Home » I’m A Real Car Designer And I’ll Draw Your Ridiculous Ideas

I’m A Real Car Designer And I’ll Draw Your Ridiculous Ideas


Car design is easy right? When something looks wrong or bad, it’s just the designers being lazy, isn’t it? Those marker pushers should get out of the way and let the engineers do their job, shouldn’t they?

Hi, my name is Adrian Clarke, and I am a professional car designer. I have a degree in automotive design from Coventry University, and a masters in vehicle design from the world famous Royal College of Art in London, where I was tutored by J Mays. I was hired straight from there into a major European OEM, where I worked for a number of years until the world went sideways.

To give you a better understanding of what a designer does and doesn’t do we’re going to be doing some car design right here on The Autopian. If you’ve ever thought you could do better, or have great ideas for a vehicle type that no sober OEM would ever build, well then this is your chance to get involved!

So if you want to be a designer, put a diecast model car on your desk, pull on a black turtleneck sweater and grab an espresso. We’ve got cars to create. To kick us off and give you an idea of what we’re going to be doing, I’ve come up with a design for an off road minivan. Torchinsky gave me plenty of ideas, all of which had me screaming into a cushion. This one came from the slightly saner mind of David Tracy who gave it to me to implement. This isn’t entirely unlike how it works in the real world, where a marketing department or the board might ask the design studio to create a proposal for either a new version of an existing car or a new type of car altogether. Of course, the design studio can and does come up with ideas on its own as well.

The problem with minivans is, despite their suitability for doing family-hauling type stuff, they lack sex appeal. They have been usurped in family duties by the crossover, which give off a slightly rugged outdoorsy vibe that customers find appealing. Despite arguably not being as good as minivans for lots of families, crossovers are practical enough, and this matters – image does sell cars.

So with all that in mind, let’s try to give the humble minivan some of that “active lifestyle” appeal. Here are some quick thumbnail sketches. These are done to get the ideas down on paper – designers do their thinking on the page. They won’t all be good ideas, and you won’t always be sure exactly what you’re going for – but getting them down helps the designer understand what might and what might not work.

My car designer interpretation of an off-road minivan.

At this point we’re not concerned with any boring production reality, safety legislation or anything like that. All that comes later after the design is frozen and the process moves into what is known as the realization, or production design, stage. The only thing to consider is that what you are drawing has to conceivably fit in with the brand.

It’s worth noting that it’s mainly premium OEMs who have a strong brand identity – a set of visual cues and style that is common across all their models. Mass market manufacturers tend to go for distinction within a segment to stand out. Of course, we have no such limitations here, so we’re free to be a bit more creative.

At the beginning of a project, a designer will turn out loads of these rough types of sketch – typically ball point pen on paper, with maybe one color of marker (usually gray) to indicate highlights or graphical elements. Mine were done directly in Photoshop, but the principle is the same – a simple outline and one gray tone, although here I’ve used it to indicate the graphical break-up of the body. Minivans are essentially “one box,” or to use a professional term, a “monovolume.” They don’t have a lot of shape to the sheet metal aside from the outline of the car, so the graphical break-up becomes much more important.

Once the designer has found something they like, it’s time to turn it into a more detailed render. Color, details, highlights and shadows will be added. This will take that favorite ball point sketch and make it into something suitable to pin up on the board for review by a more senior designer.

When all the junior designers have put their work up, a review will take place. Suitable designs might be chosen to go forward to the modeling stage, or the senior designer might ask for another round of renders if they don’t see anything they like.

So our chosen design has a large body volume, with a lot of glazing. Occupants in the back two rows, especially if they’re kids, like a good view out. The rise in the belt line in the middle, across the doors, provides visual interest. If this were just a straight line, it would look a bit dull and weak. The chamfer at the top of the tailgate where it meets the roof takes some of the visual weight out of the profile and prevents the car from looking too blocky, and potentially moves the hinge point back so less room is needed to swing the tailgate open. The body colored middle section means you can still fit roof accessories without worrying about damaging glazing trim pieces.

Hopefully this has given you some idea of the beginning of the car design process. Now it’s your turn. Submit your ideas to design@theautopian.com and we’ll pick the best, most interesting or downright weirdest, and together set about turning them into reality. Well, into some nice renders, at least.

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99 Responses

  1. Something like Arrival’s EV delivery van as an ambulance; so with all the visibility and packaging efficiency of that chassis but 1) Butched up enough that the never-would-admit-they’re-image conscious-but-wow-are-they firefighters buy it instead of a Freightliner M-2 or F-350 2) Compliant with NFPA 1917 . Bonus if it can control another lane next to it with the same kind of swing out bar that school bus drivers have to keep the kids away from the front.

