What is it like to be a car designer?

I am curious about this because I imagine with cars there are more constraints like aerodynamics, safety, regulations, design language.

I am the most curious about what it is like to work for a car company that mainly makes everyday cars rather than supercars.

I looked at a transportation design school and it requires artistic talent and creativity to get in and the graduation works were mostly supercars. So I wonder how car designers feel once they are working for a regular car company. I imagine they knew what they were getting into and that they would not design supercars every day but I still wonder if they feel like their creativity is restrained or if they find it actually more fulfilling working within narrow limitations (and how narrow are they?).

I just have no idea how the process works. When the next generation of a car is to be designed: Who decides what changes get made? Is it purely done by market research and engineering?

I’ll jump in here since this board is not frequented by a lot of professional car designers. I have consulted for a few car companies so I have some insight into the process at a few different places. Like anything, the process carries company to company. I’ll also send this to a few car designer friends to see if they can add some better insights.

For the sake of simplicity, think of 3 different work streams happening:

  • 1) product planning. This is where a lot of competitive benchmarking and market research happens. They also build the business case for the product down to the cost of an e-brake… which is why sometimes you see a really nice car oddly have an old floor style brake, or underwhelming tail lamps, or based on an old existing platform. All these costs are determined way ahead of time, and sometimes the marketplace shifts (a lot of times)

2) engineering. Here the packaging of the vehicle is also being determined way ahead of time. How far back the dash is compared to the axil, track width, wheelbase, height needed over the wheels for suspension travel, etc.

3) design. Interior and exterior design happening on an idealized notion of what the car should be based on the brand direction, competitive research, and user persona to select a theme down to DFM (design for manufacture) work of the a side of every part.

In a good process these three work streams are tied together at critical dates. Checking in with each other, influencing each other. When you read about Ralph Gillies working with the platform engineers on the wheelbase and track width of the Chrysler 300, or Peter Schreyer having a 20 year plan to improve design and perceived quality at Audi from the Audi 5000 to the a6 in the mid 2000’s.

In a less ideal process these 3 work streams are happening in a silo like manner, each group doing what it thinks is best (usually only from the perspective of that group), and then mashing it together. This is what happens when you see a concept car end up looking almost nothing like the production car vs the original: Viper, TT, New Beatle, where the production car was almost the same.

Early on in the design process it can be very styling focused, with the hottest looking sketches (that might defy all reality) winning the internal competition to go to production as the chosen “theme”. Once the theme is chosen it becomes a DFM process (design for manufacture) and all of those stunning lines and shapes have to be translated into metal, plastic, rubber, and glass. If a company has a more integrated process the designers will be ideating with the engineering package and product planning budget in mind (and hopefully have some influence there as well in terms of where to trade dollars around the car, and push and pull things slightly, remember, a car is actually a system of many products, from a window switch to a headlight). In the silo system the design has almost no chance of not getting butchered on its way to production. To possibly make it worse, sometimes the design team working up the theme is not even the design team doing the DFM, so imagine how invested they are in a faithful execution of that theme?

Now there is a 4th work stream, and that is HMI/UX/UI, which is playing an ever more important role and finally getting the respect it deserves. The car itself was a pioneer in human machine interfaces inventing entire systems for controlling a complex machine that we take for granted now. Got to a museum with early horseless garages and you can see how little was figured out or standardized in the early days. Ideally this 4th work stream is integrated in as well. Just look at the dominance of screens in most of the new Mercedes interior, or in the Faraday Future interior, this is likely going to continue.

Some auto executive groups can fall victim of the very human mistake of selecting great sketches of terrible designs. When I was at Nike I had a designer working for me that had this problem. He was always doing very hot sketches of what he should have known would be terrible designs. For example, having 4 panels of material coming together in a “X”, very easy and dynamic to do in a sketch, but as a shoe it is always going to have a little “rat hole” where everything comes together, be harder (slower, more costly) to manufacture, and have higher reject rates (more costly again). The frustrating thing is this designer knew how shoes were made, we went to China together many times, but he insisted in doing these sketches that management could be tempted to get all excited about and the prototypes would come back as terrible, the exact terrible that anyone who knew how to really read the sketch could see… now imagine in the automotive scenario where the team doing the hot theme sketches might not even have the production experience to know how something is made and you have a recipe for producing beautiful drawings of things that can’t be made.

Conversely, at companies like Tesla, where they don’t really make concept cars (when I spoke to the head of design there this was something they were very against, everything from their perspective had to be buildable, and they often brought the engineering resources down to glass makers into the studio to work with the team… argue about the designs all you want of course, but I respect the integrated philosophy).

This is a bit of a rambling response, but I hope it sheds some light on how different things can be. I’ll send this to some friends in the industry so they can hopefully correct what is admittedly my outsiders view point.

ill also add, watch out - as some “car designers” i know become disillusioned quickly as they can end up doing nothing but a specific design section for the car.

i.e knobs, nothing but knobs, day in day out, knobs, knobs and more knobs…

right, that is if you get stuck in a production only studio, executing off a “cool” theme sketch that came from another studio. Even within that production studio a person can become pigeon holed. I have friends that have gone that rout, some loved it! Some floated from conceptual studios, into production studios, back out into larger leadership roles… it takes active career management (like anything). Ironically people tend to get hired based on the hot sketches (usually of super cars :slight_smile: ) but then the work doesn’t often reflect that requirement.

When I was in school I did an interview with a design manager at one of the big three and he asked if I had “gasoline in my veins”? I asked what that meant before I answered and he replied with another question “would you rather be designing the window trim on an economy car or working at frog or IDEO?” I replied immediately “oh, frog or IDEO”… his response, “yah, it’s not going to work out for you here”…

Great insights Yo.

