Design is an intricate and multifaceted process. The journey of a car from sketch to reality takes anywhere between five to eight years. Like any creative project, automotive design begins with research. The research that goes into each design project is pervasive, and it alone takes between two to three years to provide a significant base for designers to build upon. Like all user research, it begins outside the walls of the studio, in the field.
Design research involves user inputs and expectations from the automobile on many fronts. Depending on the segment, users are asked specific questions. These questions are: what capability would they want their cars to carry, what features should be incorporated in it, how much would they spend on their vehicles, how much travel would they be undertaking in the car, what their everyday usage would be like, how aggressive or friendly would they want their automobile to appear, what would be their areas of compromise depending on their expenditure limit, and so on. All these points help design teams to understand the boundaries required to be set for their work and provide clear and constructive sets of constraints for direction.
Once a direction is set for the segment and class of an automobile, the styling process begins. The research and development team issues a set of constraints for the dimensions and package allowances of the said product for the styling team to work on. The styling team then gets down to creating designs and ideations for the automobile. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of sketches, illustrations, photoshop-renders, and reviews later, the styling team narrows down their design direction to the most suitable options. Once they have a bunch of options to continue further with, they work on creating three-dimensional models of their concepts. A panel of executives again reviews the final options and further narrow down to two, or maximum three design directions, which are then converted to life-sized scale models.
Modelling is an equally challenging process in which professional sculptors with years, sometimes decades of experience create a life-sized manifestation of the finalised designs to understand how the finished product would appear in real life. A special kind of clay, dedicated to the very purpose of industrial design and styling is used in making these models. The sculptors play around with the lines and surfaces on the models to give the car a robust significant character, which is also in sync with the company’s design language. Every automotive manufacturer has its own design identity, which is defined by a particular set of lines and surface styles, and relates to their ideology or practical philosophy.
Once the exterior is finalised and frozen, the team begins their work on the interior. The interior is much more complex and detailed than the surface since it comprises of many more elements, each of which must be styled to appear and function as a part of the entire composition. Several parameters are considered in the styling of interiors starting from the shape, position and design of the dashboard.
Then comes the elements of the dashboard such as the instrument cluster, steering wheel, the infotainment system, air-conditioning vents and controls, gear lever position, etc. Seating comes next, with the spacing and gap between the seats being the defining point of their size and shape allowance. The hip-point of the driver is positioned such as to define the access of the pedals and steering wheel with high accuracy, to ensure an ergonomic and comfortable user experience while driving. The positioning of the front seats plays an essential role in defining the amount of space and room allowed for the rear passengers. In case of some SUVs and MPVs, the third row of seats requires exact placement of the middle row. In conventional designs, the second row has its seats built to split and fold forward, to allow access to the third row.
It is imperative always to remember that design is not just how a product or a system appears, but also how it functions. Good design is a seamless combination of both form and function, and automobiles are a combination of numerous types with their dedicated functions. In the interior of an automobile, all the elements must have a well-defined form, which compliments their function with a seamless transition of the former to the latter, and back.
Prototype – Development and Testing
Once the design and styling process is complete, a functioning prototype is developed. This prototype undergoes severe testing on numerous parameters such as safety, accessibility, form-and-function compatibility, user experience, drive and handling, etc. Based on the feedback from each of the tests that the prototype is subjected to, it undergoes several changes, and re-tests based on those changes until a production-ready thumbs-up is given from all the test teams. Often, the prototype is sent back to the drawing board to start at the very basics, when tests reveal quirks and anomalies that cannot be fixed or altered superficially.
The final prototype is then taken apart, and each element is scanned to prepare a dedicated production assembly line for the approved design.