Step-by-step guide on entering a car design school

Hi- blog founder Lee here! If you are reading this in application season- good news! We have some advice for you. I will be offering some additional comments on this article (written by contributor Marco Braun. I spent many years on the other side of this process- as head of a Vehicle Design bachelor course, interviewing and selecting candidates. Some of the students I selected and taught now work for major OEM studios, such as Rolls Royce, Polestar, Volvo, Maserati and Koenigsegg. They also went on to complete Masters level courses to achieve this. I like to think I have a good instinct for candidates- and yes, there will always be human beings on the other side of every process such as this. It is never just by the numbers!

info about where I taught: Lahti Institute of Design

Lee

In this article, I will tell you all about the experience of studying transportation design. I myself was lucky enough to study at one of the world’s best universities for car design. However, many may not be lucky due to financial constraints. This is why I wrote this chapter. I will give you a complete overview of how to enter a car design school. After the chapter, you will know exactly how to enter the education program of an automotive designer and what really matters. You can set your priorities in your own design studies and adjust your skills. In this way, you will push your career towards becoming a professional car designer.

Where to study?

Where is the best place to study car design? Nowadays it is possible to study car design anywhere in the world. Whether it is in Brazil or India, talented car designers come from all over the world. The internet also makes it possible to learn online. On Instagram and Simkom you can see the status quo that should be achieved. However, there are still a few car design schools with an excellent reputation. The most successful car designers are graduates of those universities.

  1. Art Center College of Design The Art Center College of Design has been a leader in art and design education for nearly 75years.
  2. HFG PforzheimThe Pforzheim School of Design (Germany) is part of thePforzheim University of Applied Sciences. It is very competitive in terms of artistic aptitude
  3. CCS – College for Creative StudiesThe College for creative Studies is one of the leading arts education institutions. It offers courses in, Product Design and Transportation Design.
  4. Royal College of Art The Royal College of Art is the world’s most influential postgraduate institution of art and design. Find out about courses, research and innovation here.
  5. Strate, School of Design Top tier ranking of the best car designschools in the world.

Note, it is not important where you study, but what you make of it. It is beneficial to study at one of these schools because they are well known and attract many talented students. Also, they maintain close contact with major car companies. However, strict eligibility for admission, financial constraints or other personal reasons sometimes make it impossible to study at one of these schools.

If you don’t have the opportunity to go to such a school, I can tell you this: To become a successful car designer, the choice of university is only of little importance. Self-motivation and the unconditional will to work on one’s skill is more crucial.

For example, a former fellow colleague of mine failed 3 times in the artistic preselection exam in Pforzheim. After that, he tried the exam again even though it was forbidden to take more than 3 attempts. He failed. Then he studied interior design in an average design school and completing his studies, got a job as an exterior designer at a famous car manufacturer in Germany. He only managed to do this because he was determined to become a car designer.

On the other hand, for example, many of my fellow students were busy doing other things alongside their studies. Some spent a lot of time on hobbies, others worked part-time. They didn’t focus 100% on their design studies. They fell by the wayside later and couldn’t find an internship or job. Therefore, it is not important where you study, but what you do with your studies. Many roads lead to Rome.

Excellent advice and a good chapter here Marco. I will add:
Yes, it is true it does not matter where you study design, or even if you study car design as a specialist subject at all. All good design degrees can and should produce potentially good car designers. I also know car designers who did not study at all, that do not even have a bachelors degree! Most of the skill has to be self-taught, and certainly it requires a lot of self-motivation. There is however, one hugely important contribution that “famous” schools will add to your potential for success- and that is connections. It really is a matter of who you know in life, and the best schools collaborate closely with, are visited by, and are known intimately by other car designers and the studios they work in. There are truly excellent design schools (for example Steiglitz Academy in Russia) which are not listed here- but which strived to maintain close links with industry through alumni. The alumni network of a school is the most important factor for you in choosing where to study. One of the best Masters courses in the world right now is at Umeå University in Sweden- and I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking to study car design. Local connection with Volvo/Polestar but globally many other OEM studios make them a great choice.

Lee

How to apply?

The application to a design college consists of 3 steps. First, the submission of the art portfolio. After the portfolio has been pre-selected, the artistic exam takes place. At the end a personal interview.

Art portfolio

If you are applying to a design school, you will need an artistic portfolio. Please gather information about the requirements of the respective university about like size, number and content that they require. Basically, it’s about showing your drawing skills and an interest in technical and artistic subjects. When creating your art portfolio, you need technical drawings such as objects and products AND also artistic drawings like drawings of people, hands etc. The goal is not only to show your passion for cars or industrial designs but also, to present your various artistic interests. Paintings, graphics or cartoon drawings do not belong in an art folder. You may decide to put in something like that, but only a few, to show the breadth of your abilities. From numerous portfolio discussions and preparation courses in which I have participated, I want to show you what really matters. The skills that should be shown in your artistic portfolio are also the basic skills for any car designer. Before you start studying car design, you should master those skills.

Here are some examples that you can use as a guide.

When you draw, you have to think about form as you want your drawings to show some volume. When you practice this, don’t stress the quality. Draw a lot, and quickly. Quantity over quality in this case. Take large-format drawing sheets and fill the whole sheet with sketches. Draw the same object several times in different views and perspectives.

Remember that it’s not about painting beautiful pictures. To paint beautiful pictures, you need two resources: patience and time. Maybe your grandma likes those paintings, however, if you want to develop a good understanding of form, it is useless. What you should also be doing is deconstructing objects. Think of each object as if it were made up of simple forms.

Seeing and grasping the forms correctly must be learned. The best way to learn this is to draw real objects. Do not use photos but use products in your environment. Why? The challenge is to transfer a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional canvas. Photographs have already anticipated this step.

You can also look at a real object from all sides and touch and feel it. You can turn and twist to be able to completely understand it three-dimensionally. Also, draw the object as if it were made of glass. Draw it in a transparent state and draw the hidden lines.

