Home » Our Designer Isn’t Done Letting You Know That You’re Wrong About Big Wheels On Designers’ Car Drawings

Our Designer Isn’t Done Letting You Know That You’re Wrong About Big Wheels On Designers’ Car Drawings

Adrian Bigwheels 2

Wow, we had some fun in the comments of my first wheels article didn’t we? Apparently I’m alternatively lazy, immature, and on my high horse (joke’s on you, I can’t ride a horse). The car design process is fundamentally broken. Even worse than all that though, I’m merely a stylist! I can feel a knife slipping between my shoulder blades here!

Don’t ever call a designer a stylist. Nothing winds them up more and it really belittles what a designer actually does, which after all is why I’m here to give you reprobates an idea what goes on behind the top secret closed doors of an automotive design studio.

It’s not all flashy unrealistic sketches, sipping espressos and standing around pointing at clay models. That stuff you see in videos cover a very small part of a designers working life. The rest of a designer’s time is spent getting covered in clay, prepping models for review, creating images for product meetings, chasing up modeling teams for parts, and sitting in meetings arguing with engineers and suppliers who want to chuck all your hard work out the window to save $2 on a component.

If you’re lucky you might get to play with competitor vehicles from time to time as well.

There’s a lot of problem solving going on. How are we going to attach this grille so you can’t see the fixings? How do we avoid having sink marks in these injection molded trim pieces? Can we manage this 3 way shut line intersection so it doesn’t resemble a bottomless void like a designer’s soul? These things are decidedly not glamorous, but are intrinsic to what it means to be a car designer, and not just a superficial stylist.

The sketch work with its unrealistic proportions and big wheels is the very start of the design journey, and lasts maybe a couple of months at most depending on how well it goes. So while it might seem disingenuous to draw ideas this way, it really doesn’t affect how a cars wheels are sized going forwards. Commenter redfoxiii likened these initial drawings to haute couture, which is an excellent analogy I wish I’d thought of while writing the original piece.

Haute Couture serves as an inspiration and direction for fashion you can actually buy – it’s exaggerated to emphasize certain visual ideas and characteristics, almost to the point of parody.

KiarealisticAbove I’ve taken an image released by Kia, and programmed The Autopian Graphics Workstation (actually a series of various 8-bit computers daisy chained together running a software package Torch found on a floppy disk that came with the Changli) to ‘right size’ the wheels and glasshouse.

Compare to the original unaltered render:

KiaoriginalYou might not agree, but the original looks much cooler and has more drama to it. The doctored version is fine as it goes, and is kinda representative of the actual car. But it doesn’t really leap off the screen as something that makes you want to get in and drive. It’s just not as exciting, and doesn’t ‘read’ correctly because it’s neither an expressive sketch nor a 100% accurate representation like a photo would be. There’s a dissonance going on, like an uncanny valley. With the original image, you know it’s warped and stanced so your brain gives it a bit of leeway in it’s interpretation. Here’s the actual car.



And in case you thing this is a new affliction affecting designers desperate to look cool, it’s not. Initial sketches and renders have always been exaggerated. Let’s take a look.

Here’s a Pontiac proposal from 1944. Check out the wheel size and tire width on that bad boy:



A Cadillac proposal from the legendary Wayne Kady from 1965 is below. Check out the overhangs and the length of the front and rear decks. You could crash land a stolen enemy F14 on that thing! Ding, ding, hard a-port, helm!



A couple more, from GM designer Allan Flowers [Editor’s Note: This is the guy behind the Nissan Pulsar NX! – JT] :

2gmz0 1gmf0


So even in the analog drawing days when you were expected to wear a tie to the studio (thank god that’s no longer the case), designers were pretty liberal in their interpretations of a car’s proportions to create drama and flash. The tools may have had a digital upgrade, but the process remains exactly the same.

Hopefully this will clarify some of the more common misconceptions that cropped up from the last article. If you’ve still got questions, hit me up in the comments!

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123 Responses

  1. “Don’t ever call a designer a stylist. Nothing winds them up more and it really belittles what a designer actually does”

    But that’s exactly _why_ engineers do that to designers.

    And we will keep doing it as long as we do all the hard work to make the things function and the designer gets all the credit. It’s all in good fun!

  2. If I’m to explain why sometimes we are a bit cranky, it is because the stance and overall proportions on some design sketches remind us of the overall shift in real life towards SUV or elevated cars in general. We are probably also tired of the increasingly busy designs that are being favoured by consumers, that are, in itself, an attempt from manufacturers to differentiate each sleek “soap bar” design from each other.

    With that in mind, what appeals to us (or, at least, to me) differs quite a bit to what appeals to CEOs and whatnot (the stated audience of most design sketches). Having you explain the process goes a long way towards me understanding (and even accepting a little) the “bigfooted” designs. But I do prefer when you calibrate the designs more towards realistically looking cars.

    To use another comparison, I think those early design sketches are a bit like comic book art – bear with me, I think it will make sense! If you have to sell to teenagers or CEOs (is there a difference?), you have to exaggerate the musculature, put pouches and huge weapons everywhere, and create crazy, “awesome” hero poses. However, if the plan is ever to appeal to snobby little shits like me, a poster more on the lines of the works of Alex Ross or David Mazzucchelli will do wonders 🙂

    Maybe this is why the auto designs are so “bottom heavy” – they look like as if you are seeing the car from a close angle, near the ground – much like the traditional “Superman Pose” from comic books! You know, that one with legs spread, hands on the hips and stuffed chest? Oh, how I wish I could post pictures!

