How cars are designed. Hidden figures uncovered!

How cars are designed. Hidden figures uncovered!

Car design is a challenging process involving dozens of people. Take a look at the process through the eyes of the people involved.

26. 1. 2023 Škoda World

Designing a new car might seem simple, but in reality it’s a hugely challenging task that combines requirements for aesthetics, technical feasibility, practicality and legislative compliance. And that’s why dozens of people are involved in the design of a car, each responsible for a specific area. For the average motorist seeing the car as an aesthetic whole, much of the work of these people remains hidden and unknown.

The Škoda Vision 7S concept car.

Škoda Storyboard magazine’s Hidden Figures of Design series introduced readers to lots of aspects of new car design. “I am delighted that this series has let us show how meticulous and intensive our work is,” says Škoda’s chief designer Oliver Stefani. “I really appreciate the work our team does, and I think the series has also shown how the team works together and how its members are able to cope with the pressure of preparing a new car,” Stefani says in praise of his colleagues. “Each of them plays an irreplaceable role in coming up with such amazing design for our cars,” he adds.

oliver-stefani_04a7bcd6 Oliver Stefani
Škoda chief designer

So let’s take a look back at how a car’s design is actually created and at the series as a whole. This time, our guides will be the people whose work and roles are most visible: members of the exterior and interior design teams.

Collaboration from start to finish

Various professions are involved in the preparation of a new car to a greater or lesser extent at various stages, but from the very beginning, when the first ideas and sketches are created, the work of designing a car is a multifaceted operation. “My job is to make sure everyone understands the brief, which is the foundation for all the tasks assigned to everyone in the team,” says Dimitrios Darkoudis, interior design architecture coordinator, describing how every project starts. Some understanding of the car’s final “destination” is also important, according to Jiri Hadaščok, exterior design coordinator. He keeps an eye on the direction the car’s body design is going in and ensures that its appearance is consistent.

Sketch of the exterior of the Škoda Vision 7S concept car.

Although the exterior and interior teams might seem to work separately on the car at first glance, that is not entirely the case. “The car is one object, inside and out. So we try to keep the same design language inside and outside. The difference is that while the exterior is like a sculpture, the interior is more of a place to live. This is why the Interior architecture is inextricably linked with the work of our Colour & Trim and UX/UI design teams. All three interconnected disciplines create the living space of the car,“ he adds.

What’s more, this coordination role has now become even more important than it perhaps was in the past. “Until now, the starting point for our production cars has usually been that we are creating a successor model or building on something established. But with the advent of electric cars we’re starting with a blank page. The proportions of the cars are changing, both for structural reasons because of the batteries, but also in terms of the interior concept, where the seat positions are changing, the whole layout is shifting, such as the roof height, for example,” says Jiří Hadaščok, explaining why his colleagues have to work together on the first concepts.

Dimitrios Darkoudis and Lukáš Vaněk sitting in the Škoda Vision 7S concept car.

Coordinating role

Once the designers are all “on the same page”, they work on their own “turf”, of course, but at the same time they have to cooperate with other units of the design team. In addition, the entire collaboration is supervised from the beginning by the Design Management team, which acts as a kind of liaison between the designers and the world of numbers, be they financial or technical numbers or deadlines. “Basically, we give the designers and modellers the space to focus on creativity. We take care of project management, incorporating all the technical requirements and financial considerations, and liaise between design and company’s other departments,” says Petr Basler, head of Design Management.

Even at an early stage, when the car is still little more than an outline, staff of the Color & Trim department work closely with the designers, following the car’s evolution right from the start and looking for suitable exterior colours and materials and colour schemes for the future car’s interior. And they make sure their design solutions keep pace with the latest trends. “Our inspiration often comes from interior design and fashion,” says Color & Trim team coordinator Kateřina Vránová. “Sustainability is a key trend today,” she stresses.

Seat details are one of the many areas the feasibility team focuses its attention on.

Similarly, UX designers get involved at an early stage. “I don't actually know how much time we spend with the Color & Trim designers or UX designers when we’re working on a project – our teams are united as one body, one soul,” says Dimitrios Darkoudis. That is because Škoda’s priority is ensuring that its customers enjoy using its cars. That means paying attention not just to good ergonomic design, but also to the way customers will use the car’s features and capabilities in general. For example, a study like the Škoda Vision 7S was created precisely “from the inside out”, according to Dimitrios. “The first thing we thought about was how the driver and passengers would use the car, how they might interact with it, and the interior architecture was built around that and in perfect harmony with C&T and UI,” he says. Even when designing a standard production model, however, the designers adhere to certain architecture design principles that align with the UX team.

