Chery Tiggo Coupe concept sketch

Ambitions of Car Design – Designing For Markets, Designing for Customers

A young, enthusiastic car design student, hard at work sketching wild and wonderful ideas — like every car designer really should — notices someone sneaking up behind his shoulder. It’s a senior designer in the studio where the young man is doing his internship. The senior designer leans over and whispers something below his breath: “So…you want to be a car designer, do you?”

The young man would have loved to answer yes but, upon seeing the look in the man’s eyes, he wasn’t that sure anymore.

Hyundai Kona (2020)
Hyundai Kona, on its namesake island

India’s Suzuki Vitara Brezza and S-Presso

You see, it’s not about designing what we designers want, or necessarily designing what looks good, or advanced. It’s about designing for a market. A specific customer. And the market is never wrong.

That is what the senior designer knew, and the young man had not experienced yet. Designing for the market is the toughest part of our jobs but it’s something we have to be good at. If we get it wrong, the market will tell us…

Global Carry-Over Parts Strategies

In this, one of the most global of creative professions, an American designer working in Germany for a Chinese company is asked to work on a project aimed mainly at buyers in Iran, Russia, Brazil and India.

Dacia Duster sketches by Erde Tungaa and Emmanuel Klissarov
Dacia Duster sketches by Erde Tungaa

That’s just for starters…because the marketing department hasn’t finished yet. They are discussing maybe selling a version of the car in China as well. Which version, may you ask? Well, a version with a different front end of course. And a different rear end too. But using the same doors…Well, not the whole of the doors, maybe just the lower bit, because the roof might be a different shape as one version has to look like a cross-over coupé and another should look like a small SUV.

The Professional Designer

Designer, get sketching! Show us something fresh and new, but make sure that you show all the characteristics of the five most successful vehicles already on the market. Don’t get too geometrical, make sure the bodyside looks structured, and you’ll need those plastic wheelarch extensions. Look out with the wedge shape; you’ll need it more horizontal for the SUV version… Stop! …

Honda N-Box
Honda N-Box, from the Japan-only Kei car category

Fiat Strada Adventure pick-up and Audi Q3

That grille is too small, this market needs a big grille, it makes the buyer feel like he’s bought a bigger car, and you’ll need more plastic around the fog lamp, that makes it look like an off-roader. Look out that you don’t look too refined, too European, or too car-like. These are developing markets; the customer only got used to the idea of car ownership in the last 20 years and immediately caught a case of small SUV fever.

Audi Q3 Sportback and Hyundai Venue

While you’re doing this, you’re staring at the marketing slide of the project kick-off PDF. There’s a picture of a happy upwardly mobile young couple in a faraway land next to young man in a suit who owns his own IT company. They simply must have one of these new-fangled crossover coupé-like things that have to be big enough for the young couple on the other side of the slide when they finally have their second child.

Car design is about satisfying customers, satisfying markets, and satisfying the people who have to sell it. Just the right amount of plastic, chrome; a suitably confusing yet somehow deliberate front graphic that must manage to be original, but not too different at the same time.

VW Tarok concept, T-Cross, and Taigun concept

Wheelarch flares mean SUV, but not so much that it does not look serious. SUV means 4WD and 4WD means the customer identifies with the idea of owning a house in the country, maybe even horses, dogs and hunting rifles. Crossover coupé means he identifies with the idea of racing in rally cars.

All activities of heroes of sorts, but of course the customer lives on the 9th floor of an apartment block with the car parked in the second deck of the underground car park. At least the roads are bumpy.

Masters of Design and Masters of Marketing

Who is really good at this? All successful companies have to be. They can’t afford to get it wrong, too much depends on it.

Volkswagen Nivus preview

Having said that, it’s not that difficult to follow, but it is hard work to be an innovator. The companies on the top of the pyramid are those that have been investing carefully in design for decades.

Leaders who fought for individuality often champion their design departments. They refused to copy because they knew that one day they would call the tune. They have earned the right to evolve and innovate. They are sort of our songwriters, and the ones who follow are like the cover bands. 

Renault Captur and Chevrolet Monza

The less a company innovates, the harder it gets to choose a design direction. The bandwidth of designs possible narrows, yet the possibilities within that bandwidth are infinite. Even worse is when a follower company does not know who to follow, or changes the benchmark halfway through a project, often leading to entire projects loops having to be repeated at a huge cost. Lost time to market is money that was not made.

New Kids on the Block

China embraced the SUV typology so well that there are now several cars that Chinese brands can export to global markets at relatively low cost. These are the scouts, those that help establish the logistical route and turn a small profit as part of the exercise.

JAC T40 and Haval H2

Purpose-designed projects will follow soon and they will be designed to a strict formula. Benchmarks will be studied in detail. Possible hundreds of sketches will have to be made until those three final ones are chosen, showing just the right mix of recognizable attributes. A tightrope that will be walked by many car designers, looking for that elusive design to occupy that vacant slot just below Kia, just above Hyundai, to the right of VW and to the left of Renault.

Planning Chart
Planning chart of a marketing product cross-chart with “Dynamic-Solid” and “Mainstream-Progressive” axis showing car models

Equivalent to All, Identical to None

We might as well stop calling it ‘designing for a market’. In terms of our work output, it’s actually our main task; this is mainstream car design. Of course, we’re not going to see an annual design prize for the ‘The Most Contrived and Carefully Formulated Car’, but if we did, I guess it would come from Kia, in the form of their Seltos, or the Sonet show car just shown at the New Delhi Auto Expo.

Kia Sonet concept and Kia Seltos

The Sonet is state-of-the-art; a textbook definition of designing for the market. Nothing is missing, but nothing is new. Linear and full bodyside; muscular wheelarch flares; flat-sided plastic wheelarch extensions. The flying roof, in black or body color; the inlaid body-colored plastic panel in the rockers and above the skid plates. Jazzy headlamps; even jazzier DRLs, connected by a piano black mini dog bone shape; strong horizontal chrome elements spanning across headlamps and taillamps…

Look at all the features on these cars, try to guess where you saw them first. But, instinctively, you know you’ve seen them before. Of course one could risk trying something that breaks new ground, but why? The market wants what the market gets, no more, no less.

Now where’s that young, enthusiastic car design student on internship…


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