  2. Luxury full-size sedan but all the luxury signifiers are from some culture that hasn’t done automotive manufacture and you have to infer it from fashion or architecture or something similar. Let’s go distant past with it so you’re not in dodgy appropriation territory.

  3. Very cool. I’m generally a function over form kind of guy, so I probably can’t offer any terribly inspiring suggestions from a design standpoint.

    But, I find this extremely interesting, and will be reading intently.

    I had a serious lightbulb moment when I read the sentence about the location of the tailgate hinges. I HATE the slanted rear on wagons/hatches/crossovers, as it cuts so severely into the cargo area (ever try to put a dryer in one of those cars? blech). But it’s interesting hearing something other than aerodynamics and aesthetics.

    Keep it up!

  4. Couple of things.

    1. David Tracy is the sane one? Lol.

    2. Where’s the stripper pole in your van? I thought we didn’t have to worry about production value?

    3. Project ask – Jetsons briefcase car and/or a flying car. Someone else mentioned it – I’m in!

  5. Sup. Industrial designer here. Gotta say, can’t stand most transportation designers. Unrealistic proportions, nothing makes sense, all utility sacrificed for “looking cool”. I don’t get why everything has to have giant wheels, low pro tires, and a stance where the wheels stick out of the body, even for ‘urban’ vehicles designed for a user that just commutes to work and back.

    Stop it.

    Make renderings realistic again. I know the bean counters will change some things, but not everything needs to look like a baja truck on dubs.

    1. This is something I’ve covered in my series of articles I’ve written elsewhere. The bottom line is customers like cool looking cars. You might not like it, but I’m afraid it’s the truth. It’s not only the chief designer who has to be sold on a new design – it’s the project leaders, managers, the board etc – the people who sign the big checks.

      It not really possible to create ‘realistic’ renders when starting out a new design – you don’t know always know what platform you’re going to be using, what the dimensions will be, etc. Drawing is an analog media (even if the tools are digital). It’s not like digital modelling where you have dimensional accuracy.

      1. You can have cool looking cars with realistic proportions, see: tons of production cars.

        I’m aware of the design process, I have a full time job as senior ID guy in powersports industry.

        Yes, it is possible to create realistic renders. When we hire transportation designers, we can’t use their work for a bit, nothing is usable. When we hire ID guys, we get usable stuff but their form development tends to be weak. Gotta aim for the middle bro; good forms but think critically of your design as you go so it makes sense and is manufacturable.

        1. I studied ID for a year before realizing I wanted to design cars, and switching my degree.
          I’m not surprised you struggle with transportation designers – although both disciplines are design, it’s a slightly different skillset. An industrial designer is much more concerned with manufacturing, production processes, use cases, usability from the outset, the more prosaic nuts and bolts stuff (although I understand that image is still important an sells – a product should look good whatever it is).
          A transport designer is more concerned with form, appearance, market positioning, branding – the slightly more creative side. If you imagine a graph with functionality on one end and fashion on the other, industrial design skews towards the former, transportation design skews towards the latter.
          Sketching and rendering is really only a small part of what a car designer actually does. They’re about getting the ‘wow’ factor – “we want to build THAT!”. Once the design transitions into 3D it gets a lot more realistic in a hurry, and it’s the designers job to maintain the ideas and feeling of their sketch onto something that can be made.

    2. THANK YOU.

      It appears to me a lot of these design trends are there to upsell the buyer on the car’s parts. Those large wheels and low-profile tires are more expensive and consume more resources than what they replaced. The extra unsprung weight necessitates heavier/more expensive suspension designs. The low-profile tires generally aren’t as reliable as those with thick sidewalls. There’s also the issue of crash test regulations changing the proportions of the vehicles, where the marketing perception is that the vehicle is “ugly” if its wheels are two small. There’s also the issue of planned obsolescence; the industry sells more cars by constantly changing things and cycling out old designs/components, even when it is not necessary to do so.

      There’s an old saying, “You’re selling the sizzle, not the steak.” But I’m “that guy” who wants the damned steak, and I know I’m not the only one. I’m sick of modern automobiles being style over substance, especially considering the societal consequences that the modern automobile has caused.

      What is interesting is that modern cars(especially SUVs/CUVs) look almost as cartoonish as the renderings of them. I think that might explain why so many enthusiast are so jaded on modern offerings and styling trends. From a non-marketing, non-profit-at-all-costs-driven, consumer-oriented perspective, little about the modern automobile makes any sense, when the goal is to get from Point A to Point B on the weekdays, maybe have some fun on the weekends, and spend as little money as possible while doing it. The modern industry is all about extracting as much money from people as possible and manipulating their tastes through advertising.