I was lucky to get that advice before making it to college. I insisted I wanted to design cars and an industrial designer who worked on bike parts told me how he worked at one of the big 3 designing the sun visors and airbag labels. And the chances of me working on minivan cupholders was infinitely higher than ever seeing a sports car in my career. I also “lucked” out in getting to work on a student team project with GM (pre-recession) where the designers came in, gave a really cool brief on designing an “Ariel Atom” competitor, and then as soon as they left the room the engineers said “No, you are not doing that. You are to design a hatchback”. Gave a good sense of how shitty of a work environment it was back then.

Like Cyberdemon, I thought that there was no way I wouldn’t be a car designer. I was racing and restoring cars by age 17. Nice cars. At 18 I drove #2286 Shelby Daytona Coupe at Road America. I’ve lost my fingerprints after sanding 80 hours for a paint job. “Gasoline in my veins” was an apt description.

Junior year I got into the car design class, usually only for seniors at my school. It was entirely boring. There wasn’t anything new to learn. My “Car Styling” magazines said it all, it was a styling-only exercise. (the frog ads on the back cover intrigued me more than the cars).

Also that year, at the Chicago car show, GM had a 2 story exhibit. The second floor was a “design studio”. First time I saw Alias, that was cool. I spoke with a designer who had worked there for 18 months. She was most proud that she designed the steering wheel in next year’s Escort. I asked if she drew circles for the last 18 months. She said yes. That was the final nail for me.

I don’t know what young designer doesn’t dream to be a car designer…

Frankly, I don’t think car design is all it’s looked up to be. Trans designers are great sketchers, for sure, but good designers? If so, then why do most cars on the road (at all price points) look terrible and so unlike the concept sketches. I get there are engineers and sales people involved and factors beyond one designers scope, but that can also be said for any other field of ID…

…If shoe designers (see Sketch-Fu thread for recent comments) routinely drew the product they are designing so out of proportion from reality just to sell a sexy sketch they wouldn’t have a job…

All sizzle, no steak is what a former professor used to say (one that had worked in transportation design among other fields).

And ya, I’d rather be responsible for a great overall experience designing and developing a good product and the brand and the packaging for a great overall experience than have a great sketch of a cool design for a vent on a shitty car for a shitty brand to be made in crap production quality.


Thank yo(u) for the detailed reply. Why don’t all companies adopt the more effective process? Unexpected to hear that designers working for a big company would not think with practicality in mind since I imagine to get hired over the fierce competition pretty sketches alone are not enough.

If a designer is tasked with designing such fine details how many designers are working on the car? How flexible are you to look for a better job in such a case?

When the outlook for a car designer looks so bleak how do so many people still get into it? Are they so passionate about cars that they can’t imagine doing anything else and take their chances?

In terms of “more effective process” I think most companies are pretty happy with their overall process, but like yo mentioned the concept selection phase tends to be much more “emotional” driven which is why the right sketch can tug the direction stronger than a highly detailed CAD model at that phase.

I don’t know the average size of automotive design studios, but there are a lot of designers who will touch a car under the role of a lead designer or studio head. Individual designers are tasked with components under those themes, and while I don’t know if it’s still common practice, sometimes the interiors will be farmed out to external agencies (I was told that 12+ years ago when American car designs were crap, so I imagine most of that is in-house now).

I wouldn’t say it’s bleak so much as it’s realistic and a small market with fierce competition. I have met a lot of guys who have come from transportation backgrounds over the years and most of them realized they would rather work on projects with shorter life-cycles where they can have a bigger impact in the final product. For car design, that can take a 10-20 year time investment to work your way up the corporate ladder. And as the saying goes you have a better shot becoming a professional basketball player than you do a professional car designer.

It’s also one reason you see companies like BMW Designworks, Porsche Design, even Pininfarina that have spun off their own Industrial Design consulting businesses. They had excess capacity for design and realized they could make a profit putting all those world-class designers to work on other peoples projects.

Mike, that last point is not exactly correct… thou I understand how someone would get that impression as it is how it looks from the outside… but all of those examples are totally separate studios with little pass through between the automotive and product sides of the studio.

Design Works was an actually consulting group that was purchased by BMW. They have totally different teams that work on the BMW side of the studio vs the consulting side of the studio. Theoretically it is possible to do a temporary transfer from one to theater but I’ve heard it rarely happens. The only team that is shared is the UX/UI team. They would pitch to do apps for us when I was at Sound United… but tough pitch, why would we hire the people that did iDrive?

Pininfarina I believe is similar to the above.

Porsche Design actually started with Ferry Porsche (son of Porsche founder Ferdinand) got frustrated working for Porsche (he lead the design on the first 911) and started a design consulting group. The couldn’t prevent him from using his own name apparently, but an agreement was struck to call his consulting business Porsche Design… eventually it was brought back into the fold and now they only wok on Porsche licensed accessories or brand collaborations.

Good to know, the way I phrased that was weird. I know they are completely separate teams and studios, but still under the larger corporate org umbrella. I know Adrian van Hooydonk had jumped in between roles between Designworks & BMW-at large even though the two are silo’ed.

I also more meant it from the perspective is that a number of the ID guys at those firms have transportation design backgrounds to address the point of what transportation guys do after the fact. The folks I know with transportation backgrounds have gone into ID and even video game design as 3D modelers but none of them stayed in transportation.

Gotcha, more clear now. There are a lot designers trained in transportation in footwear as well, and like you said lots in video games and other entertainment fields, and toys.