Pay attention to perspective and proportion. If the basic structure of your drawing is not stable, everything will fall apart visually and appear awkward. Therefore, pay attention to the correct perspective and proportion. Learn to study the relationships and distances between the individual shapes and transfer them to your drawing.

Qualifying Examination

After the portfolio has been pre-selected, the artistic exam takes place. The test differs from school to school. At the university in Pforzheim, it lasted one day. I was sitting in the same room with other competitors while we were working on several tasks. The first assignment was a still life that had to be drawn in 1 hour and 30 minutes. The next task required drawing a scenario out of the imagination, like an airport operation or a rush hour in the morning. A third task related to the specific subject is “automotive design”. In my exam car seats were brought in, which required to be drawn descriptively. Descriptively means to draw in perspective and from different views and angles.

If you pass the exam the first time, do not hang your head. It is not uncommon for the university to test whether you have stamina and can meet the high demands of the course.

Expert Discussion

After the exam, you will have an individual or group interview with the tutors. They will check your subject-specific general knowledge related to automobiles/automobile design. They will ask basic questions such as, “name three famous automobile designers” or “what is ABS”. Here you should show that you are enthusiastic about an automobile and motivation making it clear that you are the right one for the program.

braunmarco.com

The actual application process varies a lot- as Marco rightly pointed out. The advice here regarding drawing of 3D form is excellent- as that is what all designers are judged on. Often, young people mistake a portfolio to mean a list of achievements, or artworks that took the most time. Effort is not the key metric or measurement used by design schools to judge you. Quality and understanding of the world is. A portfolio of photography for example- is not going to get you into a car design school. Lastly- what is termed “expert discussion” here usually takes the form of an interview. This is sometimes a group, but often a one to one chat- and for example in my own process of selecting Vehicle Design candidates this was one of the most crucial steps. Attitude, knowledge, previous skills, or just simple enthusiasm for design- are all assessed in minutes during any interview. Interviewers are trying to asses your potential and motivations- not just your knowledge. Personally I value wide knowledge, travel, reading, and broad observations of the world as these are what make a good designer in any genre. I also asked questions that are not as related to cars as Marco has explained. A good school will seek this type of student. Be wary of narrow- technical questions- this is perhaps indicative of German engineering based thinking, but other schools may have a much more open approach. Most importantly, always be yourself in interviews- do not try to speak or act in a way that you think the interviewer wants you to. If a car design school does not select you- maybe it was difficult for the interview to see your potential or maybe you are just not ready yet.. It really is a case of 110% commitment and determination- and if you are not in that frame of mind yet, don’t give up. Lastly, don’t worry too much about schools, because when you are ready for this career- the industry will know it better than any school.

Lee

Proportion of a CITY CAR

The purpose of this tutorial is to give you an idea of how to best start a new project in the world of automotive design. Both beginners, students and even professionals feel the same difficulties whendrawing a car type that they have never drawn before.

The purpose of this tutorial is to give you an idea of how to best start a new project in the world of automotive design. Beginners, students, and even professionals alike experience the same difficulties when drawing a car type that they have never drawn before. 

Before starting a project, it is very helpful to know the basic proportions and hardpoints of the object. Familiarize yourself with the package and proportions first.

This example should encourage you to analyze the basic proportions of different vehicle types.

Mazda2


Always focus on the side view first. The side view contains all the necessary information you need to draw a car. After internalizing the basic proportions, it will be easier for you to get results since the basic architecture is correct. 

For the purpose of this tutorial, let’s assume you need to design a city car. In the first picture below, you see the same car but with different proportions. Their overhang, wheel size, and cabin-to-body ratios are different.

The car can be built or designed like these. Nevertheless, between the two designs, the upper one is more convincing. This is mainly due to the cabin-to-body ratio. To avoid the mistake made in the second design and prevent other errors, take a close look at the proportions.

First, try to find out the length and height of the car. To find the correct wheelbase, it helps to take one wheel as a base unit. Now you can guess how many wheels fit between the front and rear axle.

Also, you can see that the overhang of the front and rear is about half a wheel. The rear is a bit shorter. The height is slightly more than one wheel.

In the next step, try to get a sense of the cabin-to-body ratio. This knowledge is extremely important as most cars are roughly made out of two boxes, which are the cabin and body. You should know in what ratio the upper box (cabin) is set on the lower box (body). You will never go wrong assuming a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio. Whether you are drawing a side view or a perspective view, you should pay attention to it.

The roofline of a car is usually not straight but follows a dynamic curve. The head of the occupants usually determines the peak of the curve. To find the location of the roofline, it helps to draw a straight line down and see in what proportion the line intersects the ground line.

Next, look at the shoulder. You will notice that almost every automobile has a certain angle. This gives the whole car a forward motion and makes it look dynamic even when it is not moving. You can emphasize this angle sometimes more and sometimes less. 

Now, you can also check where the front light and the rear light are positioned. If you draw a vertical line from the beginning of the light downwards, you’ll see that it overlaps the front and rear wheel.

Another important point is the position of the A-pillar. It gives you information about the angle of the windshield. If you extend the A-pillar, you see that it is tangent to the front wheel. The door joint is usually located where the A-pillar begins. In this case, slightly offset behind the front wheel.

After completing the steps above, you’ll have an approximate skeleton of the car. When drawing your design on this skeleton, you will always hit the right proportions. 

Now, you have all the information needed to start drawing your own car. If you follow this tutorial, you can be sure to meet the basic package and technical requirements of designing a vehicle with the right proportions. This will make your sketch look convincing and realistic.

braunmarco.com

Pick up Truck in 5 days

In this tutorial, you will learn how to create a complete pickup truck design in 5 days!

As a student, it has always been a great challenge for me to create a design proposal from three different views. Not only must the same idea be presented from three different perspectives, but all three views should also have the same proportions, colors, etc. For me, that has always been very challenging, and it still is today.

In this example project, I want to show you the process of making a complete vehicle proposal in less than one week. You will learn how to make a complete car design proposal that contains three views at a reasonable time. This ability is essential for working in the auto industry, where it is important to deliver qualitative results in a short time. 

