Ten Things I Learned About Car Design in Detroit

12 January 2012
Reading Time
5 minute read

This week we were whisked off to Detroit for a frenetic and fascinating few days around the North American International Auto Show. Not only did I drink more coffee than a human man should realistically attempt, I also learned quite a lot about car design thanks to unprecedented access to the design studio of one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers. Here’s 10 things I left Detroit with which I didn’t have when I arrived (aside from jet-lag and caffeine shakes).

First up a good bit of full disclosure. We were invited to the USA as guests of Ford and they organised a series of tours and events while we were out there. I am sure other car makers have equally interesting design processes, it’s just I didn’t get to see any of them. It’s also worth mentioning that I am not exactly a petrolhead so if you’re a car nut looking for in-depth analysis of the vehicles themselves, this is probably not going to do an awful lot for you, Try our friends at Car Design News instead maybe.


Truth be told this year’s NAIAS in Detroit was devoid of a wow factor. This may be to do with the industry’s recent problems, with headline-grabbing flash design sitting uncomfortably with a sector so depressed by the recession, but there wasn’t too much to drop your jaw on the exhibition floor. The BMW concept i8 car, as seen in the new Mission Impossible film was the star of the show, elsewhere it was important if unsexy words like sustainability and fuel efficiency that were on everybody’s lips.


Car manufacturers understand that different cultures react to different designs in different ways, but that hasn’t stopped Ford introducing a global design DNA for the first time ever recently. With input from their design studios in the UK, Germany, China and Brazil as well as North America, and painstaking market research in similar territories, cross-cultural feedback is assimilated but the look won’t be tailored for different markets as happened in the past.


British designer Adrian Whittle who worked on the new Ford Fusion project exploded a myth I had about car design – that it all started with concepts. Ford’s people kept talking about the new Fusion’s silhouette but Adrian explained: “We wanted to get away from the the box design sedans have traditionally had and the silhouette was the best way to straighten out those lines. We didn’t start with that word – it was just the way it evolved.”


Seeing behind the scenes at Ford’s design hub was amazing. The high-tech screening room used for critiques has a huge projection wall 12 times more powerful than HD television, but the first stage is 2D sketches from carefully chosen in-house designers, sourced mainly from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, London’s RCA and the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. These are then scanned in and worked on in Photoshop, with final presentations accompanied by images of buildings, fashion etc that have inspired them.

The digital process is then used to produce incredibly detailed renderings of the vehicle animated down to the stitched trim on the seats and put through different versions to show how light will reflect off the car and what it will look like in different weather settings, and in a showroom compared to on the road.


The high-tech approach continues with the use of motion capture technology of the sort used in Avatar. It allows engineers to study how people get in and out of the car, the set-up of the dashboard controls, the placing of instruments etc. The machine also monitors the forces exerted when certain actions take place and combines objective data with subjective responses to feed back to the designer.


Cars are going to become insanely sci-fi in a few years. Already the in-car technology created by Microsoft for Ford not only uses voice recognition to help drivers make calls, change the music and get directions but it will also call the emergency services if it senses the car has been in an accident. In the future we should expect a car that can monitor your vital signs and take over driving if it senses you have become ill.


For all the high-tech wizadry on show, clay modelling remains a key part of the design process. In a room that smells of your school art room, some of Ford’s 150 or so professional clay modellers can be found working away on version of new cars. There was a feeling in the company a few years ago that the process would be rendered obsolete by the technology now available but there is still something irreplaceable about actually being able to see what the finished product might look like apparently.


In the clay modelling room, there is a panel on the floor which is completely flat. They know this because every year someone comes and measures it and certifies that this is the case.


The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is a great place to immerse yourself in car design. The huge but characterful space was full to bursting when we went with game-changing examples of cars from all manufacturers.

It represented only a fraction of the museum’s total collection and there is also a historical section where you can go on the actual bus that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on, a major turning point for the civil rights movement, see the car JFK was assassinated in and go into a fake pub where a man on a video tells you about Thomas Paine. Ok that last one is a bit weird but the rest’s great.


Ford’s design chief admitted the industry has been “miserable” in working with design schools to ensure the flow of good graduates continues into the future. He said they must work much more closely. Apart from the RCA, the other UK university he name-checked was Coventry.

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Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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