Adding Dimensions (I)

The car designer’s sketch, and how it is turned into a three-dimensional object, are no mere technicalities. 

VW/Porsche Tapiro, styled and sketched by Giorgetto Giugiaro, photo (c)

How a designer illustrates his work matters. For any sketch betrays not only one’s technical skills, but one’s sense of proportion, style and, indeed, taste. To compare and contrast illustrations by some of the great car designers of the past with their descendants is therefore rather instructive.

Not just due to changing techniques and technology, the way in which designers depict their designs has dramatically changed over the past six decades. Whereas those stylists who had to rely purely on their hands, eyes and a few templates to create an impression of what they had in mind used to strive for some kind of delicately augmented reality, today’s generation of car designers is, to a very large extent, concerned with exaggeration and effects.

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In that context, the sober ‘staging’ GM’s Larry Shinoda chose for his design of the Corvette Mako Shark – as dramatically flamboyant a piece of styling as it gets – and Gorden Wagener’s utterly unrealistic depiction of what probably was an unsuccessful proposal for the second-generation Mercedes SLK don’t just illustrate the rise of Photoshop. They depict drastically different sets of aesthetics – and how they each inform the designs created.

Astonishingly, this isn’t a side effect of ‘the young ‘uns not knowing how to work with their hands anymore’. Any car designer who attended one of the elite colleges (Royal College of Art, Hochschule Pforzheim, Art Center College of Design) would know how to wield a pencil. So those grotesque 45-inch wheels, excessive flairs and slit-like windows are a matter of choice, rather than ineptitude. A preference, in fact.

Pierre Leclerq’s BMW X6 sketch, photo (c)

So what becomes clear when studying ‘modern’ car stylists’ illustrations is that today’s surfeit of options is as numbing to the domain of car design as it is to other areas of first-world life. More is more. What can be done, must be done.

Many designers would obviously take exception to such a claim and name draconic legislation and engineering requirements as examples of how and why any accusations of excess are uninformed nonsense. And yet there is no law that demands a crease where there is none needed (not even for emphasis). No engineering requirement for a grille the size of a crematorium’s furnace. No legislation stipulating the fitting of 22-inch wheels. All of this is a matter of preference.

Whether one is talking about these styling features of today’s cars or the even bigger wheels, excessive flares and utterly hyperbolic proportions of the sketches and illustrations that helped pave their way – the matter at the core is utter ignorance of the value of restraint.

For that reason alone, how a designer illustrates his – or her – work matters.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

4 thoughts on “Adding Dimensions (I)”

  1. Good morning, Christopher. I’ve often wondered what is the point of “high concept” design sketches, such as the X6 and SLK above, that are so cartoonishly exaggerated that they bear almost no relation to anything that could feasibly be produced. Granted, they do incorporate some design elements similar to the production car (headlamp shape, grille etc.) but surely these elements could be better tested on something closer to reality? (I imagine they are, extensively, within the confines of the design department and clinics.)

    Perhaps such sketches are simply intended to excite interest in the forthcoming new model? If so, then the reality is usually a big disappointment (or relief). VW Group are masters of this with their secondary brands, promising distinctive new designs for Seat and Skoda, only to reveal lightly warmed over VW designs for the production vehicles.

    Alternatively, if the designers do insist on foisting exaggerated design elements they played with in such sketches on the production vehicles, you end up with this sort of thing:

  2. The Guigiaro and Shinoda drawings are utterly beautiful. The Mako Shark is playful and flamboyant with its smiling driver. The metallic looking hue of the VW is quite beguiling and almost spaceship-like. Both could easily fill wall space in my home.
    That Mercedes thing would not be given house room, not even the smallest room. Well, maybe for one purpose.

  3. Having attended and later dropped out of Art Center College Of Design, I can honestly tell you that outrageous illustrations are what get you accepted into the school and later on hired into a studio.
    There were ongoing jokes back then (early 90’s) about the ACCD ‘house style’ being impossibly low, long and sparkly cars with wheels that couldn’t roll or turn.
    Most student renderings and subsequent models were predictable and anonymous.
    I had learned my drawing skills on a drafting board using scale and dimensions. I wasn’t prepared for the flights of fancy preferred by the institution.
    I felt a bit cheated and decided to go study architecture instead.

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