Design vs. Styling – What’s the Difference?

Ask an automotive designer what the requirements are for someone in their position and you’ll never hear the word ‘styling’ mentioned in the description. In fact, the word has such negative connotations that it’s probably long been removed from his lexicon, relegated to the doldrums of decades past.

Back in the 1950s the team working on a Cadillac were stylists, devising huge fins to adorn the rear end of a vehicle without giving much thought to function. It was always about provoking a reaction. An engineer designed the original Mini, for example, a truly innovative automotive product from the 1960s. Obviously, the look of a car is a massive consideration when it comes to getting people into dealerships, but these days this form also has to follow function.

ArtCenter Car Classic 2018 (Photo: © Ian Wood)

While it may be typical for photographers, make-up artists and employees of Aveda boutiques to refer to themselves as stylists, their work differs vastly from what is required of automotive designers. It is far more superficial, concentrating solely on appearance rather than a holistic solution.

We hear the term ‘designer’ bandied about without ever giving it a second thought. It seems everyone‘s a designer – from the guy painting the backdrop on a movie set to the person who decided on the material out of which to fashion a dress. But the truth is these people are stylists, hired by someone to make an appealing form. Automotive designers cringe at hearing themselves referred to as ‘stylists’, and for good reason. Their profession is far more than an exercise in aesthetics.

Automotive design is a problem-solving process. Designers are given a brief and work with studio engineers to develop a design based on a set of constraints. The goal is to provide an experience that transcends form, something that goes deeper to incorporate the use of the vehicle – ingress and egress, ergonomics, seat height, sightlines – they also have to factor in safety and legislative requirements.

Ultimately, a designer’s job is to communicate a brand’s values through not only a vehicle’s visual aesthetic but also in its use of materials and detailing that make up its character. Designers are the interchange between product planning and engineers more so than ever before. There needs to be a synergy between design, marketing and engineering for a truly successful product to come to fruition.

BMW Concept Z4 interior sketch by Florian Sieve

Designers are therefore tasked with creating a functional but also an emotional connection to the vehicle using proportions, surfacing and visual identifiers. Design is a concoction that has an equal measure of both logic and emotion, and the designer’s job is to tread the water between product development and engineering complexity, testing the bandwidth of the brand to create an appealing and functional end product.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.