In this tutorial, I will use a very easy way of CAD: just using lines without creating 3D surfaces. This saves time and can be performed even without much CAD knowledge. This is a special technique, and it is not a rule to be followed, but it should give you an idea of how to speed up our design process. It’s very helpful for beginners as well as professionals. 

Now, if you follow the steps below, you can design a full pickup truck proposal in less than one week.

Day 1

Having a good side view is essential since all further steps will be built on this side view. Before this step, draw some side views and select an idea. This side view is the base and is more important than anything else. When you start a new project, focus only on making the side view. Don’t care about the front and rear ideas yet. Not a single perspective drawing is necessary. 

In this step, pay special attention to the right proportion and balance. This can take some time, so don’t rush. Choose a reference to get the overall dimensions right. Just use a real car image from the internet as a base. After correcting the proportion and balance in Photoshop, refine the shapes and paint in some color. 

Day 2

Now that you have a good side view, it is time to go into 3D. Do not generate real 3D surfaces, but instead, focus on a line model. Use a free version of Autodesk Alias, as it is a common program in the automotive industry. Upload your sketch in the software and trace the lines. When retracing the lines in 3D, try to stay as close as possible to the original sketch. Be very accurate and do not change anything. 

After you have drawn the lines on a 2D plane, pull them into a 3D space. To get the right dimension for width and certain curvature, it is helpful to use an already existing 3D model as a base. Or if you can’t find a suitable one, just use a blueprint. A good source of free 3D models is Grab.com. It is always good to have templates to guide you.

Day 3

After you are satisfied with the line model, you can choose three views. You should choose views that describe your design in the best possible way.

Do not over-dramatize your view. Rather, try to take a view that conveys the most information to the viewer.

Take a screenshot and increase the contrast to make the lines more visible. Print them out on real paper and choose a size that makes it comfortable for you to sketch.

Now, you can start drawing an idea for the front and rear of the vehicle. When sketching, do not waste so much time. It is ok when some areas in the sketch remain empty.

Day 4&5

Next, it’s time to scan your sketches and load them onto Photoshop. Now the advantage of this technique becomes apparent. You no longer have to worry about proportion, balance, or perspective because all the information is already included in the line model based on the side view from step one. That saves you a lot of time. 

You can now invest this time in making a cool rendering. If you are not completely satisfied with your design yet, do not try to change. Try to finish your design and bring it to an end. If you’ve executed the steps correctly, congratulations! You have finished a complete pickup truck design in less than one week!

braunmarco.com

Step-by-Step Rendering of a Sports Car

This is a step-by-step tutorial that will teach you how to create a digital car rendering yourself.

We start by clarifying what a good basis for each rendering is and how best to start. Next, we will use a digital brush to define the shapes. In the end, we will apply reflections and details to get an outstanding result.

1. Creating the sketch base

One of the most important tips for a successful rendering is to have a good and solid base. By “base,” I mean a hand sketch, digital sketch, or line model. If you don’t have a base, things can get complicated and frustrating. So do not explore shapes without a solid sketch base, simply because it’s easy to lose yourself and waste time. 

After you’ve created a base, at this point, the actual design process and shape development has already taken place. The rendering is a more detailed illustration that helps make a visually appealing presentation, which, in turn, helps sell the proposal to the customer.

2. Defining the surroundings

Before the coloring process, you should be roughly aware of what your surroundings look like. It helps to prepare a scene to roughly visualize your thoughts. It’s not necessary to do this every time, but it helps you understand what’s going on. 

In the example below, there is a primary light source coming near the front of the car, there is a wall behind the car in an outside environment, and the sun is shining. So, we should somehow transfer this scene to our reflections.

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3. Blocking out

In this step, we divide the car into three different blocks. This helps you visualize the different materials later.

Divide the vehicle into the main body, greenhouse, and grill and wheels. 

Then, create paths with which you get a sharp edge and an overall clean look. Select the path and fill it out with a base color.

Cut out the wheels from the original sketch and transform them a little bit. Make them elliptical and correct their position. 

Once this step is done, half the rendering is done. You can’t go wrong anymore.

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4 & 5. Shading

In this step, try to describe the shape using different gray values. The rule is: Whenever the value changes, the shape also changes. 

Try to use the correct values. The rendering will look unrealistic if you use the wrong values. If you want to know more about the topic, I definitely recommend Scott Robertson and Thomas Bertling’s book “How to Draw,” in which they explain the fundamentals of light and shadow.

By the way, never choose white as your brightest value. It will not work. We will only paint certain spots white at the end when we use the color dodge tool in Photoshop to really highlight certain areas.

6. Adding reflections

Don’t draw a photorealistic render here. The reflections should be designed as simply and effectively as possible. It will be helpful to check the surfaces. 

In the example mentioned earlier, the car is in front of a wall. That information should show in your reflection. Moreover, all surfaces that point upwards should reflect the sky. And don’t forget the greenhouse. If you want to create lighting effects, simply use the color dodge tool.

7. Adding details

Details take a lot of effort and time. If you don’t make an effort in this step and don’t invest time, the details will often just disturb and not help your rendering. I definitely recommend adding details because they help the rendering a lot and make it much more attractive to the viewer. 

In order to create details quickly and effectively, I suggest using real photos. Use a photo of an existing car’s grill, and you’ll save time. Also, add some mirrors.

braunmarco.com

Happy Yuletide Holiday!

Cheers!

Happy holidays to you all! I have an interesting treat for you on this Xmas holiday. I often mention that my very full time career means a lot less posts appearing here. During 2021 an interesting solution to this appeared – in the form of another contributor. I was very pleased to be contacted by a talented vehicle designer called Marco Braun. Marco offered to write a few guides to car design that complimented my own. Today I publish these guides in a festive gift bundle! I ask that you also check Marco’s own web portfolio and contact him if you are interested in working with Marco! Marco was one of the designers responsible for the recent Lexus LF-Z Electrified Concept car and I am very pleased to have his expert contribution to this blog.

braunmarco.com

Marco Braun is an expert in the field of Automotive Design. In February 2017, he graduated with a B.A. in Transportation Design from the University of Pforzheim. In the past, Mr. Braun has worked on experimental concepts, advanced, competition, and production design for the Lexus and Toyota brands, in Tecno Art Research, a design studio in Nagoya-shi, Japan. Since the start of my professional education, it has been my vision to play a part in the development of transportation and mobility designs of the future.
E-Mail
info@braunmarco.com

Book club for car designers part 2: book recommendations.

