Envisioning the Open Road: Automotive Designers Creating the Cars of Today & Tomorrow

by Damian McKnight
Envisioning the Open Road: Automotive Designers Creating the Cars of Today & Tomorrow

It can be argued that no design career is sexier than that of the Automotive Designer. Today's designers embody the styles and culture of today while contouring the style of tomorrow. They utilize product design principles and emerging technology to create commercial, yet innovative, designs for new automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, coaches, and vans. Often working in tandom with a large team of engineers, designers work to ensure that their concepts are appealing to consumers, can actually lead to functioning automobiles, and are environmentally friendly and affordable. Not to mention...sexy.


In the United States, automotive design reached a critical juncture in 1924 when the American national automobile market began reaching saturation. To maintain sales, General Motors pioneer Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual model-year design changes in the hope that car owners would want to buy a new replacement each year. His strategy succeeded and was later adapted by rest of the industry.

The most celebrated American auto designer is probably Harley Earl,who brought the tailfin and other aeronautical design references to auto design in the 1950s. Earl is joined among legendary auto designers by Gordon Buehrig, responsible for the Auburn 851 and iconic Cord 810 and 812. Another notable designer who had a markedly different style was Chrysler group's designer Virgil Exner, an early pioneer of Cab forward (a.k.a.Forward look) design in mid-1950s. Exner is also credited with introducing the pointed tail fins in the 1956 Plymouth Belvedere later adapted by all other Detroit studios.

The Work

The tasks of a car design team are usually split into three main aspects: exterior design, interior design, and color and trim design. Graphic design is also an important aspect of automotive design; this is generally shared amongst the design team as the lead designer sees fit. Design focuses not only on the isolated outer shape of automobile parts, but concentrates on the combination of form and function, starting from the vehicle package. Here is a breakdown of the design elements:

  • Exterior Design: The stylist responsible for the design of the exterior of the vehicle is the one who develops the proportions, shape, and surfaces of the vehicle. Exterior design is first done by a series of digital or manual drawings, and clay (industrial plasticine) models are developed from those drawings. 3 and 5 CNC Milling Machines are utilized in creating the clay model of the final design.Even in modern times with 3d software and virtual models on powerwalls, the clay model is still the most important tool in evaluating the design of a car and therefore used throughout the industry. The data from these models are then used to create a further mockups of the final design.
  • Interior Design: The stylist responsible for the interior design of the vehicle develops the proportions, shape, placement, and surfaces for the instrument panel, seats, door trim panels, headliner, pillar trims, etc. With the interior, the emphasis is on ergonomics and the ultimate comfort of the passengers. The design process with the interior design of the car is the same as with exterior design (sketch, digital model and clay model).The aesthetic value of the interior will need to correspond to ergonomic functionality and utility features as well. In particular, vehicular electronic components and parts will give more challenges to automotive designers who are required to update designs based on the latest information and knowledge associated with emerging vehicular gadgetry, particularly dashtop mobile devices, like GPS navigation, satellite radio, HD radio, mobile TV, MP3 players, video playback and smartphone interfaces.
  • Color and Trim Design: The color and trim (or color and materials) designer is responsible for the research, design, and development of all interior and exterior colors and materials used on a vehicle. These include paints, plastics, fabric designs, leather, grains, carpet, headliner, wood trim, and so on. Designers work closely with the exterior and interior designers and draw inspiration from other design disciplines such as: industrial design, fashion, home furnishing, architecture and sometimes product design.
  • Graphic Design: The design team also develop graphics for items such as: badges, decals, dials, switches, kick or tread strips, liveries.
  • The Development Process

    Includes the following steps:

    • Concept sketching
    • Clay modeling
    • Class A surfaces
    • Scale model creation
    • Prototype development
    • Computer-aided design
    • Computer modeling
    • Powertrain engineering
    • Manufacturing process design


Automotive design is practiced by designers who have art backgrounds and degrees in industrial design or transportation design. Careers related to Auto Design include product design, automotive engineering, and electrical engineering. Successful designers need to be creative and should have strong math, drawing, and science skills. They must also have strong skills in computer-aided draftingand communication.

Since the Automotive Design is a very competitive field, academic achievement is beneficial when looking for an entry-level job. Courses such as industrial design, electrical engineering, mathematics, environmental science and computer-aided drafting are good starts for designers looking to break into the industry. An automotive engineering degree program can provide simulation training and hands-on experience in the field. An internship or work study program is often a necessary component of many automotive engineering colleges, and this can provide immediate job placement after graduation.

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