From a physical model to 3D and back again

As far as the work of the designers themselves is concerned, it starts with sketching, of course: first in good old 2D, but then more and more in 3D. “That makes it easy to pass our vision on to our digital modellers, who work with the designers to develop the idea into a more concrete 3D model,” explains Dimitrios Darkoudis. “We do a lot of work with virtual reality these days,” adds Jiri Hadaščok. Martin Bogner, head of the digital modelling team, also describes the recent shift: “While we used to work mainly with clay models, now most of our work is done in the digital realm.”

The design of a car's lights has a huge impact on its overall looks.

Different design variants are created in 3D models as the work goes into greater and greater detail. Take the car’s lights, for example. “A car can have beautiful lines, but if the lights aren’t right it ruins the whole impression. The lights are the jewels that make the car shine and give it a unique look. That’s why they are extremely important and we take a lot of pride in their design, which means that, again, the light designers get involved in the process from the very first sketches,” Hadaščok points out. In the first stages, the lights specialists try to understand the designers’ idea and start to think of a suitable solution, which is then incorporated into the digital models. Just how good Škoda light designers are at their job is demonstrated by a recent award from the prestigious Car Design News platform.

The digital models are then converted into physical models made from clay (technically called industrial plasticine). “For concepts for car shows and future production cars, we make everything in 1:1 scale, because some important proportions or fine details may not stand out in a smaller scale,” explains Vlastimil Pažout, coordinator of physical model construction. Initially, the exterior, interior and physical models have various alternative designs, which are scrutinised, altered and fine-tuned in different ways. “Out of six to eight virtual designs we select four, which we make as physical models,” says Jiří Hadaščok.

The modelling team makes both digital and physical models.

The physical models aren’t only important for understanding the overall impression the design creates, they also help crystallise specific details. “Ergonomics are important for the steering wheel and other interior elements, for example,” explains Lukáš Vaněk from the interior design department. “So we quickly move on from sketches to 3D iterations of the steering wheel. Then we create a 3D printed model we can use to evaluate the ergonomics, so we can make further adjustments to it in 3D and verify it again,” he adds. Only then is the steering wheel model for the entire interior model made. This model is also given the appropriate material or trim pattern. Everything will still have to be fine-tuned further, but this shows how closely connected the different areas really are.

Keeping an eye on the clock

“What’s more, all of this is going on at the same time,” says Vaněk, who has to keep track of the various projects, supporting the team’s creativity while helping his colleagues to harmonise the design language so that there are no jarring elements. The UX team, for example, keeps working on improvements to the interior ergonomics up to the last minute, and the same goes for other areas. In the case of the interior, the Feasibility team gets involved at the stage of the most intensive fine-tuning of details (but even that starts surprisingly early). Together with the constructors, designers and the Color & Trim department, the Feasibility team works with suppliers to assess whether the various elements can be manufactured, and at what cost. In the case of the exterior, the car’s manufacturing feasibility from the design perspective is the responsibility of the exterior design team, supported by design management, who work with the data team known as STRAK. The STRAK team creates the car as a data model for verifying compliance with requirements such as homologation or various internal technical requirements. A lot of time is spent working on these data.

The presentation support team can’t afford to be out by even a millimetre when design models are presented.

By now, the design process for the new car is nearing completion, but throughout this time there has been another team involved – the design presentation support team. This team helps the designers prepare all the presentations of the upcoming car, both in-house presentations for approval and decision-making and events to unveil the car to the public. “The interesting thing about our in-house presentations is that the quality of all the design versions is the same. We may have our own favourites, but they are all produced to exactly the same quality at whatever stage the management wants to judge them and choose which one will be taken further,” Jiří Hadaščok says. Monitoring consistent quality is another aspect of his job. “Michal Morávek’s presentation team helps us with all of this, whether it is presentations here in Mladá Boleslav or our recent presentations in Germany or Spain,” Lukáš Vaněk says appreciatively.

Time to stop

It is in a designer’s nature to keep tweaking a design while they can. But at some point you have to stop and show the new car to the world. Chief designer Oliver Stefani described it best. “You know, designing is sometimes like drawing or painting, and there are some painters who can never finish a piece – they keep going back to it, adding something here and redoing something there. I think we have done the best we could at that particular moment. After all, the cars we have today are very successful,” he said, praising his colleagues’ long hours of work as he unveiled the brand’s new design language.