I actually managed to read a few car design books in the last year, one upside of lockdown it seems. There are many coffee table, or reference works on cars and even car design (in theory). A lot of these are very dry- and essentially just worth checking for photography or facts/data, but not for entertaining reading. I guess I won’t be sent any further review copies by publishers as I was very critical of the Bruno Sacco biography for example- which wasn’t a biography at all. If you would actually like to learn anything about car design I have read a few books that I would recommend (please excuse the amateur photos of the books).

The most obvious source of car design wisdom or insight, would come from an autobiography of a car designer we can assume? Due to the niche nature of this topic- these are unfortunately rare. The designers that we want to hear from are often still part of the business and the politics of the industry prevent them from sharing anything interesting. They are also much too busy to put any words to paper. Luckily we have recently been treated by one of the giants of the car design business, to a genuinely self penned autobiography of astonishing quality. Originally written in French, but translated immaculately by another car design expert (and friend of the author) Tony Lewin and published in English, this book is one of the best I have ever read on this subject. I am talking about Patrick Le Quément’s life in car design which he has shared with us and titled: Design Between the Lines.

Patrick Le Quément: Design Between the Lines. Pictured at Lahti Institute of Design library.

Le Quément’s entire life is remarkable and his brilliant book is physically large and aesthetically beautiful, but contains wisdom which is more than skin deep. The book is full colour on every page, with an illustrative image hand drawn to accompany almost every story or chapter. The format of this book is hard to describe, but wonderful to read through. It is not in chronological order, but it is certainly well organised. It can be read cover to cover, but it can also be enjoyed in random order, with it’s clever self-contained chapters on topics of interest. It can be read again to let philosophies sink in, book-marked for reference by any design professor, or simply read as R&R on the beach, Only a great designer could design their own autobiography in this way, and Patrick and his contributors (a good designer makes sure counter arguments are present) have put together not just an interesting story of an interesting life, of an interesting man- they also manage to educate even this knowledgeable lecturer of vehicle design. I have learned from this book- perhaps obviously, in terms of inside stories of design projects we only knew from the outside (Renault Avantime for example) but also in terms of design methodology and tricks of the trade, explained in such clarity that concepts I knew vaguely became crystallised. I have no idea if Le Quément has found himself in any trouble over this, but he explains quite a few trade secrets and magic recipes for design in general. This book will be placed forever on my student vehicle design curriculum, but is also a very enjoyable read. What an extraordinary achievement. Much like Patrick’s design career- this is world class. Design Between the Lines should be on everyone’s shelf who has even the slightest interest in car design. Do not hesitate to buy this!

Patrick’s tongue in cheek explanation of the snobbish hierarchy of vehicle design. Painfully accurate.

In a very slightly smaller format- but no lesser in quality in terms of paper, printing method and full colour content- we have another car designer’s autobiographical tale. This time in a much more traditional chronological, and anecdotal format. The book lives with a very lengthy title: An English Car Designer Abroad: Designing for GM, Audi, Porsche and Mazda, and was written by the very likeable Peter Birtwhistle. I say likeable, despite never meeting Peter or knowing him personally (I knew his name of course) before reading this, my first compliments to this book are that I feel that I know Peter after reading it! You don’t need to know this designers name previously to enjoy his book, as Peter humbly introduces himself. Peter was not just head of Mazda’s European design studio, he actually created it but you can read that story when you buy his book. He seems like a chap I would like to know: honest, hard working and blessed with a journey through life that I and possibly all car designers would wish for- up to a point. The title of this book struck a chord with me, as an English car designer abroad myself. The story contained within must sound very familiar to the few hundred souls that have taken a similar path as Peter, but perhaps alien to those that haven’t. Peter does a very warm welcoming job of explaining his journey for anyone to understand and enjoy. It is not a book just for the insiders, and has no industry double-speak. The gifted Mr Birtwhistle worked his way right to the top of car design and the titular references to four major car brands shows how diplomatic he is to name all that have been part of his journey. Name dropping? Wait until you read Peter’s wonderful story of why and how those companies are all important to him. There are fascinating stories from the coal-face of car design across the entire world, and all told in a very heartfelt and personal way. For example, any MX-5 fan will be fascinated by Peter’s tales of that project. Characters on the journey are described with whit and fondness, and the reader will feel they know those people too. This book educated me on car design politics and process, and it humanises the corporate. Towards the end I was genuinely moved reading of some of his family and personal troubles (trying to avoid spoilers, Peter has had triumphs and tragedies in his life). This is a book that shows us how it feels to be a car designer, the highs and the lows, the loneliness and the camaraderie. It’s an emotional journey that I was not expecting in a book on this topic. I would like to thank Peter one day in person, for opening up about his experiences. This is not a reference book in the way Le Quément’s expertly constructed book is- this is a must read for any young person aspiring to be a car designer, or any old person who wishes that they had been. You can experience what could be, or what could’ve been, through Peter’s eyes and ears, as told by him. With feeling.

Less well known- but Peter Birtwhistle has a fascinating story to tell of his career which took him right to the top.
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Book club for car designers: book 1

It has been at least 30 years since I first became interested in car design. My childhood obsessions swerved towards cars early, but then learning about how they came to exist was harder. Occasional design articles in Car Magazine helped educate me, and around the same time I wrote a letter to Rover Design – and a wonderful reply came back to teenage me from Roy Axe. There have been countless books published on cars, and there have been biographies written about important figures in the industry, but design and styling was previously very niche. I am lucky to have attracted attention of a publisher who has sent me a car design book to review. I also decided to look into what other books are available on this subject, because there seem to be a growing number especially autobiographies. Roy Axe wrote one, and that’s one book I intend to read for obvious reasons. In 2020 I read a couple of books in this genre, and here I review one of them.