      1. The problem is that most mainstream OEMs operate on tight margins, especially for the capital investment involved. If they manage over 10% they’re doing well. Upselling on higher trim levels and larger wheels creates a useful extra income stream. It’s no coincidence that higher trim levels are usually (but not always) the best looking versions.
        Cars are ugly if the wheels are too small because it’s all about balancing the proportions of all the elements that make up a car, and giving it a good stance on the road. Look at a lot of the Chinese domestic vehicles – they are usually under wheeled and look top heavy. Bigger vehicles need bigger wheels to look right – and to cover the larger brakes they require.
        Planned obsolescence is not a thing. Cars are the most complicated and expensive consumer grade products you can buy. They are made up of thousands of parts made from different materials with different operating properties and tolerances. And they have to start first time in the middle of Alaska or the Gobi desert. Every time. And they have to be assembled by the thousand by semi skilled labor. And make a profit. Are parts going to wear out or fail in unexpected ways? Of course, but they are certainly not designed that way. These days OEMs make rolling improvements, which is why you never buy the first model year of a new car – give them time to work out the kinks first.
        Every car has a finite amount of time it is appealing to customers – most last around seven to eight years with a mid-cycle refresh. Eventually if you don’t bring out a new model customers are going to look elsewhere because you can’t offer what they want!

          1. I’m afraid they’re the truth – a bare bones ‘function over form’ car doesn’t sell these days. In the UK, when Dacia originally introduced the Duster SUV, they advertised the base model in appliance white with grey bumpers, steel wheels and minimal equipment for something like £8995 (I’m going from memory).

            What they found was they sold hardly any. Customers would enter the dealer and wonder where the nav screen was and why they couldn’t get an automatic.

            Now the Duster starts at just under £15000 and is slightly more upmarket with more equipment and metallic paint. And yes, an automatic (admittedly this is still somewhat of a bargain proposition).

  6. When he was very young, my son wanted nothing more than an electric Ferrari with 3 seats. This was his phase between wanting a city bus and wanting an X-wing. All good things to want, but I’d mortgage something to get the Ferrari.

  7. A modern successor to the MGB, please. And not one of those weird MGs made by the various companies that have bought the name over the years.

  8. How about this: I want a vehicle to tow my LBC when it inevitably breaks down. But I don’t want a truck or SUV because driving them is miserable and they’re yuge. I’m thinking something small but with a big-ass, torquey engine. Like one of those little tugs at the airport that can haul an airliner, but with Bluetooth.

  9. I’d love to see a realistic depiction of what some whacky concept from a normal car company would look like if it actually made it to production. Something like the Ford Indigo or Chrysler Firepower. Since obviously they get more boring and get things added on to meet crash test regulations.

    1. The Chrysler Firepower was essentially a toned-down Viper, right? To me, it looked good enough for production. The Ford Indigo on the other hand, well… maybe Adrian can tackle that one.

  10. I emailed my design idea off. We’ll see if anything comes of it. Love this site. My idea being, to build a hyper-efficient, hyper-fast, inexpensive, minimalist 2-seater electric sports car coupe of roughly Porsche 550 Spyder dimensions that will outlast the buyer. Screw planned obsolescence. That concept and all of its associated unnecessary waste of resources needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. My dream is a no-nonsense design made to minimize the number of parts, minimize complexity, minimize maintenance requirements, minimize energy consumption, while maximizing performance and vehicle lifespan.

    Anyhow, I proposed something that does the following:
    -monocoque chassis with T-top and gullwing doors
    -ends planned obsolescence by going full-retard on aero, for a given set of practical constraints
    -is an enthusiast’s vehicle: Porsche 550 Spyder-like in dimensions, all electric, ready-to-drive weight of ~900 lbs, all wheel drive via overpowered ebike hub motors, offset two seater with only the bare minimum downforce needed for stability at its top speed in the interest of keeping drag low
    -efficient: assuming CdA of ~0.15 m^2, it will only need a 20 kWh battery for a 300+ mile real world range on the highway at legal or slightly above legal speeds and 80+ mile range on the race track or cruising the Autobahn at a 160-ish mph top speed
    -independently controlled motor, and suspension for each wheel with slip detection and torque vectoring, for maximum possible traction and lateral grip for whatever narrow low-rolling-resistance tires with meaty sidewalls are fitted
    -uses low cost parts and a small battery pack with the goal of Miata-like production costs
    -evokes styling cues from the Ferrari 250GTO, Jaguar D-Type, 2017 Ford GT, and Alfa Romeo BAT7 in the hope that it will be sexy, beautiful and timeless

    I emailed a more detailed description of what such a thing might look like or how it would perform. In a sports car, less is so much more, as Colin Chapman and many others learned in the last century.

