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The unsexy bit of car design

We spend a lot of time at Car Design Research working with our clients to map out their future Automotive Design Strategy — the unsexy bit of car design, perhaps. It’s our daily bread. Just as businesses perform better with a future strategy and demand product and marketing strategies to realise this, so car design steps beyond just styling when it is part of a strategic vision. 

But what it is a Car Design Strategy? What does this unsexy bit of car design comprise of? 

We are bound not to talk about each Design Strategy we have done with German or Korean or Japanese or American or French clients, although Thomas Ingenlath has been kind enough to allow us to tell that we worked closely with him on the strategy that continues to roll out and develop at Volvo. So to show a case-study of an Automotive Design Strategy project is a challenge. 

It’s also a challenge to describe this area of work simply because every client has different requirements — as well as their own unique design history, brand, and ambitions. Our work in this area straddles a wide spectrum of scopes: from tightly defined next generation product definitions, to more far-future visions; from broad all-car types strategies, to focused new niche or sub-brand strategies; from facial-design signatures, to underlying product, brand and design identity work. 

Yet there are some fundamentals inherent in most strategies that can be described:  

An Automotive Design Strategy must be informed by its brand’s design heritage (however brief), the image its brand has, and the unique technical competences and ambitions of its organisation. Without reliably knowing where you are and how you are perceived it is impossible to know which direction to take to get to where you want to go to…  

A Design Strategy also has to relate to the future context of how it will be ‘consumed’ by the market: what other brands are doing, the macro socio-cultural trends that will affect customers’ appetite for different directions; and what wider design trends are emergent. It has to fit with some aspects of these developments whilst also clearly differentiating itself from what others are doing; being ‘me too’ is never the best strategy.

The tangible form of an Automotive Design Strategy is a hybrid of a business or marketing strategy document (text based with some charts) and pure design presentation material (sketches with annotations). This is dependent on the scopes of the project: is it a narrow focus or wide range of design areas of a car? And on a few vehicles or a wide range of vehicles? What's also important to consider, is how the project should be consumed internally: from a punchy headline presentation that can be seen in five minutes, to an in-depth report that both management and design teams have fully communicated to them during dedicated internal events and can possibly then take-away in book form with further substantiating material (such as film files and even design data).   

But whilst the outputs of a Car Design Strategy project can’t be shown fully here, we can show some related material focusing on a single application of a facial-design signature. Below are stills from a film clip we have created that shows as its start point how simple line drawings illustrate grille shape, lights and secondary element shapes of a car ‘face’. The film then shows how these work not just as one-dimensional outline elements but as two-dimensional graphical element that creates lighter and darker zones of the front aspect.  

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Then the more subtle, but increasingly important second-tier of graphical elements — the lights and grille inners — are shown, something increasingly important with new lamp technologies being used and the recognition of the need to create distinct night-time design identities for car brands. This is then followed in the film by a simple form of three-dimensional representation of how these brand specific design signatures work not just as two-dimensional elements. This three-dimensional quality in Automotive Design Strategy outputs is something we are now progressing at Car Design Research. Today, so many of the strategic issues for car design have progressed in their subtlety and sophistication and thus need to go beyond just two-dimensions. Being able to see how a proposed brand-specific face design works from different angles is also useful to able to show at an early stage of development. 

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The Jaguar F-Pace we have used to show some of the steps in realising a facial-design signature for a brand is just a quick illustration, and also does not touch on the several other areas of exterior design, or on interior design, UX design, and other facets of Car Design Strategy such as sub-brands and trim levels. Neither does it show any elements that describe a unique and distinct Design Identity which is another key deliverable for most Design Strategy projects. But it goes some way to show what Automotive Design Strategy is and how most of today’s leading car designs are not just handsome and appealing bits of styling, but part of a wider Design Strategy that helps businesses perform better. It may not be the sexy bit of car design, but we think it is a very important part of car design!