The Crowood Press reached out to me- and asked if I would interested in reviewing their recently published book on Bruno Sacco, former head of the Mercedes Benz Styling Department. The book is called “Bruno Sacco: Leading Mercedes-Benz Design 1975-1999 and is written by a chap called Nik Greene. The book seems well-titled, but I will get back to that. Expectation was for a biography of Bruno Sacco, who is a towering name in vehicle design. Revered for his expert custodial control of one of the most important automotive brands, Sacco oversaw a seminal era of Mercedes design. It is from his era that my preferred Mercedes Benz designs originate. The W124 (class E) and the first generation SLK (R170) are my personal favourites from the definitive automobile brand.

I am apprehensive about writing my first book review, as I am not sure of the correct etiquette, and in the case of this particular book I must be blunt and admit I did not enjoy it. I wanted to get that off my chest right away- and I will add that I didn’t manage to read every word in this book, as it is dry and rather tedious to read. It serves as a hefty and no doubt fact-filled reference book, ideal for a University library shelf (good reference for my day-job) but as an enjoyable read it fails. Perhaps the subject matter does not hold enough personal interest for me, but the real issue I have with a car design book such as this, is when it is written by someone with a lack of knowledge for the car design process. Finding a combination of design know-how and writing skill is rare indeed, so I can cut the publishers slack in this regard. This is, I am afraid, not a book about Mercedes-Benz design, and nor is it a book about Bruno Sacco. Sacco barely features, and a vast majority of the text appears to be reference material on the history of Mercedes Benz engineering achievements. Think Wikipedia in book form, with superb and exclusive photography. Factually correct, but uninspired in prose or storytelling.

The nature of this book is stated in the preface by the author- and in this we can respect his professionalism (clearly an accomplished researcher). Unfortunately he reveals the reason for my feelings on this book, by mentioning personal meetings with the great man Bruno Sacco. It is very pleasant to hear that Sacco was a humble man who credits all his success to team work. This is pleasantly accurate, because no car is ever designed or created alone, and Sacco did not himself “pen” more than perhaps one Mercedes car. The author clearly reveres Sacco, and defers to his request regarding the content of the biography about him. The failings of the book can be explained by quoting the author himself.

The only way I could honour one of the
greatest designers in automotive history was to write his
story through the history of design, honouring the people
he honoured, and showing his talent through his work and
not through his ego.

Nik Greene – author

So this appears to be exactly what Nik did, and the result is as mentioned previously, rather dry. Of 208 pages in this publication, we only start to learn about Sacco on page 130. At last we hear of his life before Mercedes Benz, and things start to feel a lot more like an actual biography. Sadly it is all over by page 138, and we return to detailed history of Sacco’s most personal car design, the C111 Experimental Safety Vehicle Project. This avoidance of anything not-Mercedes related, and anything personal, creates a book which feels corporately sponsored (NOTE: the publishers asked me to make it clear it is NOT sponsored in any way). The vast majority of this book is a fascinating guide to the entire history of vehicle design and engineering, but with the point of view that no other company exists than Mercedes Benz. This final third of the book is where things get messy. Twice we are led though the timeline of Mercedes design- firstly seemingly unrelated to Sacco, then concentrating on Sacco’s time and his guidance. This is a genuinely interesting section of the book, and perhaps the entire publication could’ve been 2/3rds shorter. The stand out aspect of this book are the images and photographs, which often appear to be exclusive archive material, unavailable in any other publication. One photograph showing a young Gorden Wagener talking with Sacco over a small clay model of the CLK coupe design stands out as prophetic. Master training the apprentice. Sacco is shown in casual attire, a cardigan, and with spectacles on (vanity appears to stop him wearing these in any other formal photographs). The last 3 chapters of the book are better, with the final being “Sacco’s Legacy”. Here we also see the mistakes regarding design, with clay model review images being wrongly explained as “exploring different sizes of vehicle” which they were not (all clearly have the same package and dimensions). My favourite fact learned from this book, is something that changes my previously held dislike for the W140 S-Class design. A car I have always felt is too large, and just too arrogant in its design. How can someone as renowned as Sacco have made this mistake? He didn’t. He wanted the entire car to have 100mm lower roofline, but was overruled by engineering. A rare regret that he admitted to.

Overall then- a very comprehensive history of the engineering and design of Mercedes Benz, but rather light on insight into the man named in the title. For a fan of the brand this becomes a must-buy, but for the rest of us, perhaps it’s not as compelling.

How do we conceive our company’s designs today

in the context of our history and current technical

demands and possibilities? We must continue to follow

the three basic principles.

1 A Mercedes must always look like a Mercedes.

2 It should symbolize all the values that are the hallmark

of an authentic Mercedes and that our customers

expect of it.

3 The design should include as much innovation as

possible while at the same time remaining true to the

values of the brand.

It is highly important that both the driver and the

passengers have the clear sensation of being in a

Mercedes once they are seated in any of our cars.

This feeling is induced not only by the design but also

by the finishing, the choice of materials, and even

the tactile impact with interior surfaces. This way, it

is not difficult for customers to establish a relationship

of trust with the marque, especially in terms of

reliability and continuity.

Bruno Sacco

Links to buy:

https://www.bookdepository.com/Bruno-Sacco/9781785007170

Image

BMW iX Sketch vs Production.

BMW iX sketch vs production
BMW iX crossover- and it’s design sketch.

Remember when designers had to draw a side view over a package? The actual production vehicle package? It seems designers no longer do this. Obviously at sketch phase, character is key- but eventually… surely…. one MUST draw the same design over a package? This is what I was taught, but I guess design schools stopped, so design studios stopped? A production car being a disappointment compared to a concept car is nothing new, but these sketches are FOR the production car!! Roof height is a typical “cheat” when sketching and even making a scale mode, but the overhangs? The overhangs are completely different on the production car and I cannot understand who is sketching different overhangs – then just accepting whatever overhangs the production team create.

