Designing cars is hard. You must make everyone happy — the company that hired you, the customers who will be eyeing your handiwork, the regulators, the wildly unpredictable press, and, of course, yourself. To better understand how designers approach these unbelievable challenges with each project, and to learn what goes on in their minds, we asked three of the industry’s greatest talents to walk us through their latest creations at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo
Auto Show Baby: Volvo S90
Design Challenge: Retaining Scandinavian heritage
“The S90 sedan follows our XC90 SUV from last year, and both are inspired by the Scandinavian design elements present in the recent Concept Coup. But even that concept can be traced back to the Volvo P1800 sports car of the late 1960s. That was a Scandinavian interpretation of car design at that period of time. It has a nice human proportion to it, and that’s what we wanted to achieve with the S90.
“Throughout history, Scandinavian design has always been about functionalism and human connection. This benefits the customer. Take the large touchscreen interface. If you sit in some other cars you get intimidated by the technology. Our goal here was to see how integrated we could make it. It looks natural, not like some strange thing sitting in there. The materials around it, the colors — all work to make the interface more welcoming and wide open. We don’t want our cars to be just one of those driver-oriented jet-fighter cockpits.”
For customers, it takes some time for you to see the influence of a design. You have to live with it, whether it’s that interior influence or the stance and sleek lines outside. Designing this car was a great opportunity to create a truly premium experience.”
Michelle Christensen, Acura
Auto Show Baby: Acura Precision Concept
Design Challenge: Finding balance and lightness
“The most important thing with any car design, first and foremost, is proportion. If you look at the Acura NSX sports car — which we’d just completed before starting this project — it’s low and wide. This is also low and wide; it’s 5.5 inches lower than then RLX sedan. We pushed the dash-to-front-axle distance as far as possible, as well. That’s a signature proportion for a luxury vehicle — it’s more dynamic and suggests lots of power.
“With the lighting, it’s very playful. The headlights and taillights are usually very serious areas, but we wanted a human touch. The front lights have this cool, 3D-printed scaffolding embedded within them, and the rear high-mounted center brake light projects out and has a lightweight, floating feeling. It cuts through the roof and becomes a floating headrest stanchion for the rear seats. Throughout the car, we wanted things to feel like they’re floating and flowing, so there’s lots of cantilevers and suspended elements, and pieces that transition from one role to another — the side sills at the bottom arc upward at the back and become bases for the rear seats.
“Our goal with this project was to unify our design vision, to inspire our designers and to keep their work consistent across all Acura’s products. You’ll see this new ‘diamond pentagon’ grille, for instance. It’s simple but strong, and it conveys performance — its aggressive angles suggest that it’s taking in air, not blocking it — and it provides nice balance at the front. Of course, a concept car is always a little bit of a caricature, but this will definitely inspire our next generations of sedans.”
Alfonso Albaisa, Infiniti
Auto Show Baby: Infiniti Q60
Design Challenge: Bringing vision to life
“This car’s design really started with the engine. We found out we were going to get what is arguably the first truly serious engine for this luxury coupe — a 400 horsepower twin-turbo V6. That made us start rethinking where the Q60 should go. We wanted to blend engineering and artistry in the design. The metal all around the car looks like it’s flowing, but it’s still highly precise with tight gaps between the panels.
“As designers, our goals are to make something very beautiful. But engineers want to make something that’s very difficult for other carmakers to create. That’s the challenge: It’s easy to sketch something, but it can be difficult to make. The way the taillights meet the sheet metal so smoothly, for example, requires very thin sheet metal and precision stamping. The sculpted panels along the side require firm support all the way down the car, but they’re critical to the design. As you look at the car you see deep shadows from that shaping, which generates an intense muscularity and a moody feeling.
“Even the roofline requires collaboration. If it’s too high at the back, you’ve lost that coupe feeling. But you need to be able to fit four people inside the car. We achieved this flowing roofline that’s like watercolor brush strokes, but it required a lot of prototyping and simulations, and the team’s willingness to reset their usual standard and change how they make cars. We really owe everything to the engineers.”