Admit it, as children many of us spent way too many hours drawing cars. Talk about exotic designs. Chances are our drawings had swoopy lines, oversized tires, extended fins, maybe even a rocket engine. But there was no way these creations could be manufactured in reasonably priced quantity on an assembly line.
Face it: Our work was undisciplined.
But that hasn't stopped us from being car crazy. Nor will it stop us from critiquing designers' work.
For example, everybody knows that a vehicle needs ample tumblehome - the degree to which the vehicle tapers inward from the beltline to the roof, as viewed from the front or rear. Slab-sided vehicles don't work. Just look at the Pontiac Aztek.
But what about the boxy Scion xB? It's a hit with the tuner crowd, and U.S. sales are running ahead of last year.
So what are the rules of good automotive design? What are the do's and don'ts of the contemporary studio? We asked current and retired designers and those who teach design.
Don't ignore the details
"Beauty is in the details," maintains the Chrysler group's design chief, Trevor Creed.
"A car should never be overdone, as we say in the profession, meaning too much happening in terms of surface character or body lines. Ornamentation reached an amazing excess in cars in the mid-to-late '50s. However, people like jewelry inside and out - thoughtful touch points that feel as if some designer spent a lot of time thinking about what he was doing before deciding to add that special touch."
Don't overlook what some would consider the mundane, advises Holt Ware, the Epsilon design manager for General Motors.
"Whether a part is bolted, glued or screwed, when that part is by itself, it should be a piece of art," Ware says. A headlamp is an example.
"A good headlamp should have the fundamental design recipe of a dominant, sub-dominant and accent form," says Ware, who designed the exterior of the Hummer H3. "Maybe the low beam is the dominant shape, the high beam is the sub-dominant and the part/turn is the accent. Or in the case of a truck, you should notice the grille first, the lamps second and then the badge."
It's the proportions, stupid
Don't "think in terms of starting to draw lines" when beginning a design, says Stewart Reed, chairman of the transportation design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
"You hear people say, 'That's a nice line.' But it's not about lines. It's all about volume and surface. It's about reconciling the front and rear and plan views. Don't start in side view. If I start anywhere, it's with a cross section."
Bryon Fitzpatrick, chairman of industrial design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, puts it more simply.
"Don't be clumsy," he says. "Be refined with proportions, with surface treatments and with details that tie everything together.
While details are critical, a designer also must consider the entire vehicle.
"Good design means a holistic approach to the product," Creed says. "It is not enough to have a great exterior design without a great interior, and you can't have either unless the engineering of the product is not executed to the same level. A superb engine, transmission, great ride and handling built with quality that is reliable is a great design - a holistic design."
Don't think you can do it all, says Peter Horbury, executive director of design at Ford North America.
"I see young designers working on a model where they know and I know that the suspension strut will be sticking through the (sheet) metal," he says. "They're hoping the suspension fairy will visit the studio overnight. Call the suspension engineer and negotiate. It's a team effort. If we can present something so good that all the engineers want to do it as well, it makes life easier."
Details are important. A good headlamp design, says GM designer Holt Ware, "should have the fundamental design recipe of a dominant, sub-dominant and accent form." These lights on the 2006 Ford Explorer are an example.
It's important not to wade into a design project without first establishing "a foundation and a philosophy for what you're doing," says Kevin Hunter, vice president of Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach, Calif.
"New designers try to make things overly complex," Hunter says. "There's a lot of busy design. Prioritize. Eliminate things that are not following the philosophy. Simplify."
A designer must understand the vehicle architecture that he or she has to work with, Horbury says.
"I see a lot of designers' wishful thinking," he says. "There aren't many overhangs that are only 3 inches long or roof heights that are 2 feet high. I've never been faced with a truly clean sheet of paper. You know there are limitations. It's wise to quickly accept them and to design around them."
Adds Reed: "The only way you can get to beautiful styling is by having all the fundamental bones in the right place. That means the structural paths through the vehicle, the mechanical packaging and the occupant packaging."
Reed cites the classic London taxi as an example of successful design. "You could jump right in with all your luggage," he says. "It's so friendly and gracious."
Lars Erik Lundin, general manager of the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center in Camarillo, Calif., says a designer also needs to understand the brand.
"A good professional designer knows what is a Volvo and what is a BMW and what is a Lexus," he says.
Resist temptation to imitate
Don't copy another company's products, warns retired Buick chief designer Bill Porter.
"By definition that puts you three or four years behind," he says. "And if you catch them, what have you done? You've wasted millions and millions of dollars, and you only have a counterfeit. (And especially) don't pick up characteristics of dying companies or products."
Porter adds that it's not even wise to copy your company's own designs. It doesn't happen often, he says, but once in a while a carmaker will introduce a look in a smaller or less expensive model and then follow with the same design themes on a more expensive model.
Retired Buick designer Bill Porter says Riviera sales fell after his 1985 design was introduced because previous Buick models had already used the design theme.
Don't give in to the marketing department, designers say, and sometimes even challenge the design director.
"Marketing should be a subset of design; it's the way design is delivered (to the customers)," Porter says. "But in most modern companies, marketing is equal to design, and that's inside out. The tail is wagging the dog."
Lundin says designers need courage.
"I would not hire someone who didn't have the courage to challenge our design gurus and to come up with new vehicles," he says.
Ware, the GM designer, says no one wants to have to apologize for a lame design.
"It would be better to die trying than to give in to things that don't contribute to making a better product," he says.
"Today someone spent 20 minutes, using every threat in the book - and you know they're stretching when they start name-dropping - trying to get me to give in on a bright rocker molding," Ware says. "Auto design sometimes is a great game of chicken."