Hyundai design chief SangYup Lee talks about the future of the company’s design

Twenty years ago, Hyundai was known for its bland, cheap A-to-B transportation. It would have been hard to imagine that the company would ever build a reputation for creative and stylish vehicles. But with bold designs like the 2023 Palisade and the retro-futuristic Ioniq 5, Hyundai has now become a design leader. We spoke with Hyundai design chief SangYup Lee at the New York auto show and he gave us some insight into the company’s current and future design philosophy.


Hyundai has established its eye-catching style with large grilles dominating the faces of its petrol models. While some of those grilles, like the gaping maws of the Sonata and Santa Fe, made the vehicles look like hungry catfish, Hyundai hit a home run with the armor-like grilles on its Tucsons and Santa Cruz 2022. Both models hide the daytime running lights as part of the grille – which Hyundai calls the “hidden gem” design – and Lee said positive feedback on the Tucson prompted the grille design to change. expand to the 2023 Palisade. “It’s a very unique feature, so we really want to capitalize and make a statement,” he explained.

palisade hyundai 2023
The Palisade 2023.

Michel SimariCar and driver

At the same time, Hyundai has managed to create a clean and easily identifiable range of electric vehicles without relying on the same design element. “In the age of electric vehicles, the grille is no longer necessary,” Lee said. “Having a traditional ICE element postponed in the future is probably not the right decision.” Instead, Lee says “the light signature is more important than the shape of the grille”, and a look at the Ioniq 5 shows that it is. The 5 was the debut of the pixel graphic, which will spill over into the Ioniq lineup and exude an 80s video game vibe while remaining fresh and futuristic. We’ve already seen the pixels appear on the Prophecy concept, which foreshadows the upcoming Ioniq 6, and the Seven concept, which will become the Ioniq 7 in 2024. “None of them have a grille, but consistency is the lamp pixel,” Lee said. “When you see the pixel lamp, it’s a Hyundai.” While other automakers, namely BMW, Mercedes and Audi, have included fake grilles on their EVs, Hyundai won’t while Lee is in charge.

hyundai ioniq seven concept
The concept of the Seven.


Prior to working at Hyundai, Lee designed for General Motors and the Volkswagen Group, writing stunning cars like the 2006 Camaro concept. While Lee enjoyed his time at those manufacturers, he said working at Hyundai was a breath of fresh air. ‘fresh air. “Bentley’s legacy is incredible,” he said. “But that weight of heritage on your shoulders is quite heavy, so when you do the sketch you ask for, is this Bentley enough?

“With Hyundai you have more freedom,” he said, as the South Korean brand doesn’t have such a fixed design lineage. Lee sees his time at Hyundai as an opportunity to write history: “What you do is part of what will become the brand’s heritage.” Hyundai’s approach is also much more consumer-focused, which Lee likes. “Sometimes I spend hours in the Costco parking lot, studying how the customer reacts to the car, how mom puts her baby in the back seat, how they load things in the tailgate,” he said. “It’s the inspiration.”

This freedom from a design heritage at Hyundai is reinforced by the absence of constraints when designing electric cars. While gas-powered car design is limited by their powertrain and chassis, “the EV skateboard platform gives us a lot more freedom.” This helps to blur the traditional automotive segments; the Ioniq 5 is a prime example, its hatchback proportions belying the car’s SUV size and 118.1-inch wheelbase. Lee made an ominous comment that the future “could be all boxes with interior space”, but at least for now Hyundai will continue with the two-box design, with Lee promising that “all of our Ioniq EVs will have the longest wheelbase on the market.”

These extended wheelbases open up many possibilities. Lee said he recently traveled to South Korea and saw an Ioniq 5 in an apartment parking lot. “There was a father and a son and they put a little desk behind the front seats and studied together in the car,” he said. “They were probably both kicked out by mom,” he joked, but the Ioniq 5 was effectively adding another room to their apartment. “This space revolution is the key to EV,” Lee concluded. “How you use this space is an open chapter for designers.”

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