      1. That’s only true if you go with vehicles of a conventional nature with conventional aerodynamics and typical size/mass. Motorcycles don’t have that dilemma, generally speaking, when compared in cost/performance to that typical of cars. You can spend under $20k and get a bike capable of out-accelerating cars 10x its cost. Spread out over tens of thousands of units and ignoring things such as brand identity and focusing almost exclusively on drag reduction, making a car very slippery to the wind is cheap(few hundred $ per car), and has enormous performance/efficiency benefits. Starting small and staying small cuts down on materials used and therefore cost, as well as cuts down on the amount of power needed to go fast, further cutting cost, and also improves efficiency thus reducing the size of the battery needed for a given amount of range, further cutting cost. A less massive vehicle also places less stress on its components, improving reliability.

        If you keep the mass low enough, you could get away with using inexpensive and extremely lightweight ebike motors and controllers for the desired acceleration, without exceeding their rated specs, further cutting mass/cost. The EV parts cost for such a machine at the retail price for building a one-off at the hobbyist level would be well under $10k(I’ve already come up with a parts list and have been planning such a build). With mass production and large volume orders, the EV parts cost could possibly be less than half that, leaving a large budget for the rest of the vehicle while keeping the cost reasonable.

        Something can be built with all three traits, but it would have to be able to sell enough units to justify the production volume needed to keep it cheap. And a lot of custom components would need to be designed, as one would have to go less with the “design-by-committee” mentality ubiquitous in today’s industry and more the Paul MacCready(GM Impact/EV1) or Gordon Murray(McClaren F1, T.50) mentality when conceptualizing the design.

        This all being said and my opinion of the auto industry methodology of designing cars being bassackwards aside, I love your work that you’ve showed us and look forward to seeing what you put out there for whatever concepts you choose to draw. This is really cool that you’re drawing your interpretation of peoples’ visions and putting them on this site. Seeing the talent that was brought on board to this site lured me here. I’ve been a Jalopnik lurker for years, but once Torch and Tracy worked their magic, I was sold on becoming a part of this site. The knowledge base here is something special, and who knows, maybe a really badassed enthusiasts vehicle will eventually surface as a result of its existence.

        1. I was over simplifying, but it still holds true. In years past, there was a great deal of scope for weight reduction, because the mass market couldn’t weight optimize cost effectively. This is how companies like Lotus were able to do what they did, because they were low volume high cost, which allowed more careful construction and exotic materials and lighter all up weight.
          That simply doesn’t exist now, as production techniques and computer aided design have advanced so much, nearly every part will be carefully designed to be as light as possible. The problem is cars have so much more content now as well as having to be strong enough to pass crash and pedestrian impact regulations. To save more weight you have to start getting into really advanced materials which costs and may not be suitable for mass production.
          You mention a few hundred $ per car as if it’s nothing, but I can assure you even premium OEMs make content decisions based on a dollar value a lot less than that. There simply isn’t the profit margin available.
          Gordon Murray can do what he does because he charges a lot of money for it, although he’s really an engineer and not strictly speaking a car designer. His methods simply wouldn’t scale up to mass production. The old days of Issigonis, pencil in one hand, gin and tonic in the other sketching out brilliance on the back on an envelope are long gone. Cars are simply too complicated these days.

          1. Cutting content is exactly what I’m talking about. I see all of these 4,000 lb “sports cars” that weigh almost as much as midsized SUVs from 20 years ago with their manufacturers bragging about their “light weight” construction techniques and extensive use of composites, when they are loaded with thousands of lbs of luxury crap in their interiors, standard(heated seats, screens everywhere, hundreds of lbs of sensors all over the car, ect). To me, that’s not a sports car. It’s a luxury car pretending to be a sports car.

            The modern Miata is even feature-rich by the standards of cars 20 years ago, and it weighs in at ~2,300 lbs. One of the lightest cars available in the U.S. Significantly lighter/smaller should be able to pass crash test regs, if only barely so, possibly using conventional materials. Not everything needs to be built to fit 400 lb lardasses that are too lazy to walk and opt to ride the electric scooters at the local Walmart, but seemingly every car out there, even subcompacts, are built to fit this demographic, even when they opt to buy oversized trucks and SUVs/CUVs instead.

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