Nir Kahn working on armoured vehicle designs with a carbon-fibre tubed biro pen
Nir Kahn working on armored vehicle designs with a carbon-fiber tubed biro pen

How the Design Medium Affects Design – It’s Not What You Do, It’s the Way You Do It

Design is influenced by the medium used to create it to a much greater extent than most designers will admit. How have the techniques of car design affected the fashions of car aesthetics, and how can a designer use different tools to improve their creativity?

LEGO model by young Nir Kahn

When I was a young child I wanted to be a Lego designer. The enlightenment that designing cars was what I actually wanted to do came after realizing that I pretty much only built cars and that Lego was simply the medium that I was using to design them. Frustrated by the limitations of blocky Lego styling, I picked up a pencil and started drawing cars that I couldn’t have designed with Lego. Despite this, the appreciation that the pencil, too, was a very limiting design tool didn’t come until much later.

Back then, I dreamt of being able to draw directly in 3D, envisaging the sort of CAD tools that were then, in the 1980s, still in their absolute infancy and that wouldn’t mature for another decade when Alias|Wavefront emerged. But the understanding that the pencil itself was affecting my designs, and that indeed all design was heavily influenced by the tools used to create them, would too only come to me later.

In my teens, as I prepared a portfolio of work in the hope of winning a place to study Transport Design at Coventry University, I bought a book called Presentation Techniques by Dick Powell. Chapter by chapter it taught various design drawing techniques and included a very comprehensive section specifically about car design, illustrated largely by then Lotus designers Anthony Lo and Julian Thompson.

Presentation Techniques by Dick Powell

In an almost paint-by-numbers way, Presentation Techniques taught me how to create the marker and pastel drawings that were then the standard way of presenting car designs. But it hadn’t always been that way, and there were also chapters on the sort of airbrush and colored pencil drawings that had been more popular in the 1950s and 60s.

There was just one four-page chapter on computer-aided design, a tutorial for modeling a simple hair-dryer by joining some basic geometrical shapes together and adding or subtracting the intersections between them.

These various design tools do not have a passive effect on the designs that they create, however. They have in many ways been the most influential element of all on the fashions of car design throughout history. Car design trends can be plotted very clearly against the emergence of the design tools that created them, and the masters of car design who are credited with changing the automotive landscape are arguably just the first who mastered the new tools of their generation.

Car design trends can be plotted very clearly against the emergence of the design tools that created them

The 1950s and ‘60s are defined by the beautiful voluptuous curves that come naturally when illustrating with the smooth and soft-edged airbrush and colored paper techniques of those decades. Legendary designers like Battista Pininfarina were masters of these tools, and their designs – such as the Ferrari 250GT – exemplified what a beautiful car was in the 1960s.

But then, quite suddenly, something changed. Young designers like Giorgetto Giugiaro and Marcello Gandini picked up a new tool, one that had previously been confined to the world of graphic design – the magic marker. It naturally draws sharp edges and the result was the new ‘folded paper’ design language of the Bertone Carabo concept car and production cars like the VW Golf and Lotus Esprit that set the straight-edged aesthetic for all car design throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Automotive rendering tutorial by Anthony Lo in Presentation Techniques

Only once a generation had grown up on markers – and mastered the marker and pastel techniques so expertly demonstrated in the Presentation Techniques book – did we get the softer 1980s designs starting with the Ford Sierra and that arguably peaked with the gorgeous Peugeot 405. In fact, simply looking at the subtle but significant differences between the original Giugiaro Lotus Esprit and the Peter Stevens redesign of 1987 it is very apparent that they are essentially the same design just drawn using different techniques.

Lotus Esprit rendering by Julian Thomson

This is of course an overly simplistic and reductionist analysis, and I don’t want to diminish the skills of the extremely talented designers who mastered their craft. Cars are designed by people, not by the tools that they use, but the tools play a very important role in the process, and understanding this is part of the exercise of mastering the profession.

In the early ‘90s, a new tool began to emerge and it once again triggered an aesthetic revolution of sorts. Ford called the resulting design language ‘New Edge’. It was ostensibly a reversion to the 1970s style of sharper geometrical shapes but this wasn’t merely a side-effect of the ‘90s nostalgia for the 1970s, it was due to embryonic CAD tools being used in the hands of people who had grown up scraping pastels and smearing them across marker pads with cotton balls.

Cars are designed by people, not by the tools that they use, but the tools play a very important role in the process

These early 3D CAD tools were very primitive. Like with the hair-dryer tutorial from Presentation Techniques, you basically extruded elementary geometrical shapes and intersected them to create new ones. The outcome is the first Ford Focus, a car that saved Ford after the disaster of the last Escort and set a design trend that came to define the 1990s style, culminating in cars like the Audi TT. What came next was as much about the rapid development of CAD design tools as it was the slowly growing pool of designers who knew how to use them.

When I studied Transport Design in the mid-90s we had a small room of extremely expensive Silicon Graphics workstations running Alias, the software that was just beginning to enter the major studios. At the time, it was seen less as a design tool to replace manual drawings and more as an alternative to clay modeling.

Many of us pushed back against learning how to use it. There was even a perception, that seems absurd today, that those who knew how to use Alias would end up modeling up the designs of others rather than leading the process. What changed this was Chris Bangle and his ‘Flame Surfacing’ at BMW.

BMW Z4 ushered in Flame Surfacing, an influential turning point for the Bavarian carmaker

Flame Surfacing was largely the result of the way that you create surfaces in Alias by defining the edges and pretty much letting the software fill in the gaps with mathematically calculated topography. Again, I don’t want to sound dismissive, but the skill is in understanding these new tools and how to control the shapes that they create.

As with all new tools this takes time, and in the early days this unpredictable element actually presents designers with new forms that they may not otherwise have considered or even had the tools to visualize.

Marker strokes

Just as Gandini’s first strokes of a marker changed the outcome of designs realized, the first experiments with Alias created surprising new shapes that occasionally caused their creators to say ‘that’s not want I intended but it actually looks quite cool’.

The skill of a designer is in the ability to play around with new aesthetics and recognize what works. This is the true talent of the masters of car design.

And that’s the real lesson. How not to be a slave of the tool but to let it expand your creative boundaries.

The skill of a designer is in the ability to play around with new aesthetics and recognize what works

Sometimes, when I am stuck in a rut, I simply change the medium. Instead of sketching with a biro I will pick up a calligraphy brush and start sketching with that. Suddenly new shapes and ideas emerge. Scan those sketches into the computer and start building up digital layers on top of them with the Wacom. Print those out and draw on top of them with pencils and markers. Break out of the walls that the tools have built around your design without you often even being aware that they were boxing you in.

Wire model by Nir Kahn

Sometimes it can be enough just to change the paper size or scale of the drawing on the tablet because your hand naturally sweeps arcs according to the size of your forearm. Like in Dead Poets Society, climb up onto your desks and look at your designs from a different perspective.

Now the final question is: What is going to be the next new design tool and how will it revolutionize vehicle aesthetics? Perhaps I should leave that to be discussed in the comments below.


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