    (The previous text was left unposted since yesterday, so apologies if it is redundant with some other comments)

    1. Most sketches are from a flat two point perspective (not worm eye, more dogs eye) not for drama but because 3 point perspective is tricky to get right, and really doesn’t give you anything extra other than a bit of a view of the hood and roof.

      There is a CAFE/light trucks element that factors into the popularity of higher riding vehicles but believe me, if they didn’t sell OEMs wouldn’t build them. The bottom line is these days you’re trading maybe 1 or 2 mpg tops for a lot more practicality and ease of access over a sedan, and that’s a trade a lot of people are willing to take.

      I agree a lot of modern designs are needlessly busy and aggressive. It’s bad design even if not all examples of this style look terrible. But for me the companies doing the best work don’t shout visually; Mazda, Polestar/Volvo, Kia/Hyundai, Land Rover, Porsche, some of the newer Ferraris (the 296 is excellent), some Jeeps (it’s not perfect but I actually really like the Renegade) to name a few off the top of my head.

  3. Yes, the Kia’s wheels are too big. BUT, at least they resisted the temptation to draw them with big negative offset. Which looks great, but any halfway-modern suspension design can’t use it. Flat wheels are boring, but they’re what we’ve got these days.

    1. The doctored (=more realistic) image looks a lot better in my eyes. Also, the real car’s wheels look bigger than the doctored one’s, so Adrian is trying to trick us (just like a Designer).

  4. I’m a music fanatic and have a wall with over 1000 CDs to prove it, but one of the biggest mistakes in my life was taking the music appreciation class in college. Learning the theory of how music is made robbed it of some of the magic. I’m happy to say that in this case, seeing behind the curtain is actually making me appreciate the work of a designer much, much more!

  5. IDK, man. I guess I’m practical to a fault. The right-sized Kia sketch looks better to me than the big-wheel one. I could see out of that one! And not crack wheels on potholes!

    The big wheels look like one of those caricatures that were popular around 2005.

  6. This has been a very lively discussion, but one thing I’d like to put out there is- look at the big whitewall tires of cars from the 50s and early 60s. That white wall is doing the work of today’s “big wheel” way back then. Designers have ALWAYS been trying to nail down this wheel-to-body proportion, well before the technology existed to manufacture wheels in the diameter we see today.

  7. This is one of the more surprising debates I’ve seen around auto culture online. Someone with professional training serves up entertaining what-if concepts which have clear roots in a particular part of the formal design process, the kind of thing that has always appeared in car and custom/rod magazines etc, only to get told “this is rubbish why are you doing it like this”, they explain the industry origin of what they’re doing, and the response doubles down on “this is rubbish why is the industry doing it like this it’s fanservice for c-suite rim fetishists”.

    The purpose of the exaggerated designs seems pretty obvious to me: they emphasise the distinctive parts of the design or where attention needs to be drawn, so that when the design is scaled up and engineered into a form that fits on a platform that humans can fit into and see out of, the overall intent of the design isn’t lost. For better or worse I see the code of the original Kia design as “we want focus drawn down low to the wheels and the grille, as you design this keep that intent in mind”.

    The exaggeration of the concept is like a coded signal of permission in itself: it tells you (the next person or team in the process) that the direction has been set and you now have freedom to operate to turn this into a real-world vehicle, and we won’t hold up the concept sketch and say Homer Simpson-style “why doesn’t mine look like that??” as long as the final product retains the design intent of the concept.

    It’s like reverse engineering a full-sized person from a boardwalk caricature; obviously you are never going to keep the same proportions at life scale but because the final product is outright physically larger a grille or wheels that are in real-world proportion can still remain distinctive and draw attention.

  8. I’m a week late, but oh well…

    I am personally on the ‘dislike’ side of obscenely large, protruding wheels. I do not think they make a design look better, and given my dislike, they do not pull my attention to other design features. I just feel a sense of boring-dislike for these pictures. At this point I’m sure any true designer would dismiss me as uncouth, but I just do not see the attractiveness or the Style of absurd wheels. Perhaps I’ve seen too many truly ridiculous ‘dubs’, spinners, or donks in real life to take this Style seriously.

    I do, however, understand the desire not to leave a huge gap between the fender and the wheel since this tends to appear in *really cheap* cars in real life — like 1980’s econo cars, or the $7000 made-for-China specials.

    I also own an SUV with (oem) 35-series 22″ wheels, which I would absolutely trade for 20″ wheels.

  9. Large wheels might look “better” to some folks, but they are irresponsible – https://youtu.be/gGj2T64so3U?t=516

    It kind of brings to mind advertising agencies who worked so hard to make smoking look sexy, mature, sophisticated and desirable.

    Are automotive stylists and designers good enough at their craft to make to make smaller wheels and tires on cars look as good or even better than humongous tires? Is it a lack of will or a lack of skill?

    1. It’s the rolling resistance that affects range. The BMW i3 had large but narrow wheels so the rolling resistance remained lower, so range wouldn’t suffer.

      That video said it: Customers like bigger wheels because generally they do look better. Remember cars have gotten larger over time, so the wheel size needs to increase to keep the proportions correct and to cover the larger brakes a modern heavy car needs.

  10. The “dramatic” effect of the raked windshields and oversized wheels does make the result more striking, to the point where the final automobile can seem a bit disappointing in comparison. 🙂

    What I’d like to see on your pile would be the unsellable, the ludicrous, the Homermobile for each of the Autopian staff. (Well, David Tracy’s would be marketable if it didn’t ship already pre-rusted.) Including yours, unless one of your previous nifty designs already covers it.

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