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3 major changes in the last 3 decades that have most impacted the car design world.

Author: Martin Groschwald

The other day, I was sitting on the couch and just browsing through my LinkedIn feed when I came across a post by Frank Stephenson that quoted an article from Car magazine and its former editor Gavin Green.

As a quick summary, the article suggests and quotes Frank, that the demise and the boredom of current car design is directly related to less and less use of pen and paper. The usage of modern digital tools as well as the upcoming AI influence will continue the trend from truly emotional cars to them just being (boring) products.

I am not a trained designer or a designer in any way. Yet, I think this is of course an easy way to create headlines, and the true answer is much more complex to understand how we got to where we are in the car design world right now. I also believe it doesn't start with the students. It starts with the highest-level management within car design to push for these changes. Frank certainly has a point when he says that the traditional skills within car designs such as sketching have lost a lot of their former glory in the day-to-day process. However, we also cannot forget that in today's culture where not just hundreds but thousands of people globally study transportation or car design have a strong talent on a purely artistic and sketching level from a very early age.

Therefore, and this has been on my mind for quite some time, we should look back and try to understand what led us to the point where we are right now. I do believe that there are three major changes in the last 30 years that have led us to how we perceive car design in 2024 and how we must address it and develop it into the future.

1. The 1990s // The emergence of Photoshop


In today's world, Photoshop has become a staple piece in almost any creative environment. Nobody would ever think to get rid of Photoshop because it pretty much is the equivalent of pen and paper, just digitally. However, we need to look back quickly into a time before Photoshop came about. I think we can be very clear that the topic of doodling and having Post-it sketches is still something that is very common and has always been in the creation process. However, before Photoshop, if a designer wanted to do a rendering you had to be extremely precise, thoughtful, and understand not just the pure creative process but also a very strong base level of engineering of how a car is being built. If you made a mistake on your marker rendering, you could pretty much throw away the sketch and start from scratch.

Now that means you must be rather knowledgeable of what you would want to design (and maybe not just style). When Photoshop came in and introduced “Layering”, it meant there was much more room for trial and error. While trial and error are not anything to criticise, it takes away from the thought process and from the technical knowledge that you need to have. This led to a level of unknown which potentially brought back a more creative direction at first. However, in retrospect, it also took away something very important that was key for the then-car design process: the pure understanding of how a vehicle is built. In my view, I don't think that we can underestimate how much Photoshop as a digital tool has affected the way the creative process works in today's world. It is not the tool that created this change but a function within the tool. Photoshop allows you to potentially think less and just try things out that do not necessarily require an engineering understanding but for pure aesthetics – we can argue it led from Design to Styling.

Now obviously this change didn't happen from one day to another, it took several years. But in today's process and given how strict and short timings are, the ability to think through what you want to sketch and how you want to build something has become even more important. Having a tool such as Photoshop (and maybe even in the future and AI) where you just trial and error as much as you can. It might save you time at first but is probably one of the reasons we're not thinking enough about how to build a car and how to design a car from scratch.

2. The 2000s // Post Crisis 2008 and the SUV trend that led to oversized car design studios.

Car Design Studio.jpg

Nowadays, it's almost normal for a studio to have hundreds of people working in it. I don't mean hundreds of people including contractors and suppliers that support the process. I mean hundreds of people that are employed within the studio. That is a trend which has started just before the 2008 financial crisis but then became almost like a gold rush post-crisis in the early 2010s. The reason for that is relatively simple to explain yet should not be forgotten how big this impact has been. The post-crisis gold rush of producing vehicles, people regaining wealth, and increasing their spending has not just led to higher sales numbers for the OEMs. It has also led to a much higher number of different vehicles.

The SUV is of course something that started in the 1980s but has made a big impact in the 2000s and the 2010s. The SUV has massively increased the amount of choice that the customers wanted and were offered. These vehicles had to be designed - often from scratch and including completely new platforms. Before the financial crisis, a large design team was 100 to maybe 150 people. In the early 2010s, we started to see studios going into the numbers of 4-5 or even 600 people working in the studio. I remember it must have been in 2018 or 19 when a high-level design boss came to me and boasted that he was now officially leading 1000-plus people globally in their design department.

Now as you can imagine, if you go from a small very tight-knit team where everybody has their role to play and knows exactly what to do, the idea of competition is much less prominent. There are studios in 2024 that have over 50 exterior designers, yet the company does not create that number of different vehicles or “styles” – not even including facelifts or derivates. That means not even one job for one designer. You might ask yourself why this is the case and how we got here. The explanation is very simple yet also very complex: at first with a lot of demand from the market of course also comes a lot of workloads which ideally leads to an increase of staff that is required to deliver the projects. In the case of car design, where in the overall system of an OEM, it was always by far the smallest department and let's say the only department where management skills and leadership development were often not made a focus. Rather the leaders were promoted on their pure skill and design talent.

