a little bit different because it is the volume brand, covering so many different markets – the customers are all different, not only between Europe and America but India is different from Brazil, Russia from Korea, and China is very important too.

So we really need to have one design language that we can apply: I mean, everyone loves a car to have a sexy and sporty character. Based upon that, we are then more customer- and market-specific.


The Hyundai cars on the street at the moment are quite similar, with a family look which has been applied to be instantly recognised by customers as a Hyundai, but now we are making so many cars that the one-face strategy doesn’t work as the markets are all different. So we are starting to put a different look and character into each individual car, together with this solid theme.

This new Hyundai look starts with the Geneva show car.


The Le Fil Rouge Concept is very important for the Hyundai brand, as it is the first step of our new design language. We call this ‘Sensuous Sportiness’. The show car is an electric car, a four-door coupé: it’s a sedan, but with a sporty profile and an emotional touch to it. It has a great proportion and volume, a lot of voluptuous surfaces, but then a very crisp line layered to create a distinctive look. 


We are questioning how we take Hyundai to the next level of design, and if you look at our form architecture, the cascading grille is evolving into a bigger scale on this concept, and we are also questioning all the main components on the front. All the headlamps are hidden in the grille, so the car actually has no ‘eyes’ – that gives a very fresh look. We want to have more of a touch of the Latin, the Italian, the sensuous surface character and great proportion in a very contemporary way.

It’s interesting because here in Korea, there is not really the vintage car culture, they look at cars a little differently to other countries.


The designers have a different perspective, and the team here is always very open-minded. And our new design studio in Namyang is simply unbelievable: the scale and the size, and the transparency, communication and future technology – it’s getting us ready for the next century!

Luc Donckerwolke is my boss, but at the same time, we are always working to eye level, challenging each other – that’s how our creative process works. We always work together, bouncing ideas back and forth, and we have a shared office, sitting together at a big table, which is really good in terms of communication. Normally in a car design studio everything is very hierarchy-oriented, so this is unique, and I’m always working eye-to-eye in the team, not only with the Korean organisation but also overseas.


We have Hyundai studios in around eight different locations, to really understand the needs of the customer. We have close to 450 designers here in Namyang, and then around another 200 globally. Managing such a big international team is definitely a challenge, because the trends move very, very fast: a designer always has to be open-minded and flexible and adapt to the new culture in order to create a strong design vision.

From a brand point of view, Hyundai has been one of the fastest-growing companies to date, and it has a good brand value: good cars with good quality for a good price. But this is not going to cut it in the market any more, you have to have a character, so I’m very happy to be here at the moment bringing the brand to the next level. It’s very exciting to be participating in this journey. 

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This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.