Audi TT design sketches - TT Illustrated magazine

An Open Letter to Design Directors – Who Did What?

It’s not often that I make a decision to call people out. I’ve worked for more than a decade to foster the relationships I have with designers the world over, and I value these more than anything. They are my livelihood. But I’ve got a thorn in my side: Who did what?

More often than not, when a successful design is rolled out onto the motor show floor multiple designers can lay claim to having designed some part of it. After all, car design isn’t created in a vacuum; there are many people involved in the process to get that design from initial sketches through to the final stage.

Audi TT design sketches and model - TT Illustrated magazine
Audi TT design sketches and model (via TT Illustrated)

What I’m interested in is the key sketch, the one that, when it hit the table, every designer in the room took one look at and said: “That’s it!”. It may have taken several iterations to get there — perhaps it’s got a bit from one designer’s sketch, a few ideas from another’s, and still more elements from another’s — but it was the one that was selected and from which the idea was built upon.

Let’s focus on that key sketch that was decided to be the base from which to move the project forward.

At the end of the often quite onerous, time-consuming projects, the cars presented on the show stand are always credited to the design director at the company. This is reflected in the marketing material and PR, perhaps even by the design director’s speech at the launch.

Audi A5 sketches by Satoshi Wada
Audi A5 sketches by Satoshi Wada

I’m always reminded of Walter de’Silva’s now infamous quote at the launch of the first Audi A5: “It is the most beautiful car I’ve ever designed.” The problem is, he didn’t design it. De’Silva oversaw the team that designed it. If anything, that car’s design should be credited to the talented Satoshi Wada, the guy who penned the key sketch.

Another example is Frank Stephenson being solely credited for the design of the 2008 Fiat 500. Roberto Giolito designed that car while Stephenson was director. The same goes for the Ferrari F430, a design somehow attributed to Stephenson even though Pininfarina was designing all Ferraris at that time. Ferrari didn’t formally open its design studio until 2010, long after Stephenson’s tenure as design director had expired.

McLaren 570S sketches by Robert Melville
McLaren 570S sketches by current design director Robert Melville

When a design team is as small as McLaren’s — where a designer sees a project through from initial ideation to clay model and on to final build — it’s even easier to tell who did what. Which is why it irks me to see the first sentence in this article. Furthermore, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support any of what’s been written in what I thought was — or at least masquerades as — a credible publication.

But now I’m off on another rant about desktop journalists not doing their jobs properly; taking the easy route by regurgitating, republishing another writer’s mistakes, and failing to do simple research. Sorry.

Let’s focus.

The original Audi TT is yet another example where, if you do some digging, you’ll uncover a few different accounts of how the now iconic design came to be. Freeman Thomas has his version; consultant designer Martin Longmore has another. But the designer who’s credited the most for the TT is Peter Schreyer, current President and VP of design at Hyundai Motor Group and Audi’s design director at the time.

Sketches of the original Audi TT by Thomas and Longmore

There are, of course, many more examples to cite, but I think you get the point.

In fact, there are very few design directors I’ve met that have routinely put project designers forward publicly. One of these is Volvo Cars’ CDO (and Polestar CEO) Thomas Ingenlath; another is former BMW design boss Chris Bangle.

Bangle was always happy to divulge who was responsible for the designs created under his direction. He told me flat out the E60 5 Series design wasn’t his idea and gave full credit to Davide Arcangeli, who sadly died before he had a chance to see the car on the road. “If you like it, give credit to the guys [on the design team],” he’d say. “If you don’t, blame me.”

I understand why companies put their design directors forward at the launch of a new car and give them full credit. It’s easier. They’ve worked hard to achieve the status that goes along with the top job. They’ve achieved a level in their career where they’ve been properly briefed on how to present and interact with the media. And if you give them enough time in the spotlight and let the press stroke their egos, they’ll be motivated enough to stick around.

But what about the designers working under them? Those actually responsible for the main idea?

Lexus UX concept final sketch
I know who did this sketch. Do you?

For a long time extracting information from Asian manufacturers was like pulling teeth. It was a time-consuming and arduous process and they’d never release names of junior designers. For someone that likes to get the real story from the people in the trenches doing the work, this was always a difficult part of my job.

I see why they made it so difficult though. They were trying to protect their assets. A company is nothing without a good design team, and if a rival company poaches one of its star designers it weakens the team as a whole.

But it also deals a blow to the confidence of the guys working their fingers to the bone in the studio. They’ve spent countless hours striving to realize the project without getting any recognition or acknowledgment for their efforts. That’s hard. Like a punch-in-the-gut hard. Sooner or later they’re going to want to jump ship. And who could blame them?

On the flip side of the coin, there’s an argument that goes in favor of keeping junior designers out of the limelight. A recent example can be found at Volvo, where designer Ian Kettle was asked to represent the brand at the launch of the XC40. Kettle is a good designer, no doubt, but he wasn’t the only person responsible for the design. He was (and is), however, a part of the younger demographic Volvo is targeting with the C-segment SUV; and he drew the key sketch.

Volvo XC40 lead exterior designer Ian Kettle

As the lead exterior designer on the XC40 project, Kettle gave the press briefing at the unveiling, which was broadcasted live on Facebook, and was prominently featured by Volvo as the face of the product. The result? He got another job offer at a rival company that has the allure of being seen as the precursor to the future of the automotive industry. Whether he’ll get the same level of recognition at that company than he did during his stint at Volvo remains to be seen.

There are many such stories to recount. When designers are thrust into the spotlight it’s inevitable that rival companies will come forward with offers that will tempt them away from their current employer. Which is why, while unsatisfactory for the designers’ morale, companies choose to keep them hidden.

During Chris Bangle’s tenure at BMW, every sketch issued was signed by the designer who penned it. Though some companies still allow this, it is becoming increasingly rare. Looking through recent design sketches I received at the Geneva auto show, many remain unsigned. I’ve even heard of a specific sketch where the designer creatively weaved his signature into the tire of a vehicle — it was Photoshopped out before being released.

BMW M8 Gan Coupe concept sketch
By BMW (some of you will get the reference)

Building a team that can not only produce quality design work but also understands the company’s brand values is a laborious task. Younger designers have to acclimate to the company’s culture and be guided through numerous steps to ensure they can deliver on expectations. All of that takes time and effort.

To watch a talented designer walk out the door because he or she was made an offer from a startup company that you can’t come close to matching must be difficult. The process of grooming another designer to replace him or her has to start again. But with so many design schools offering transportation/vehicle design degrees, there are a number of young designers readily available. They might even turn out to be a better fit for the company in the long run.

Start-up automakers with huge financial resources will always come looking for designers working at successful companies. It’s inevitable. Putting their names on the sketches makes the process easier, but there are many other ways of finding out who’s employed at those companies and who worked on a specific project. It just takes a bit more effort on the would-be poacher’s behalf.

SRT Vision Gran Turismo sketch by Paul Hoste
Another unsigned sketch

I personally believe that allowing designers on the teams to be acknowledged — even by simply letting their signatures remain on their own sketches — would increase motivation and enable a culture of company loyalty to flourish. It would let creative people know that they’re not just another cog in the massive machine, but that they’re part of a community that’s instrumental in shaping (pun intended) what is — and will increasingly be — one of the most important areas in the creation of a vehicle.

So I ask you, design directors, people in PR, marketing, positions of power: Give credit where credit is due. You’ll build up a team that value and respect you as much as you value and respect them. The company’s reputation for nurturing and promoting talent will only enhance the quality of portfolios and applications that land on HR’s desks. And that makes for a very strong, winning team.


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