Practical cars. Rationalism, or not.

Consumerism and useless product design…

This blog is titled autoSTYLING for a reason. I couldn’t get a car design URL…. but seriously it is important that the word styling was used. I am a design lecturer, but when I started this blog I just wanted to talk about cars as a passionate hobby and only in terms of aesthetics. Car design is a complex process but the members of the team that are called designers mostly work in the area of aesthetics. The design departments that were initiated in the 1950s, were defined by one template in particular, in Harley Earl’s GM “styling” studio. Principally the aim was to sell (and re-sell) similar cars every year, with new visual gimmicks and colours, inspired by the seasonal nature of the fashion industry. This was a clever change to the automotive business, where previously people bought cars that could potentially be fixed and last for many many years. It is something Henry Ford struggled with, once everyone had bought his Model T. They didn’t need a new one.

Model T repair workshop?

So we entered into an era when cars became desirable and fashionable consumer products, marketed to us as lifestyle accessories and whimsical statements about our wealth or status. Bachelor? Buy a car with no space for kids! Where do design teams come into this? Well, they are briefed to design products initiated by market research, and possibly years of sales experience feedback. Designers are asked to deliver a product for precisely defined customer wants and desires. We are now so conditioned to this aspect of cars that it’s not something we think about, but some consumers push against the impractical feeling or aura given off by styling. The growth of SUV demand really began with customers buying ex-military vehicles for use on the road. In the UK for example, functional farm vehicles were seen in country villages and the non-farmers who lived there took note. Land Rover had a great idea to combine a road car (Rover)- with their farm work-machine to create the Range Rover. Still this was not quite utilitarian enough for some, and those people continued to buy and use the “proper” Land Rovers on road. The majority wanted the comfort of the Range Rover though.

The Land Rover Discovery was essentially a reverse of this, attempting to cater for utilitarian vehicle customers AND school run urban users with one vehicle spun off the Range Rover chassis. This was in direct response to the popularity of Japanese 4×4 rivals such as the Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun in the UK).

In general though, cars continued their push to be marketed and sold as lifestyle accessories, and the large corporate car producers had the money (and risk aversion) to carefully study their consumers. These companies learned the motivations for customers to purchase a vehicle, and researched niches to be filled. The evolution in customer focused design has led to diverse ranges of cars from most manufactures, and in 2009 Nissan pushed the SUV craze to its’ current situation with their 2WD Qashqai. A very clever, if somewhat unoriginal concept, to merge the on road user scenarios of SUVs with the mechanical economy and low cost of any ordinary road car. The benefits were numerous and despite the usual lack of foresight by motoring press- the car was obviously going to be a huge success. It was. The same old arguments were brought forth for the Qashqai… that it lacked functionality. That customers wanted and needed 4WD, and that they needed utilitarian looks that had been established with actual utility vehicles. They beleived customers only bought off-roaders that could actually off-road, and worse still they seemed to believe that only an ugly non-styled vehicle could ever be capable off-road. All these arguments against the Qashqai were proven completely false, and of course the link to the way a car looks and its function is quite elastic. Nissan knew they were false from their own market research and the relative failure of their previous crossover vehicle (the X-Trail).

An expensive but capable design – which looks rugged, but is it?

No manufacturer gambles $billions before finding out even a little about the likelihood of success or failure.

So this leads me to a recent tweet- and the basis of this post, regarding the press getting things wrong yet again. Since the Range Rover Evoque convertible we are seeing a new breed of seemingly implausible vehicles- in the eyes of the myopic motoring press. The convertible Crossover/SUV. What all commentators on these designs forget- is that the original 4x4s were ALL soft tops. The Jeep, the Land Rover. The lack of roof was an essential part of any lightweight versatile military vehicle. On the farm, the Land Rover Series II developed to have a warmer cab enclosed on 3 sides, and even 4 sides in pick-up form, but still a canvas covered rear. The VW T-Roc cabriolet continues a time honoured tradition of soft tops on off-roaders. What really struck me was the wording of a Top Gear Magazine tweet, to say that designers of the VW had “strayed from the mission statement of an actual utility vehicle”. There are so many things wrong with this statement, but of course TG are joking, much like it’s comedy TV show format. The new Ford Bronco clearly defines itself as a functionality-led design exercise (using it’s aesthetics) and it comes with many options for removing the roof on 3 and 5 door models! So what exactly is the problem with the T-Roc?

I will confess. I do not like the T-Roc convertible, or the very similar Range Rover Evoque Cabriolet. There are aesthetic reasons for this, mostly the very short but tall proportions combined with a full convertible providing no B or C pillars. The short square shape plus canvas top- is too close to a baby pram/stroller look for me, or perhaps even a skip. For the same reason, I don’t think the Mini Convertible is visually successful either. This is aesthetically opposite to the utilitarian or military design aesthetic of nearly all off-road vehicles. Roll-over in a T-Roc convertible? Dread to think what that would be like, it certainly looks less safe, and as for flexibility of the monocoque? Engineers are shuddering across Wolfsburg. The “joke” that TG are attempting here, is that this car is NOT designed to be an off-roader. Well yes, that is patently obvious. The design team have made no mistake at all, and were well briefed by marketing on exactly who the target customer was. Those customers would have bought a convertible Golf GTi 30 years ago, or a BMW 3 series convertible maybe 20 years ago. Today’s urban upmarket small but classy vehicle of choice is: yes the baby crossover. The amount of drivers that want to experience sunshine on their heads is significant. Range Rover pioneered, and upwardly mobile VW followed. The trope of “wrong car in wrong place” was created by innovative Car Magazine a long time ago, and to be fair, it can still be very entertaining. It’s definitely a reminder that Top Gear is not about sensible automotive journalism and that’s fine. What is clear is that people need to face up to reality, and that is: nobody buys any vehicle for truly practical reasons, with truly rational and logical selection criteria. Brand and image and styling all affect us subconsciously. That skill of manipulating the observers thoughts and emotions, is exactly what excites me about car design and why I started this blog about styling.

https://www.carmagazine.co.uk/features/car-culture/ferrari-to-the-sahara-part-1-car-archive-may-1995/

Above: the original “car out of place” article?

