John Deere collaborates with Designworks, BMW's innovation studio, on industrial design

Rolling across a field, a new John Deere 8RX track tractor looks muscular, powerful, and, well, like the future.

This is not just another tractor.

With the launch of a series of new products, Deere sought to do more than showcase its most advanced combines and tractors ever; it also wanted to make a powerful visual statement about the future of agricultural equipment and the John Deere brand.

man designing tractor

Where to turn for cutting-edge design ideas to give these ag products a 21st century facelift? For Deere, that product design vision has emanated from southern California, far afield from the Midwest. For more than 20 years, BMW Designworks has helped Deere integrate aesthetics and industrial design into its products.

Yes, it's the same BMW of precision German engineering, luxury cars, motorcycles, and motors. But that's just part of the story. To understand the BMW-Deere relationship, we need to start with a couple guys named Henry and Chuck.

A long-time influence

Since its early days, John Deere has focused on how its products performed as well as how they looked. Productivity and aesthetics.

Before the company started working with Designworks in the 1990s, designer Henry Dreyfuss and his firm, Dreyfuss & Associates, had designed many John Deere products dating back to the 1930s.

men with tractor design prototype

Designworks fabrication studio allows designers to develop full-size replicas of clients' products.

Chuck Pelly, who founded Designworks, first worked as a designer and assistant to Dreyfuss. Starting in the early 1970s, the Designworks business grew rapidly out of a southern California garage.

"What's beautiful about Designworks is that a lot of progressive, trendsetting things come out of California," said Doug Meyer, global director of construction engineering for Deere. "It's part of being there. That's partly why BMW bought Designworks. They wanted some influence in their products that came from outside Germany."

Pelly has a deep love for the John Deere brand, and much design success, according to Laura Robin, Designworks, LA Studio Director. "He leveraged unique insights, based on the time in the 1960s when he was working for Dreyfuss & Associates."

Inside Designworks' secret world

Nestled among rolling hills and old oaks, Designworks' studio sits north of Los Angeles in Newbury Park, California. Pelly has long since retired, but a team of 150+ professionals carry on his work.

Stepping inside the lobby of Designworks' studio, you're struck by high white walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, sunlight, and open space. What first catches your eye is a long table with a yellow John Deere scale-model bulldozer placed among samples of other clients' products.

Displayed throughout the building are real life examples and photos of clients' products — from BMWs to audiophile headphones to yachts to corporate jets.

It's quite fitting that Deere Construction equipment is prominently represented as Designworks has worked on designing the division's equipment since the 1990s. In the ensuing years, the firm began working with Deere's Agricultural & Turf division.

While Deere Construction started working with Designworks many years ago, Deere's other divisions and product lines hadn't connected with the firm. In 2012, Deere focused on choosing one industrial design partner. "After a thorough search, BMW Designworks rose to the top as the right business partner," said Steve Robisky, strategic planning and enterprise design council lead for John Deere.

8r tractor

The 8R tractor archetype that BMW Designworks produced is now prominently on display in John Deere's Tractor Cab Assembly Operation in Waterloo, Iowa.

In the process of designing the 8R tractors and X9 combines, Designworks didn't just design a product. They intentionally went broad to develop an industrial design language for Deere agricultural equipment, just as they'd done for the construction division. Industrial design language is essentially a guide to unifying design principles — from form to graphics to materials — that will help inform the development of future Deere ag solutions.

Robin describes industrial design language as the "common design DNA that links every product."

Deere's Enterprise Strategic Design Council is the liaison between Designworks and John Deere. The Council, comprised of employees from Deere's Brand, Engineering and Marketing organizations, sets the strategic direction for design throughout the enterprise. The Design Council worked closely with Designworks on the new design language.

The language of Deere's new industrial design is articulated in the 8R tractors, which are a leap forward in advanced technology.

"It's a turning point," Robin said, "because that very vehicle, the 8R tractor, is the one that we visioned around. It took a number of years to come to life, and we needed to test out different design archetypes across the tractor lineup, in order to create a holistic design language."

"The work that Designworks has done in partnership with us really focused on creating this design language that you'll see in products across the Ag & Turf division," said Josh Hoffman, Deere's lead for User Experience and Industrial Design. "The role of Designworks is really as a key design partner in helping create the vision of what we want these machines to look like and be in the future."

Future first thinking

Designworks' California location is one of three BMW-owned global design studios, with the others in Shanghai, China, and Munich, Germany.

Deere display at Designworks

Displayed throughout BMW Designworks’ Newbury Park, California, facility are both real examples and photos of clients' products ─ from BMW automobiles to John Deere tractors.

"We're a profit center within the BMW organization," said Stephen Chadwick, a Designworks director responsible for the John Deere account. "Fifty percent of our work is BMW Group-related business, and the other 50 percent is from non-automotive clients — and that's what keeps a constant freshness in our design thinking. We work across industries and across design disciplines to create new and unexpected solutions."

The innovative design outcomes reflect Designworks' experience of working with clients from diverse industries. The California team designs BMW automobiles as a fully integrated part of BMW's development organization, but that's only a portion of their work. The studio partners with a range of clients, including aviation and transportation technology companies, such as Virgin Hyperloop, that are literally reinventing the way humans will travel today and into the future.

By projecting, or "visioning," what the future may look like for their varied clients, Designworks helps clients advance the way their customers use and experience their products.

Meyer believes that a strength of Designworks is getting clients to think about what the future will look like for their products, their industry, and their own customers.

"I think the value they bring is that outside perspective that helps keep our products relevant in the marketplace," Meyer added.

The years of collaboration are paying off. The 8R tractor already has won two international awards for its design, including the prestigious Red Dot and iF awards.

"The 8R tractors have a striking external appearance that is an expression of their performance and efficiency," the jury for the Red Dot Award said. "The interior is well thought out in terms of ergonomics."

Going forward, the industrial design language that Deere's Strategic Design Council developed with Designworks is informing the look of many new Deere products – from sprayers to Gators to motor graders.

"Designworks pushes you to think and look at things differently," said Meyer. "At first you might be thrown back by it a bit. But after you start getting into it, you usually end up bringing some elements of that leap into the final design."


Tractor Archetype Comes Home to Roost

In developing the industrial design language for the Next Generation Tractor, BMW Designworks produced tractor archetype models that strongly influenced the shape of things to come.

“As the Next Generation Tractor designs came together in 2013 and 2014, Designworks wanted to build a couple of archetypes to physically show what the new design would look like,” said Steve Robisky, strategic planning and enterprise design council lead for John Deere.

The studio built a 1R tractor with loader as well as an 8R tractor to show the book ends of a large/small tractor spectrum.

“A number of John Deere’s leaders visited the BMW Designworks’ California studio in 2015 and 2016,” Robisky said. “The cutting-edge design and realism of that physical build in the Designworks studio pushed us as an organization to adopt many if not most of the concepts that Designworks built into the archetype 8R.

With the launch of the Next Generation Tractors, the tractor archetype was deemed no longer useful and was returned to John Deere. Today the 8R tractor archetype is now prominently on display to visitors in John Deere’s Tractor Cab Assembly Operation in Waterloo, Iowa.

“We didn’t want to merely scrap something that was so instrumental in determining our new tractor industrial design language – and what has eventually become an entire Ag & Turf industrial design language – that we wanted to display it for our visitors to view,” Robisky added.