Now just imagine you go from a team of 25 people to 100. That is an increase not just in people but also in terms of responsibilities, decision-making, and budget. Design for many years, especially before the 2008 crisis, was seen as a sandbox but always controllable due to its small size. After the crisis and with the massive increase in personnel, projects, and responsibility it has many companies have not been able to make the transition from a sandbox to a full-on company department. Of course, the “blame” for that development can be put on various stakeholders. The top-level management in the companies should have supported the design departments much more with management and leadership development for its top-level designers. At the same time, the design department should have been able to develop away from the sandbox into a new direction that represents Design in the best possible way within the entire company. In 2024 we can still see and feel this impact and change post 2008 financial crisis.

Many design departments have not developed as much professionally as their counterparts in engineering, software, manufacturing, and others – despite some efforts. Of course, design also needs its own space. It needs to be a sandbox to a degree, but it also needs to be fully involved in OEMs that employ thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. It has become one of the core business functions in many OEM's and very few design departments and leaders have fully embraced that business responsibility.

3. The 2010s // Social Media and the demise of Universities


I am sure we all remember the very first account we created on any social media outlet out there. It became a revelation. There were new ways out there to communicate and share information with our friends, meet new people, and to some degree also find new jobs. Within the car design world, the probably biggest immediate changes came with the creation of LinkedIn as it has completely changed the hunt for jobs alongside the changes mentioned in point 2 with the sheer number of jobs available. However, the biggest long-term impact was through, and we have to say, of course, the creation of Instagram. The biggest reason why Instagram has had such a massive impact on Car Design is that it has achieved a level of democratisation in an industry that for a very long time has been very elitist.

I don't mean elitist in the sense of accessibility for the rich but elitist in a way that there were very few jobs, very few universities, and very few people within these courses that were selected to be part of them. Instagram has allowed anybody, anywhere, and from any background to share their ideas, their sketches, and proposals with not just the automotive design industry but with anyone in the world - without any education or professional training required. What makes Instagram special and let's say also more important in this development than for example, YouTube is that it has instant gratification and the speed of spreading ideas. And that gratification didn't just come from professionals within the industry but also from fans of the brands. That led to a massive delusion of what is required to work in the job as a car designer. This opened car design to masses that we have never imagined. Yet, we must also admit that the OEMs played a significant role in that. They're showing what we call press sketches to the world on these channels.

They're sharing them via online portals and pretty much on any outlet that they can find to promote their products and brands. Every brand of course wants to have its own representation and style to be recognised with. But in the end, it also led to a lot of copycatting. And with AI you can almost copy and paste everything with any proper education. On top of that, Universities have not taken their chance to separate themselves from this Instagram culture. In many cases, the opposite happened. They jumped onto that level which is purely on showing rather than understanding what car design is about. And that can and should be criticised as the role of the universities is highly important in the overall education for everyone who wants to work in Car Design on any level and area. But it also comes back to the management and leadership within the OEMs.

If professors, lecturers, and tutors in universities are being told and given examples of “stuff” they can find on widely available Instagram, then of course the first intuition is to think that if I produce something similar, this will get my students a job. This is a very natural intuition however it leads to, and I can share this as I have been myself in many of these situations and conversations, many design bosses who say the quality of the students is not better than these many sketches we can just find on Instagram. I know of a couple of design bosses that have tried just to hire based on Instagram sketches and I don't think it even needs to be mentioned that these hires have not been successful. So, where the democratisation of car design through Instagram has brought us a lot of new raw talent that we can see on an everyday basis it is even more to say that it has also led to a demise of sheer quality and the understanding of what car design is from a foundation. And that leads to the fact that better education in the foundational years is becoming even more important. So maybe becoming a bit more “elitist” again in the future isn’t the worst thing…

Please don't get me wrong. Car design, even though many say the products do not represent that, currently has probably more talented people than ever working in its environment. It also has, and we should not forget about that, probably more people than ever working in it that have a lot of room to improve to achieve their highest potential. It is not as easy to say and as the article mentioned might suggest just by having better sketches, we will automatically get better vehicles. We must understand why we have got to a certain point to also work with everybody involved to address these challenges firstly on a holistic level and then break them down into smaller ones to understand how we can slowly but gradually improve the system. The most important people in this process are the current high-level design leaders and executives.

The change needs to be driven and started through them so that improvements are given space and time to be made possible and given the resources to work on some much-needed improvements. These improvements must be internal in the companies, external with suppliers, with the universities and education partners, as well and that is also highly important with the media. I am expecting that we, despite the emergence of AI, have not seen the biggest impact scenario yet for the 2020s. However, looking back on the effects of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010 we need to be highly aware of the change in the 2020s and that we are using them to improve the high skills and qualities that the car design community has.

Let’s not forget, that it is equally important to always understand an individual context. Every company is different and has their own story to tell. So, you will find a lot of different stories about these last 30 years. However, I do think that these three points made in history have influenced everyone. It doesn't mean that everybody has included them in their workflow. Some have been affected more or less than others but generally, these 3 have influenced every single company that works with an automotive design in these past 10, 20, or 30 years.

I would be very interested to hear if you had other important changes or impacts that you see fundamentally changed our great industry to such a degree that we can feel the impact even decades after.

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Martin Groschwald

Martin Groschwald

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