Car Magazine have a great history of this, and the above link shows a classic of the genre. Top Gear TV series took these odd juxtapositions to extremes. Mostly they adapted this style of article into long distance adventure drives, sometimes with the ideal (but old and broken) machinery, sometimes with the opposite- such as an Esprit V8 across Argentina (attempted… because: Clarkson). The new Ford Bronco has been accepted with huge praise, and of course this is exactly because it is much more capable than it needs to be in terms of off-road credentials, and the styling aligns with the implied functionality. In design language, we call this over-specification and this type of product is all around us. A certain demographic tends to favour over-specification. Wearing all condition trainers/sneakers that were designed to hike up Everest, cycling 2 miles across London on a 6kg carbon road bicycle that was designed to win the Tour de France, while wearing a 1000m water resistant divers watch (yes these exist, 1km under water where you will be crushed to death!) in case there is a brief shower. All of this over-specification leads to some impractical cars… in the “wrong” scenarios, and in another post maybe I will need to address the Ineos Grenadier vs Land Rover Defender debate (seems relevant to this post). To summarise for now I will simply suggest that the reader demographics of TG Magazine do not match the buyer demographic of the T-Roc cabriolet, and the result is ridicule…. which precisely none of it’s buyers will ever read.

T-Roc design “sketch”
Kings Road SUV soft-top
OFF Road SUV soft-top

10 car design leaders

I was asked my opinions on some current leaders in the world of car design. I actually checked up a little of each designers background, and decided to repeat my thoughts here for this blog. Mostly my educated guess about each person, with some anecdotal evidence. I also know a little more than I am allowed to share regarding some of the names, and I could ask for inside info on others- but I won’t because they have extremely demanding public images to uphold. They all thoroughly deserve their status of course, because none of these people made it to this level without enormous dedication and hard work. I can only imagine how all-consuming some of their careers have been.

1. Jean-Pierre Ploué (PSA) jean-pierre-plouc3a9-285x380-1

Ploué made his name in the industry with the first Renault Twingo. A landmark car of characterful but functional design. A truly French car from a truly French thinking designer- and this was exactly what Citroen needed after nearly 20 years of a Brit, then an American in charge. For the new millennium it was time to bring back French thinking. Jean-Pierre Ploué immediately hired some young talent from around the world, and nurtured that talent with a very relaxed attitude to creativity. A friend of mine worked there as a designer, and hadn’t done any work for weeks. Worried- he finally admitted this to Jean-Pierre, who shrugged and said “that’s ok, maybe inspiration will come soon”.  A great creative team manager, his people skills have enabled all PSA brands to continue to positively rejuvenate in design terms. 

2. Franz Von Holzhausen (Tesla)von-holzhausen_franz-uw6p7c

Musk grabbed Von Holzhausen from Mazda, when he became unhappy with Henrik Fisker’s outside consultancy design work. Franz was given the task of setting up an internal design studio and fixing what would become one of the 21st Centuries most important car designs, the Model S. Franz and his team (mostly poached from Mazda) decided to play it safe with the styling. Musk was a demanding boss and referenced his own Porsches as the standard to work towards. The foundation of Tesla was a familiar looking sedan, with groundbreaking technology. The recent Cybertruck is another PR masterstroke by Franz. This time there was no revolution in tech, so instead a completely unexpected and brutal design language got the truck noticed. The ripples from the Cybertruck will be seen in car styling for the next 20 years. 

REDACTED. Luc Donckerwolke (Hyundai, Genesis)luc-donckerwolke

Luc Donckerwolke is the definitive car designer. Dual nationality, speaking an astonishing array of languages his diversity of culture makes him a perfect recipe for global car design. Famous for re-establishing multiple brands for the VW group. A real darling of the VW board and a pioneering design manager, who established multiple internal design teams at Skoda and Lamborghini, ditching traditional techniques for modern digital methods. After taking over at Bentley there was a surprise desertion of the VW Group, to join Peter Schreyer in his mission to destroy the German dominance of the car industry on behalf of Korea. Luc uses his modernist digital design techniques to devastating effect, now rapidly overtaking the Germans in progressive quality design. His recent Hyundai Prophecy concept car was a very cheeky nod to past Germanic design themes (911 shaped!) but brilliantly moved into the 21st Century.

3. Gorden Wagener (Mercedes Benz)gorden-wagener

A company man with 23 years at Mercedes design and the result is total trust by the board. Some might say this trust is his downfall. Wagener often receives ridicule by other designers (not publicly, as that is dangerous to careers). His hyperbole speeches and grandiose influences are cliched and vague. As far as we know, Wagener has never actually designed any cars- but nurturing other talented designers he developed his “sensual purity” design language as a universal styling look, applied to every Mercedes at every price, and every segment – even commercial vehicles. Criticised for shallow, skin/deep only styling- but the sensual part is undeniable and Mercedes is now a strongly customer-led company. Buyers get exactly what they wish for, including strip-club like interiors, and the sales figures prove the methodology. He could be the designer at the helm when the ship sinks… and like the captain of the Titanic he will never abandon his ship. 

4. Klaus Bischoff (VW)db2018pa00039_overfull

Bischoff is another German company man who, like Wagener, has dedicated his life to one company: VW. Since 1989 he has designed only for VW group, and has had many management roles and mostly worked as an interior designer. His name was not widely known, so we can assume this is a modest designer perhaps. A true inside man. VW clearly have huge faith in Bischoff and the quality in the design language of VW brand in particular is mostly thanks to Klaus. VW generally manage to avoid fashion, or extreme design trends, but recently have become a little formulaic. Klaus and the VW board really believe in this formula, but corporate scandal has made things tough for the brand. Design must be even more conservative in order for customers to trust them again. 

5. Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW)adrian-van-hooydonk-3a8c391b-106e-4537-8966-4a9bfbfd918-resize-750

Once again we see the loyalty to German brands, but a Dutch designer this time who has been with BMW since 1992. Adrian made his mark with BMW in California, working for and eventually becoming president of DesignworksUSA. Thanks to his advanced work at Designworks, Von Hooydonk became the protege, and successor of Chris Bangle. Bangle revolutionised the very traditional BMW, and in turn shook up the entire car design business. Hooydunk was the driving force behind the design and styling ideas that Bangle made famous. Designworks laid a lot of the groundwork for BMW design as it is today. Unfortunately since Bangle’s departure, the strategic  management of BMW has been messy and design has suffered. Bangle dealt with this aspect well, Adrian does not. A true artist like Adrian just wants to create. Currently his handling of the BMW grille design, insisting Chinese customers demand it, seems lacking in vision. 

6. Thomas Ingenlath (Polestar)2017062101_robin_page-1

Volvo regrouped itself after Geely investment, and decided to take stock of what it wanted to be and what it didn’t want to be. Ingenlath is a great example of what can happen when taking a risk and changing company. A German designer, who worked for VW for 20 years and ranked very highly- he joined Volvo and eventually brought some of his VW friends along too. Volvo spent time to work on strategic design and research of their brand (from outside consultants) and this foundation work has been spectacular in its success. Ingenlath was allowed, as an outsider, to distill Swedish design principles and core Volvo corporate values such as safety and quality into a pure aesthetic depiction in 3D form and materials. This is high operating level, holistic vehicle design which only very few companies achieve. So far Volvo design strategy has been perfect. Now Ingenlath is concentrating on the EV and performance brand Polestar, which perhaps gives us a clue to his own thinking about the future of automotive transportation. 

7. Gerry McGovern (Land Rover)gerry

A very interesting and eccentric character… Gerry is an enigma of his own creation. Fantastically talented, but from a working class background in Coventry, it all seems so unlikely. Apparently his learning curve never ends, constantly intent on self-improvement, he now presides over a kingdom of his own creation. Famously blunt and sharp with employees, but ruthless in his passion for design. He only left Coventry briefly, in the late 90s, to show Lincoln exactly what they should be doing- then returned to continue his life’s work in Coventry. Along with Volvo design, Land Rover are leaders in consistent brand identity. Gerry became obsessed with mid century design during his time at Lincoln, and continues to pursue a minimalist and timeless aesthetic. There are aspects to McGoverns plutocratic management style that I cannot repeat, shared with me in confidence by insiders, but his troops are loyal and  you can be sure of one thing: that he will always push for absolutely the best quality of design in every detail. 

8. Ikuo Maeda (Mazda)maeda

The designer’s designer. Respected as an artist, and responsible for renaissance of beautiful emotional design. A strategy he implemented by returning to traditional artisan routes, using hand sculpted clay extensively again, just as other studios are abandoning it. The seeds of KODO design language began with Franz Von Holzhausen and his preceding Nagare design aesthetic, but Maeda has steered Mazda design to be more than surface styling. His aim was to bring life to industrial products, and he has succeeded in the ultimate vision of emotional automotive design. A stark contrast to functional product design which gives humble Mazda’s a value beyond their price. Who could’ve predicted 20 years ago that a Japanese company would be the one to keep the heart and soul of beautiful car design alive? Alfa Romeo and Mercedes design departments wish they could achieve this level of  sensual design. 

9. Flavio Manzoni (Ferrari)hublot-post8

An Italian car designer who interestingly worked for VW rather a lot, at a very high level running advanced creative design teams. The combination of his long experience in Italy for Lancia and Fiat, combined with extensive experience in the dominant VW group means that Manzoni was uniquely placed to bring Ferrari design into the 21st century by setting up an internal dedicated design team. Manzoni proved his abilities by developing the stunning La Ferrari production car. The sensational design, and more importantly the delicate design process that produced it, has let Ferrari controversially abandon its relationship with Pininfarina. Critics have argued that Ferrari in-house designs are unrefined- but the pace at which they are now being produced is the reason perhaps. The relentless product updates and modern sales tactics at Ferrari are generating profits, with cars that are exciting and dramatic in styling. In response to critics, Ferrari have even created a less flamboyant design with the new Roma model. Design strategy and future thinking is a core skill of Manzoni and we can be sure that his tactics have been well thought through. 

10. Laurens Van den Acker

edit: Luc Donckerwolke abruptly left Hyundai/Genesis in 2020, so this addition was drafted to replace him in the printed article.

Laurens Van den Acker is one of the world’s leading experts of advanced vehicle design. Laurens’ career took him from Europe to America and back. His experiences were transatlantic and international. Incredibly he has worked in Italy, Germany, USA and France. This global experience meant he became uniquely placed to understand a vast majority of the car buying planet, excepting perhaps Asia- but his long tenure at Mazda must have filled that gap quite well also. This moulded him into the global visionary he is now (despite working for a seemingly very French and European brand), and his time spent with J Mays at Ford clearly helped his genius to shine. Van den Acker came to fame with an astonishing series of concept cars, while working with J Mays. The Ford 24/7, 427, Model U and the Ford GloCar. These were all so ahead of their time in ideas concept and user sentiment, that any car company wishing to be successful in future clearly had to hunt down Laurens for their own good. That is exactly what Mazda and then Renault did. There is a connection here with Franz Von Holzhausen – for they both worked on the Nagare design language at Mazda, but those visionary Ford concepts were what caught the industry’s eye. The Ford 24/7 from 2000 was the key to Acker’s success. This car predicted the customisable App grid interface, 7 years before iPhone, and predicted user’s wishes for connectivity and configurable dashboard/screens that we see on every concept and future production car 20 years later. Van den Acker set the user template that the entire industry is working to now. 

Thanks to Hans Dierckx of Auto Wereld magazine, Belgium, for asking my opinion on 10 current car design leaders.

http://autowereld.be